A coun­try re­treat gets the royal seal of ap­proval

Harry, Meghan and their im­pend­ing ar­rival are week­end­ing on an an­cient es­tate with a grip­ping his­tory, says Matthew Bell

The Oldie - - CONTENTS - Matthew Bell

As a coun­try re­treat for the most mod­ern of royal cou­ples, Great Tew could hardly be more per­fect. The 4,000-acre es­tate in Ox­ford­shire is where Prince Harry and Meghan Markle have taken a two-year lease on a con­verted cow­shed. The prop­erty is just 100 min­utes from Kens­ing­ton Palace, but en­joys bliss­ful iso­la­tion, set among the hills of the north­ern Cotswolds.

It’s also home to Soho Farm­house, the achingly trendy celebrity hang­out where Markle had her hen party. There’s a glossy take on coun­try life at the Farm­house, with im­mac­u­late foot­paths and neatly cropped lawns. Here, the Duke and Duchess of Sus­sex can play at coun­try life (in time, with their new baby) while en­joy­ing 24-hour room ser­vice, a gym, a spa and sev­eral restau­rants, in­clud­ing Ja­panese.

The Beck­hams paid £6.15 mil­lion for a triple barn con­ver­sion on the es­tate. When thieves tried to bur­gle their barn in Oc­to­ber, Farm­house mem­bers chased them away. Soho Farm­house is the shini­est new an­nexe of the Chip­ping Nor­ton set – among them David Cameron, Re­bekah Brooks, Matthew Freud and Jeremy Clark­son.

What a dif­fer­ent world from the scene that greeted vis­i­tors to Great Tew just a few years ago. Back then, it was a for­got­ten feu­dal par­adise, presided over by a reclu­sive aris­to­crat, Ma­jor Eus­tace Robb, and his hand­some land agent, James John­ston. His son, Nick John­ston, is now the es­tate’s owner.

Nick, 46, is an Old Eto­nian and a friend of Cameron. It was un­der his aegis that Nick Jones, owner of Soho House, chose Great Tew as the venue for its lat­est in­car­na­tion. And it’s he who man­ages its pub­lic face, which, ac­cord­ing to its web­site, ‘rep­re­sents a mod­ern im­age of a di­verse ru­ral busi­ness with a con­tem­po­rary ap­proach and an ex­cit­ing strate­gic plan for the fu­ture’.

This has not al­ways gone down well with lo­cals. Plans to build a £20 mil­lion car mu­seum and 28 lux­ury homes – to be sold for £32 mil­lion – at­tracted more than 260 ob­jec­tions ear­lier this year. The scheme is on hold, says West Ox­ford­shire Coun­cil, as de­vel­op­ers con­sider the ‘main plan­ning is­sues that needed to be ad­dressed’.

For 170 years, Great Tew be­longed to the Boul­ton fam­ily. It was bought in 1815 by Matthew Boul­ton, a rel­a­tive of the great in­dus­tri­al­ist Matthew Boul­ton who ap­pears on the cur­rent £50 note. The Boul­tons were old-fash­ioned pa­tri­cians: they felt a sense of duty to­wards the work­ers, and poured money into build­ing cot­tages and a vil­lage school. As soon as the First World War broke out, the then Matthew Boul­ton was killed in the trenches. He had no is­sue; so his es­tate passed into the joint care of his four sis­ters and the Pub­lic Trustee. Over the next few years, the es­tate fell into dis­re­pair, un­til it passed to Ma­jor Robb, whose grand­mother had been a Boul­ton.

Eus­tace Robb was not a con­ven­tional coun­try landowner. Born in 1899, he was the only child of Ma­jor-gen­eral Sir Fred­er­ick Robb, pri­vate sec­re­tary to Lord Kitch­ener. Un­like his par­ents, who were mad on hunt­ing, Eus­tace was sen­si­tive – and also gay. In 1932, he be­came the very first BBC TV pro­ducer, and rose to be­come di­rec­tor of tele­vi­sion.

By the time he came to Great Tew, in the 1950s, he was hardly well-suited to run­ning an es­tate. He had spent the war re­ceiv­ing and dis­tribut­ing mes­sages that were de­coded at Bletch­ley Park. He had no knowl­edge of farm­ing, and no wife or chil­dren. He had been mar­ried, to a twice-di­vorced Amer­i­can, Marie Crevolon Fa­galde, but she couldn’t ig­nore his af­fairs with young men, and di­vorced him in 1933.

