A Norfolk landowner and Conservative politician who led the efforts to raise £10m to safeguard Norwich Cathedral was remembered as a man who “toasted the very experience of living” in a service at Norwich Cathedral.

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Representatives of the Royal Family, the prime minister and more than 700 people paid their respects to the Earl Ferrers, a former High Steward of Norwich Cathedral, who died aged 83. Friends and family attended yesterday’s service for the 13th Earl, Robert Washington Shirley, who sat in the House of Lords for more than 50 years as well as holding ministerial office under five Conservative prime ministers.

Known as Robin, he was described as a great-grandfather who retained his charm, grace, and love of living.

The Rt Rev Graham James, Bishop of Norwich, led the service which was attended by Baroness Rawlings, representing the Queen, Viscount Ullswater, representing the Prince of Wales, Lord Strathclyde, representing the prime minister, and Richard Jewson, the Lord Lieutenant of Norfolk.

Bishop James paid a touching tribute to Earl Ferrers, describing his “charm, courtesy and humour”.

He recalled he moment when the news of the Earl’s death was relayed to the House of Lords.

He said: “I have rarely, if ever, heard such a loud collective sigh from all corners of the House. It was an audible sign of the deep affection and admiration in which Robin was held.”

Bishop James spoke of the Earl’s zest for life, saying: “He was a party animal. He loved champagne. His life fizzed and he toasted the very experience of living.”

He said they were saying goodbye to “the best of chaps”, and added he thought the word ‘gregarious’ might have been invented for him.

The Earl’s son and grandson, the Honourable Andrew Shirley and the Honourable William Shirley, read moving words during the service. The Dean of Norwich, the Very Rev Graham Smith and the former Bishop of Norwich, the Rt Rev Peter Nott, read prayers.

Born on June 8, 1929, Earl Ferrers was educated at Winchester College, before going to study agriculture at Magdalene College, Cambridge, and completing his National Service in the Coldstream Guards.

While an undergraduate in 1951, he married 21-year-old Annabel Carr, daughter of Brigadier and Mrs Carr of Ditchingham Hall. They moved to Norfolk to start farming, which by 2000 saw the estate covering 2,200 acres.

Earl Ferrers held a number of senior political posts, including joint deputy leader of the opposition from 1976 to 1979. He was promoted to minister of state for agriculture by Margaret Thatcher and was twice leader of the Lords, as well as being Home Office minister between 1988 and 1994, then Trade and industry and environment.

He is survived by Annabel and their two sons, Robert and Andrew, and daughter, Angela. Two daughters, Selina and Sallyanne, predeceased him.

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