After some struggle we have found the article in the Evening Standard in which Countess Sondes discusses, albeit briefly, the Wye Park project and her involvement in it. This is not, to be honest, earth-shattering stuff, nor will you feel much the better informed afterwards. But for the sake of record here are a few extracts.
Under the headline ‘Countess bids to build a new Cambridge’, it was announced in May that she is in cahoots with Imperial College, helping them draw up plans for a Pounds 1 billion university town deep in the dreaming pastures of Kent. It would reportedly spawn 4,000 new homes and dozens of conference centres and libraries, all swamping the pretty village of Wye, with its Grade II-listed cottages and 13th-century parish church. And hence the Countess find herself at loggerheads with the locals. As one villager put it: ‘We are appalled.’ It is to discuss this rumpus that I have come to meet the Countess at her London residence, a socking great four-storey townhouse in Belgravia.
‘I have been planning for some time to set up an International Centre for Non-Food Crops,’ she explains. ‘But my centre would be backed by private sponsors, and it would be independent of whatever Imperial College is doing.’
She concedes, however, that she has discussed with Imperial College the possibility of ‘co-locating’ her centre with their science park at Wye.
‘Imperial’s work is stunning, their science is superb, and it would be a great honour to work with them,’ she says. ‘And, of course, it would be nice for us if the centre were close to Lees Court.’ Does she worry what the locals think? ‘Of course,’ she replies diplomatically. ‘In situations such as this, one has to take into account everyone’s feelings.’ Have any of the residents of Wye written to her, indicating what their feelings are? ‘Well, yes,’ she says hesitantly. ‘I have had some communication, and naturally, some people are less happy than others. But at the moment everything is just talk.’ It may well be, but one gets the impression that the Countess will take some stopping.
And, er, that’s it really. Except for the enlightening information that one of her best friends is Joan Rivers, though the Countess herself likes the peaceful life.
‘It’s quiet here,’ she says, gazing round her drawing room. ‘I can feel peaceful. I’m very lucky.’ I suppose she is, and yet there is something oddly melancholy about the thought of the Countess spending a hot weekend bolted away inside her Belgravia palace, while the more ‘typical members of the British aristocracy’ make whoopee in the country. Before I go, I ask her if she’s happy. ‘My way of coping is to devote myself to work,’ she says. ‘I’m not sure the balance is wonderful, but I’d rather have it that way than any other.’
How quiet Wye will be if she and Imperial get their way is another matter, though the bulldozers will definitely be out of earshot in Faversham and Belgravia.