What links Wordsworth, Grasmere and the Mini?
PUBLISHED: 17:55 09 July 2014 | UPDATED: 16:10 27 April 2016
We take a look inside one of Lakeland’s loveliest properties and find a remarkable man living there. Roger Borrell reports
It’s a question that would have them chewing their pens at any pub quiz. What links Wordsworth, the beautiful village of Grasmere and that iconic British car of the Swinging 60s, the Mini?
The first two are obviously but, to solve the riddle, you need to know the man who owns a stunning house called Silverhow.
He is Tony Ball, enthusiastic, engaging and avuncular with a treasury of anecdotes as rich and as fascinating as the items that fill this historic property. The Grasmere home he shares with his Fleetwood-born wife Jan Kennedy, a top West End theatrical agent, oozes history.
It seems there has been a house on this site for many centuries but it first came to prominence as the home of a Georgian archaeologist with Royal connections called Sir William Gell.
He sold what was then regarded as a cottage in 1808 to a wealthy, well-connected gent called Samuel Barber, who enlarged the property on a grand scale.
Like most developments in the Lakes, this was not received with universal approval. Mary Wordsworth, the poet’s wife, wrote that Barber’s ‘works at the Cottage begins to be too ridiculous for anything.’
This display of ‘nimbyism’ was not uncommon among the Wordsworths. Her husband described another Grasmere property, Allen Bank, as ‘a temple of abomination.’ That didn’t stop him and his family moving into the same house, now opened by the National Trust, and their apparent contempt for Silverhow didn’t stop them being regular visitors to cadge books from Barber’s library.
Today, the property is close to how it would have been in Wordsworth’s day and Tony is proud of the fact that he and Jan have restored it by reuniting what had been for many years two separately-owned wings.
‘It’s a house full of love and history,’ he says, sitting in what was the ballroom with its ornate, vaulted ceiling, grand fireplace and large French windows to the lovely lake. ‘We fell in love with it as soon as we stepped inside and the lady who was selling it genuinely wanted us to buy it. We’ve never regretted it for a moment.’
You know the moment you walk into the hall and spot the ancient suit of armour and the flintlock pistols decorating the walls that Silverhow is something special.
The hall was the library visited by the Wordsworths and it remains intact with the books hidden behind wood panelling.
Double doors from the former ballroom, now the drawing room, open into an impressive living room. It comes with a secret doorway and it is full of photographic memories, including a picture of Tony, a holder of the MBE, meeting the Queen.
In another section of this seven bedroom house is a portrait that Tony and Jan bought because they liked the expression on the young girl’s face. They subsequently discovered she is Wordsworth’s niece.
There are surprises around every corner and there are mesmerising views across the water, beautiful grounds that were the playground for children and grandchildren and a little folly dubbed The Fairy Chapel by the Wordsworths in a more generous mood.
But what links this poetic family, Grasmere and the Mini? Well, Tony was the man who launched the Mini in 1959 – his first step towards becoming one of the big names in the British motor industry.
He was a hardworking young apprentice at the Austin Motor Company who planned to finish his training and take over his father’s car dealership in Somerset. He never made it back home.
He was singled out as management potential after being named apprentice of the year and delivering a speech to the most senior executives at the annual company dinner. He charmed them, made them laugh and poked fun in equal measure. They gave him a standing ovation and a promise of greater things to come. One day he was invited into the management inner sanctum and shown a secret new model, the Morris Mini-Minor, designed by the great Sir Alec Issigonis. Tony was asked if he would like to be in charge of the press launch. He was captivated by this ‘magical’ car.
Instead of the usual dolly bird draped over the bonnet, he got himself a cape and wand and used £500 to stage a theatrical event with the new car appearing from a giant top hat. If that wasn’t jaw-dropping enough for 1959, the car then disgorged a large number of people who removed an implausibly huge amount of luggage.
It set the Mini on a road to becoming Britain’s most-loved car and Tony on the road to stardom. Over a long and illustrious career he filled some of the most senior roles within the motor industry. He worked with the likes of Sir Michael Edwardes at British Leyland and he pitted his wits against the trade union leader Derek ‘Red Robbo’ Robinson.
But he never ceased being a showman. Tony founded his own company which devised and staged many major events, such as the opening and closing ceremonies of the Rugby World Cup in Cardiff and the Cricket World Cup.
He is now approaching 80 but you can’t imagine Tony ever settling for slippers by the fire.
However, the curtain is now coming down on Silverhow and different people are set to take centre stage with Tony and Jan selling the house through Matthews Benjamin with a guide price of £3m.
‘Jan is now retiring and she has always wanted to breed horses so we want to live somewhere with equestrian facilities,’ said Tony. ‘It will be a terrible wrench for us to leave but we love Grasmere so we intend to remain nearby. But it’s now time for someone else to love Silverhow.’