The Hon Judy Astor
PUBLISHED: 12:02 25 January 2010 | UPDATED: 15:08 20 February 2013
The Hon Judy Astor's holiday cottages would certainly be luxurious enough for celebrities like Twiggy or The Beatles! Katie Jarvis takes a look
SOMETIMES, the most inauspicious circumstances can provide a result. Or, to put it another way, every cloud has a silver lining. That's certainly the view the Hon Judy Astor is taking.
The cloud in question was the one that hovered maleficently over the tiny village of Bruern, near Chipping Norton, last July. (While its fellow clouds were hovering over the rest of the Cotswolds, it has to be said.) The rains not only came down; they came in. Into Judy's beautiful red-brick home that looks out over acres of parkland and the old monastic fish pond, which is almost all that remains of the 12th century Bruern Abbey that once graced the locality.
The silver lining? Well, Judy just happens to own Bruern Holiday Cottages, a neat little complex of the most luxurious places-to-stay you could wish for. In the absence of her own home (it's taken nearly 12 months to dry out and be made habitable again), she moved straight in. It's been a bit of a peripatetic existence - decamping from cottage to cottage whenever they were free from happy holidaymakers - but she certainly can't complain about lack of comfort. When Judy first converted these former estate houses back in 1992, she decided to make them beautiful, luxurious and cosy, too. As they say, what goes around comes around: it's not just the visitors who've reaped the benefits.
"I thought I'd be miserable but actually it has been like living in a proper home - only one that hasn't got my mess in it!" she says, showing off a clutter-free cottage bedroom. Like all the rooms, this bedroom has a gracefulness and charm of its own. Each cottage is unique, filled with pretty curtains and rugs and elegant antiques like the French mirror Judy found with the motto, "Le soutien de vieillesse".
"It's been the equivalent of the hostess sleeping in the guest bedrooms (which I have never done!) to make sure the mattresses are comfortable and that the windows open properly. I was very nervous about staying in the cottages, just in case I discovered problems, but in fact they are lovely."
And that's saying something because it was a huge wrench for Judy to leave her own home, even for 12 months. It's always been her favourite, even when she and her late husband - the MP Michael Astor - lived in the 'big house', which she sold a few years after his death in 1980, and which now belongs to the Bamfords.
With its vaulted dining room ceiling, her red-brick 'cottage' probably originated as an abbey building; but it acquired a new-found importance during the reign of William and Mary when it served as a kind of summer house where the gentry could take tea and gaze on the lake.
"For me, it's filled with happy memories," Judy explains. "Michael and I lived there for a year soon after we were married and work was being done on the big house. It was wonderful because our daughter, Polly, was only a couple of months old. It was the first time Michael had lived at such close quarters with children. His older four (from a previous marriage) had had a nursery and a nanny and were brought down for tea. In fact, it was the first time he had ever come nose to nose all day and every day with a baby, and he absolutely loved it."
In truth, the couple probably each introduced the other to a new way of life. Michael was used to grandeur on a huge scale. As the son of Waldorf Astor, the second Viscount Astor and Nancy Astor, the first woman to serve as an MP, he'd been brought up in Clivedon in Berkshire, now one of the world's finest hotels. It was Nancy who was as famed for her exchanges with the great Sir Winston as her policies, which included establishing nursery schools. In one of their more famous clashes, she told him, "If you were my husband, I'd put arsenic in your coffee." He replied, "Madam, if I were your husband, I'd drink it."
Judy's family were more academic than Michael's. Her parents and their four children went to Cambridge. Their war was an adventurous one. When the Japanese invaded Shanghai, they escaped from their home there (the three elder children were all born in China) and managed to get on a tramp steamer bound for Australia, a staging post on the way to South Africa. There it was hard to get by. Her father, by then in Cairo, had problems sending money to them. "My mother had to get a job and we were looked after by my brother's Chinese amah, a terrifying figure, six-foot tall, who used to march us on walks along the river, pointing to the water in a menacing way as she told us, 'In China, little girls no good', implying that one false move - one piece of cheek - and we too would land up in a watery grave."
After Cambridge, Judy took a job on the Daily Mail where - prim ex-boarding school pupil as she was - she was astonished to find herself in charge of a pop column, before becoming Fashion Editor at the age of 26. In typically modest fashion, she prefers to dwell on her "dazzling talent for not spotting people". Certainly, she lays claim to being the woman who turned down Twiggy on the grounds that "she looked funny. Off Twiggy went to the Daily Express where Deidre McSharry said, 'She's a star!'
