The Scottish Mail on Sunday - You
My family and other ASPINALLS
She describes herself as ‘ordinary’, so how has VICTORIA ASPINALL adjusted to being the new wife of wealthy conservationist Damian Aspinall? She tells Amy E Williams how she tamed her man
The first day that Victoria Aspinall visited Howletts, the sprawling wild animal park in Kent that she now calls home, the arm of her white Burberry blouse was pulled clean off by an overly amorous gorilla. A salutary tale should follow about how designer labels and animals don’t mix but Victoria fell for the gorilla trick, which is lucky for the man who is now her husband, the conservationist Damian Aspinall – because if you fall for Damian you’ve got to fall for his gorillas, too.
‘People joke it was some kind of test,’ Victoria tells me over bone-china cups of tea in the study at Howletts, the grand palladian mansion Damian inherited from his father John Aspinall and which sits in the middle of their family- owned wildlife park. If it was a test, Victoria passed, unfazed, with flying colours. And before long a ‘far-too -sensible, very-middle- class girl’ from Lancashire was enjoying the veritable cornucopia of delights that life as an Aspinall entails: playing croquet with orphaned anteaters on the lawn, enjoying free therapy with the lemurs (‘they are brilliant because they don’t answer back – I think that’s why everyone likes animals, isn’t it?’) and spending Friday evenings howling at the park’s wolves, Noushka and Kago, and waiting for their reply. ‘It might sound crazy but I genuinely love the wolves as if they were my own children,’ she says. ‘Kago even used to sleep in our bed!’
When Victoria, 30, first met Damian at a friend’s dinner party two years ago she was your average high-flying 20-something about London. She’d been a music scholar at Uppingham, the public school in Rutland where she excelled at most subjects. ‘I loved maths and science but I could also do music and sport. I was probably in danger of being quite annoying,’ she says. Next up was Oxford where she completed a master’s in chemistry – her grandfather had been head of nuclear physics at the university where her mother and father had also studied, so Oxford was very much in the genes. She then threw herself into life as a management consultant in the City and avoided burnout by moving on to a more glamorous role in business strategy for Burberry.
The moment the then Victoria Fisher first clapped eyes on Mr Aspinall she was young, free, single, successful and, she claims, had no idea who he was. ‘He asked me for lunch the same week and normally I would have said no, but I found him intriguing. He’s one of those guys who captures your attention immediately,’ she says. ‘At the lunch date he had all these stories about Howletts so I Googled him afterwards and couldn’t believe it all existed.’ She can’t say it was love at first sight – there were no lightning flashes of him being The One. For starters Damian is 27 years her senior, has previously been married and has three daughters. ‘I wouldn’t naturally go for that sort of setup,’ she admits. ‘And I don’t think anyone would have put us together on paper. Damian would say the same thing – neither of us was looking for the other.’
It quickly became apparent, however, that the age gap was not going to be a problem. They bonded during weekend trips to Howletts, where Victoria was quickly seduced by the cheeky, Burberry-loving animals and by the ethos of Damian’s Aspinall Foundation which has become one of the world’s leading organisations working to return endangered species to the wild. It’s come some way from the early days, when John Aspinall – a wealthy, well- connected casino owner, famous in the 60s for keeping a tiger, two bears and a monkey at his home in London – bought Howletts as something of an eccentric indulgence. He turned it into an extraordinary conservation project, opening the park to the public and breeding gorillas, rhino and clouded leopards among other animals. After his death in 2000, Damian took over, though the house is still heavy with his father’s legacy – instead of family photos around the fireplace there are snaps of John’s favourite gorillas in silver frames. ‘I am saddened that I never met Damian’s father,’ says Victoria, ‘and I would have loved to have met his friends from that era, like Jimmy Goldsmith [British financier and tycoon], because the stories would have been insane.’
They also fell for each other over a shared love of music – she plays cello to near professional standard and he is known to be fond of a singalong with his guitar on the steps of Howletts. ‘That was part of the attraction of D, that he is so musical,’ she says. ‘But I was surprised that I’d fallen for someone older than me – I’d never dated anyone older before. Introducing him to my parents was a bit intimidating because of his age, but they absolutely loved him and my friends loved him. And, in any case, he always jokes now that I am much more mature than he is. I’m the serious one. He is the big kid.’
Damian is father to three other kids – Tansy, 27, and Clary, 25, from his marriage to Louise Sebag-Montefiore, and 13-year-old Freya, his daughter with actress-turned-stylist Donna Air. Victoria admits to being upfront with Damian about wanting marriage and children of her own. Not because she wanted to pin him down but because she didn’t want to get in too deep if she felt she would ultimately have to walk away. ‘When you’re with someone who has a family,