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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Rupert Neate on Sark

Battle in the Channel: seigneur of Sark takes on Barclay dynasty

The view west from Sark
The view west from Sark across the island of Brecqhou towards Guernsey. Photograph: Horizon International Images/Alamy

Christopher Beaumont’s ancestors ruled the tiny island of Sark as a feudal state for 443 years until, in 2008, the billionaire Barclay brothers “forced democracy on the island”, as he puts it.

Now Beaumont, 66, is leading a charm offensive to attract new members of the global super-rich to help fund a takeover of the Barclay family’s string of abandoned hotels and other buildings on the island to create a tax- and car-free “biodiverse utopia”, 111 nautical miles from Southampton.

Beaumont’s move to reshape the future of Sark, part of the Channel Islands, comes as the Barclay family, which attempted (and failed) to buy the seigneur title from his father for £2m in 2010, come to terms with losing control of the Telegraph newspapers after they were seized by Lloyds Banking Group, as well as the fallout of years of bitter court battles within the family.

Beaumont, a former army officer and engineer, is the 23rd seigneur (French for “lord”) of Sark. However, while Beaumont continues to hold the title, he has few of the powers that his father Michael (and all the seigneurs since Queen Elizabeth I created the fief of Sark in 1565) had when ruling the island as “the last feudal state in Europe”.

The island still feels like a throwback to the past, thanks in part to its total ban on cars, leaving visitors only the option of hitching a ride on a “tractor bus”, a horse and cart, or hiring a bicycle (electric ones have also been allowed since 2019).

After legal action from the billionaire twin brothers Sir David and Sir Frederick Barclay, who bought the neighbouring island of Brecqhou and upon which they built a mock gothic castle, the island reformed its government in 2008 and ushered in democracy – 176 years after Britain.

No butcher, no baker

While laying out ground for a Queen Elizabeth II memorial clematis garden at his La Seigneurie mansion on the island, Beaumont, who has served as seigneur since his father died aged 88 in 2016, said: “The jury is still out on whether [democracy] is a good thing or not [on the island].”

Christopher Beaumont
Christopher Beaumont: ‘The island desperately needs inward investment.’ Photograph: Rupert Neate/The Guardian

Democracy, though, is here to stay, and Beaumont is hoping the approximately 500 Sarkees (the exact population is unknown, as a 2022 census has yet to report back) will eventually vote through the development plan, which could more than double the island’s population to 1,200.

“The island desperately needs inward investment,” Beaumont said. “If we can purchase enough of the island to make a decent investment case, then we will do what we can to bring all the derelict properties around the island back into habitable condition so that we can grow the population a bit.

“With only 500 people, it is very difficult to run a parliament and to have a restaurant open all year round when we’re not supported by tourism. We don’t have a baker, we don’t have a butcher, we don’t have a fishmonger … All of those things you would expect to see in a small market town, we don’t have.”

The derelict properties targeted by Beaumont’s Sark Property Company include the Petit Champ and Aval du Creux hotels that the Barclay family own but closed down in 2014. In total, the Barclays’ Sark Estate Management (SEM) owns about 23% of Sark’s land, a rugged island of dramatic cliffs about an hour’s ferry ride to the east of Guernsey, according to the speaker of its government.

Beaumont and his business partner Swen Lorenz, a German entrepreneur who moved to Sark in 2004 to take advantage of its zero-level of income tax, are launching their proposed takeover of Sark’s derelict properties as the Barclay family struggles with a series of crises.

  • David Barclay – the elder of the identical twins by 10 minutes – died unexpectedly in 2021 throwing up questions about the line of succession and issues of shared ownership of assets with his brother Frederick, including Brecqou and those on Sark. His body is believed to be buried in a crypt in a private chapel on Brecqou.

  • Frederick has faced a potential jail sentence over claims of contempt of court for not paying his wife part of a £100m divorce settlement.

  • Frederick sued David’s family over alleged “commercial espionage on a vast scale” that included the bugging of thousands of private conversations at their five-star Ritz hotel in London. A settlement was reached.

  • The Telegraph newspapers and Spectator magazine, which the brothers bought for £665m in 2004, are expected to be imminently auctioned after its lender Lloyds called in a near £1bn debt and removed Aidan and Howard Barclay as directors.

Beaumont and Lorenz believe the immense tumult facing the Barclays may make it easier to convince them to release their Sark assets. Beaumont said he understood that David’s youngest son Alistair, from his second marriage to Reyna Oropeza, had inherited both Brecqhou and the family’s assets on Sark.

‘What exactly do we own?’

Over mackerel salad and a warm pint of pale ale outside the island’s tiny parliament building, Paul Armorgie, speaker of the Chief Pleas (the island’s government), said Alistair had recently come over to Sark and asked him: “Exactly what do we own on the island?

“Which I thought was wonderful. I [also] thought: ‘You’re ill-prepared, bless you.’”

Armorgie, who has lived on the island since said 1979, said it was “outrageously disappointing” that so many of the Barclay-owned properties on the island had been allowed to fall derelict.

“When you walk around the island you see all these dilapidated properties and you think: ‘Why on earth have these properties been allowed to fall into such disrepair?’ … Most of those properties will be part of the Barclay estate,” he said as horse and carts trundled by on the island’s dirt roads.

Armorgie said that from his conversations with Alistair, he thought a sale of Barclay properties on Sark may be possible, but it was unlikely that Brecqhou and its castle – complete with battery of 22 cannons and drainpipes monogrammed “DB” and “FB” – would be sold.

A spokesperson for the Barclay family declined to comment.

Many of the island’s residents said they would welcome the sale of the Barclays’ Sark assets, and had strident opinions about the impact the brothers have had on the island’s community. However, of the 14 people to air their grievances to the Guardian this week, none were prepared to go on the record for fear of retaliation. In the past, islanders who have spoken out against the Barclays have found themselves featured disparagingly in the island’s Sark Newsletter, which was edited by the Barclay’s estate manager. The newsletter has since closed down.

The Barclay’s castle on Brecqhou.
The Barclay’s castle on Brecqhou. Photograph: David Bukach/Alamy

However, many Sarkees are also sceptical of Beaumont’s development plan, which he plans to fund with £100m of investment from other super-rich people from across the world. They fear attracting more millionaires may do little to ease the cost of living crisis on the island, which Beaumont said was much higher than in the UK because of the cost of shipping food and other products to the island on its twice-weekly cargo vessel. A single watermelon in the island’s shop is on sale for £7.20.

“There are an awful lot of people out there who are interested in quirky investment cases, and you don’t get much quirkier than us,” Beaumont said. “But it is a solid business case.

“I think an anchor investor would put in £10m-20m, and 10 other investors with £10m.”

Asked who might want to invest in Sark, Beaumont said: “Well you’d need £100m to buy a penthouse in London these days. If somebody can stick their hands in their pocket and buy a £100m penthouse in London then buying an investment opportunity on Sark isn’t so far-fetched.”

Discussing Beaumont’s plan over shots of coconut rum while playing pool at the island’s Mermaid Tavern, local residents were heard grumbling to each other: “We’ve just had over a decade of disaster with one bunch of billionaires. What makes them think it’s not going to be the same with another lot?”

• This article was amended on 19 June 2023. An earlier version said that the last census took place in 2002 instead of 2022.

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