Peter Batey is a former Private Secretary to Sir Edward Heath
Arundells, a beautiful early Georgian house nestling beneath the famous spire of Salisbury Cathedral, is the former home of the late Sir Edward Heath who was probably the country’s most versatile Prime Minister.
I worked for Sir Edward as his Private Secretary from 1982 to 1986, the period when he bought, renovated and moved into Arundells. When he died in 2005, in accordance with his Will, Arundells was vested into a charitable trust, the Sir Edward Heath Foundation. The Will directed that the house be opened to the public and that it should also be used for other charitable purposes, including activities linked to music, sailing and education.
It was, therefore, the cause of considerable concern and anguish among many of Sir Edward’s former staff and supporters when the Foundation ran into financial difficulties, and we were faced with the prospect of closure and sale of the house. Along with others, I felt that we had a duty to carry out Sir Edward’s wishes and keep the house open to the public, and arranged to cover the deficit on the operation of Arundells while a sound financial plan was put in place.
Arundells has therefore reopened, and the trustees recently secured permanent planning permission, allowing it to be open to the public in perpetuity. Visitors can view a fascinating and unique collection of artefacts reflecting the former Prime Minister’s passion for art and achievements in music, sailing and politics.
A new planning permission has also allowed us to open parts of the first floor. This year, for the first time, visitors can see Sir Edward’s study, where he worked at a desk originally owned by another former Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, and several of Sir Edward’s Ministerial boxes.
Arundells is set in beautiful mediaeval walled gardens, which slope down to the confluence of the Avon and Nadder, beyond which are the famous water meadows from which painted his famous view of the cathedral.
Heath was a boy from a humble background, the son of a carpenter and a lady’s maid, who rose via school, Oxford University, service in the Army during the Second World War and through politics to the highest office in the land. Not only a statesman, he was also an able musician, who conducted many of the world’s leading orchestras. And he was a yachtsman of international standing, who skippered his boats, five of them named “Morning Cloud”, to victory in many of the world’s greatest ocean races, including the Sydney-Hobart race in 1969.
He captained the victorious British Admiral’s Cup team in 1971, while serving as Prime Minister. Arundells contains many of Sir Edward’s sailing trophies, as well as sailing and musical mementos.
Sir Edward’s political career touched eight decades, and he served as a Minister in the governments of four Conservative Prime Ministers: Sir Winston Churchill, Sir Anthony Eden, Harold Macmillan and Sir Alec Douglas-Home, before becoming Prime Minister himself in 1970.
He was a protégé of Churchill’s from the late 1930s when, as the 22-year-old President of the Oxford University Conservative Association, he led a group in the Oxford by-election in support of Churchill’s line against the leadership of Neville Chamberlain, the then Tory Prime Minister, over the appeasement of Hitler and Mussolini. Quintin Hogg, the official Tory candidate whom Heath and his supporters opposed in 1938, subsequently served as Lord Chancellor in Heath’s own cabinet.
Among his most cherished possessions, now displayed at Arundells, are two landscape paintings by Churchill. One of these has been signed twice by Churchill, first when it was completed, and for a second time when he presented it to Heath. The other Churchill painting has been restored after being damaged during a bomb attack by the IRA on Sir Edward’s London house in the 1970s. He survived at least two IRA assassination attempts, during one of which a bomb fell from the bottom of his car as he was driven away from his house.
Heath could be formidable, even intimidating – most Prime Ministers can be; perhaps they need that quality. But he was great fun to work for, with a lively sense of humour, a developed sense of irony and a strong line in self-deprecation and self-parody. Everyone I know who worked closely with him (and I know many spanning several decades) retained strong loyalty and affection for him. In the right mood, with a large glass of whisky in hand at the end of the day, he was an entertaining raconteur with hilarious stories.
Shortly after I started working for him, I bumped into a contemporary from university in Westminster Hall who was working for another former Prime Minister. I was asked what I was doing and explained that I was working for Ted. “We’d better have lunch,” was the response. A few days later, we met in the old cafeteria, then known as the Policemen’s, just off Westminster Hall. As we sat down my friend asked, ‘Well what’s he like? Mine’s a pig and I hate him. I don’t know how much longer I will be able to put up with him. I suppose yours must be even worse.’
I laughed and said, ‘Well it’s still early days, but I like him, he’s quite fun to work for. He can be a bit grand at times, but usually he’s jovial and entertaining. He treats the office well.’ I was struck by the irony that in the public mind I worked for grumpy old Ted, while my friend worked for a former Prime Minister who was thought to have a sunny temperament and an avuncular manner! Sometimes the public image can belie the reality.
During the last decade of his life even his famously frosty relationship with Lady Thatcher thawed and they dined together on a number of occasions. I think I played a role in building bridges, but that is another story.
Many artefacts in Arundells are testament to his long friendship with China and the Chinese people. He established full diplomatic relations between the United Kingdom and the People’s Republic of China in 1972 and in pride of place in the Drawing Room are the Qianlong vases given to Heath by Chairman Mao Tse-tung at their first meeting in Peking in 1974.
Chairman Mao also gave Sir Edward a pair of pandas, Ching Ching and Chia Chia, which afforded enormous pleasure to generations of British children at London Zoo. There are photographs of Sir Edward Heath with Chairman Mao, taken at their meetings in 1974 and 1975. In 1974, Heath also met Premier Zhou Enlai and then Vice Premier Deng Xiaoping. Deng and Heath met again many times during the 1970s and 80s and established a warm friendship that lasted until the former’s death in 1997.
Heath’s historical significance as a political figure rests not only on the break-through in Sino-British relations. He was first and foremost the Prime Minister who took Britain into the European Economic Community, arguably the greatest re-alignment of Britain’s foreign and economic policies of the second half of the twentieth century.
There are mementos of his meetings with European leaders, including De Gaulle, Pompidou, Giscard D’Estaing, Chirac, Adenauer, Erhard, Brandt and Schmidt, as well as with other world leaders, among them American Presidents, Soviet leaders, Popes, Colonel Nasser, Fidel Castro and Saddam Hussain.
Arundells is open for guided tours Saturday to Wednesday until 29 October. Booking is recommended. Admission, house and garden Gift Aid £10, Standard £9. Garden only £2.50.Wheelchair access ground floor only. Ticket information 01722 326546, email@example.com, www.arundells.org.