Ceawlin Thynn, the freshly titled 8th Marquess of Bath, was teaching his five-year-old son John to ride his bike on their magnificent 10,000-acre estate, Longleat, when bittersweet memories of his late father, the eccentric 7th Marquess, overwhelmed him.
‘We’d taken the stabilisers off John’s bike. All he needed was one push, then a second push, then a third push and he was off. That’s a real rite of passage. I felt such a sense of pride.
‘Suddenly, I was reminded of my father teaching me to swim and, surreptitiously, removing his hand from under my tummy so, unbeknown to me, I was swimming unaided.
‘I began thinking about some of my childhood experiences with my father that I hadn’t thought about for many years — being taught to drive at a very early age, being taught to windsurf. I imagine anyone who loses a parent plays back their memories and thinks of things they would have said or done differently.’
Alexander, the late Lord Bath, died unexpectedly of coronavirus aged 87 on April 6. He had been admitted to Royal Bath United Hospital three weeks earlier and seemed to be ‘perking up’ the day before doctors called with the sad news that he was dead.
‘We were expecting him to come home. It was rather a shock,’ says 46-year-old Ceawlin.
There’s a sense in which he still can’t quite accept his father, a larger-than-life character with his ever-changing court of nubile young women and erotic paintings, has succumbed to the pandemic. ‘Look, it would be disingenuous of me not to say we had a complicated relationship so there were conflicting and confusing emotions made all the stranger by the environment we were in,’ he says.
Indeed, his differences with his colourful father are well documented, particularly the row that followed Ceawlin’s decision to move some treasured murals.
Alexander, who painted the panels in the nursery suite with brightly coloured images of children and animals for Ceawlin and his older sister, Lenka, was so upset that he didn’t attend his son’s 2013 wedding.
They were patching up their relationship when Alexander began to suffer with what we now know to be Covid-19 symptoms. ‘We were speaking to the doctors on a daily basis. I wasn’t presented with the option of speaking to him on the phone. I don’t know whether that’s because he wasn’t capable of it.
‘Because he was on the Covid ward there were no visitors allowed. The day before we got the call [saying he’d died] we were told he was perking up so I think we did expect he would return from hospital. ‘I’m still processing not having had the opportunity to be there [when he died].
‘I think there are things one would have said. But that opportunity wasn’t there.’ His eyes redden. He confesses he has shed tears since his father’s death.
‘The abiding sense over these last weeks and months has been a feeling of strangeness and some anxiety. Everything is heightened.
‘Just to see a pigeon flying through the sky. In ordinary life, one doesn’t pay attention but I find myself focusing on those things and those moments much more.’
Today the 7th Marquess’s ashes are scattered at Heaven’s Gate, a stunning beauty spot on the Longleat estate, as he wished. Nobody attended the cremation.
‘Because of the Covid situation, his ashes were scattered by the undertakers and that was videoed from a distance. Having talked it through with them, we decided it was the best way forward under those circumstances,’ says Ceawlin.
‘One’s decision-making processes are awkward in that environment because none of the normal human processes of grieving actually happen. Every element of it is distanced. Look, when it [his death] happened it was in the very epicentre of the Covid situation and lockdown.’
He says it would be nice to have a memorial service at some point, when safe to do so. His wife, Emma, the new Marchioness of Bath, leans towards him on the sofa. This is their first interview since the death of Ceawlin’s colourful father.
They speak on Zoom from their apartment on the first floor of Longleat, one of the most spectacular stately homes in the country where the safari park and grounds are back open after an unprecedented three-month closure.
‘We closed briefly in 2001 because of foot and mouth but this has been the longest period since the safari park opened in 1966,’ says Ceawlin.
Longleat employs more than 600 staff and, as for many businesses that were forced to shut down, it’s been something of a nightmare.
‘Of course, it’s been a financial concern but we have to be phlegmatic in that we had a strong year last year — our strongest on record.
‘So, although it’s painful to see cash reserves eaten through, we’re in the fortunate position of having had those reserves.’
Today, visitor numbers are capped to allow for social distancing.
The train which runs around the woodland is operating at 50 per cent capacity. Boats on the lake also run at 50 per cent and guests in the park move through a one-way system with stencils on the ground to measure spacing.
‘In terms of the operation of Longleat, we carry on as normal in this very abnormal climate,’ he says.
Will there be changes at Longleat like, say, a mass eviction of his late father’s remaining wifelets? ‘To be honest, we’ve been focusing on our reopening phases so it’s not something that’s occupied a great deal of thought,’ says Ceawlin.
‘The main thing we’re concentrating upon is our long-term master planning exercise to ensure the business remains pioneering and an attractive place to visit in ten, 20 years time from now.