Still, Eus­tace did set about restor­ing the es­tate: cot­tages were re­fur­bished, and a sew­er­age sys­tem was built for the vil­lage. He also, then, wanted to keep the es­tate in the fam­ily. In cor­re­spon­dence from the 1950s and 1960s, he would write to a young cousin, John Robb, and talk of ‘the sav­ing of Tew for you’.

En­ter James John­ston, a tall, hand­some le­gal clerk in his twen­ties when Robb first met him in Lon­don. Eus­tace was in­stantly be­witched. He in­vited the young man, some 30 years his ju­nior, to stay at Great Tew and, although James John­ston wasn’t a so­lic­i­tor and had no train­ing in land man­age­ment, he be­came Robb’s land agent.

James John­ston was not a pa­tri­cian. He took the view that, for the es­tate to make money, the farms should be brought back in hand. This meant get­ting rid of 16 ten­ant farm­ers and their fam­i­lies; not easy in the days of pro­tected ten­an­cies. His so­lu­tion was to stop all cap­i­tal in­vest­ment. And in­stead of re­duc­ing rents for strug­gling ten­ants, as Ma­jor Robb had done, they were raised.

Over the com­ing years, the Great Tew es­tate fell into dis­re­pair. A Sun­day Times

re­port in the 1980s de­tailed how sev­eral farm­ers were forced into bank­ruptcy, lost their homes and had their lives ru­ined. By 1985, when Ma­jor Robb died, only seven of the 16 ten­ant farm­ers were still run­ning. James John­ston was free to take the oth­ers in hand, a much more prof­itable way of run­ning the es­tate.

Why did the Ma­jor leave the whole es­tate – val­ued at £4.7 mil­lion in 1985 – to James John­ston, and not his cousins? Only Robb’s gar­dener was al­lowed to stay in his home.

The ques­tion of how James John­ston came to own Great Tew was raised in the High Court this year, dur­ing a right-ofway dis­pute. The judge, Paul Matthews, said, ‘Re­mark­ably, there is no ev­i­dence as to how [he] be­came the owner of the es­tate on the death of Ma­jor Robb... There is no ev­i­dence of any sale (or gift) dur­ing Ma­jor Robb’s life­time, and no ev­i­dence of any fam­ily re­la­tion­ship, such that he might in­herit on in­tes­tacy, so I as­sume that the es­tate was left to him by will. Why Ma­jor Robb should have done this is not ex­plained.’

Robb and James John­ston were un­com­monly close. Although John­ston was mar­ried with chil­dren, he went on lux­u­ri­ous ski­ing hol­i­days – just the two of them – in Switzer­land. On the day of Ma­jor Robb’s fu­neral, James John­ston was chief mourner. As his friend was low­ered into the ground, he threw a sin­gle rose onto the cof­fin. (James John­ston died in 2014).

There was a shift­ing of power as Robb grew older. In 1975, James John­ston be­came a joint di­rec­tor of the es­tate. In 1978, Ma­jor Robb wrote his will. And in ac­counts for 1981 and 1982, James John­ston was com­pany di­rec­tor and ex­ecu­tor of Robb’s will. By then, Robb was liv­ing in two rooms of crum­bling Great Tew Manor, with a house­keeper for com­pany. Vis­i­tors were turned away on James John­ston’s in­struc­tions.

The ac­counts show money was be­ing spent else­where. In 1979, James John­ston moved his fam­ily into one of the best es­tate farm­houses, Cot­ten­ham, a beau­ti­ful stone house in its own val­ley. The pre­vi­ous ten­ant had been driven out be­cause wa­ter was com­ing through the roof. As soon as the John­stons moved in, a huge amount of money was spent re­fur­bish­ing it, in­stalling a ten­nis court, sta­bles and even a lake – all ap­par­ently with­out plan­ning per­mis­sion. The spend­ing was so lav­ish that lo­cals nick­named the house ‘St James’s Palace’.

Was the Ma­jor aware of what was go­ing on? Or did he choose to turn a blind eye? Clearly, there was some­thing about James John­ston he couldn’t re­sist.

The lat­est news is that Jeremy Clark­son is about to be­come a reg­u­lar vis­i­tor, as the next se­ries of The Grand Tour is to be filmed at the es­tate. Res­i­dents and coun­cil­lors com­plained about the in­crease in traf­fic, but still he won per­mis­sion to film.

Many lo­cals will not be pleased.

The Sus­sexes in Ox­ford­shire: the Great Tew Es­tate, home to roy­alty and the Beck­hams

From top: Ge­or­gian-gothic Great Tew Manor; lo­cal petrolhead, Jeremy Clark­son; the lake­side cab­ins and main build­ing at Soho Farm­house

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.