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  • Writer's pictureThomas Sheils

Norfolk's 15 largest landowners revealed

Updated: Nov 23, 2021

Who are Norfolk's largest landowners? This ancient county's biggest property holders include the Queen, well-heeled aristocrats, ancient gentry, government departments, renowned conservation institutions, Middle Eastern royals and more. Counting down from the largest Norfolk landowner, Who Owns Norfolk has, for the first time since the 19th century, publicly revealed the people and organisations that really own the county.

1. Crown Estate (33,700 acres)

Type: Government

The Crown Estate is Norfolk's biggest landowner, owning much of the beaches and foreshore surrounding the county, alongside swathes of farmland surrounding Kings Lynn and Breydon Water in the Broads. Historically the property of the British monarch, it is now a quasi-government run entity, technically owned by the Royal Family, but de facto run by the government with 75% of profits going to the British Treasury and 25% going to the royals.

2. The Forestry Commission (29,500 acres)

Type: Government

Norfolk's 2nd largest landowner is the Forestry Commission, a non-ministerial government department responsible for the management of publicly owned forests. The vast majority of this body's estates are held around Thetford Forest, the largest lowland pine forest in Britain, though it also owns smaller forests throughout Norfolk.

3. Lord Thomas Coke, 8th Earl of Leicester, of Holkham Estate (25,000 acres)

Type: Private Landowner (Aristocracy)

The largest private landowner in Norfolk is Thomas Coke, the 8th Earl of Leicester. His family have owned Holkham Estate since the early 1600s. The origins of the family's success dates to Sir Edward Coke, a famous 16th Century lawyer and MP, who is considered the greatest jurist of the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras.

Purportedly, Edward Coke made a fortune from purchasing estates with clouded titles at a discount, whereupon, through his knowledge of the intricacies of property law, he would clear the titles on the acquired properties to his favour. About the year 1615, his amassed property acquisitions attracted the attention of the government. James I claimed that Coke "had already as much land as it was proper a subject should possess." The story goes that Coke requested the King's permission to just "add one acre more" to his holdings, and upon approval proceeded to purchase the fine estate of Castle Acre Priory in Norfolk, one of the most expensive "acres" in the land.

Holkham Estate includes a vast swathe of prime North Norfolk agricultural and real estate land, much of Wells-next-the-sea and a healthy 2,000 acres surrounding Castle Acre. With executive power over a significant portion of Norfolk and a seat in the House of Lords, the present Lord Coke remains a prestigious aristocrat, Norfolk's preeminent landowner and is arguably one of the county's most powerful men. There may be a Duke of Norfolk, but with their title now detached from landholdings in the county, Thomas Coke is the true Lord of Norfolk.

Holkham Hall, home of Lord Coke

4. The Ministry of Defence (24,000 acres)

Type: Government

Britain's Ministry of Defence owns a series of significant military sites across Norfolk, including training grounds, barracks and airfields. The majority of the MoD's Norfolk land is held at the Stanford Training Area, near Thetford.

5. The Queen, via Sandringham Estate (20,000 acres)

Type: Private Landowner (Aristocracy)

Sitting at the peak of Britain's still extant aristocracy sits the Royal Family. The 20,000 acre Sandringham Estate is one of the Queen's private estates, alongside the vast 60,000 Balmoral Estate. The estate and approximately 8,000 acres were purchased by King Edward VII in 1862, and the royals have been hoovering up local landholdings ever since, making them Norfolk's 2nd largest private landowner in 2021 (and 5th largest when you include government bodies).

6. Norfolk County Council (16,200 acres)

Type: Government

Norfolk County Council is a significant landowner in Norfolk - via its County Farms Estate its owns fields dotted around the county, and significant estates west of Downham Market and surrounding Burlingham Green. County farm estates are let to farmers at below-market rates, providing new farmers with an affordable first rung on the ladder in an era of prohibitively high agricultural rent prices.

7. The National Trust (15,900 acres)

Type: Conservation Charity

The National Trust, Britain's preeminent heritage charity, is Norfolk's 7th largest landowner. The Trust owns some of the most iconic aspects of Norfolk's natural and cultural heritage, including Scolt Head Island, the saltmarshes at Blakeney and the Blickling Hall Estate (bequeathed to the Trust in 1940 by its last private owner, Philip Henry Kerr, 11th Marquess of Lothian).

8. Count Padulli di Vighignolo (12,200 acres)

Type: Private Landowner (Modern Buyer: International Plutocrat)

The enigmatic Count Padulli is a more modern addition to Norfolk's landowning set; he has been buying up country houses and estates in the county since the early 1990s, starting with 16th century moated manor at Barton Bendish, and its associated farmland. He now owns several estates around the county, including the sizeable Saxlingham and Gunthorpe Estate near Holt, smaller farms in North Norfolk and Dunham Lodge near Dereham, a relatively modest but undeniably tasteful country house.

Beyond Norfolk, Count Padulli has also bought up whole villages in Yorkshire, and a large estate in Ireland. He is thought to be one of Britain's richest men and largest landowners. The origins of Padulli's wealth lie in finance; according to the Times he chose finance as a career, and obtained a doctorate in economics. He worked for Chase Manhattan Bank and Paribas, before moving to the UK in 1978 and setting up his own investment firm in London. He co-founded the Camomille Associates hedge fund, which reportedly once had assets of £2bn.

