Michael Morpurgo at Bowood charity evening

Lady Lansdowne, Clare Morpurgo, Michael Morrpurgo and Lord Lansdowne
Lady Lansdowne, Clare Morpurgo, Michael Morrpurgo and Lord Lansdowne

The acclaimed author and former Children’s Laureate, Michael Morpurgo was the Guest Speaker at a  special gala dinner hosted by Bowood House near Calne – home to the descendants of the 1st Earl of Shelburne and the 1st Marquess of Lansdowne since 1754.

The  fund-raising dinner was in aid of Michael and Clare Morpurgo’s charity, ‘Farms for City Children’ (www.farmsforcitychildren.co.uk) and it took place on Friday 25 April, coinciding with the start of Bowood’s highly-acclaimed Rhododendron Walks’ annual six-week run.

The fund-raising dinner in the Sculpture Gallery and Orangery provided the setting to entertain 100 guests including General Sir Mike Jackson, John Bush and Nick and Annette Mason. The pre-dinner Champagne and Canape reception was held in the beautiful Sculpture Gallery and guests also headed outside onto the Upper and Lower Terraces that front the House’s Diocletian façade to look out over the rolling lawns of the Pleasure Grounds, leading down to the lake and beyond. The three course dinner took place in The Orangery, with an impressive collection of oil paintings, marble busts and French windows adding wonderfully to the atmosphere of the occasion.

It is only on very select occasions that the 9th Marquis and Marchioness of Lansdowne open their home – designed by Robert Adam and set within 2,000 acres of Capability Brown’s Grade I listed parkland – for upscale, exclusive events.

St Mary's Calne Opera Ensemble
St Mary’s Calne Opera Ensemble

As guests sat down to dinner there was a recital of ‘Drifting in a Starless Space’ by St Mary’s Calne Opera Ensemble commemorating the centenary of the First World War.

After dinner, Guest Speaker Michael Morpurgo delivered a talk entitled, ‘War Horse and the Pity of War: writing about the First World War’. In the year that commemorates 100 years since the start of the First World War he  naturally  focussed on ‘War Horse’ and what inspired him towards the story of Joey – the horse purchased by the Army for wartime service in France – and the attempts of his previous owner, young Albert, to bring him safely home. Interestingly, it was a school boy from Birmingham who gave him the final inspiration to write the book. The boy had not spoken for two years and he was brought to the Farms for City Children project where Michael noticed him one night talking to the horse. He fetched the teachers who were amazed to see the child speaking. Michael was then convinced of the connection between human and horse.

Michael also treated diners to a couple of songs including one from War Horse.

He said of war: “It’s so important to remember, to tell the story of soldiers who died, of those who witnessed the war on both sides, who lost loved ones – fathers, brothers, sons.”

The First World War talk resonated strongly within Bowood House which during the 1914-1918 war became a Red Cross Hospital, set up and run by the 5th Marchioness and with 20 nurses tending to 54 patients. Michael revealed how the war personally affected the estate, its employees and the Lansdowne family. The grandfather of the current Lord Lansdowne, Lord Charles Mercer Nairne, was killed in action at Ypres in October 1914. The Orangery’s annual exhibition for 2014 is themed ‘For King and Country: Bowood and the First World War’ to show the connections between the family and the war. Dinner guests gained an insight into this episode in Bowood’s history from a selection of related paintings plus showcases featuring photographs, letters and other documents of the time.

Tickets to attend the Black Tie dinner were priced at £150 per person with proceeds from the evening being donated to ‘Farms For City Children’  – the charity that Michael Morpurgo set up in 1976 with his wife, Clare. Now operating three working farms, the charity’s aim is to “expand the horizons of children from towns and cities all over the country by offering them a week in the countryside living together on one of our farms”.

Guests General Sir Mike Jackson and Cari Depla
Guests General Sir Mike Jackson and Cari Depla

Charlie Lansdowne, the 9th Marquis said: “In a year when, as part of the whole country’s First World War commemorations, we at Bowood will be recalling the role of our own community, estate, and family between 1914 and 1918, it’s most fitting that Michael Morpurgo was at Bowood House to recount the ‘War Horse’ story.

Michael’s work as a children’s novelist and the couple’s establishment of ‘Farms for City Children’ sits well alongside the development of Bowood by the present Lord Lansdowne who since taking over its running in 1972 unveiled ‘Tractor Ted’s Little Farm at Bowood’ in Spring 2013. In 1975, Lord Lansdowne opened the House & Gardens to the public and – eager that Bowood should appeal to all age groups as a very family-friendly attraction, drawing town and city dwellers to the open space of the countryside – he then devised the opening of the Adventure Playground within the Pleasure Grounds in 1976. Annually, the playground draws in approximately 50,000 children who can indulge in good old-fashioned outdoor activity, making the most of Bowood’s surroundings and vast open space. As they benefit from open-air playtime, kids’ imaginations run riot around the gigantic timber Pirate Ship with its rigging and crow’s nest and they can test their boundaries thanks to the delights and challenges presented by the Adventure Playground (for children up to 12 years old), The Partridge Play Pen (for under 7s) and the Soft Play Palace for toddlers. The recent arrival of ‘Tractor Ted’s Little Farm at Bowood’ was designed to engage youngsters (the pre-school – 9 year old age group) with a fun, and fuller, understanding of the countryside. The ‘Little Farm’ at Bowood, has seen a definite increase in the number of 2-5 year olds visiting in 2013 and with each year, children return time and again to seek out added challenges and fun as they become older and bolder.

A further initiative to make Bowood more accessible to the public was undertaken by Lord and Lady Lansdowne in 2013 when, for the first time, they decided to open up their home for upscale entertaining. Now, Bowood House can be exclusively hired for a choice number of receptions, dinners, lunches and weddings running across the year (subject to availability and with time frames according to the particular season).