Caring for the land
The philanthropist Ernest Cook, a grandson of Thomas Cook of the Thomas Cook Travel Agency, became a very wealthy man in the late 1920s. This allowed him indulge his passion for the preservation of English country houses, the estates to which they belonged, the paintings and furniture which they contained and the well-being of the rural communities of which the estates were the pillar.He bought several country estates as well as some very fine houses, later giving many of them away to either the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings or the National Trust. In buying estates he was preserving not only buildings and landscape, but the social, economic, architectural and environmental elements of rural life.
In 1952, Ernest Cook decided to establish the educational charitable trust which today still bears his name. He died in 1955 and, by 1961, seven of his remaining country estates had been assigned or bequeathed to the Trust.
Today, it is thanks to Cook’s foresight that the income from investments and the surplus from its estates allows the Trust to distribute up to £2m annually in educational grants and to offer a comprehensive outdoor education programme, welcoming around 25,000 children a year onto its estates.
The Ernest Cook Trust owns and manages Ernest’s original bequests: the Boarstall and Hartwell Estates in Buckinghamshire, the Fairford and Slimbridge Estates in Gloucestershire, the Little Dalby Estate in Leicestershire, and the Trent Estate in Dorset.
In addition, the Hatherop Estate in Gloucestershire was acquired by the Trustees in 2002 from the Bazley family who had owned the Estate for over 130 years. In 2007, the Filkins estate, which was bequeathed by Sir John Cripps and his executors following his death in 1993, but which had been partly passed over to the Trust since then, was fully transferred to the Trust’s portfolio.
In both cases, the former owners were concerned that their family estates might be broken up if transferred to anyone other than the Trust.
They were impressed by the Trust’s proven commitment to caring for, supporting and preserving traditional estates, the people who live and work on them, the buildings and the land while at the same time exemplifying a professional and 21st century approach to caring for the land.
The Bazley family said that transferring the family’s Hatherop Estate to the care of the Ernest Cook Trust was: “the best way to maintain its special character as well as retaining the unspoilt nature of the villages of Eastleach and Hatherop which our father valued so much.”
The Ernest Cook Trust’s estates are carefully maintained to ensure their continued value, excellence and preservation.
In the 21st century, this means taking into account the principles of sustainability in its widest sense as well as following the best practices of land management, including the protection of the landscape and heritage assets, and working closely with tenants and local communities.
As with any estate, the situation is not static, with land being acquired and disposed of as suitable opportunities arise in order to improve the Trust’s holdings and to further its charitable aims.
The Trustees set extremely high standards of land management and the protection of the natural environment, encouraging the development of Countryside Stewardship or Higher Level Schemes across the 22,000 acres of estate land.
Opening up parts of the estates to the public began in 1974 with the development of selected permissive footpaths. There are also opportunities for walking, fishing, allotments and holiday cottages as the Trustees are keen for more people to enjoy and learn from some of the most beautiful landscapes in the country.
The Trustees actively encourage family succession on the estate farms wherever possible, and have resisted trends to sell off surplus farm houses and cottages.
As a result, over the past 25 years a large number of estate properties have been renovated and improved, using traditional materials while embracing energy-saving technology where appropriate and possible. Investing in its housing stock to the highest standards while retaining the best traditions of rural architecture has generated an important source of income for the Trust.
The Trust actively encourages lettings to local people while turning down applications for ‘second home’ use and does a great deal to support its estate communities in a range of practical ways.
It was also one of the first major landowners in the country to see the potential of turning redundant farm buildings into small rural business premises and workshops. Now all the Trust’s estates host a range of enterprises in converted buildings.