Saatchi & Saatchi's Kevin Roberts on why Grasmere is most beautiful place on earth
PUBLISHED: 12:55 03 May 2011 | UPDATED: 16:17 27 April 2016
What finer endorsement for Grasmere than the man who runs the world's most famous advertising agency? Roger Borrell meets him
It’s not difficult to find people prepared to extol the virtues of glorious Grasmere, but you’d be hard pushed to find anyone quite as passionate as Kevin Roberts.
He fixes you with a steely gaze and there’s a don’t you dare argue tone to his voice. ‘It’s the most beautiful place on earth,’ he declares.
That’s quite an endorsement when you consider he has plenty to chose from with homes in St Tropez, New Zealand and New York.
But sitting in his lounge, looking at the view from his stunning fell-side slate house, you realise resistance is useless. It is pretty special.
Kevin works for Saatchi & Saatchi, the company which devised the 1970s slogan: ‘Probably, the best lager in the world...’ When it comes to Grasmere, there is no ‘probably.’
His job is worldwide chief executive officer and if the title is a little grandiose, the man who bears it is a straight-talking, down to earth Lancastrian.
He is fiercely proud of his roots and I’m pleased to report he keeps in touch with them by having a copy of Lancashire Life sent to him in New York every month.
When the time comes, he wants his bones to rest beside his parents in a Lancaster churchyard, but in the meantime he plans to spend as much time as possible enjoying life in this Lakeland community.
Working for the one global advertising agency that everyone can name, Kevin travels the world meeting prime ministers and global business leaders. But wherever he goes, you can tell the back route home is hard-wired in his brain.
His home could be mistaken for somewhere a rich man can chill out. The furnishing and fittings are well crafted by local artisans who love wood, the décor is chic, the sophisticated music system plays the soundtrack to his life.
On the walls, there are many original photographs of cultural heroes
from the 60s, several that he’s known over the years. But the journey from Lancaster to this comfortable house on the outskirts of Grasmere
involved many twists and turns.
‘I was born in Lancaster and had a working class background. My father was a security guard at the Royal Albert Hospital and my mum worked in a shop,’ he recalls.
‘I passed the 11-plus which was the best thing that ever happened to me. I’m a great supporter of grammar schools -Lancaster Royal Grammar School saved me. I was captain of rugby and cricket - the grammar school changed my life and I had tremendous ambitions.’
But the source of his salvation also broke his heart. ‘I got kicked out,’
he says. ‘When I was 16 or 17 I was going out with a lass from the girls’ grammar school and got her pregnant.
It was only the second time we did it and you never got taught anything in those days.’
The unforgiving head was adamant they couldn’t have the baby. ‘I was doing four A-levels and was going to university, but Barbara and I wanted the baby. I got kicked out and she had Nikki.
‘The only thing I was left with was my identity as an athlete and the headmaster even took that away when he made me go back into the school just to hand over my 1st XV jersey.’
Barbara and Kevin were together for seven years and they remain the best of friends and he is obviously very proud of their daughter. Since then, he has married Rowena and they have three grown-up children.
‘When I was at school I loved history - all that power, wealth, sex and war,’ he laughs. But it was sport that got him through the expulsion crisis and he is eternally grateful to key people who mentored him and others who quietly slipped him a few quid to help him and his young family.
However, the ‘hurt, anger and upset’ at his expulsion drove him on and influenced his later life when he became prominent in many charities, often involving sport and mentoring to help young people turn around their lives. It means giving young people the second chance he was denied.
Kevin got a job at Storey’s of Lancaster earning a meagre £7 a
week but the fact he could speak Spanish and French meant he travelled extensively for the company and eventually his path crossed with the 60s fashion icon Mary Quant.
He became the man who marketed her cosmetics and they remain firm friends. His success led to senior jobs across the world with firms such as Gillette, Procter & Gamble and Pepsi-Cola. Eventually he and his family went to live in New Zealand where he headed the drinks giant Lion Nathan and he and Rowena still have a home in Auckland.
When Saatchi & Saatchi needed someone to guide the company through its most turbulent period, major clients insisted they hired Kevin and he now heads a business with 6,000 people.
No wonder, then, that he makes the most of his leisure time in the relative calm of the Lakes.
His next house guests included former All Black Sean Fitzpatrick - Kevin is a former director of the New Zealand RFU. ‘I bring a lot of people up here. It’s a very productive place to be. The change of pace fosters creativity, it’s inspiring. The place is in constant use - if I’m not here friends and family are.
‘I love the fact you can get all the seasons in the same day. I love the romance of the place. I’m inspired by the Wordsworth’s association - his work and the places he walked.
‘I love the topography of the Lakes and Lancashire, the people, the food, the sport. I love to sit in the parish church - I’m not religious but it has a great simplicity about it.’
He accept that Eden comes with a catch. ‘I don’t go into the village in July and August because it’s so busy, but with the Traveller’s Rest and the Swan near the end of my drive that’s not a problem. The rest of the time I like nothing better than eating in the Jumble Room where the food is fabulous and the host is a natural.’
Kevin wants his love affair with Grasmere to transcend his lifetime. ‘When I die this house will go to my eldest daughter and it will then go into a family trust which will last 500 years. This is my earth, I want my offspring to have it, to live in its roots.’
Many years after his expulsion, Kevin was invited back to the grammar school to see the 1st XV in action and after the game, the captain removed his jersey band presented it to Kevin. It was a touching ceremony witness by members of his old team - many he hadn’t seen for decades.
The icing on the cake is that among his many honorary academic titles, is a governorship at Lancaster Royal Grammar School. So put that in your pipe and smoke it, headmaster!
Where is it? Just north of Ambleside on the A591. LA22 9SS in your satnav you get you there.
Where to park? Ferociously busy in summer but there are a handful of pay and display car parks including Broadgate Meadow and Stock Lane.
What to do? Plenty. There’s the Wordsworth museum at Dove Cottage and his other home, Rydal Mount, is just up the road. St Oswald’s parish church, where the Wordsworth family is buried is also worth a visit. There are quite a lot of independent shops and a walk around the lake is recommended.
Places to eat? Take your pick. Kevin’s favourites include the Swan, the Traveller’s Rest and the Jumble Room. One of his sons is keen on Tweedies Bar at Dale Lodge.
Don’t forget to take home some Sarah Nelson’s Grasmere Gingerbread - the 17th Century business is even making ginger-based skincare products