Lady Valerie Guinness: Fund-raiser also had a great love of vintage cars
11:07 29 March 2014
A determined fund-raiser for charities including Norfolk’s churches and the Tapping House Hospice, Lady Guinness, has died suddenly aged 77.
Norfolk to her core and also passionate about vintage and veteran cars, for years she ran her Cracked Antiques stall, at Fakenham’s weekly market, selling mainly china. At the latest weekly market, her absence was marked by fellow stallholders, who had even decorated her regular pitch.
When she started fund-raising for Save the Children in the late 1970s, she also ran countless sales from her London home at Chelsea town hall. Once, she even bought a dress from one of their jumble sales for £20, which she wore to a Downing Street reception hosted by prime minister John Major.
Born at Newbury, Valerie Susan North was the eldest of four children and grew up in Norfolk, where members of the family had been prominent landowners since the estate had been acquired in 1690.
Under her father’s tuition, she became a skilled mechanic and even built a half-scale car for her younger brother, Tom. But although it was a runner, she never finished the task. Her passion for veteran cars was fuelled by going on her first London to Brighton run in 1953 as a 16-year-old passenger in her father’s 1903 De Dion.
A succession of cars, often virtual wrecks, were restored, starting with a 1928 Austin 7, which cost £7 and was later raced at Silverstone by her brother. Many others followed over the years.
Always independent and fiercely determined, when she had saved for a round-the-world air ticket, aged 24, she left the comforts of home in 1961 to travel. After America, she went to Japan, Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand. She also did what became known as the “hippy trail” in reverse, visiting India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq before returning home via Egypt, Lebanon and Syria.
In 1967, she married John Guinness, who was then rising rapidly up the ladder of the diplomatic service. When in Ottowa, her enthusiasm for all things mechanical was later to result in a mild rebuke when the High Commissioner wrote to the Foreign Office about her appearance in a Canadian magazine in 1970. In the letter to King Charles Street, he wrote, somewhat pompously, that: “His Excellency was disturbed by the spectacle of your wife’s boots protruding from an extremely old vehicle.” It was viewed as a failure to uphold the dignity of the Diplomatic Service.
But her undoubted skill as a motor mechanic was invaluable when she helped her son Rupert move furniture from northern Italy. When their van broke down in a long tunnel under the Alps, she diagnosed the problem – crouched under the dashboard in the dark, stripped the wires with her teeth and made the new connections.
After returning to England, they lived in Norfolk, where she started breeding pedigree sheep, with some success. Her flocks of Lincoln Longwools and Jacobs also produced prize-winners at the Royal Norfolk Show and sometimes she even spent the night with the animals in their pen at the showground.
She was also bringing up her young family, but, tragically, they lost their six-year-old son, Peter, following a car accident near King’s Lynn in 1978.
While living in London, she had run a kindergarten for some 17 years, looking after the children of clients including Mick Jagger and Jerry Hall. Another client, Anthony Armstrong-Jones, Lord Snowdon, even became the unofficial school photographer.
Her “china” venture, which became a long-standing feature of Fakenham’s market, had evolved when an uncle wanted help. She took on the sales role during the school holidays and with her knowledge of antiques, the business thrived.
With Sir John, who was knighted in 1999, she moved to East Barsham Manor, near Walsingham, one of the finest Tudor houses in Norfolk, where she restored the garden. Given the historical importance of the house, which dates from 1520, study parties were frequently welcomed and were shown around. On another memorable occasion, she opened the garden in aid of the Kosovo refugees and raised thousands. Her successful fund-raising included enthusiastic backing for the Norfolk Churches Trust’s Secret Houses and Tapping House Hospice.
She is survived by her husband, John, and leaves a daughter, Lucy and son, Rupert, and five grandchildren.
A memorial service will be held at St Mary and All Saints, Little Walsingham, on Friday, April 11, at 2pm. Michael Pollitt