Historic estate looking forward to the next 100 years

It is fashionable in some circles to speak in terms of a five-year plan; business leaders, politicians, football clubs do it all the time.

The Earl of Bradford's Jersey herd going under the hammer in April, 1978
The Earl of Bradford's Jersey herd going under the hammer in April, 1978

Alexander Bridgeman, Viscount Newport, however, likes to think that little bit bigger. On a damp morning at the Bradford Estates Office on the boundary between Staffordshire and Shropshire, the future Earl of Bradford explains his plans for the next 100 years.

Given that nobody in the room is likely to be around long enough to see the vision come to fruition, why focus so far ahead?

Legacy, it seems, is at least part of the answer.

Alexander Bridgeman, Viscount Newport.

“This property has been owned by my ancestors for centuries,” he says, producing a scrapbook of newspaper cuttings and photographs chronicling the history of the estates.

“A lot of the things we are doing now will have an impact in 100 years’ time, especially when it comes to things like planting woodland.

“You have got to have a long-term plan now for those who will be around in 100 years.”

And an important part of that plan will include sheep.

The arrival of 300 Romney-breed sheep in September this year might not have grabbed too many headlines, but for the Viscount they carry a powerful symbolism. It is more than 40 years since his grandfather, the sixth Earl of Bradford, farmed the lands of the family estates, a time when the youthful 42-year-old was barely born.

Alexander Bridgeman, Viscount Newport.

And on his return to the Midlands three years ago, having served his apprenticeship in the commercial property sector in London, one of the Viscount’s first decisions was to bring the family business back into the farming industry.

“We used to farm our land using contractors, and I decided to bring farming back in hand, in order to set up a new sustainable, regenerative farming business run directly by ourselves ,” he says.

Looking nostalgically at a photograph depicting the sale of his grandfather’s Jersey herd back in 1978, Lord Newport, says he sees agriculture forming the centrepiece of a new diversified portfolio for the family business, which will also include industrial development, green technology, business services –and most controversially – housebuilding. The proceeds from these businesses will then help finance nature and conservation work on the estates, he says.

The Smithy, Weston-under-Lizard, in 1907 – now a tailor's shop

“I see Shropshire becoming the centre of agriculture in the region, working with Harper Adams University,” he says.

“The West Midlands has probably the youngest population in the country, and with HS2 coming in there is great potential.”

Today, Bradford Estates manages some 12,000 acres of land across a vast swathe of Shropshire and Staffordshire. Lord Newport says his plan will see the creation of 9,000 new jobs, 3,000 new homes and four new public parks.

Tong Castle pictured in 1952, shortly before it was demolished

His family’s connection with the area dates back to the time of William the Conqueror, who granted lands to his countrymen.

Contrary to popular misconception, the Bradford estates and family has no link to the city in Yorkshire with the same name.

Bradford – or ‘broad ford’ – was found within the parish of Ercall Magna in Shropshire, where the road from High Ercall to Shrewsbury crosses the river Roden. It gave its name to the Bradford Hundred, the county’s largest division which could raise 100 fighting men in the event of war, which stretched from Whitchurch to Much Wenlock.

The Bridgeman family has a detailed archive relating to the history of the Bradford Estate

Lord Newport trained as a commercial surveyor at Cushman & Wakefield in Birmingham and London, before a decade as a partner at London property firm Quadrant. He spent the first year of his return weighing up the lie of the land before deciding on his long-term strategy.

“When I came home, for the first year I didn’t do anything particularly dramatic, I got to know the property, along with local stakeholders and local businesses about how the area operates.”

Oliver Scott was appointed farms director, and a detailed survey was carried out to look into the different soil types and ecological conditions around the estates to decide how to make best use of the available land.

A Christmas tree in Queen Square, Wolverhampton, donated by Bradford Estates

By 2025, the Bradford farming business will have expanded to cover 5,600 acres, although it still leases 5,200 acres of land to 14 tenant farms.

“A lot of change is happening in agriculture,” says Lord Newport.

Cultivating wildflowers and crops for a new seed-production business, and selling carbon credits to companies wishing to offset their carbon footprint will also form part of the diversified portfolio.

A Christmas tree being delivered under police escort from the Bradford Estates in 1960

“Most of the wildflower seeds are imported from the continent, but this is an opportunity to create a business to supply native species, and promote biodiversity,” says Lord Newport.

Forestry Commission grants will be used to plant 250,000 new trees – much of it on poor-quality farmland – creating 350 acres of new woodland and 10 miles of woodland walks.

