She describes herself as ‘ordinary’, so how has VICTORIA ASPINALL adjusted to being the new wife of wealthy conservationist Damian Aspinall? She reveals how she tamed her man…
The first day that Victoria Aspinall visited Howletts, the sprawling wild animal park in Kent that she now calls home, the arm of her white Burberry blouse was pulled clean off by an overly amorous gorilla. A salutary tale should follow about how designer labels and animals don’t mix but Victoria fell for the gorilla trick, which is lucky for the man who is now her husband, the conservationist Damian Aspinall – because if you fall for Damian you’ve got to fall for his gorillas, too.
‘People joke it was some kind of test,’ Victoria tells me over bone-china cups of tea in the study at Howletts, the grand palladian mansion Damian inherited from his father John Aspinall and which sits in the middle of their family-owned wildlife park. If it was a test, Victoria passed, unfazed, with flying colours.
And before long a ‘far-too-sensible, very-middle-class girl’ from Lancashire was enjoying the veritable cornucopia of delights that life as an Aspinall entails: playing croquet with orphaned anteaters on the lawn, enjoying free therapy with the lemurs (‘they are brilliant because they don’t answer back – I think that’s why everyone likes animals, isn’t it?’) and spending Friday evenings howling at the park’s wolves, Noushka and Kago, and waiting for their reply. ‘It might sound crazy but I genuinely love the wolves as if they were my own children,’ she says. ‘Kago even used to sleep in our bed!’
When Victoria, 30, first met Damian at a friend’s dinner party two years ago she was your average high-flying 20-something about London. She’d been a music scholar at Uppingham, the public school in Rutland where she excelled at most subjects. ‘I loved maths and science but I could also do music and sport. I was probably in danger of being quite annoying,’ she says.
Next up was Oxford where she completed a master’s in chemistry – her grandfather had been head of nuclear physics at the university where her mother and father had also studied, so Oxford was very much in the genes. She then threw herself into life as a management consultant in the City and avoided burnout by moving on to a more glamorous role in business strategy for Burberry.
The moment the then Victoria Fisher first clapped eyes on Mr Aspinall she was young, free, single, successful and, she claims, had no idea who he was. ‘He asked me for lunch the same week and normally I would have said no, but I found him intriguing. He’s one of those guys who captures your attention immediately,’ she says.
‘At the lunch date he had all these stories about Howletts so I Googled him afterwards and couldn’t believe it all existed.’ She can’t say it was love at first sight – there were no lightning flashes of him being The One. For starters Damian is 27 years her senior, has previously been married and has three daughters. ‘I wouldn’t naturally go for that sort of setup,’ she admits. ‘And I don’t think anyone would have put us together on paper. Damian would say the same thing – neither of us was looking for the other.’
It quickly became apparent, however, that the age gap was not going to be a problem. They bonded during weekend trips to Howletts, where Victoria was quickly seduced by the cheeky, Burberry-loving animals and by the ethos of Damian’s Aspinall Foundation which has become one of the world’s leading organisations working to return endangered species to the wild.
It’s come some way from the early days, when John Aspinall – a wealthy, well-connected casino owner, famous in the 60s for keeping a tiger, two bears and a monkey at his home in London – bought Howletts as something of an eccentric indulgence. He turned it into an extraordinary conservation project, opening the park to the public and breeding gorillas, rhino and clouded leopards among other animals.
After his death in 2000, Damian took over, though the house is still heavy with his father’s legacy – instead of family photos around the fireplace there are snaps of John’s favourite gorillas in silver frames. ‘I am saddened that I never met Damian’s father,’ says Victoria, ‘and I would have loved to have met his friends from that era, like Jimmy Goldsmith [British financier and tycoon], because the stories would have been insane.’
They also fell for each other over a shared love of music – she plays cello to near professional standard and he is known to be fond of a singalong with his guitar on the steps of Howletts. ‘That was part of the attraction of D, that he is so musical,’ she says. ‘But I was surprised that I’d fallen for someone older than me – I’d never dated anyone older before. Introducing him to my parents was a bit intimidating because of his age, but they absolutely loved him and my friends loved him. And, in any case, he always jokes now that I am much more mature than he is. I’m the serious one. He is the big kid.’
Damian is father to three other kids – Tansy, 27, and Clary, 25, from his marriage to Louise Sebag-Montefiore, and 13-year-old Freya, his daughter with actress-turned-stylist Donna Air. Victoria admits to being upfront with Damian about wanting marriage and children of her own. Not because she wanted to pin him down but because she didn’t want to get in too deep if she felt she would ultimately have to walk away.
‘When you’re with someone who has a family, and when there are young children involved, you’ve got to make a decision early on about whether the relationship is going somewhere,’ she says. ‘I was honest with Damian; when I realised I really liked him I said, “My dream is to get married and have kids and I understand that might not be what you want because you’ve already had it,” and he was lovely. So I knew early on we were in the same frame of mind and neither of us was wasting the other’s time.’
Marrying Damian, wealthy and charming as he is, is not without its issues and comes with the sort of media glare that requires a thick skin. In the press, Victoria has been cast in a fictional blonde-off with Donna Air, whom Damian dated for six years. Back then his high-profile relationship with Donna raised eyebrows in certain circles – he the wealthy aristocrat, she the working-class Geordie.
Victoria has been described as an Identikit Donna and while there are some physical similarities – they are both slim and have blonde hair – it seems a lazy and irrelevant observation given Damian and Donna’s relationship ended ten years ago, added to which Donna, 38, is seemingly happy with long-term boyfriend James Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge’s younger brother.
