In this extract from his book Bloodied But Not Beaten, published by David Ling, veteran journalist Rod Vaughan tells how a dowager duchess discovers heaven in heartland New Zealand and decides to become a Kiwi. Other extracts will appear during the holiday period.
Tucked away at the bottom of the world it’s not often that New Zealanders get a chance to rub shoulders with members of the British aristocracy, that strange breed from which our Governors-General were once drawn.
To many of us they are a quaint bunch of eccentric individuals who enjoy a privileged lifestyle on huge estates given to them by members of the Royal Family for services rendered in times gone by.
So in 2007 it was with a great deal of anticipation that I undertook a 60 Minutes story on one of Britain’s best known blue bloods, someone who had fallen in love with New Zealand or, to be more precise, Matamata.
As I drove from Auckland to Matamata to interview Henrietta Tavistock, the Dowager Duchess of Bedford, I spent most of the time wondering what I would find. Would she be a haughty grande dame who would conceal her disdain for me under a thin veil of civility or would she be barking mad as a result of generations of inbreeding?
Cameraman Ross Kenward could clearly read my thoughts and never one to hold back chipped in with his two bob’s worth. ‘Mate, I know what you’re thinking but mark my words; she’ll be some crusty old bat who won’t give us the time of day. You heard it here first.’
Before I had chance to reply there was a swift riposte from the back seat of the car.
‘You couldn’t be more wrong Roscoe. She’s a charming person with impeccable manners and I think we’ll get along just fine.’
Producer Alison Horwood had spoken at length to Her Grace on the phone to arrange the interview and would not hear a bad word said about her, so there the matter rested until we swept through the gates of the Bloomsbury Stud and met the lady herself.
As usual Alison was right. The person who opened the door greeted us with a warm smile and ushered us into the house for a cup of tea and a chat.
Henrietta bore an uncanny resemblance to the late Jackie Kennedy, slightly fuller in the face perhaps but the same striking features that turned men’s heads wherever she went.
Of course it shouldn’t have surprised me because Henrietta had been something of a beauty in her day. Back in 1957 she was declared debutante of the year and embarked on a career as a model, with many in the fashion industry regarding her as the most beautiful woman in Britain.
Now she was in her mid-sixties but the person who handed me a cup of tea was no faded beauty; the years had been very kind to her and she still had style and class written all over her.
As Roscoe set up the camera and lights we engaged in small talk, all the while sizing each other up; she no doubt wondering what line I would be pursuing in the interview and me trying to figure out the best way to crack her English reserve.
That reserve was apparent in the way she spoke: clipped sentences delivered in an even more clipped upper-class accent.
There was also the question of how I should address her. She was, after all, a dowager duchess, a title she found somewhat amusing. ‘I think it sounds like a very old boat,’ she said.
It conjures up an image of a very regal and imperious person. Is that who you are?
‘It’s very hard to answer who you are but I don’t think I’m very grand.’
How would you be addressed in Britain?
‘You would address a duchess as Your Grace, which I think sounds as though you are a bishop, but here it doesn’t happen. England is quite different from New Zealand and there are times when the whole event [might be] quite grand and at that point if they call you Your Grace it’s fine because it’s part of play acting but in ordinary life I find it quite difficult.’
How should we refer to you in this country?
‘One calls me Henrietta.’
But here in Matamata the locals refer to you as the Duchess of Matamata.
‘I would rather be the Duchess of Matamata. I think that would be quite nice.’ Clearly she had a sense of humour and I knew the interview was going to be a success.
She then described how a life-long interest in horses had brought her and her late husband, Robin Russell, fourteenth Duke of Bedford, on a visit to New Zealand some years previously. Liking what they saw, especially the laid back way of life, they established a stud farm in Matamata and divided their time between breeding horses there and running Woburn Abbey, Robin’s ancestral pile in England.
Woburn Abbey is one of the grandest and most stately homes in Britain, containing one of the most important private art collections in the world and set in magnificent grounds. But despite such a posh address and being waited on hand and foot by servants galore Robin and Henrietta’s hearts lay in New Zealand and so she decided it was time to become a New Zealander.
‘Well it may sound presumptuous of me but I do feel part of this country. I feel when I land in Auckland that I have come home. New Zealand has a quality of life that I think exists nowhere else in the world.
But given your extremely privileged background in England where you had everything it’s an extraordinary thing to say this country has everything?
‘But it has. What hasn’t it got? And what I love about this country, it makes no difference who or what you do or who your friends are, whereas in England it would be strange if you went out to dinner with a builder and a plumber but here it is normal and that’s what I love about New Zealand. People are people, it doesn’t matter what they do or who they are.’
The sincerity in her face and voice was plain to see as she said this and I was left wondering how someone from such a privileged background could be so happy fraternising with the hoi polloi. Rather cheekily I asked her whether she had developed a social conscience since coming to New Zealand.
