“In modern Britain, people are interested in what you do, not what you’ve inherited. I’m proud of what I’ve achieved in life…”

Having lived near Arundel for much of my life, and within a stone’s throw of its famous duke, I thought it was about time to find out more about the man and his castle. It has been a busy few years for the Duke of Norfolk: a Queen’s funeral and a King’s Coronation, the saving of endangered species, and time in between to conserve large parts of Sussex. Having recently received the Freedom of Arundel in recognition of his work, I was fortunate enough to meet with him to get the inside story, and ask him what comes next.

“The eyes of the world were on us; if we hadn’t pulled it off, I would probably have had to immigrate to Australia!”  The responsibility of organising the Queen’s funeral had not been lost on the Duke, but a year on he seemed relaxed and at ease in his office, surrounded by boxes of his new conservation book, with views of the Arundel estate stretching out across the Arun Valley. As the Duke of Norfolk, he has responsibility for organising the funeral of the monarch, and is head of a team of 50 people who meet annually to update the plans, “I often say to people it’s like sitting a physics A-level, but you don’t know when you’ve got to sit it!”

Following the death of Queen Elizabeth II on the 8th September 2022, the Duke travelled up to London for 11 days of full-on preparations ahead of the state funeral. Within those 11 days, he met with King Charles, formally confirming that he had permission to put the full plan into effect. Meetings were held every morning at 8:30, and of course the famous night rehearsals involved thousands of members of the armed forces and police, as they paraded through the earie London streets. When speaking to the Duke, it was clear he had huge amounts of respect for the 10 000 people involved on the day, describing is as “an incredible joint effort… in our understated British way, we lead the world in ceremonial occasions.” Did he feel the pressure? “There almost wasn’t time to feel the climax of the situation, as everything happened so quickly.” Although, reflecting back on this extraordinary moment in history, the Duke felt that we “regained our pride. After all, the Queen’s funeral was a huge British effort. Thank goodness we pulled it off!”

The Duke’s attention then shifted to the coming Coronation of King Charles. Despite the historic pageantry that occurs at these events, he knew that the coronation of the King was going to be very different to that of the late Queen Elizabeth’s in 1953. For instance, Queen Elizabeth had 1000 hereditary peers wearing coronation robes, and a year was spent building extra seating in the Abbey. In contrast to Queen Elizabeth’s coronation, 40 members of the House of Lords, 40 members of the House of Commons, and 400 medal holders were invited to attend. Furthermore, all faiths were represented at the altar, within an Anglican service. “It really was a People’s Coronation.” However most importantly, “a lot of the coronation service had the King’s touch.” This was especially apparent in the choice of music, with King Charles being responsible for picking out the composers, pieces, and gospel choir. 

Despite the pageantry and excitement of the Coronation service itself, the Duke explained that he was most proud of, and worked very hard with the BBC, who produced the amazing concert. He explained that he was most proud of the Coronation concert because it was very much about the King as an individual, his earlier life, his passions and his life-long duty to service. “He’s warm, a people person. He cares desperately about the environment and the Princes Trust.” I found it fascinating finding out about the Duke’s perspective on the Coronation, given that he was at the centre of everything, and when I asked if anything had gone wrong, he smiled wryly and said he couldn’t possibly divulge any of the secrets!

Back in the South Downs, the Duke has been hard at work, proving that it is possible to implement practical, effective solutions to conserve nature. He explained that “I’m determined to do my bit and bring awareness. It sort of becomes a bit of a crusade.”

From the beginning, the Duke has questioned how we approach the ‘trend’ of conservation, in a way that is sustainable and realistic for a world population that is quickly increasing. The answer? You find ‘the middle way.’ So in an area near the Norfolk estate called Peppering, you plant 30 miles of hedges, and conserve nature alongside the arable farmland that feeds our families. In this area, 15% of the land is devoted to natures corridors and 85% of the fields is arable farmland. ‘Natures corridors’ are essentially hedges surrounding the fields, which have become the home of 700 species of insects and 100 species of wildflower. However, not only is Peppering a major accomplishment in its own right, but it has provided the food sources for the Grey Partridges, which have been a key focus for the Duke. “It’s become an enormous nature restoration project and Peppering is but one oasis of hope. The great thing is you can feed the world as well.”

 “Rewilding is the great cry of some aspects of government, there is a lot of hype about rewilding. The real question is what red-listed nature do we revive?”  Well, the Duke of Norfolk has answered the cry of the Grey Partridge by successfully reintroducing them into the whole of the South Downs. Starting from one covey, the South Downs is now the lively home of 2000 Greys as a result of 7 years’ of active management. The problem was initially bought forward to the Duke in 2002 by Professor Dick Potts, who explained that unless action was taken, the Greys would become extinct within a few years. So, the estate got to work, bought together farmers and keepers, and, “going into this in a big way, it became one of the greatest bird revival stories in Europe.” The project relied on three key components: habitat, food sources (specifically insects for chicks at hatching time) and legal predator control (focused between February to August.) This has not been without controversy, but predator control has been vital to the success of the endeavor. In order for the Grey Partridge, a ground nesting bird, to survive, you need to rebalance nature by controlling predators such as foxes, weasels, and crows. However, despite the outrage of some of the locals, the positive change the Grey Partridges have ignited in the whole of the South Downs is extraordinary. For instance, the raptors have made a return, which strongly suggests that biodiversity in the South Downs is improving, because they rely on prey to survive and are very sensitive to environmental changes. Ironically, by re-building the Grey Partridge population, a third are now eaten by raptors, sustaining them through the winter months. Although this might seem counterproductive to the Grey Partridge project, if anything, it proves that with help from projects like that of the Norfolk estate’s, it is possible for natural food chains to rebuild.

So, what’s next for ‘the man and his castle?’ Well, as well as his Royal duties and maintaining his estate, he’s incredibly involved with young people, “your generation,” he laughed, “are more aware, cleverer, brighter, than we ever were, but every now and then we can offer them some experienced advice.” There is clearly no let- up in his enthusiasm and drive, and as he says, “we all have two lives, the second one starts the moment we realize you only have one.”