With two toddlers, a safari park and a million visitors – not to mention the estranged in-laws – turning this unique stately pile into a family home has been no mean feat for Emma Thynn, first lady of Longleat. James Conrad Williams tries to keep up with the woman who blazed a trail for Meghan.
‘I hear lions roaring all the time,’ says Emma Thynn. ‘The wolves always howl five minutes before the fire alarm, which goes off every Friday. And we can hear sea lions, too. In October we are getting some koalas from Australia. Apparently they make a loud grunting noise – that will be something to look forward to!’
For someone who wakes up to the extraordinary surroundings at Longleat most days, does it ever become the norm? ‘Never,’ says Emma. ‘It’s thrilling. Coming over the hill and seeing the beautiful views, it’s inspiring. I could go round this safari park twice a day, all year round, and never see the same thing twice.’
It’s clear that Emma, 32, wife of Longleat heir Ceawlin (pronounced Soo-uh-lin) Thynn, Viscount Weymouth, fits right in at the family seat. The stately home, which dates back to the 1500s, is set in a thousand acres of sprawling Wiltshire countryside. The surrounding animal enclosures boast more than 130 different species – I’ve spotted rhinos, giraffes, sea lions, hippos, tigers and one particularly excitable giant rabbit. It is the first safari park of its kind outside Africa, open to the public since 1966. In June, Emma and Ceawlin, 44, welcomed nearly 12,000 visitors to their food festival. Next month they will host their third hot-air balloon festival, Sky Safari – just 150 balloons in their back garden. Casual.
Emma has been Lady Weymouth (although no one on the estate seems to refer to her by her title – wherever you go, it’s simply Emma) since marrying Ceawlin five years ago. Prior to that, she was far-from-plain-old Emma McQuiston of Kensington, daughter of English socialite Suzanna McQuiston and Chief Oladipo Jadesimi, a Nigerian oil magnate who gave her away at her wedding. A history of art graduate, she went on to study drama before ultimately becoming a successful food blogger. She now has her own shop at Longleat, Emma’s Kitchen, which sells all manner of delicious goods, from handmade truffles to meringues, jams and biscuits. A cookbook and a supermarket range are planned for some time within the next year.
The couple were married at Longleat, naturally, and Emma gave birth to their first child, John, a year later. Due to life-threatening complications during that pregnancy – a bleed on the brain when she was eight months pregnant – John was delivered via an emergency caesarean three weeks early. Emma was diagnosed with hypophysitis, a disorder of the pituitary gland that can cause a stroke during natural birth, so she was strongly advised not to proceed with a second birth: ‘The life-threatening condition I had when I was pregnant with John was frightening and traumatic, so for medical reasons I decided to go for a surrogacy birth.’
In December 2016, Henry was born via a surrogate in Los Angeles. ‘It was one of the most incredible gifts I could ever receive,’ says Emma. ‘I’m so grateful. It is a miracle to have Henry, my second beautiful boy, here in the middle of Wiltshire via California. I have been asked by so many people about it, and I cannot recommend it more as it gave me my second son.
‘I’m a big believer in honesty,’ she adds, ‘and in this Instagram world, it’s important to remember that not everyone’s lives are perfect. We all have struggles and it’s good to be open about them. That’s why I’ve been honest about mine.’
So how’s she bearing up juggling two under-fours? ‘The proximity in age is a good thing. Luckily, John adapted well to being an elder brother. But it can be chaotic. The children seem to run everywhere and are endlessly curious. We live on the first floor but use the house as it was intended: as a family home, extraordinary as it is, full of wonderful antiques. The boys are, of course, not yet aware of the uniqueness of being in one of the finest Elizabethan houses as they run past Chinese cabinets and ancestral portraits of 16th-century men with beards.
‘We sometimes bump into members of the public as we career down corridors. I’m usually on my way to get something done in the house – probably Emma’s Kitchen, where I run my business – or to some part of the estate, possibly to check up on the animals. The boys leave toys everywhere – from Lego to trucks – which are collected later by one of the lovely tour guides.’
How many rooms of the house does the family occupy? ‘It depends; seven or eight on the private side and a suite on the public floor we don’t really use…and there are some historical ones.’
And then, of course, there is the famous Kama Sutra room, which Emma uses as a guest bedroom – her friends having the delight of phalluses and more, painted in 3D on the walls by her father-in-law, the Marquess of Bath.
Moving in to Longleat, she says, was a bit of a culture shock to start with. ‘Yet, believe it or not, you do grow into it – like arriving at school on the first day when it seems beyond huge but by the end of the week you can navigate all round. Our task as the stewards of Longleat is about putting love and care and restoration at the heart of what we do so we can leave it for the next generation. It’s all about the details.
‘The housekeeping, though, is all-consuming – right down to the linen, as well as the humongus job of restoring the orangery. I call it The List. It’s never-ending.’