‘I have always had a social conscience about many things, but the lifestyle I led I have never felt guilty about because I have always been a worker and I have always thought as long as you are putting in a little bit more than you are taking out you can live with yourself.
‘I think the thing I have learned is that the simpler you can live and the more basic or down to earth you can be, feet on the ground, the happier you can become.’ Which perhaps explains why she struggled with her early life as part of England’s landed gentry. She found herself cast in the role from a very early age when Robin declared he was going to marry her. She was only thirteen.
‘Yes, the first time we went to Woburn he asked me if I liked the house and I remember thinking at the time that I would never want to live in a house that big but being polite I said yes, I liked it very much and he said I’m so glad because one day this will be your home.’
Their high society wedding in 1961 should have been a fairytale occasion but it almost became a nightmare.
‘I said to my father “Do you love me? If you love me you will take me home.” I got stage fright. I suddenly realised that I was going to become involved in a world that maybe I didn’t want to be. It was the simple bit again and I got frightened.’
So at that stage you wanted out?
‘Yes, but whether I wanted out the next day I don’t know!’
Your father must have been mortified.
‘No, but he was quite firm and he said “I am terribly sorry darling but it’s too late now and if you feel like this in a few years then you can do something about it.”That was it.’
There was more marital strife when it came to moving into Woburn Abbey. Despite the fact there was staff to look after her every whim and desire, Henrietta did not want to live there.
‘It lasted a year, my fuss, and then I pulled myself together. A great friend of mind said, “You cannot behave like this, it is ridiculous, just pull yourself together and get on with it.’’’
Why didn’t you want to move into the abbey? I would have thought it would be everyone’s dream.
‘It’s very hard to be family in a house like that. It was very disjointed and I thought it would be difficult for my children, and it was. They were very unhappy to start with.’
So it wasn’t conducive to a happy or normal family life?
‘You have to adapt to it and it was fine. It just took a couple of years to make it work and then it was wonderful.’
Henrietta and Robin lived in the abbey for almost thirty years. But when he suffered a near fatal stroke they decided it was time to move out.
Eldest son Andrew took over the estate and they mapped out a new future for themselves in New Zealand, ending up developing the stud farm in Matamata.
Henrietta told me it was the happiest time of their lives, the once taciturn Robin visibly relaxing in the new-found freedom of New Zealand and, like her, taking pleasure in the simple things in life, even making a habit of waving to the driver of the freight train that rumbled past their property every day.
But in 2003 Robin suddenly died from another stroke and so did part of her, such was the bond between them.
‘I knew we would both die one day but I didn’t know he would die when he was very young and I suppose to a lot of people sixty-three is very young.’
It was a cruel blow for an aristocratic couple intent on enjoying a more down- to-earth Kiwi lifestyle, but she resolved to keep some of their dream alive. The stud farm was sold but she retained the house and a paddock for a handful of horses she couldn’t bear to part with.
And this would be home for the foreseeable future?
‘I hope so.’
You will become a Kiwi?
‘Apparently you have to have been in New Zealand for seven years so I’m not sure that would happen. I wonder what my name would be on my passport?’
What is it currently?
‘Well it is currently Henrietta Duchess of Bedford but you don’t have those things here so it would probably be Mrs Russell, but then that would be confusing, wouldn’t it, to change it yet again?
Would you like to be Mrs Russell?
‘I wouldn’t mind being Mrs Russell.’
It’s a bit of a come down though isn’t it?
From being a duchess, the dowager duchess, to Mrs Russell . . .
‘Not a problem.’
You would rather relish that?
‘Yes I would. I started out as Miss Tiarks you know, so it would be all right. I have been a commoner.’
So do you think you will see out most of your life here?
‘I think I will see most of the rest of my days here, yes, if I am allowed to.’ We parted company on the best of terms and driving back to Auckland I vowed never to have preconceived ideas about people like her again.
She had been delightful company and even Roscoe found it hard to disagree with that. And clearly she had warmed to us because after the story was broadcast I received an invitation to stay with her at Woburn with my wife, Lois, later in the year.
It proved to be a memorable experience, the grandeur of Woburn Abbey making television’s Downton Abbey look like a gatekeeper’s cottage. Its ninety rooms were resplendent with priceless antiques and works of art, the dining room alone containing twenty-one Canalettos, each worth around $20 million. Elsewhere there were mind-boggling collections of gold, silver and porcelain ornaments, any one of which would have been worth a fortune.
But it was the beauty of the grounds that really took my breath away, five thousand hectares of exquisitely landscaped countryside that, among other things, contained three international golf courses and a wildlife park.
Teeing off at one of the courses the following day I felt like I’d arrived in Heaven, but of course it wasn’t. As far as Henrietta was concerned Heaven was in Matamata twenty thousand kilometres away and who was I to contradict her?