THEY say it’s hard to tell members of the British aristocracy apart and the Duke of Westminster and the Duke of Wellington are cases in point, on paper at least.
Both have close ties with the British Royal Family and both own estates in Spain to match the size of their bank accounts.
But while the 9th Duke of Wellington’s attachment to the Iberian Peninsula is rooted in the past, dating back to his ancestor’s heroic exploits in Spain’s 19th century War of Independence, the 7th Duke of Westminster’s link with the country is a 21st century affair and looks set to become a conquest of a different sort.
This seems fitting, given the generation divide – the Duke of Wellington, otherwise known as Arthur Charles Valerian Wellesley – is well into his 74th year while the Duke of Westminster (aka 16th Baron of Eaton, aka Hugh Grosvenor) has age on his side, having celebrated his 29th birthday at the end of January.
The world’s richest man under 30 with a fortune of £10.1 billion, Tatler magazine voted him one of its most eligible bachelors.
However he is rarely seen without his childhood sweetheart Harriet Tomlinson whose family owns a £500,000 home close to the Grosvenors’ 4,000-hectare country pile, Eaton Hall in Cheshire.
One Duke has medals, the other money. The Duke of Wellington may have a more modest fortune but it would be hard to compete with the feats of his ancestor.
The original Duke of Wellington was made Viscount of Talavera by the UK and Duke of Ciudad Rodrigo by the Cadiz Parliament for his part in liberating Spain from the French, with La Torre estate in Granada thrown in.
La Torre sprawls over almost 1,000 hectares of land near the Andalucian town of Illora. Said to be the secret love nest of Prince Charles and Camilla Parker-Bowles when Princess Diana was still alive, it boasts a 19th century palace and enough game to satisfy Davy Crockett.
But it is dwarfed by the size of La Garganta, the Duke of Westminster’s fiefdom of almost 15,000 hectares.
Lying between Cordoba and Ciudad Real, it was bought by the Grosvenor Estate in 2001 for a reported €90 million, laying the foundations for the expansion of the family’s real estate portfolio in Spain.
With its arid landscape reminiscent of the African veld, La Garganta may be a far cry from the upmarket sophistication of Grosvenor Square in London which the family also owns, along with another 121 hectares of land in Mayfair and Belgravia; but this relative backwater has been a regular retreat for Prince Charles’ sons, Prince Harry and Prince William.
The royal connection runs deep. Hugh Grosvenor is godfather to Prince William’s firstborn (Prince George of Cambridge) while his late father was godfather to heir apparent Prince William himself.
La Garganta is as much a paradise for hunters as La Torre, only on a larger scale, but the estates probably break even when it comes to the roster of European nobility passing through their gates.
La Torre was the setting for the wedding of the Duke of Wellington’s daughter, Lady Charlotte Wellesley, to Colombian aristocrat Alejandro Santo Domingo in 2016.
The singer James Blunt – married to the 8th Duke of Wellington’s granddaughter Sofia Wellesley – and Cara Delavigne’s sister Poppy were among the 200 guests.
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Before he became the 1st Duke of Wellington, General Wellesley as he was then known was a hero in these parts.
After fighting a handful of battles against the French in Portugal, he moved into Spain to defeat Napoleon’s forces at the Battle of Talavera in July 1809. The British gave him the title of Viscount Wellington of Talavera on the back of it and the Spanish reciprocated, making him Duke of Ciudad Rodrigo and Generalissimo of the Spanish armies. As they could not afford to pay him for this role, they gave him La Torre estate as a mark of their appreciation, though according to the chairman of Madrid’s Wellington Society, Stephen Drake Jones, he never spent any time there. In 1812, the dashing duke liberated Madrid, which brought him the title Earl of Wellington before going on to win the Battle of Vitoria in 2013, finally chasing the French over the Pyrenees.
He was made Duke of Wellington in 1814, the year before he fought Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo.
