Sir Michael Leighton, Loton Park
PUBLISHED: 17:43 07 April 2010 | UPDATED: 02:10 06 February 2013
Sir Michael Leighton, 11th Baronet, is a poet, conservationist, photographer, ornithologist and an Englishman to the core.
Sir Michael Leighton, 11th Baronet, is a poet, conservationist, photographer, ornithologist and an Englishman to the core. But his lifes work has been thev preservation and improvement of his family home, Loton Park a job, he tells Howard Franklin, that has brought both pleasure and pain.
PICTURES BY JOHN SNOWDON
Thankfully, the vast majority of Shropshires stately homes are still occupied by the families that built them. There can be none finer than Loton Park at Alberbury, the seat of the Leightons since 1391. The present house dates from the 17th century, with significant remodelling in the 19th century. It could come straight from the pages of a Jane Austen novel. The estate sits astride the Shropshire and Montgomeryshire (now Powys) border, and is mentioned in the Domesday Book.
The present Baronet, Sir Michael Leighton, has been variously described as arrogant, tricky, and farther to the right than Genghis Khan! There are elements of truth in these opinions, but the man I was meeting at his beloved family estate is a friend I have known and valued for nearly 40 years, a poet, conservationist, mimic, photographer, ornithologist Michael Leighton has high ideals, his honesty is often frank, his wit sharp as a razor, his kindness knows no bounds.
Loton is very much a family home; I was welcomed by a log fire in the hall grate, the smell of beeswax polish, and a tray of freshly-made coffee. Sir Michaels wife Diana was hurrying off to Shrewsbury with daughter Eleanor on a present buying mission, so we were left to spend an hour chatting about his life and times.
Ascending the staircase to the first floor we passed ancestral portraits of Leightons over the centuries, many of whom contributed to the political life of Shropshire. The earliest Member of Parliament in the family was Richard de Leighton in 1312, who represented the County of Salop. The 7th Baronet Sir Baldwin Leighton was Member of Parliament for south Shropshire and was married to Mary Parker of Sweeney Hall, Oswestry; their son, Stanley Leighton was MP for North Shropshire then Oswestry and his son Bertie Parker Leighton MP for Oswestry. I asked Sir Michael if he could have been interested in a political career. Yes, very much so, but running Loton Estate has been a full-time labour of love. I have always been interested in politics; in fact one of my heroines is Margaret Thatcher and all she stood for.
Passing the Princes Room where both the future King George IV, and King William IV stayed as princes, we entered my favourite room at Loton Park, the panelled Balcony Salon, redesigned with creative flair by Sir Michael and interior designer Caroline Lawson in coral pink and a beautiful shade of blue. The views to the deer park and beyond are sweeping and majestic. This is the only reception room to have this aspect as the state rooms on the ground floor are mainly looking to the River Severn.
Sir Michaels childhood was spent at Whiston Priory, home of his grandmother, Lady Leighton, widow of the 9th Baronet. His public school was Stowe where he discovered a love of literature which has stayed with him and is now expressed through his poetry. The Leightons returned to Loton Park in 1946, but the sudden death at 64 of his father Sir Richard Leighton, a man he describes as stern and remote, catapulted him into becoming the 11th Baronet at the age of 22, with responsibility for the running of Loton Estate and a staff which included a butler, cook, housemaids, estate workers and grooms.
The listed house has survived the ravages of fire and water damage, this he has tackled with a stoic determination even though he suffered huge losses in Lloyds in 1999. He said: This house and the estate have of course been a huge millstone around my neck; there have been cash flow problems which have been overcome by the sale of family treasures, especially works of art. None of these were sold without careful thought and until they had been copied.
Many of the pictures now at Loton are not the originals. Other artefacts and precious belongings have been retained including the library of early books and many of the family jewels, including the ring which belonged to Tsar Alexander III of Russia. It has been a marvellous challenge, and continues to be so. I hope to leave Loton in a better state for my daughter Eleanor than when I inherited it.
Michael Leighton is justly proud also of his planting of 200,000 trees in the parkland and the conservation of the water-meadows which are a natural habitat for orchids and rare species of mosses. He is grateful for the hilly terrain of the park which he leases to a motor club which organises the British Hill Climb Championships at Loton annually. The course is 1,475 yards in length, making it the third longest used in Great Britain.Country estates have to be financially viable and this income is used towards restoration projects, he said.
Sir Michael Leighton has an illustrious lineage, which he can trace back to the year 1100 with Leightons at Buildwas Abbey. The Leightons derive their name from the village of Leighton near Ironbridge where they were Lords of the Manor in the 12th century. He is fascinated by a royal Welsh connection in his family through the marriage of John Leighton of Stretton-in-the-Dale to Angharad de Burgh a direct relation of the fourth son of the Prince of Mawddwy from Upper Powys. This link has inspired him to design several variations of his own plaids for kilts which he often wears.
The Leighton family crest is a mythical bird, the Wyvern, and the Loton Estate is rich in all types of wildlife and is one of Britains most important wintering grounds for wildfowl. Lotons herd of fallow deer forms one of only two privately owned deer parks to remain in the county. Sir Michaels passions include filming and photographing birds, particularly red kites. The Leighton family have been talented artists over many generations, Mary Parker Leighton being the most eminent. Sir Michael plans an exhibition later in the year of the work of 11 members of the family including his daughter Eleanor, and he is to use Mary Parker Leightons watercolours to illustrate his forthcoming anthology of poetry.
It is through his poetry, I think, that we discover the real Michael Leighton. His earliest poems are woeful, with a brooding melancholia, a reflection of his own life at that time. Now, with the wisdom of age, and an acceptance of his own mortality, his poetry is calm with an almost spiritual quality, inspired by nature and the elements. Sir Michael Leighton is comfortable with his own persona; his long tenure of Loton Park may have wearied him, but it has made him the man that he is.
On The Marches: An Anthology of Poetry by Sir Michael Leighton with illustrations from the watercolours of Mary Parker Leighton will be published by Shrewsbury Books at the end of May.
Readers of Shropshire Life can obtain signed copies through Mike Wilmott, Shrewsbury Words, 136, Frankwell, Shrewsbury, SY3 8JX.
Tel: 01743 366933.