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07.16.11

'World' Players' Secret Getaway

The News of the World scandal is roiling London's political and media elite. But for years, in one small village north of the city known as Chipping Norton, these very power players have hunkered down in their country estates, eager to escape the glare of public scrutiny while hobnobbing with each other at farmers' markets and cafés. Newsweek's London correspondent William Underhill on how intra-neighbor networking in this small town could have led to the kind of cozy relationships that caused the fiasco in the first place—and how the locals are dealing with it.

It’s early on a midweek afternoon, but the parking lot at Daylesford Organic is full. A steady stream of Audis and BMW 4X4s crunch across the gravel in search of a spot. For the affluent and underemployed, the complex of converted farm buildings a few miles from the market town of Chipping Norton can provide a handy range of occupations. This is the place for a wholesome lunch in discreetly tasteful surroundings or to restock the larder with fennel and licorice tea, truffled brie, or red onion and cumin focaccia. And if time drags, Daylesford’s Hay Barn Spa can offer an hourlong de-stress massage for £65.

For the wealthier residents of Oxfordshire, country life can have an easy if synthetic charm. This is a patch of green and pleasant land on the fringe of the Cotswolds, prized by folks from London who form—or bring with them—their own friendships and cliques. But distance from the city doesn’t guarantee escape from media attention. In recent weeks the British press has focused on what’s being called the "Chipping Norton set," a coterie of the rich and well connected with homes in the cluster of villages around the town. At its center: Prime Minister David Cameron who’s also the area’s M.P., and Rebekah Brooks, CEO of Rupert Murdoch’s British outfit, News International.

One glance at the map helps to explain the area’s charms. At 80 miles from London, it’s comfortably beyond suburban sprawl and outside easy commuting range, helping to preserve tracts of rolling countryside more or less unspoiled for the moneyed incomers as well as for the hunting-and-shooting, old-money county crowd. There are tidy villages of gray stone cottages with stone slate roofs, manor houses tucked away up long drives, hedgerows scattered with oak and hawthorn: perfect for weekend residents, retirees, or aspirational types in search of a simulacrum of country life. Tell-tale signs of their presence are everywhere. Watch out for window frames and other woodwork picked out in shades of cream or gray-green.

Besides, the standard pleasures of the metropolis are still on hand. The menu at the village pub in Kingham—close to Rebekah Brooks’s home and said to be a favorite—lists Cotswold Salami as a starter for $12 and wild sea trout for £21 as a main course. The claret costs up to $300 a bottle. Natch, the pub is rated by Michelin and Harden’s. And if country life becomes stale, London is just a two-hour drive away or a 90-minute train ride from Kingham. Inevitably, property is expensive. Even the most modest two-bedroom bolthole will cost a thumping $500,000. At the upper extremes, prices are among the highest in the country for one of the many grand estates that dot the landscape. Says Nick Rudge from the local offices of the upmarket estate agents Savills: “There are lots of big estates around which have themselves protected the area from overdevelopment by controlling the release of land.”

Celebs and the super-rich can pay, and many have chosen the Chipping Norton area. Within a few miles of the town lives TV host Jeremy Clarkson—his Top Gear motoring show is screened in more than 100 countries—said to be a friend of both Cameron and Brooks. Jemima Khan, the hugely rich ex-wife of Pakistani politician Imran Khan and daughter of the controversial tycoon James Goldsmith, bought nearby Kiddington Hall for a reported £15 million in 2010. Alex James, once the bassist with Blur, now runs a cheesemaking business in Kingham and will be hosting a food and music festival on his farm in September, featuring an appearance by TV chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, an Eton contemporary of David Cameron.

Cameron and Brooks are said to be good friends, sometimes going out riding together.

But it’s the politico-media nexus that’s excited the press. David Cameron owns a modest farmhouse fronting the quiet road through the tiny hamlet of Dean, five miles from Chipping Norton. Brooks lives just a few minutes away by car in a converted barn with her second husband, the former racehorse trainer and amateur jockey Charlie Brooks, another Eton contemporary of Cameron’s. In these parts, wealth and rank are unexceptional. Close neighbors of the Brookses include the Astors, and the Sarsden estate that dominates the immediate area was sold in 2006 for a reported £25 million by Shaun Woodward, a onetime M.P. who’d married a Sainsbury supermarket heiress. Brooks is said to travel to and from home by helicopter. (If she’s seeking to forget her present woes, she might do well to avoid the road through the closest village, Churchill, where she would pass a "Hacker's Lane" and a "Hacker’s Barn").

For good measure, the London PR supremo Matthew Freud (Sigmund’s great-grandson) and his wife, Elisabeth, daughter of Rupert Murdoch, have a country home 10 miles from Chipping Norton in the super-quaint town of Burford. The house, Burford Priory, is a largely Jacobean mansion, hidden from view by high walls. (Previous owners included William Lenthall, the 17th-century speaker of the House of Commons, famous for standing up for the privileges of Parliament against the crown.) It was the setting for Elisabeth’s 40th birthday party in 2008, when the guest list included Bono, Tony Blair, the present chancellor George Osborne, and David Cameron and his now-disgraced director of communications, Andy Coulson. Before buying the priory, the couple had rented a cottage nearby from the Duke of Marlborough on his Blenheim Palace estate.

Much media speculation is now focused on the possible results of such intra-neighbor networking. Cameron and Brooks are said to be good friends, sometimes going out riding together. Famously, the prime minister attended a dinner party last Christmas hosted by Brooks where other guests included Murdoch’s son James at a delicate moment in News International’s attempt—now stalled—to acquire a controlling interest in BSkyB, Britain’s largest commercial broadcaster, a deal that the government had the power to halt.

For all the glamour of some local residents, the town itself—known to locals as "Chippy" —  remains a handsome but modest place. There’s a fine Victorian town hall, a handsome medieval church, some ancient almshouses, a small theater, a market square, and some elegant streets. But it lacks the obvious cuteness that’s wrecked some Cotswold towns, plagued by visitors. Says Tom Lodge, a student working in the bookshop overlooking the square who has lived in Chipping Norton all his life: “It’s quintessentially Middle England, but it’s still a working town: not just a place for the tourists.” The sight of celebs leaves the natives unfazed. “You will often see David Cameron at the farmers’ market on Saturday morning,” says local resident and publisher Jo Howard. “It’s accepted as normal. People just take it in their stride.”

Not that Chippy has ever been quite the sleepy market town. Back in the '80s and '90s recording studios in the town drew in big-name artists from the music scene. (Keith Moon of The Who once owned a pub in Chipping Norton.) Says Howard: “It’s is one of these small towns that has always punched above its weight. Wherever I go, I always find people who have heard of it.”

And some are indifferent to the town’s newfound celebrity. “People don’t welcome [the attention], but it's really just a 'silly-season' story,” says Mayor Chris Butterworth. “This is a nice area to live in, and there are a large number of nice houses, but you could stick a pin in the map in many places in the Cotswolds and you’d find just as many celebrity names as we have around here.” The hot debate of the moment isn’t the 'Hackergate' affair; it’s the proposal from a national supermarket chain to build an outsize store on the edge of town.