From fashion to feathers for Norfolk’s Deb

Pensthorpe's Deb Jordan talks to Emma Harrowing about a fashion career that led her back to her country roots.

A group of flamingos create an elegant show of pink feathers as they pose rather gracefully on one leg in front of an audience of small, stout ruddy ducks with their rust coloured bodies, blue beaks and stylish black caps.

Every season is a season of colour for Deb Jordan who owns Pensthorpe Nature Reserve, near Fakenham, with her husband Bill.

Waking up to a dawn chorus sung by an array of rare birds and being able to stroll round 600 acres of captivating gardens and natural habitat whenever the mood takes them is a rural idyll Deb can call her own.

The Jordan family is renowned for its cereal empire, a business set up by Bill and his brother David in 1972 when Deb was thinking about embarking on a career involving feathers of a different kind.

'I became a model when I was 16 years old and was signed by London model agency Gavin Robinson on Bond Street in London,' says 54-year-old Deb. 'It was a seedy and cut-throat business, especially for a young girl who had no experience of life outside Norfolk.'

The big city opened Deb's eyes to the life of a fashion model. It was a far cry from her childhood spent on her family's farm at Ringstead, near Hunstanton.

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Deb says: 'Some photographers would expect you to do unsavoury things in return for a few prints which we needed for our portfolios in order to get more work. I quickly realised that the glamorous modelling world was just a facade.'

The younger Deb had just as much business savvy as she has now. Aware that she needed a back-up plan in case her dream of becoming a fashion model failed to come true, Deb enrolled on a secretarial course.

'Although my modelling career was short-lived I did get to travel to some amazing places and meet some inspiring people,' says Deb. 'I modelled for an Elizabeth Arden show in Spain and I found I enjoyed travelling and the fashion industry in general.'

Deb's passion for fashion and travel came together when she used her secretarial qualifications to get a job as a PA to the director at an international fashion house.

'I was incredibly lucky to get the job. The interview process involved completing a shorthand test – skills I did not have, so I went to the interview with my arm bandaged up so that I didn't have to do the test. It worked and I got the job!'

Deb eventually went into fashion wholesale, selling high-end fashion to UK boutiques. Her work also involved working on fashion shows including a campaign for Vogue magazine.

'It was a dream come true,' says Deb. 'I worked on the choreography of shows and worked with designers, photographers, hair and make-up artists all over the world. I got to meet a lot of interesting people such as Princess Diana at a show at the London Palladium.'

It was while Deb was jetting off to various stylish venues across the world that she first met Bill.

'After Bill and I got married I carried on working in the fashion industry for two or three more years,' says Deb. 'Then the long hours, lack of sleep and hectic schedules began to take their toll. I would often only have time to plan the choreography of a show while on the plane. We would have one week to organise the show and book models. Bill and I were thinking about starting a family and I had reached a crossroads in my career.'

Deb decided to take the road that returned to Norfolk. After a visit to Pensthorpe in the early 2000s the Jordans noticed that the nature reserve was up for sale. Months later after taking their son and daughter (now 16 and 18 years old) to see the park, Pensthorpe was theirs.

Deb says: 'Buying Pensthorpe was an unusual step for us. Neither of us had any knowledge about birds and Bill was looking for a mill as part of the cereal business. But Pensthorpe is a unique place that kind of grips you. With Bill's farming and conservation experience and my ambition to get my teeth into a new project we saw it as the perfect place to raise a family and to make a difference.'

And so the Jordans moved from Bedfordshire to temporarily set up home at Hunstanton before signing the papers to acquire Pensthorpe in December 2002.

'It was a huge learning curve,' she says. 'I had plans to look after the gift shop and coffee shop, while Bill would look after the conservation and we had a wildfowl expert coming from Austrailia to look after the birds. However, it turned out that he was not part of the deal and so I became in charge of the birds and had to give the 4pm talk – a challenge as some of them I had never heard of! So I crammed to learn everything there is to know about birds. I used to sleep with a book about birds under my pillow.'

In the nine years the Jordans have run Pensthorpe the nature reserve has had a dramatic makeover. Former gravel pits have made way for 90 acres of water and design-led gardens and new additions to the bird family include the introduction of the crane into the UK.

As for Deb she still does the bird talk at 4pm, but these days she is more feather than fashion-savvy.

'Pensthorpe has taken me a long way from the fashion business, but here there is always something new to learn. I've hung up my heels and put on my wellies. I've gone from watching beautiful fashion come down the catwalk to seeing the marvellous and natural spectacle of a barn owl fly past the window.

'I consider myself very lucky to have such a wonderful life.'