Article by Gary Shipton
Hugh Bonneville, star of the cinematic blockbuster Downton Abbey, helped raise an aristocratic £61,200 to protect and enhance the South Downs – an extraordinary landscape which he described as ‘a great re-charger of the human battery.’
The fundraising dinner was made possible by the generosity of Rolls-Royce Motor Cars which staged it on Saturday, October 5, at its manufacturing plant at its Home at Goodwood, near Chichester.
Mr Bonneville, who plays the Earl of Grantham in Downton Abbey and has recently completed a hike of the South Downs Way with a group of friends, co-hosted the evening with the Duke of Richmond and Gordon.
The dinner – which included entertainment from The Grange Festival Opera and a silent auction – raised funds for the South Downs National Park Trust, the official charity of the national park but separate from the Park Authority.
It wants to invest to see more land managed for wildlife, more rare habitats protected, more local communities thriving, and more people able to access and enjoy their national park.
In welcoming guests, the Duke of Richmond thanked everyone for their support and in particular Rolls-Royce Motor Cars for allowing the charity to use their iconic building.
“The South Downs National Park Trust is two years’ old and it is already doing lots in terms of raising funds for important projects. I am pleased and delighted to be the chairman of the development board. It is this group which has been involved in putting on the event this evening.
“Rather like my father with the Sussex Community Foundation which has been such a success for the county, it is my hope through the South Downs Trust we can raise important funds that can help and sustain the national park in its work and all it does for the landscape and indeed the local community.”
Mr Bonneville – who launched this year’s Chichester Festival Theatre season with his widely-acclaimed performance as CS Lewis in Shadowlands – spoke with passion and humour of how our ‘blunt, bow-headed, whale-backed downs’ can improve our physical and mental health.
“I’ve always felt a glow of pride – to be honest I’ve felt rather smug! – saying the South Downs were on my doorstep and in the last few years I’ve been particularly proud to wear as a badge of honour the fact that I live in the South Downs National Park.
“This landscape has inspired so many artists of all types – Kipling, Elgar, Turner, Ravilious – and tonight we’re delighted to have with us equally admired contemporary artists who call this landscape home, Philip Jackson and of course later on we will be enjoying performances from the stars of the great opera festival.
“The Downs cannot but inspire. They continue to be a place of work and importantly they provide respite and recreation for the busy populations of the South East as well as visitors from further afield.
“It is that growing number of visitors that will further drive our local economy but the Park, of course, needs careful management and therefore funds from this trust to ensure the Park is well maintained and to ensure the welcome for those visitors is always a warm one.
“Now I got involved in the South Downs Trust because I am passionate about the need to conserve and enhance this extraordinary resource, this great re-charger of the human battery.
“Recently with a group of disparate friends I completed a hike along the South Downs Way at the tender age of 55 from Winchester to Eastbourne – chewing the fat, deepening our friendships but above all deepening our appreciation of the Downs upon which we were walking. And I cannot wait to start it all over again.
“So I am delighted to give a bit of my energy and time to an initiative that supports not only the local economy but also something so fundamental, so important to the lives we all lead. The fact is that time spent out and about in the open air improves our physical and mental health. It’s as simple as that.
“Now it’s important to understand that the Trust is independent from the National Park Authority and because its core costs are already covered every single penny we raise this evening will go to projects that will benefit the Park as a whole.”
He said donations will also help create a post for an apprentice ranger who will specialise in how farming particularly viticulture can enhance and utilise the landscape.
Mr Bonneville, whose other recent major film and TV triumphs have included Paddington and the BBC satirical comedy W1A, supports a number of causes in addition to the Trust including the National Youth Theatre, The Primary Shakespeare Company – which raises achievement and attainment for primary school children by engaging with the Bard’s works – and the National Youth Arts Trust which provides access to the performing arts for young people from non-privileged backgrounds.
Rolls-Royce Motor Cars is proud of the role it plays in supporting key charities – and two weeks’ ago raised more than £1.7m at a dinner and auction at its Chichester plant in aid of allergy research at Evelina London Children’s Hospital.
Sussex Newspapers, through titles such as the West Sussex Gazette, campaigned vigorously throughout the 1990s for the establishment of National Park status for the South Downs.