Emma is keen to keep her sons’ feet firmly on the ground, even amid such privilege. ‘It’s important for them to be exposed to a variety of friends and experiences. They go to school in London [the family divides its time 50/50 between Longleat and the capital] where they meet folk from all walks of life. I think that’s the key.’
It’s almost fairy-tale perfect – much like her relationship with Ceawlin. They first met when she was four and he was 16, at the wedding of Ceawlin’s half-aunt Silvy to Emma’s elder half-brother Iain, but over the ensuing years were nothing more than fleeting acquaintances. When they bumped into each other in Soho House members’ club in 2011, however, romantic sparks began to fly.
‘Do I believe in soulmates? I certainly hope so,’ Emma says with a giggle. ‘I don’t remember it, but there is a photograph of us when we met for the first time at the wedding. It’s something I could never have imagined. Although we knew each other, I never saw him. He was living in Moscow and I was in LA for a while. We had no mutual friends. But when we eventually met again, it sparked quickly. We had enough in common, but it was also new. It was the best of both worlds, which made it magical.
‘Ceawlin is such a character. – though very serious when it comes to the business. We have a goal to do new things and protect the traditions, always pushing the bar, I suppose – breaking the mould as his grandfather did by having a safari park in the first place – while keeping it relevant and fresh. Ceawlin is good at both business and the fun side. We laugh at the same old jokes, and the boys get funnier every day.’
Emma shows me a text from Ceawlin that morning; it simply reads, ‘Lots of luck today’ followed by a litany of heart emojis. I can’t help but feel elated that she has a good guy, firmly fighting her corner, given the somewhat chequered relationship the couple have with her in-laws, to put it mildly. The eccentric Lord Bath, renowned for dressing like a wizard, his questionable art and his harem of ‘wifelets’, is now 86 and did not attend their wedding five years ago. He has been estranged from his son ever since Ceawlin deigned to remove the marquess’s more controversial murals (the images have apparently now been put up elsewhere in the house). Lady Bath, meanwhile, was also absent from proceedings after allegedly making comments to her son that his marriage to mixed-race Emma would disrupt the family bloodline. But Lady Bath denied the allegations, saying she had been on ‘anti-racism marches’ in Paris, her former home, and had ‘absolutely nothing’ against her daughter-in-law, suggesting the claims were a publicity stunt for a TV documentary series about Longleat (All Change at Longleat eventually aired on BBC One in 2015).
Given the natural passage of time and the advent of a second grandchild, I ask if relations with her in-laws, who still live (separately) on the estate, but have no contact with the couple, have in any way thawed. ‘No, nothing’s changed,’ says Emma, smiling yet clearly uncomfortable. ‘But we’re so busy we don’t have much time to reflect upon it. I’m always looking forward and I’m super close to my mum and sister who live nearby. Most mornings we go for a walk or a run. When we go away, they always look after John and Henry.’
Is Emma bored with the comparisons to the new Duchess of Sussex? Again she laughs – glad, I suspect, to be talking about someone else’s family. ‘Like everyone, I watched the royal wedding on TV and was thrilled for Harry and Meghan. I was taken aback by the amount of interest, due to my colour, that exploded when we got engaged. It has developed into a good conversation which has changed the way Britain is adapting. I am glad to be part of that, though I didn’t do it on purpose! I just happened to fall in love. It has been positive and the warmth we have had has been incredible.’
Inevitably, when Ceawlin succeeds his father and becomes the Marquess of Bath, Emma will make history as Britain’s first black marchioness. And it’s a responsibility she takes seriously. ‘I’ve had lots of letters from young girls so I’m aware of the historical importance. One hopes that in the future it won’t be seen as such a big deal. Ultimately, it’s important that everyone is allowed to live the life they want and aren’t defined by anything. I wouldn’t presume to compare myself to Meghan, but she too broke the mould by being the first black woman to marry into the royal family. I want to emphasise how positively this has been welcomed: she has been embraced by the royal family and by Britain.’
As for any tips she may have for our newest duchess? ‘Advice?’ she says, laughing. ‘I don’t think she needs any from me. She seems to have it all perfectly under control!’
Emma’s last orders
Last… meal on earth Lobster mac ’n’ cheese – two mega delicious foods in one.
…night out I was with good girlfriends. If I ever go out, it has to be to Loulou’s, Annabel’s or China Tang in London.
…film Black Panther – I loved it. I watched it at 7am while I was working out. Probably not the best time to see a long film.
…time I cried I got emotional just before the food festival. It was just a touch of last-minute nerves. I’m not really a crier.
…letter A thank-you letter for a dinner we went to in London. I’m very conscientious about writing them.
…act before bed I use Neutrogena face wash and have one final Instagram scroll. I know you’re not supposed to do that before bed. What can I say? I live on the edge!
Legacy In the long history of Longleat, if I were able to make a difference, I would be happy. Johnand Henry are my legacy. Seeing them grow to love this place as much as I do would be wonderful.
For more information about Sky Safari and other events, visit longleat.co.uk