Ricky France-Lynch has a crumbling mansion, a nine-goal polo handicap, and a wife who is fair game to anyone with a chequebook.
He is also the main character in Jilly Cooper’s third Rutshire-based novel, Polo, which delves into the world of the glamorous and promiscuous horsey set, their parties and their properties. But was the Eighties bonk-buster based on reality?
Well, the crumbling mansion part was true in the case of Jeff Godbold, owner of the 232-acre Woolmers Park, near Hatfield, and the Hertfordshire Polo Club that came with it. Godbold made his fortune by selling off his office supplies company, and in 1997 bought the estate on which the Royals used to gallop around – despite never having sat on a polo pony in his life.
The house, built in the 1730s, is now on the market with Savills and Knight Frank for £30 million. It was once owned by the Earl and Countess of Strathmore, the parents of the Queen Mother, who regularly entertained Princesses Margaret and Elizabeth on their estate.
It was in 1949 that polo took off at Woolmers, when Arthur and Ethel Lucas bought the property. At the same time, they founded Hertfordshire Polo Club where Prince Charles’s Cambridge University team trained. The Lucases’ daughter Claire was inspired to play, and went on to become England’s best female player, and a coach to Princes William and Harry.
When Woolmers went on the market in 1997, it needed work, having been partially vacated by the Lucas family for some time. But Godbold had admired Woolmers from afar for 20 years, drawn to the privacy and convenience of the property.
Viewing it with his wife, Godbold knew that the house needed “laughter, and children running around inside”. This convinced Ethel Lucas and Claire Tomlinson to sell to him, despite his lacking knowledge of their favourite sport. What Godbold did have was the will and means to invest in Woolmers.
His first job was to install flushing lavatories in the polo clubhouse, before attending to the fields – the most important asset to any club. There are four fields, as well as other equestrian facilities, stables, and two swimming pools.
“I had lessons every day and then I completely embraced polo – or it embraced me. It grasps you – the danger, the excitement of it, the element of speed.”
The house is situated at the heart of the estate, with richly timbered grounds providing an idyllic, private setting. Formal gardens lie to the south of Woolmers Park and include wide lawns with an elegant cedar tree, as well as distinctive walnut and pine trees, sloping gently down to a ha-ha then onto parkland.
“What sets this property apart from many other estates on the market is its fantastic condition, facilities and close proximity to London – it is only 45 minutes,” says Crispin Holborow, country director at Savills. “It’s completely ringfenced, and there is no public access to the grounds which is a key consideration.”
Gamers can shoot in the woodland, and there’s over a mile of the River Lea for fishing on, and eight cottages. To the east are wooded pleasure gardens with a comprehensive network of interlinked, bespoke designed tree houses with a 100-metre zip wire that Godbold constructed for his four children.
There is an outdoor tennis court with pavilion, a walled kitchen garden and an orchard. The Italianate garden surrounding the outdoor swimming pool was designed by Luciano Giubbilei, winner of the Best Show Garden Award at the Chelsea Flower Show in 2014.
“It was has the wow factor – as you pass through the entrance gates and up the long avenue, you really get a sense of arrival,” says Holborow. Inside, the house was given a facelift: such was the attention to detail that specialist painters spent years working on the 23-and-a-half carat gold gilding on the cornices.
“We would recommend the service to friends and family without hesitation” Mr Hanson
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The property, which is spread over 73,000 sq ft, has a large, formal entrance hall which leads into a barrel vaulted passageway, with access to the basement and wine cellars. The main reception rooms occupy the southern aspect and include a fine library, double-width drawing room and magnificent dining room.
There is also a games room, adjacent cinema room and an attached indoor swimming pool, gym and spa complex.
Estates such as Woolmers are hard and expensive to manage, with or without a polo club. It does, however, make money. Polo creates a good revenue stream, and “there’s income from the eight estate properties and the polo club to fund almost all the outgoings,” Godbold says.
Despite polo being the sport of princes – favoured by the British royal family, and attended by the smartest families in the world, including the Sultan of Brunei – Godbold doesn’t believe it is just a sport for the super-rich.
“We have a lot of people here that share ponies because they haven’t got the money for a string,” he says. “The entry level is affordable, but where you go from there depends on the individual.”
In 2001, Godbold bought his first horse “for a laugh”, and at one point had 23 horses. “I had never ridden before we owned Woolmers,” he says. “I had lessons every day and then I completely embraced polo – or it embraced me. It grasps you – the danger, the excitement of it, the element of speed.
“I connected with it immediately, and it’s still a great passion.” He said in 2001 that before owning the house, he would never have contemplated playing polo. “But now there is lots of new money and lots of different types of people. We have estate agents, dentists, farmers, developers, lawyers.”
“This sale is only partly about polo,” says Holborow. “The buyers of this kind of property do not want to pickle it in aspic, they want to make it work for them. “You wouldn’t buy it just to have a polo club – but if you are interested in equestrian then it’s a fantastic estate.”
Far from being a very British sport, polo was first played in 600BC between Persians and Turkomens, who won the match. (Legend has it that the sport was originally played using the decapitated head of an enemy.) The first polo club in the world was founded in 1862, in Calcutta, by British tea planters. In 1869, polo was first played in the UK, when it was known as “hockey on horseback”.
There are now 2,757 registered polo players in the UK. The nation’s polo clubs, of which there are now more than 70, differ in shape, size and patronage.
Most popular are Cirencester Park and Beaufort Polo Club, both in Gloucestershire; Guards Polo Club in Windsor Great Park; and the home of British polo, Cowdray Park in West Sussex. The season begins next week with the spring tournament at Guards Polo Club.
The calendar is then jam-packed until September. In early June competition hots up with the Cartier Queen’s Cup at Guards. After that, the Jaeger-LeCoultre Gold Cup will be held in Cowdray Park. Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, who owns Leicester City football club, is defending the title with his King Power Foxes team.
Surely he will be cheered on by new groupies hoping that the polo parties and glamorous properties in Jilly Cooper’s bestseller are true to life.