Mukesh Ambani angers an English shire with his overhaul of country estate

When Mukesh Ambani, Asia’s richest man, marked India’s independence day last month, he chose a UK country estate for his celebrations.

Family members posed and waved India’s flag at Stoke Park, an ancient 300-acre estate that featured in the James Bond film Goldfinger and was, until Ambani’s arrival, home to a renowned golf and country club.

But behind the smiles, tensions have bubbled. Ambani’s Reliance Industries acquired the Buckinghamshire estate’s lease in 2021 for £57mn. Shortly after, Stoke Park expelled its affluent club members and closed for renovations.

The abrupt shutdown presaged a controversial new chapter in Stoke Park’s 1,000-year history. Its new owners have clashed with the local council over unauthorised changes to the estate and whether the Ambanis are respecting leasehold terms that state it must be a commercial property, not a private residence.

The events are a glimpse into the rarefied life of one of the richest men on the planet — whose $200bn oil, telecoms and retail conglomerate is India’s biggest public company by market value — and the frictions that arise when private interests become stewards of historic public assets.

Mukesh Ambani with his wife Nita in Mumbai © Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg

With the estate still closed two years on, locals fear losing a beloved community asset. Stoke Park’s Georgian mansion had long been used as a hotel, clubhouse and wedding venue.

A comprehensive planning application by Reliance-owned Stoke Park for the renovation works is yet to be filed, a source of lingering uncertainty over the site.

Peter Strachan, cabinet member for planning at Buckinghamshire council, the owner of the estate’s freehold, said the local authority would assess any planning applications filed by Stoke Park in the usual way.

Stoke Park said the estate will reopen and has denied the Ambanis use its mansion as a residence. The renovation plans include adding “7-star” hotel villas, a new clubhouse, and revamping the golf course to attract the sport’s elite.

“Redevelopment work has necessitated temporary restrictions on access to the hotel facilities and golf course and the vision is to reopen these facilities following the completion of redevelopment,” said Stoke Park.

It declined to comment on any specific planning issues, but said it was complying with the council’s “guidance and the applicable rules and regulations”.

Stoke Park added the renovation process required “extensive consultation”, and the Covid-19 pandemic had contributed to delays.

Reliance declined to comment.

Video description

A video released by Reliance shows the Ambani family celebrating Indian independence day at Stoke Park

Reliance issued a video in August showing the Ambani family celebrating Indian independence day at Stoke Park © Facebook

A video released by Reliance shows the Ambani family celebrating Indian independence day at Stoke Park

But the members club founded in 1908 has gone for good. When golf returns to Stoke Park, players will be charged by the visit.

“It’s sickening that they closed it, absolutely sickening,” said Hany Abbas, Stoke Park’s “player of the year” in 2016. He had little good to say about Mukesh Ambani’s arrival at Stoke Park. “I hope he has nothing but bad luck with it.”

Previous owners the King family had struggled to sell Stoke Park for years. As well as the lease restrictions, the mansion is also Grade 1 listed — a designation that strictly limits alterations.

Before the April 2021 sale to Reliance, another prospective buyer abandoned a bid because it was too difficult to turn the property into a private residence, according to a real estate agent with knowledge of the matter. The golf club had about 850 members, but UK accounts show Stoke Park struggled with debts and was hit hard by the pandemic.

When Reliance announced the deal it signalled continuity and promised new investment into the estate. A person close to the company said: “It will continue to be a members’ club.” Soon after, the clubhouse in the mansion was closed, followed by the broader shutdown of the estate in October 2021 for “essential restoration” works. Stoke Park predicted it could reopen in the summer of 2023.

Though Stoke Park was closed to the public, it remained open to the Ambanis. In 2022, the estate hosted a lavish Ambani family wedding. On Instagram, people with links to the Ambanis have posted photos of visits to Stoke Park. One visitor since the closure said the family seemed to spend a lot of time there.

Sean Connery’s James Bond plays golf against Auric Goldfinger at Stoke Park, in the 1964 film © United Artists

Signs of continued activity are apparent too in Stoke Park’s UK accounts. Revenues rose 321 per cent in 2021 to £32mn because of sales to Reliance.

Thomas Hogg, a Conservative councillor in the area, said he was generally supportive of Reliance’s plans to renovate and invest in the estate. But he had concerns about some aspects of the Ambanis’ ownership to date.

Hogg said Ambani family members started living at the mansion after the acquisition. They use the estate as “hotel guests”, he added.

Though the lease prohibits residential use of the mansion, hotel use is permitted. “It follows the letter of the lease but maybe not the spirit,” said Hogg.

In December 2022, Stoke Park’s law firm, Withers, told the council in a letter that “representatives” of Reliance had “together with their families, from time to time” occupied the property to develop the renovation plans. This was “consistent with the permitted hotel use”, added the letter. “There has been no private residential occupation.”

The closure of the club was the most dramatic change that came with the Reliance acquisition. But the grounds of the estate — which are Grade II listed for their beauty — also began to change.

A wrought-iron gate with gold gilded finials was erected close to the mansion. New tarmac buggy paths appeared connecting the estate to two neighbouring houses Reliance bought in 2022 for £8.3mn. Other additions included a manege for horses, an aviary with parrots, and a peacock enclosure.

Stoke Park said the “accommodation of domestic animals for hotel guests to enjoy” was “not unusual in a hospitality country estate”.

In one of the adjoining properties, penguins have been housed, according to Hogg. Planning documents for the property describe outbuildings for “reptiles, marsupials, [and] flightless birds”. One of Mukesh Ambani’s sons, Anant, is known as the driving force behind a zoo Reliance is building in India.

Hogg said there had been exasperation at the council at Stoke Park altering the grounds before seeking planning permission. The council has ordered much of the changes to be undone. The buggy paths connecting the mansion to the residential properties particularly raised eyebrows. “How is that part of the business strategy?” Hogg asked.

The animals have bemused nearby residents. A local newspaper recently reported a man was seen driving a golf buggy around Stoke Park with a “large python” draped around his shoulders.

Novak Djokovic opens The Boodles at Stoke Park Country in 2019 © Maureen McLean/Alamy

Former members of Stoke Park talk about the old club in the language of a late beloved relative.

“Some of our closest friendships were made there,” said Bryan Anderson, a past captain of the Stoke Park golf club. In 2021, he penned a soliloquy in which he likened the closure of the estate to a watering hole drying up.

Hogg hopes Reliance’s ownership will yet bring significant benefits. He noted Stoke Park hosted the Boodles tennis tournament this year as it had before the pandemic, and has abided by a requirement for public mansion tours. He said Stoke Park had pledged discounted golfing rates for locals.

But two years on, Stoke Park’s full reopening still seems distant. “Until there is some concrete action from their side, there’s always going to be a sense of doubt about what they are really planning for the property,” said Hogg.

Additional reporting by Anjli Raval and Max Harlow

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