Both fincas have been graced by visits from Princess Caroline of Monaco and Prince Ernst of Hanover and, while La Torre is said to have provided the backdrop to the Charles and Camilla affair, La Garganta also saw its fair share of illicit romantic action, including the first meeting between Spain’s former King Juan Carlos and his mistress, German aristocrat Corinna zu Sayn-Wittgenstein.
She was the woman who triggered the monarch’s fall from grace back in 2011 when it transpired the pair were hunting elephants in Botswana when Spain was still reeling from the economic crisis.
Sun-kissed playgrounds for Europe’s blue-bloods they may be, but when it comes to their respective neighbouring communitie, these fincas have also proved highly controversial.
A 40-minute drive north west of Granada, La Torre has been dubbed ‘the Gibraltar of Granada’ by locals, though it is private property and very much subject to Spanish law.
In fact historian and the Chairman of Madrid’s Wellington Society, Stephen Drake Jones, insists that such resentment would be unjustified.
“The last Duke [who died in 2014] went there a lot because he loved to hunt. He was very humble when he was there and would never have treated anyone as though he were superior.
“The family is very appreciative of the estate and employs a lot of the local people.”
In a show of appreciation, the current Duke – whose eldest son Arthur Gerald Wellesley, Earl of Mornington, will eventually inherit the title – donated a four-figure sum around the time of his daughter’s wedding to restore the tower of the local Church of the Incarnation and upgrade a disintegrating sculpture of Christ.
Few would contest the controversy that has surrounded La Garganta, however.
Located in the Valle del Alcudia natural park and the Sierra de Madrona, it is the last of Spain’s macro fincas and is equipped with a heliport, a church, a school, a clinic and a number of palatial residences, not to mention a staff of 50 and herds of deer as well as numerous examples of wild boar and partridge.
But it is the high fence surrounding the finca and its small army of guards who have sometimes blocked the public route running through the property that has sparked resentment in the nearby towns of La Conquista and Minas de Horcajo and enraged ecologists.
Now Minas de Horcajo is all but bereft of residents and the furore has died down.
But Hugh Grosvenor, known for his aversion to publicity, has made sure that his estate is one of the most secretive and exclusive retreats in Europe – and a perfect springboard for territorial gains.
Already the owner of more land in Britain than Elizabeth II – 0.22% compared to the Queen’s meagre 0.03% – recent investments suggest he is set to become a major player in the Spanish real estate market.
In 2017, the family group sunk €200 million into four property projects in Madrid.
The most lavish is at number 53 Jorge Juan street in the upmarket Salamanca area and is being refurbished by the Ortiz León studio of architects, complete with an on-site Mediterranean garden.
On the other side of the city’s main drag, in the Chamberí district, 12 apartments are being designed at 26 Modesto Lafuente while a 100-year-old building on General Arrando street is being revamped and a new building put up behind the traditional façade on García Paredes 4, a stone’s throw from the British Council.
According to the Spanish financial news site, Cinco Días, the 342-year-old family enterprise has plans to sink another €100 million into the city over the next 18 months.
“The prices in London and Paris have doubled since the crisis in 2008,” Grosvenor Estate’s European Managing Director, James Raynor, told Cinco Días last year.
“In Madrid, they still haven’t reached pre-crisis levels and that’s why we have redoubled our investment in the Spanish market.”
Before branding him another property shark, it is interesting to note that Hugh has made a number of headlines in recent years for the amount of taxes he pays into government coffers.
Britain’s seventh biggest taxpayer, he footed an €82 million bill on home turf and another equally eye-watering sum abroad, where the family firm owns 1,500 properties.
These are reportedly worth €8 billion and rake in an income of up to €15 billion – figures that make the €6 million spent on his 21st birthday bash seem entirely reasonable.
So whatever the Duke of Westminster’s reception south of Ciudad Real, the Spanish treasury will be welcoming him with open arms … though when it comes to being accepted into Spanish high society, the Duke of Wellington wins hands down.
He is, after all, ‘the most Spanish of the British nobility’, as the Spanish media would have it.