"And I was sent to interview the Beatles the year before they went to America. It was in the morning, but they were fairly drunk already on rum and coca cola. I felt sorry for George Martin who was looking like a harassed Latin master in charge of a hopelessly undisciplined class.
"I was terrified of them because my friend, Maureen Cleeve, a brilliant pop columnist, had told me how she'd gone on tour with them; they'd called her granny and mocked her mercilessly, although they were obviously very fond of her. I took to Paul most because he just looked kinder. It's funny; I must only have been about 25 but, even so, I did feel like a granny compared to them."
When she told her younger sister that she'd interviewed "four wretched boys called the Beatles", it took a while to live down the reaction.
It was while Judy was working on Fleet Street that a mutual friend, the novelist Angela Huth, introduced her to Michael. Despite his initial wariness about her profession, ("Would I like to meet a journalist? I don't think so!") it was love for both at first sight.
They spent 10 idyllically happy years together - she learning how to entertain Michael's many high-flying and distinguished friends. "They were painters, writers, journalists, explorers, grandees he'd been at school with, politicians. I was quite shy then so I didn't enjoy it as much as I might have a little later, but it certainly was an extraordinary time." But his death, at the relatively young age of 63, left her a single mother to two children.
The legacy he left her, though, was manifold - and not simply in a material sense. Firstly, there are the happy memories; and then there's the 'education' as a hostess. It's this latter ability that Judy drew on when, in the early 1990s, she decided to convert 12 of the estate cottages.
"I decided to do it because it was all looking so depressing. One building was a barn that had been turned into an electrical substation; one was a tractor shed; one was the old carpenter's shop. In the courtyard, there was a huge stable, carriage house and cattle stall.
"I was so dim I didn't realise what a big venture it was and how much I would have to learn - I just thought it was a good idea. I realised they'd bring in more money as holiday cottages than long lets but, apart from that, I didn't have a clue."
With the help of a local architect and builder - and her sister, the interior designer Jocasta Innes - she set to work. "One person who proved invaluable was Fran (Curtin), Polly's one-time nanny, who now manages the cottages. She and I had such fun planning them and thinking about how people might like them furnished."
If it sounds harum scarum, don't be fooled; the result - which has organically altered over the years - is simply stunning. The colours are Farrow and Ball; the wallpaper Colefax and Fowler and Nina Campbell.
There are four-poster beds (even for the children), state-of-the-art kitchens (with huge fridges), and hotel-luxurious bathrooms. The bookcases are filled with Harry Potter, Vikram Seth, and Eric Newby. If you want to know how pampered these places make you feel, listen to a description simply of the beds: "the best two-inch pocket springs with horsehair round the edge of the mattress... lambswool... and 100 percent cotton ticking, woven in Lancashire."
The biggest property, Weir House, accommodates 10 to sleep and 30 for a dinner party; the smallest, Cope, only two but its drawing room can be cleared of furniture to make room for big round tables to seat 30, with menus from the on-hand chef: perfect, if you're taking over the cottages for a big family gathering. All cottages have terraces or gardens; all share a games room, glorious Wendy houses, and a gorgeously-warm swimming pool.
The prices, of course, are not ordinary either; but you pays your money and you takes your choice, when it comes to holidays. This is unapologetic luxury - but the one thing it's not is stuffy. Though younger visitors occasionally bounce on the sofas and write the odd fey felt-tip comment on the walls, children are warmly welcomed, warts and all (and most are beautifully behaved).
"An American family came in our first year," Judy says, "who'd stayed with someone who sounded an absolute tartar: the owner had a huge list of don'ts. They had two little boys and they had felt like people going to a seaside boarding house. They loved it here after that grim experience. It was such a compliment. They come back every year."
She speaks as one who adored bringing up her own children, and who now dotes on Polly's three girls as well as two step-grandchildren. "Oh, it's absolute heaven here for children;" she says, "very safe. I hate the atmosphere of places without children. I have this fantasy that, in later life, they'll think back to Bruern and the wonderful holidays they had here."
There have been sadnesses, it's true. But this is a place of predominantly happy memories. A place of more silver lining than cloud.
For information on Bruern Holiday Cottages, visit www.bruern-holiday-cottages.co.uk or ring 01993 830415. Until September, there will also be a series of Garden Lovers Weekends not only exploring Bruern's own celebrated walled example, but six of the Cotswolds' other best-loved gardens. Phone for more details.