Visitors are now allowed to visit the private island where the winds and landscape have been tamed
In the Barclay family album there is a snap taken during a holiday on Sark which, according to the authorised Brecqhou history, shows one of the brothers’ sons lounging on a clifftop opposite Point Beleme, the highest point on the neighbouring island. “Little did they know then that they would become the proprietors of Brecqhou,” the author, Peter Rivett, reflects.
In 1993 Sir David and Sir Frederick Barclay bought the 32-hectare (80-acre) island for almost £3.5m. The Mayfair estate agent ad had described it as impressive, highlighting features such as a stone manor house, a private harbour and a helipad. Ownership also came with “tax free status”.
The Barclays’ official history, however, gives a more damning appraisal of Brecqhou when it was first taken on. It was “something of an eyesore … There really was no alternative to knocking the lot down and starting again”.
A bit of an extreme location, perhaps, but the perfect getaway for billionaires fiercely protective of their privacy. So reclusive are they that there is no photograph in circulation among newspapers taken since 2000, when they were pictured receiving their knighthoods for charitable works.
There followed one of the most ambitious landscape makeover operations conducted in the British Isles. Vast sections of the windswept, cliff-shorn island were cleaved off, lakes created and strategic hill ridges elevated such that the profile of Brecqhou was transformed.
The logic was all about wind. It was an attempt to engineer pockets of shelter from the salty Atlantic blasts that buffet the island for much of the year, making it almost impossible for anything to grow.
The previous manor house was razed and, in just three years, a concrete palace, with scores of rooms, was erected and precision-clad in granite to give a mock gothic fortress effect. Steel drainpipes were clad in lead, also for effect, with alternate drainage boxes, at the roofline, carrying the initials FB and DB. A green bench near the entrance is occupied by a bronze figure wearing a suit and reading the Scotsman – a plaque reveals it was commissioned in 1999 by Aidan and Howard Barclay, two of Sir David’s three sons, when their father owned the Scottish newspaper.
This was Fort Brecqhou, known to all on the island simply as “the castle”. To the architecturally unlearned it almost looks like a child’s drawing of a fort in its simplicity – minus the moat and drawbridge. Stonework above the front door displays the motto “Aut agere aut mori” (Either do or die), thought to be a phrase associated with Scottish Barclay clan history. Two shields displaying the family coat of arms are carved beneath the Latin inscription, featuring Celtic crosses and ships.
At the back of the house, looking seawards, a sweep of lawn now takes visitors down to some mock ramparts spread from one side of the house, curving along the cliff edge and down a steep road to a newly constructed harbour. At precise intervals, there are 22 cannon – fired to mark special occasions, most recently the Queen’s Jubilee. Also poking out from the parapet and elsewhere are a number of security cameras. A fake black hawk bobs around on a pole, frightening away seagulls who might spoil the pristine surroundings.
Work on the gardens has taken much longer than the house, but following completion the grounds have recently been opened to a limited number of visitors. Until recently, visitors to Brecqhou were unwelcome – when the BBC journalist John Sweeney was filmed landing on Brecqhou in an attempt to gain an interview in 1995, he was successfully sued for breach of privacy.
Now, though, anyone prepared to pay for two nights in one of the Barclays’ hotels on Sark can visit for free – subject to security clearance. The official line is that the twins did not want to share their mid-Channel idyll until the gardens were finished. Only this year were they deemed ready for public enjoyment. Where once the poor soil and high winds left the island engulfed in dust storms, today there is an olive grove, vineyards, a carp pond with a bridge modelled on Monet’s at Giverney, a football pitch and an organic market garden.
Mark Harrisson, a former helicopter pilot who manages the estate, delights in telling visitors of every hurdle set by nature in the Barclays’ path; each one overcome despite the odds and cost. Rabbits had overrun the island, but a trapping programme was said to have cleared the entire population. Drainage and soil quality were also challenges.
Dozens of employees potter around the garden, some in golf carts, wearing navy shorts and light blue polo shirt with Brecqhou insignia. Harrisson wears a dark blue sports jacket and red tie, befitting his senior position. In 2008 the brothers sold Harrisson the rights to an enormous plot of land on Sark known as Vieux Port. Land registry records show he paid £25,000 for the land, which includes one of Sark’s prettiest hotels, the Petit Champ.
Harrisson explains there is a strict rule that no photos are to be taken of the castle. After meeting our group off the boat, Harrisson says he will do his best to answer everybody’s questions – “But if you ask something sensitive, I may have to side-step it.” But he freely admits that the senior Barclays are not regular visitors to the island.
He estimates almost 120,000 tonnes of materials were brought on to the island during construction. Part of that would have contributed to the construction of several outbuildings, including the Dog & Duck pub for staff social events, an orangery, guest accommodation and a chapel, the design of which was closely overseen by Sir David and blessed by Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor.
Beneath the chapel there is a crypt. Asked if it may one day be someone’s resting place, Harrisson says that time may well come. The church holds sporadic services – on Christmas Eve an Irish priest comes to lead a “lovely midnight mass”, he says.
One of the few spots where you can still get a sense of the island’s once more rugged beauty is Point Beleme, from where there are views to the west of other islands clustered in what is known as the Bailiwick — Herm, the much larger Guernsey and the privately leased island of Jethou, where the current tenant is British computer software tycoon Sir Peter Ogden.
In the opposite direction, little more than a stone’s throw away are the jagged cliffs of Sark where the family holidayed. About 10 years ago, telegraph poles washed up on the shores of Brecqhou and the brothers had some fashioned into a cross and erected at Point Beleme. If it wasn’t intended as a gesture to exorcise the demons from Sark it could well have been read as such.
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