He has since become a property magnate, buying up the freehold titles to leasehold properties around the country and making a steady income by charging the owners ground rents, on top of buying up old Norfolk estates.

Count Padulli has catapulted himself to the top of Norfolk's landed elite; in 2021 he was the county's third largest private landowner and now owns more acres than the vast majority of Norfolk's historic landed gentry and aristocracy.

9. The Birkbeck Family of West Acre Estate (8,800 acres)

Type: Private Landowner (Historic Bourgeoisie - Bankers)

Norfolk's fourth largest private landowner is the Birkbeck family of West Acre Estate, near Swaffham in West Norfolk. Purchased by the family over 100 years ago in 1898, the Birkbecks made their money as agricultural bankers in the 19th century, forming a formidable banking partnership with the Gurney family of Norwich. Eventually, their East Anglian banking partnership was one of the main regional banks that became part of Barclays. The Birkbecks have managed to weather much of the decline witnessed by other major Norfolk estates since the gentry's heyday in the late 19th century.

West Acre Estate used to be centred on the exquisite manor High House, though this was sold to Anthony Gormley (the famous sculptor) in 2010.

West Acre's High House, replete with Anthony Gormley statues

In 2019, the estate launched Norfolk's largest rewilding project, one of the county's most exciting conservation initiatives.

10. The Norfolk Wildlife Trust (8,300 acres)

Type: Charity (Conservation Charity)

The Norfolk Wildlife Trust (NWT) is one of 46 wildlife trusts covering Great Britain, Northern Ireland, Isle of Man and Alderney. Founded in 1926, it is the oldest of all the trusts. Since its foundation, the trust has been busy buying up land for the conservation and protection of nature and in 2021 it was Norfolk's 10th biggest overall landowner and 2nd biggest charitable owner.

11. Tan Sri Arumugam (Malaysian Businessman), via the South Pickenham Estate (7,500 acres)

Type: Private Landowner (Modern Buyer: International Plutocrat)

Norfolk's fifth largest private landowner is another international plutocrat. In the mid-1990s, South Pickenham Hall and its large 7,500 acre estate (surrounding Swaffham) was bought by Tan Sri Arumugam, apparently a self-made Malaysian tycoon who has been linked to one of the UK's biggest aid scandals (the Pergau Dam affair). The estate has passed hands through a large number of owners during its history, including the slave owning Applewhaite family.

12. The Dubai Royal Family, via the Shadwell Estate (6,200 acres)

Type: Private Landowner (Modern Buyer: International Plutocrat)

Dubai's Royal Family, the Al Maktoums, flush with riches from their emirate's vast oil reserves, purchased Shadwell Estate in 1984. This makes them them county's sixth largest private landowner. It now forms part of Shadwell Racing, their internationally-renowned thoroughbred horse racing operations. The estate includes the extravagantly gothic Victorian country house - Shadwell Court.

13. George Meakin le Strange, via the le Strange Estate of Hunstanton (6,170 acres)

Type: Private Landowner (Medieval Gentry, Aristocratic links)

The le Strange family, of Hunstanton on the North Norfolk coast, boast the oldest pedigree of any landowning family in Norfolk. Historical records indicate their Breton ancestors joined William the Conqueror's invasion of England in 1066 and were granted lands at Hunstanton as a reward. Remarkably, the estate has stayed in their family through to the modern day, meaning they have owned this prime rural asset for almost 1,000 years, and they remain one of Norfolk's largest private landowners.

Through a historical anomaly the le Stranges own much of the beach and seabed surrounding Hunstanton, land that would traditionally be owned by the Crown Estate, and even a stretch of Hunstanton's world famous cliffs.

14. Charlie Temple-Richards, via the Sennowe Park Estate (5,680 acres)

Type: Private Landowner (Victorian Bourgeoisie - Travel Agent)

Charlie Temple-Richards is Norfolk's eighth biggest private landowner, with 5,680 acres centred around the grand Sennowe Park country house near Fakenham. The estate was bought by his great-grandfather, Thomas Albert Cook, in 1898. This Thomas Cook is in turn a grandson of the Thomas Cook who founded the wildly successful and eponymous travel agency in 1841.

15. Sir Rupert Mann, 3rd Baronet, via Thelveton Hall Estate (5,300 acres)

Type: Private Landowner (Modern Baronet; Victorian Bourgeoisie - Brewers)

The Mann family bought the impressive Thelveton Hall in 1863 with the proceeds of their profitable brewing company Mann, Crossman & Paulin Ltd, which was based in London's then industrial East End. Edward Mann was granted a baronetcy in 1905 for reasons that are unclear, presumably as he was very rich. His grandson, Sir Rupert Mann (the 3rd baronet) still owns Thelveton to this day; he was recently fined for ploughing over a protected Roman monument on his land. Sir Rupert is Norfolk's ninth largest private landowner, and the 15th biggest overall.

Further information on Norfolk's largest landowners can be found in this publicly available Google Sheets, and can be seen on the map below:

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