In a tribute to his late brother Mark, Christopher Roper tells the story of the Roper family’s life at Forde Abbey.
My brother, Mark Roper, who died at home on 20th September, was a remarkable man, unlikely to rate an obituary in any national newspaper, but important to this corner of West Dorset where he lived all his life. He took over the management of Forde Abbey and its estate in 1959 on leaving University, and no one, since the monks were driven out in 1539, has looked after this nationally important building for longer. Together with the last abbot, Thomas Chard; Oliver Cromwell’s minister, Edmund Prideaux, who built on Chard’s foundations; and Francis Gwyn, who laid out the gardens in the early 18th Century; he could have claimed, though he never did, that the four of them had done more than all its other custodians to shape the Abbey as visitors see it today. Like Chard and Prideaux, he handed it over to his successors in much better physical shape than he found it.
Unlike them, he did not dramatically change the building, which looks today much as Prideaux left it in the middle of the 17th Century. Mark’s business philosophy was taken from the Italian novel, The Leopard, “If we want things to go on as they are, we have to change”. His first task was to build an economic base on which the estate could survive and thrive, no small task, as the middle decades of the last century were not kind to England’s rural estates unless there was a bank or a brewery in the background to sustain them; and in Forde Abbey’s case, there wasn’t a money tree. Small tenanted farms, all requiring modernisation, offering little in immediate payback to either tenant or landlord, were not the answer.
Our father, Geoffrey Roper, got by on a basis of extreme frugality, on a diet of home-grown fruit and vegetables, two or three cows, and largely home-killed meat. Income from honey, apples, hen and duck eggs; together with coppiced products from the woods, and a modest harvest of Christmas trees, were never going to keep the Ropers at Forde Abbey into the 21st Century. His father had tried to keep the wolf from the door by trying to sell the priceless Mortlake tapestries to America. Luckily, he failed.
However, the 1960s saw the rise of a car-owning population that enjoyed visiting historic houses and Mark moved swiftly to open the house and gardens, which previously opened to the public only six times a year, several days a week. In this enterprise, he was greatly assisted by his wife, Lisa, who set about making the Abbey far more liveable and welcoming than it had ever been when we were children. Over the next 30 years, aided initially by the distinguished architect Richard Tyler, who had retired to live in Burstock, they began to tackle much needed repairs to the fabric of the Abbey.
“The great thing about Forde Abbey,” Richard liked to say, “is that for the past 300 years, none of its owners has been rich enough to seriously mess it up”. The expensive work of caring for the Abbey’s fabric continues, and part of Mark’s genius was to keep the money flowing by growing new businesses, often with local partners. The first was growing soft fruit, initially black currants, and then strawberries and raspberries, riding another 1960s trend, the Pick-Your-Own market. In this he found a knowledgeable partner in Arthur Davis, who had been operating on a much smaller scale, across the Axe in Tatworth. P-Y-O is not the business it was 50 years ago but is continued to this day by his son-in-law, Julian Kennard.
Mark never “owned” the Abbey as, with his support, Geoffrey Roper created a Trust, whose main objective was the preservation of Forde Abbey and its unique grounds. They both believed that although the National Trust had done sterling work in preserving buildings that might otherwise have been lost, the individual touch provided by family custodianship provided a unique ingredient to the management of the house and its grounds.
An example of this is the fountain, much enjoyed by visitors and, particularly their children, that throws a spout of water over 35 metres into the air from one of the ponds. This is driven by a pump, first installed over 50 years ago to spray water over the budding blackcurrant bushes in late March or April when the temperature dropped close to freezing. The fountain was Mark’s idea and he believed it increased visitor numbers by 10% in its first year. Mark thoroughly enjoyed the process of opening the house and garden to paying visitors. “What’s the point of a garden on this scale if it isn’t shared with other people?” he once asked me. Our parents were less sure, but Geoffrey, in his old age, enjoyed running a plant stall in front of the house, the beginnings of the plant nursery that was subsequently established in the kitchen garden.
Another of his early businesses built on the small forest nursery established by our father. It was a time when tax arrangements made it extremely advantageous to plant forests of Sitka Spruce in Scotland. This was deplored by many environmentalists and lovers of heather-covered hills, but Mark argued that if we were to read newspapers, the newsprint had to be produced somewhere and surely it was right that some portion of our island should be set aside for that purpose. At any rate, he proved that he could produce young trees, ready for planting, in two years, as against three years in Scotland. This allowed him to become a major supplier to the forestry management companies that were booming north of the border.
His final enterprise, still flourishing, was a farming partnership with the Frost family of Childhay, to milk goats at Forde Grange, one of the largest such operations in the south of England. Will Frost manages the goats, milking over 2,000 animals a day, while Julian Kennard grows the wheat and maize that provide the bulk of their feed.
Richard Tyler’s son, Christian, who wrote the excellent history of Forde Abbey, (Forde Abbey, The Story Behind the Stones, Dovecote Press, 2017), asked Mark if he thought the farming and tourism business that he and his family had built up over the past 60 years was sustainable into the future, “Of course not”, came his reply. New challenges, he was sure, would be round the next corner. However, he told me a few weeks ago that he was leaving it in good hands. Twelve years ago, he and Lisa moved out of the Abbey into the Home Farm; and his eldest daughter Alice with her husband, Julian, moved into the Abbey with their three children. During the Pandemic and all the uncertainties that brought to a tourist-based business, Alice took over the garden in a thoroughly hands-on fashion, becoming the fourth generation of her family to put their stamp on the garden.
It would be a great mistake to see Mark simply as a profit-driven entrepreneur. He took great pride in the way Forde Abbey became a magnet for musicians seeking to exploit the amazing acoustics of Thomas Chard’s great hall, and in the Concert Society, organised initially by his brother-in-law, Eric Smith, who lived less than a mile away across the River Axe. When the BBC brought Beethoven’s piano to England, it was installed in the Hall to be played and filmed. Forde was also the favourite location of the violinist Nigel Kennedy when he was recording.
As tenanted farms were taken in hand, and the number of people employed on the land reduced, the occupancy of houses changed, but his policy was always to let houses to residential tenants, who would live in them and form part of the local community, not to second-homers.
Initially, he hesitated to change anything in the garden which had evolved under the care of both his father and grandmother, from the bones of an eighteenth-century garden that had been largely neglected as the nineteenth century wore on. However, after Geoffrey’s death in 1982, his attention turned to the garden. He loved the bog garden and the blue Himalayan poppies and primulas that grew there, but again he was always ready to take advice, notably from Jack Drake, a famous alpine nurseryman from Scotland, who had retired to Crewkerne, and took on the job of reviving the Rock Garden with our sister, Charlotte. He also took more structural advice from Alan Patterson, then curator of the Chelsea Physic Garden.
He was extremely pleased in 1992, when Forde Abbey was named the Historic Houses Association’s Garden of the Year. He was buried last month in the arboretum, planted by Geoffrey after WW2 and shaped by Mark and Alice over the subsequent decades. He could appropriately share Christopher Wren’s epitaph: Si monumentum requiris circumspice. (If you need a monument, look around).
Mark is survived by his wife, Lisa; three daughters, Alice, Victoria and Lucinda; and six grandchildren: Ben, Sam and Marcia Kennard; Ella Anins; and Mahony and Rex Knight.