Half a meringue, and he’s gone bonkers!” The three-year-old heir but one to Longleat House, the sprawling Elizabethan pile in Wiltshire, John Thynn is bouncing off the tables in a cosy family sitting room. His mother Emma, Viscountess Weymouth, sighs and begins to wrestle her son away from the pile of shortbread treats she’s brought up from Longleat’s kitchen shop. He sits contentedly for a while, before his father comes in, and the madness resumes.
This is business as usual at Longleat, home to more than 1,000 animals including 29 lions, 16 giraffes and 17 Bactrian camels – plus Lady Weymouth, her husband Ceawlin, Viscount Weymouth, John and baby Henry, with Monkey the dog.
Apart from Monkey, the animals aren’t pets but part of the world-famous safari park, opened by Lord Weymouth’s grandfather, Henry Thynne, the sixth Marquess of Bath, in 1966. His son, the 85-year-old Lord Bath, lives upstairs at Longleat, but since 2010, the running of the house and estate has been the responsibility of the next generation.
Like any young family, the Weymouths are busy, but then again, most don’t run a safari park on the side. The 10,000-acre estate, four miles from Warminster, needs constant attention.
In June, Lady Weymouth hosted the inaugural food festival – appearing on stage to make doughnuts with special guests Nadiya Hussain and James Martin – followed by the fun run, Glow in the Park, where competitors (Lady Weymouth included) ran through Longleat’s park covered in UV paint.
In September, there was the Military Spectacular event, featuring tanks, helicopters and a marching band, and the Sky Safari hot air balloon show. Now, the estate is hosting its annual Festival of Light, a showstopping array of colourful Chinese lanterns (plus a Christmas tree made of 300,000 LEDs). It is the biggest event of the Longleat year and believed to be the biggest show of its kind in the country. Following on from last year’s Beatrix Potter theme, the focus of this year’s festival will be fairy tales.
This hive of activity has quite the backdrop, even if the Elizabethan mansion is less well known than the safari park. Originally an Augustinian priory, Longleat House was bought in 1541 for £53 by Sir John Thynne, who worked on its design with the builder Sir Charles Appleton. The structure was completed by 1580.
We won’t stop at North America. The ambition is that Longleat would become a global brand
Fifteen generations of the family have lived in it since, although the spelling of the name Thynn has changed. The house sits in 900 acres of Capability Brown parkland (Brown’s signature lake at Longleat is now the unexpected home to a pair of hippos).
Inside, the house is grand and olde-worlde: the Great Hall retains its Tudor hammer beam roof and carved fireplace. Upstairs, in the private apartment, the Weymouths have deep, comfortable sofas, a top-of-the-range kitchen and Diptyque candles on every surface.
While the park attracts more than a million people a year, only 30 per cent or so make it inside the house. But that’s not a problem, says Lord Weymouth. “You couldn’t get many more visitors through it than we do, so it is self-regulating in a way.”
Last year, the park celebrated its 50th birthday. Now, Lord Weymouth has a project to recreate the Longleat experience in its entirety in an undisclosed North American location. If all goes to plan, the first phase ought to open in two years’ time, but that’s all he’ll say. “The assumption is that we won’t stop at North America,” he concedes. “The ambition is that Longleat would become a global brand.”
His grandfather would surely be delighted. “People thought he was a complete lunatic for even thinking of bringing lions to Wiltshire. Taking Longleat abroad isn’t quite as groundbreaking, but he would be pleased.”
Lady Weymouth’s focus is closer to home. Three years ago, she launched Emma’s Kitchen, selling products from the ground floor of the house. There’s jam, chocolates, marmalades, and all number of sweet treats on display, plus a selection of items labelled “Emma Loves” – chopping boards, crockery and beautiful serving dishes. Over the summer, Brand Emma extended to include an afternoon tea service, inviting visitors to the Orangery for finger sandwiches, scones and cakes. Everything is tried and tested by Lady Weymouth, who admits to spending as much time having afternoon tea as possible.
Teatime was so successful (more than 5,000 people have tried it so far) that it’s back for a Christmas special: the lemon tarts will be replaced with mince pies, and the champagne swapped for mulled wine. While Lord Weymouth has his sights set on global domination, his wife has something a bit more domestic in mind: “I want to make Longleat a destination for afternoon tea.”
The goal for Emma’s Kitchen is an online shop and to sell its products in London shops. A couple of chain stores have expressed an interest in stocking her food. Fortnum and Mason would be the dream.
There is ever more on the horizon at Longleat. Lady Weymouth spends her time like any other chatelaine would – checking that the guest bedrooms have enough water glasses and making sure the Wi-Fi works, all the while wrangling her two little boys. “The things that sound mundane take up a lot of effort and thought,” she says. But she finds time for a touch of glam, too; this year, she modelled for Dolce & Gabbana at Harrods.
Longleat has been rumoured to be Glastonbury Festival’s new home, but this might be a step too far. “I think we have enough going on,” Lord Weymouth laughs. “It would involve the main operation closing down for weeks – the opportunity cost is quite high.”
Nevertheless, the pair have an idea to host a smaller festival, for only around 30,000 people. John squeals delightedly with a meringue, and Lady Weymouth grabs him. “We like being busy here, which is just as well.”
The Festival of Light at Longleat runs until Jan 7; longleat.co.uk