The Inventory: Simon Thurley

‘They thought they’d made some kind of mistake, my IQ test was so bad,’ says the head of English Heritage

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Simon Thurley, 51, is chief executive of English Heritage and an author and broadcaster. He is the former curator of Historic Royal Palaces and director of the Museum of London. He was appointed CBE in 2011 for services to conservation.

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What was your earliest ambition?

To be an archaeologist, and I think it’s pretty largely fulfilled, though I don’t do much digging these days.

Public school or state school? University or straight into work?

Kimbolton School, Cambridgeshire. I loved the place, it’s a beautiful castle, but I wouldn’t say that my school days were the happiest of my life. Then Bedford College – I did a bit of partying but not much. I enjoyed reading, which sounds a bit tragic. And then the Courtauld Institute of Art. I spent most of my time in the National Archives, reading manuscripts, so not much time in the Courtauld itself – a mistake, perhaps, as it was full of pretty girls.

Who was or still is your mentor?

Michael Green, inspector of ancient monuments when I first met him. He was also an archaeologist, architect and historian who had a great affection for young people and gave me a huge amount of guidance and advice.

How physically fit are you?

I wouldn’t want to be forced to run two miles to catch a train.

Ambition or talent: which matters more to success?

Talent is everything.

Education: Kimbolton School

Have you ever taken an IQ test?

Yes – and it was a catastrophe. They thought they’d made some kind of mistake, it was so bad. I’ve no idea what happened. I’m just not very good at them.

How politically committed are you?

As a public servant I keep all my political views to myself. I engage in issues to do with the environment, planning and heritage and I’m committed to arguing for the best policy and legislation in those areas.

Do you consider your carbon footprint?

I consider my energy bills, which is a different thing.

Do you have more than one home?

Yes. I live in King’s Lynn, Norfolk, but a lot of what I do takes place in London so I need a base there.

Most wanted: State papers from the reign of Henry VIII to the reign of Queen Anne

What would you like to own that you don’t currently possess?

A complete set of the calendared state papers from the reign of Henry VIII to the reign of Queen Anne: hundreds of books that essentially summarise the documents in the National Archives.

What’s your biggest extravagance?

Claret.

In what place are you happiest?

My library in King’s Lynn.

What ambitions do you still have?

I’ve got five-year-old twins at the age of 51 and I’d like to live long enough to see them happily settled.

What drives you on?

A coiled spring inside me. It’s always been there.

What is the greatest achievement of your life so far?

Having made a successful marriage.

What has been your greatest disappointment?

Failing to make a successful marriage the first time around.

If your 20-year-old self could see you now, what would he think?

How fortunate I’d been.

If you lost everything tomorrow, what would you do?

Start again.

Do you believe in assisted suicide?

It depends.

Do you believe in an afterlife?

I’m a Christian.

If you had to rate your satisfaction with your life so far, out of 10, what would you score?

Am I allowed to score 11? I’ve been extremely fortunate to have health, strength and lucky breaks. It would be ungrateful to say anything less.


The Building of England: How the History of England Has Shaped Our Buildings’ by Simon Thurley is published by William Collins, RRP£30

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