July 15, 1992|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,London Bureau

LONDON -- The Lions of Longleat have passed to the Loins of Longleat, for better or worse.

Obviously an explanation is in order.

The Lions of Longleat still roam across Europe's first safari park, set up in 1966 by the Sixth Marquess of Bath on his 9,500-acre estate in Wiltshire.

These beasts are fed three sheep's heads a day. It keeps them content and uninterested in trying to eat the marquess' neighbors.

Or those who were his neighbors, that is. The marquess died a fortnight ago at age 87. Some years back, to avoid the death duties that have decimated so many British fortunes in this century, he bequeathed his estate, the grounds and Longleat House to his son Lord Weymouth.

But the Marquess remained in charge up until his death, as he disapproved of his son.

Lord Weymouth, the son and now the Seventh Marquess of Bath, is 60. He is unconventional, but not in the way his father was. Weymouth's is more a conventional bohemianism. The newspapers describe him as an aging hippie, an artist with a taste for erotic murals, an apostle of polygamy. He is married to a Hungarian actress who takes her clothes off in films. He keeps "wifelets."

Britain's tabloid newspapers, for all these reasons, refer to him as the Loins of Longleat. He is now lord of the lions -- and the baboons, the giraffes, the white tigers, hippos, rhinos and several dozen other species which comprise the Longleat menagerie.

Most obituary writers described the Sixth Marquess as an eccentric. One said he was "moronic," but praised him anyway.

Whether there are more eccentric people in Britain than in other countries is hard to know. But here they are celebrated, so much so that a lot of people strain to achieve the appearance of eccentricity in order to invite attention.

The Guinness Book of Records may be to blame for this. It has probably inspired more aberrational behavior than anyone could calculate, behavior such as that of the residents of the hamlet of Aughton, near Lancaster, who each July cook the largest plum pudding in the world with the aim of achieving a kind of cheap immortality.

They have hired a public relations firm to tell the world about it.

True eccentricity -- the kind the Sixth Marquess had -- implies an indifference to the opinions of others and suggests a quality of dotty creativity, the ability to find out-of-the ordinary solutions to difficult problems, apparently nonsensical strategies that nevertheless do the job.

Bath, as the Sixth Marquess was known to his intimates, was the real thing. His name was Henry Frederick Thynne. When he came into possession of Longleat in 1946 on the death of his father, Marquess No. 5, he also faced a tax bill of 700,000 pounds, about $24 million in today's dollars.

In England the only thing more certain than death is death duties. The tax agents of this island have the confiscatory instincts of veterans of the Golden Horde.

The only way to keep them at bay is to pay them; the only way to beat them is to die oneself. Bath, a tall, stick of a man with a broken nose and wild, flying hair, chose the first option. He sold off part of the estate.

Then he fixed the old house up, put paddle boats in the ponds, and charged the public about 25 cents a head to walk through a number of its 100 rooms (only 8 bathrooms) and see how the better off lived.

Later he rented the house to studios to make movies, and even induced rich but pretentious people (often Americans) to come and stay the weekend, pay him lots of money and persuade themselves they were his guests.

Bath was the first aristocrat to do all this. He precipitated a scandal; he was denounced for compromising the dignity of one of the country's finest Tudor houses (Queen Elizabeth I is said to have slept in one of its 60 bedrooms), and degrading the aristocracy.

But a million people passed through the sumptuous halls and precincts of Longleat House in the first eight years. Before long many of the other peers of the realm saw the sense in a little such degradation. Today there are about 600 stately homes throughout Britain you can pay to visit. About 50 million people a year do so.

For Bath it all went well for a while. But then attendance began to decline. Competition among other aristocrats turned fierce. Also, perhaps, people lost their taste for antiques, creaky floors, dark, over-varnished paintings and such. They wanted something more stimulating.

With the tax man rubbing his hands never far from the grounds of Longleat, Bath realized something sensational was needed. Enter Jimmy Chipperfield, the scion of a circus family. Together the two men introduced a dozen lions to Longleat and scared the neighbors half to death.

He mollified his neighbors by building high fences, hiring guards, and keeping the animals well fed. Other animals followed, and the customers.

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