Meet Tessa Wheeler
PUBLISHED: 12:36 29 May 2014
Manu Palomeque 07977074797
The owner of Chilham Castle on eventing, photography and castle life
With her willowy frame and innate sense of style, it comes as no surprise to hear that Tessa Wheeler not only has a fashion background but is also mother to an internationally renowned model. And she is more interested in telling me about Jacquetta, who was ‘discovered’ when she was only 15 by the Italian fashion designer Stephan Jansen while on holiday with her parents and two sisters in Tangiers, than talking about herself.
The teenager went on to appear in Jansen’s Milan fashion show, barefoot because she couldn’t walk in heels and, says her mother, “was more interested in ponies than fashion.”
Later that same year, Jacquetta was stopped outside Vidal Sasson’s London salon by noted fashion photographer Mario Testino – whom she hadn’t heard of – and by 17, was on the cover of French Vogue and the face of Gucci for two seasons.
Tessa relays the tale with a mother’s pride, and is full of praise for Kings School Canterbury, who supported her middle child throughout her GCSE and A-level years. Sisters Sarah and Charlotte were also pupils there. “However, the minute Jacquetta left school, having made a lot of money, she announced that she was going to live in New York,” says Tessa.
“That was quite strange for Stuart and me, because lots of kids with rich parents will say ‘please can I live in New York daddy,’ but in this case it was all Jacquetta’s own money and she was over 18, so off she went and absolutely loved it.”
One of the many refreshing things about Tessa, 70, is her complete candour about money, casually remarking at one point “When Stuart’s company went public in 2000/2001 we were suddenly terribly rich, sort of overnight really.”
But it’s wealth that has done considerable good in Kent, her adopted home county – despite Tessa’s initial reluctance to leave London, where she’d always worked and lived since leaving home in Rutland.
Born into the Codrington family, one of her ancestors is Admiral Sir Edward Codrington, who fought and defeated the Turks at the Battle of Navarino in 1827.
When her eldest daughter Sarah started boarding at King’s, Stuart decided they needed a weekend place nearby. His wife’s initial reaction was not favourable: “Kent? I don’t like Kent, I don’t know anyone there!”
Fortunately they discovered beautiful Chilham, initially living at Dane Street House but spending the working week in their Clapham home. Kent soon won Tessa’s heart and today the family not only know plenty of the county’s great and good but are also seen locally as generous benefactors, excellent organisers, colourful characters and jolly good neighbours.
Stuart Wheeler, whom Tessa met through mutual friends in London and married in 1979, founded the spread betting company IG Index, retiring a multi-millionaire in 2001.
A year later he and Tessa bought their castle and, over the next two years, with the help of a dedicated team of architects, historians, builders, friends and interior specialists, lovingly restored, renovated and refurbished the house, gardens, lake and parkland to make it one of the finest country house estates in England.
Chilham Castle is inextricably linked to the rest of the village of the same name - once its feudal ‘tenant’ – and the Wheelers have embraced life here to the full.
There is a lovely story about why they ended up in ‘the big house,’ as Tessa explains. “Stuart started grumbling about Dane Street House and saying it was small and pokey and we couldn’t get more than 10 people around the dining table.
“When he was a young man one of his friends had terribly rich parents who lived in Kent and they loved it when she brought a crowd of her young friends down.
“Stuart adored those all-generation weekends and had it in the back of his mind that he’d do that, when he had the money. So he did buy Chilham Castle with that in mind – to entertain. These days we can seat 22 around our table.”
Apart from buying a large table (helped by the renowned furniture consultant, Christopher Gibb, who made Chilham his last project before retirement) one of the first things they put right was modifying the huge, solid front gates erected by the previous Greek owner so that everyone could see into the grounds once again.
And every year on the second Tuesday of the month, from April to September, Stuart and Tessa throw open those spectacular grounds to the public. Tessa also hosts highly successful equestrian events in the park, which has been established as a top cross-country venue since 2004 and was shortlisted as a training ground for the London Olympics 2012.
Its 300 acres of 18th-century parkland have been transformed to hold 21st-century equestrian events, providing local riders with a professional venue for eventing, combined training and hunter trials.
Last year Tessa was behind a series of fund-raising events at Chilham Castle that included a sell-out commemorative Jane Austen costume Ball, a run through Chilham Park – the Chilham Chase – re-instated after 150 years, plus a village fête, school fair and antique car rally.
Equestrian events are held throughout the summer, including the Chilham Castle International Horse Trials from 1-3 August, and again it’s all very much Tessa’s domain.
She is supported by her friends Ali Ferry (who runs the livery yard and teaches up to affiliated level) and Margaret Butcher.
“Ali is responsible for the course, all the competitors, entries and prizes, Margaret is a whizz on the computer and has a brilliant business head and I’m responsible for the volunteers and the sponsors. I’m helped by my PA, but it’s still a huge job,” says Tessa.
With around 160 volunteers for the three-day August event alone, plus judges and sponsors, who all need organising as well as feeding (starting at 6am with hot bacon butties), I’m not at all surprised.
It may seem a far cry from Tessa’s early days as a mail-order fashion photographer, which she “fell into slightly by accident – I just knew I didn’t want to be a secretary,” – but it does return her to a youth filled with horses and dogs. Otto, her devoted rescue staffy cross greyhound, is rarely from her side during out meeting.
And when Tessa was first an assistant, then fashion photographer in the sixties, there weren’t teams of stylists on hand, so she quickly learnt to be super-organised.
While photography has become more of a hobby these days, she did have a book of photographs Spirits of Tangier, published by Arcadia Books in 2008.
Tessa has always had a special interest in Tangier, where she owns a house that belonged to her grandfather and was given to her by her mother in the 1970s. It’s where she holidayed as a child and later would take her own family every summer.
Describing her decision to move out to Tangier for a couple of years as “great life move, but no so good for my career,” it did give her the opportunity to not only travel but also extend her range.
“I did a big trip through Africa, doing the photography for a brochure for the new game lodges they were just setting up in Ethiopia, Kenya and Tanzania. There was hardly any tourism back then.”
The idea for the photography book on Tangiers was born all those years ago and Tessa set about photographing all the famous people living out there at the time.
However, starting to run out of money, she returned to London and the book never happened. Thirty years later it finally came to life, with the added benefit of being able to use precious negatives and photos from a land that had since changed so much.
It’s a fascinating life, but one senses that Tessa Wheeler is at her happiest now, in her Kentish castle with room for her family and friends to sit round her table, horses to ride and events to organise. n
DID YOU KNOW?
There has been a castle at the site of Chilham for more than 800 years. It’s changed hands many times and has been home to a host of colourful, sometimes eccentric families. It was once occupied, briefly, by the heir to the French throne, on his way to invade London (he didn’t succeed). The Jacobean house is a Grade I listed building, built in 1616 for Sir Dudley Digges on the site of a Norman castle. Its vast polygonal stone keep, dating from 1174, stands in the grounds and is still inhabited. The site now hosts the Chilham Park Equestrian Centre.
Chilham, near Canterbury CT4 8DB