There is little fuss when Sir Charles Dunstone walks into London’s Nottingdale restaurant where we’ve agreed to meet. This is despite the fact that we’re on the ground floor of the tower block that houses the TalkTalk Telecom Group, of which Dunstone is chairman. According to the mythology of Britain’s popular press, Dunstone is the man who founded the Carphone Warehouse with £6,000 of savings, and turned it into a billion pound fortune – but no one in Nottingdale looks fazed by his presence.
Relaxed and dressed in a grey suit and open-necked shirt, he doesn’t take long to get settled at a table, and his easy manner rustles up menus and a couple of fruit juices. The food is being cooked in an open kitchen behind the counter and looks fabulous. I decide on the porcini risotto and Dunstone goes for the leek and gruyere tart with a salad, although the latter remains largely untouched, as he seems more keen to talk. Whatever the truth of that press legend, Dunstone’s is quite a business empire – but I have simply come to talk to him about his other passion, sailing.
Dunstone has a deep affiliation with the sport; as a child he holidayed on the east coast of England, at a place called Burnham Overy Staithe. It’s a beautiful part of the county of Norfolk on England’s east coast, sheltered from the North Sea by tidal creeks, salt marshes and dunes. And as Dunstone points out with a smile, it’s where Horatio Nelson learned to row and sail before he joined the British Navy.
In fact, it’s the kind of place where everyone has some connection to the water. Or as Dunstone puts it, ‘When the tide was out you went to the beach, and when the tide was in you went sailing.’
He needed little more inspiration than that; his parents weren’t particularly into boats, but they owned a rowing dinghy when he was very young. He grew up messing around in boats on those Norfolk holidays, and by the time he was 10 Dunstone had his own Optimist.
He graduated to an Enterprise – a wooden, Bermudan-rigged dinghy for two people, designed in 1956. Dunstone’s was an early version and rather ancient by the time he got it. He rattles off the sail number – 3241 – without missing a beat.
Dunstone did all his early sailing at Overy Staithe and at school, on an inland reservoir called Rutland Water. His parents lived abroad and so the route familiar to many of his generation (Dunstone is in his late 40s) wasn’t open to him – with no mum and dad available to drive to race meetings, there was no Mirror, Cadet or 420 dinghy. So his sailing was very much connected to North Norfolk, and the trail only leaves the tidal flats and marshes of Overy Staithe after Dunstone’s first wave of business success.