Thirst for life: Algy Cluff was in the Grenadier Guards, once owned The Spectator and is now planting a vineyard at his home
Algy Cluff is celebrating. His oil and gas firm, Cluff Natural Resources, hit the jackpot in the North Sea last week when it won exploration licences for an area the size of Bedfordshire.
Cluff claims the new acreage will triple the potential value of the firm – in which he holds an 8 per cent stake – as well as defying sceptics who believe the North Sea is a dwindling asset. Initial estimates suggest Cluff Natural Resources, currently valued at £14 million, could be sitting on up to £3 billion of oil and gas.
When the news was announced last Wednesday, Cluff was at lunch with a judge to talk about one of the charities he supports, but couldn’t resist toasting the North Sea’s ‘second coming’.
After all, the 78-year-old commodities veteran made a fortune from the first North Sea boom. Back in 1975, his oil firm CCP North Sea Associates struck black gold at the Buchan oil field, turning his investors into millionaires overnight.
Cluff won’t put a precise number on the value of the potential oil and gas resources in his firm’s ten new exploration blocks. But when it comes to ‘North Sea Mark II’, where his Aim-listed firm will drill alongside energy giants BP, Shell and Chevron, Cluff says profits could read like ‘telephone numbers’.
‘It reflects the fact we have worked very hard to advance the North Sea and its reputation, and argue the case for the independents as well as the majors,’ he says.
Cluff, a former soldier in the Grenadier Guards, seems to have modelled his CV on the heroes of the John Buchan novels he devoured during his childhood in Cheshire. He has skirmished with tribesmen in Borneo; prospected for gold in Burkina Faso; and serenaded Robert Mugabe on the bagpipes at his Scottish estate.
He is chiefly known for the gold and oil discoveries made by his string of eponymous firms. But he has also stood (unsuccessfully) as a Tory MP and owned The Spectator magazine. Along the way, he has gained a reputation as a pink gin-loving bon viveur, at home in the gentlemen’s clubs of St James’s.
His wife Blondel once found his direct debit list and suggested he changed his name from Cluff to Club, ‘as he spent so much money on and in them’.
Cluff’s oil and gas firm, Cluff Natural Resources, hit the jackpot in the North Sea last week when it won exploration licences for an area the size of Bedfordshire
Over lunch in one of the seven members’ clubs he continues to patronise, Cluff appears to have mellowed, ordering only a small lager. But then he fires off his weekly schedule for his ‘retirement’, after stepping back from the day-to-day running of his company, and it’s clear his thirst for adventure is undimmed.
Cluff, who has dabbled in journalism, currently spends one day a week writing. He recently published a book called Unsung Heroes, an anthology of his heroes and villains, and is planning another to celebrate the work of war photographer Geoffrey Keating.
My strongly held conviction is that the North Sea contains substantial wealth for British people
Another day is spent on charity work, chairing a new trust that protects the graves and memorials of British soldiers killed overseas before 1914, and the remaining three are devoted to Cluff Natural Resources, where he is chairman.
‘I’m a restless animal,’ Cluff says. ‘I am partially driven by wanting to set a good example to my children.’ Cluff and Blondel, a City lawyer-turned heritage adviser and philanthropist, have three sons, all over 6ft 4ins tall. Harry, 24, is a ‘cerebral’ poet and authority on T.S. Eliot; Philip, 21, speaks four languages and is off to Hong Kong to be an intern at Jardine Matheson; and 16-year-old Charlie is at sixth-form college in London.
Cluff is not pushing them in any direction – ‘that’s fatal’ – but hopes they might take over another of his many projects: producing sparkling wine. This week, he will start planting a vineyard at the former windmill near Dover that has been his home for 50 years. His sparkling English wine will be called White Cliffs and is a tribute to his father Harold, who imported sherry and ran a chain of off-licences.
‘The drinks business has always been in my blood – in more ways than one, ha ha.’ Cluff says the start-up costs are £20,000, and he plans to produce up to 12,000 bottles of wine within four years – as long as he can stop ‘alcoholic badgers’ eating the vines.
Rival English sparkling wines such as Chapel Down and Nyetimber sell for between £30 and £40 a bottle. ‘That’s a gleam in my eye,’ he says. ‘It’s a very interesting return on investment.’
Despite a penchant for leisurely liquid lunches, Cluff has made millions and called his memoir Get On With It. Now his career has come full circle, by returning to the North Sea, he says it’s his ‘duty’ to help fix Britain’s chronic gas shortage.
Cluff is scornful of our reliance on foreign imports – ‘something’s gone wrong there’ – and believes there are still major gas discoveries to be made closer to home. ‘We need to explore every option for securing our viability. My humble but strongly held conviction is that the North Sea still contains substantial wealth for the British people,’ he says.
Cluff Natural Resources already holds two licences in the southern North Sea, acquired on the recommendation of geochemist Chris Matchette-Downes. The firm is looking for commercial partners to start drilling ‘as soon as possible’.
Cluff also championed plans to release North Sea gas by burning coal under the seabed, but the Scottish Government blocked the plans, to his great annoyance.
‘I can understand why onshore fracking is not popular, but under the North Sea there are billions of tons of coal that can be converted into enough gas to keep Europe going for 2,000 years,’ he says. ‘In my opinion this can be done very safely, but my opinion is not shared by anybody else.’
In a fit of pique, Cluff sold his 4,000-acre Gruinards estate in the Scottish Highlands to a fellow oil tycoon. ‘After I was double-crossed by Mrs Sturgeon, I had no appetite for Scotland.’
Another cloud over his career is the fate of African mining firm Cluff Resources, which made a huge gold find in Tanzania only to fall prey to an opportunistic takeover by Ghanaian firm Ashanti Gold. ‘I regret the way it was taken away from me; it was my baby,’ he says.
Perhaps because of his ‘ups and downs’, Cluff says he was happiest in the Army. Wearing his regimental tie, he sums up his adventures stoically. ‘It’s been a long laugh really,’ he says. ‘Some people allow themselves to be overwhelmed by misfortune, but I’m very resilient.
‘I haven’t got everything right by any means. But I get up, shake myself off and get on with the next thing.’