An historically unproductive piece of grazing land at Brockton Grange has been restored into a wetland habitat designed to attract birds and invertebrates. Looking further ahead, the organisation is looking at creating a water meadow and reactivating fishing pools at Lower Reule, near Church Eaton, renewing and 18th century pleasure ground at Norton Mere, and recreating wetland at Neachley Brook, near Tong.

There are also plans to expand tourism, with the number of holiday cottages increased from two to 10 alongside a new wedding venue.

More contentious are the plans for the area around junction 3 of the M54, where plans for the new ‘Weston village’ have been met with opposition, not least from Mark Pritchard, MP for The Wrekin who described them as ‘environmental vandalism’.

Lord Newport says that while much of the opposition has been made of the housing plans, they actually cover a relatively small area of 204 acres. The scheme will include 400 acres of new public parks, a village centre with a doctor’s surgery, school and nursery serving the wider community, he adds, and will become one of the UK’s first ‘net zero’ communities making use of sustainable energy sources.

“All electricity will be produced by solar panels, with charging points for electric vehicles.”

The 195-acre commercial area, a mile from Cosford railway station, will include a new technology park with up to four million sq ft of employment space. Talks have taken place with Wolverhampton University about occupying part of the campus.

“New developments at Weston will see 9,000 new jobs created,” says Lord Newport.

“We would like to become the most significant sustainable agri-business in the West Midlands, reaching net-zero by 2030.”

Weston-under-Lizard, a village between Albrighton and Newport, has been home to the Bradford family and its ancestors for almost 1,000 years.

Proudly on display in St Andrew’s Church in the grounds of Weston Park are wooden effigies to family members who fought as Knights Templar in the 13th century crusades.

The church, like Weston Park itself, is largely the creation of Elizabeth Mytton, who married Sir Thomas Wilbraham in 1651, and immediately set about transforming the family home into a baroque revivalist mansion. Sometimes credited as being the first female architect, she reputedly spent her honeymoon studying European architecture with a view to creating a spectacular family home, a scheme that took 20 years to complete.

In 1681, the family name changed again, as the Wilbrahams’ eldest daughter Mary married Richard Newport, heir to the Earldom of Bradford, bringing Weston Park into the Bradford estates. The Newports were historic Shropshire landowners, whose title, was bestowed on them by King William III.

By the time Richard became the second Earl of Bradford on the death of his father, Weston Park had become the family home. The marriage of his son Henry, the third Earl of Bradford, produced no children, and the earldom passed to his younger brother Thomas Newport, and when he died in 1762, the title died with him.

However, in 1719, the title was recreated for Sir Henry Bridgeman, nephew of the third earl, who also contributed the Knockin, Blodwell and Castle Bromwich estates. Sir Henry commissioned Lancelot “Capability” Brown to create the Weston Park which we see today, with its uninterrupted views of Lizard Wood and the surrounding woodlands. He also employed James Paine in the 1760s to make alterations to the house and to add the Roman Bridge and Temple of Diana in the park.

The Industrial Revolution brought considerable income to the Bradford Estates, with the construction of the Montgomeryshire Canal being used to transport stone aggregates from their quarries alongside the creation of coal mines on the Bolton and Wigan estates, as well as the development of the leather industry on the Walsall estate. These new-found riches enabled the Bradfords to buy the adjacent Blymhill estate, and then the Tong Castle estate in 1855 from the Durant family.

By this time the original Tong Castle, dating from the 12th century, had long been demolished, and replaced by an 18th century building also designed in part by Capability Brown. The Bradford family never intended living in the castle, but rented it to John Hartley, a wealthy businessman from Wolverhampton, and his wife Emma, who lived there until her death in 1909.

The house was severely damaged by fire in 1911 and lay derelict until it was finally demolished in 1954. The M54 now runs through the site, although vestiges of Capability Brown’s work can still be seen in the foundations of the castle, the former moat of Church Pool, and clumps of oak and beech trees, and the site was given a Grade II listing in 1984. Flagstones from Tong Castle were also used for paving at the war memorial created at Albrighton in 1920.

The Boscobel estate was added to the Bradford portfolio in 1918, and then the Wood Eaton estate shortly after the Second World War. Boscobel House, and its famous oak tree where King Charles II hid following his defeat at the Battle of Worcester in 1651, was donated to English Heritage in 1954, while Weston Park was donated to the nation by the present Earl of Bradford in 1986.

For many years, a large pine tree grown on the Bradford Estates was displayed in Wolverhampton’s Queen Square at Christmas, and the Bradford archives shows pictures of this being transported by road.

Old pictures also show the ‘old smithy’, once used by a blacksmith, now rented to a tailoring business.

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