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
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