‘Over the coming years, we’re going to substantially reinvent our business with a greater focus on heritage than there has been previously.’
Ceawlin is a thoroughly nice man and about as un-hoity-toity as an aristocrat gets.
His Old Etonian father sent him to the local comprehensive, and his son John, the future 9th Marquess attends a local school.
Ceawlin tried his hand at hippiedom before knuckling down to build an international chain of upmarket hostels and taking over the running of Longleat in 2010. ‘My wish is to leave John and [three-year-old son] Henry, hopefully, with a thriving and sustainable business, where the heritage is intact and diligently looked after and the home is a happy and loving environment.’
He turns to his wife who has sat silently through most of this interview. You sense she feels her husband perhaps needs to get a few things off his chest. Speaking about his father’s loss helps.
‘Emma has been so tremendously supportive — of dealing with the aftermath of my father’s death, in the phased reopening, which was quite a considerable conundrum to wrestle with, and of existing and living in this very unusual environment,’ he says.
Emma, pretty in a yellow summer dress, is the 34-year-old daughter of an English socialite and Nigerian oil baron who is now Britain’s first black Marchioness. But she doesn’t really like labels. Emma grew up in London with ‘two blondes’ — her mother Suzanna McQuiston and half-sister Sam.
Race was never talked about until she married into the Thynn family when, according to Ceawlin, his mother, Anna Thynn, Dowager Marchioness of Bath, voiced an opinion that he was ruining ‘400 years of bloodline’ by marrying his mixed-race wife.
She has denied making the comment and has said she has ‘absolutely nothing against her daughter-in-law’ but didn’t attend the wedding and has never seen her grandchildren.
‘Race shouldn’t define you,’ says Emma, who for many years has supported the Stephen Lawrence Trust — which strives to create a society that treats everyone with fairness and respect — and counts Stephen’s mother Doreen as ‘a dear friend’.
‘I have two boys with Nigerian heritage. [John, now Viscount Weymouth, and Henry.] I just hope they grow up in a world where race is not as remarkable as it is now.’
Emma, who endeared herself to millions during her time on BBC1’s Strictly Come Dancing last year, is like a lioness with her children.
She was so desperately ill during her pregnancy with John with a potentially fatal bleed on her pituitary gland that Henry, who is biologically hers and Ceawlin’s, was born by surrogacy two years later. They are delightfully mannered and characterful boys.
‘I am so very glad we took the boys up to see my father a few months before he passed so they have an enduring memory of him,’ says Ceawlin.
‘They were very excited to see him and he was quite delighted to see them.’ The late Lord Bath was living in his penthouse apartment at Longleat with his two carers in a flat within the house, when he contracted the virus.
He had been in poor health for several years with type 2 diabetes and rarely left his rooms so could have only have picked up the virus at Longleat.
‘It does make it more real when one’s father has died of it in the same house,’ says Ceawlin. ‘We immediately instituted very strict protocols between various parts of the house in order to keep our children safe. In terms of routes in and out, there’s been a separation as to who uses what space.
‘My father’s carers caught it too but fortunately recovered. We established very early on a testing facility at Longleat for our staff so anyone who wants a test can get one weekly. We’ve been fortunate no one else has succumbed to it.’
Emma says: ‘This virus is very frightening. When it happens to someone close to you, you worry…’ She doesn’t need to finish the sentence. Like so many of us, she has been worried sick for her sons.
‘My priorities are so different. I’ve always been a hands-on mother but I feel an even greater responsibility to my children,’ says Emma who, like parents throughout the country has had to get to grips with the ‘highs and lows’ of home schooling, as well as motherhood.
Covid-19 also meant that ‘Longleat Live’, a food and music extravaganza that Emma was due to host earlier this month had to be postponed. Now the line-up, headlined by The Wombats and Razorlight, has been put back to July 17 & 18 next year.
In the meantime, family life is her focus. ‘We’ve found a new way of living being around each other all the time.’
She looks at Ceawlin in a ‘I worship the ground you walk on’ sort of way. ‘I think everyone’s priorities and ways of using time has shifted. As a mum and wife, I’ve tried to keep our spirits up.
‘It’s been a very special time but also a very different and challenging one. My priorities are different now. I want to give my children the best possible childhood by spending our time together and hopefully shaping the way they grow up. Family is everything. They are the future.’
Ceawlin hugs his wife close. ‘There are silver linings to this and spending so much more time with the boys is a particularly glistening one,’ he says.
‘Spending that time with them during lockdown — and many parents I’m sure feel the same — is an incredibly bonding experience that’s made me think about some of my childhood experiences with my father.’
And, for a moment, his loss is writ large across his face.
‘I think the fact we’ll never see him again is something we’ll continue to process for some time to come,’ he says.