But, predictably, in those same social circles (and certain newspaper columns) the arrival of Victoria, and no doubt the oblique connection to the royal family, has nicely oiled the gossip mill.
‘That’s what I signed up for and I have to ignore it,’ Victoria says with the confidence of someone who has never had a problem rising above challenges. ‘I work full time, I’ve got a life. I don’t care what someone sitting in Annabel’s [nightclub] thinks of me. I genuinely don’t. It is nonsense. And I accept that there will always be gossip around Damian because of his history. But we are happy, we are freshly married, we have everything we could possibly want. It’s lovely.’
What intrigues many is that while Damian appeared reluctant to marry Donna Air, despite having a daughter with her, he jumped at the opportunity to make Victoria the second Mrs Aspinall, proposing with a vintage Van Cleef & Arpels diamond ring in a ‘rustic windmill filled with 30,000 roses’ within 18 months of meeting. They tied the knot last summer at Villa Centinale in Tuscany in front of 26 friends and family. ‘It was perfect, small, intimate and just wonderful,’ Victoria beams.
‘I couldn’t have done a big showbiz wedding, it wouldn’t have been me,’ she says. ‘But Alice Temperley made me the most beautiful gown and I organised a cello group to play for us. My 90-year-old grandmother and Damian’s girls were there. It was a true family moment.’
Does it make a difference, being a wife rather than a girlfriend? ‘I feel more settled,’ she says, after a pause for thought. ‘And what’s nice is that I can truly make Howletts my home now without tiptoeing around things or people. I am part of the family. And it’s lovely for Damian’s daughters too because we’re a unit and things are black and white. Marriage gives you that security.’
What about long-term bachelor/divorcé Damian, is he loving the happily-ever-after? ‘Damian is very sweet – he keeps reminding me how much he loves being married,’ she says, a smile from ear to ear. ‘But we’re in that honeymoon stage…come back in five years and it may be a different interview.’
The couple split their time between London Monday to Friday – where they live in a Knightsbridge apartment – and spend every weekend in Kent. Victoria says she doesn’t miss Saturday nights out in the capital. ‘You leave the city with the stress of the world on your shoulders but as soon as you arrive here with the wolves howling it has gone,’ she says.
There is the benefit of staff at Howletts, too: a housekeeper, a chef and gardeners. ‘When I first visited I found it horrifying that we were having breakfast in bed and that someone had brought it to us! And when my parents came they also found it odd because we are very much a sit-around-the-table-together-and-all-muck-in-kind-of-family,’ she says. ‘But within six months of being here I was interviewing for a new chef! It’s quite surreal. It’s a delicate balance. I’m not a fan of the upstairs-downstairs thing. We all get on together.’
Becoming stepmother to a teenager and two grown-up children is not something many 30-year-olds have to take on. ‘It’s a different relationship from most stepmums because the girls are older; I can go for a drink with Clary,’ she says. ‘But then I don’t know any other stepmothers so I am kind of on my own here.’
All five of them go on an annual holiday to the Bahamas and last year she took the three girls and Damian on a surprise trip to Lapland to see the Northern Lights – so far, so happy families, it would appear. ‘Damian is such a good father and that is one of the great attractions in a man, isn’t it, when you can see how they are going to be with kids? And Damian is just wonderful.’
At times Victoria looks and sounds like the cat who’s got the double cream but, somehow, you can’t help feeling delighted for her. Maybe it’s because she is evidently a grafter and determined not to take anything for granted.
Impressively, she has overseen the renovation and development of new holiday properties at Port Lympne, Howletts’ sister reserve a few miles down the road. It’s where you’ll find bears, gorillas and – Victoria’s favourite – the giraffes. It’s also where you can stay the night in the luxury Rhino Lodge that Victoria has designed and furnished with immaculate taste and which has a garden that backs directly on to the rhino enclosure.
The recently opened Tiger Lodge features panoramic windows from which to view tigers in the reserve. Visitors can also book into beautiful two-bedroomed glass-fronted suites in the Treehouse Hotel with its sweeping views across the park and as far as the English Channel. It’s pretty special and it’s as close to an African safari as you can get without needing your passport or malaria pills.
It’s a wonder Victoria isn’t flaunting her fantastical life on social media – the mix of wild animals and glamorous homes and job at an international fashion label sounds like something concocted in Instagram heaven. ‘I think there is a time to do that and it’s maybe not yet,’ she says, wisely keen to prove herself first. ‘And that’s what Damian likes about me, that I’m not a fashion girl or an It-girl or a party girl who wants to be seen at endless events. I’m not that person at all.’
The Howletts setup, though, is irresistibly ready-made for a reality TV show. ‘What, Keeping Up With the Aspinalls?’ Victoria laughs. ‘Can you imagine? I mean, I’d watch it! But I think Damian would rather jump off a cliff than do that, to be blunt.’
There was some filming, however, on Damian and Victoria’s recent trip to Gabon, central Africa, where they met up with Bims and Djalta, two adult male gorillas whom Damian raised at Howletts and then released into the wild in Gabon in 2003. This was Victoria’s first trip to Africa: ‘It was amazing to see the gorillas roaming freely and happily in their natural environment. I was humbled by the gentle way they greeted me with lots of love and gurgles.’
She has mixed emotions about Damian’s commitment to phasing out keeping animals in captivity. ‘I look at the animals sometimes and think, “am I going to have to send you all back to the wild?” I mean, how painful!’ she says. ‘But there is also a thrill, knowing that we are doing something every day for the benefit of all these creatures.’ One thing is for certain – just like Damian, they’ve stolen her heart. ‘I first came here as an ordinary cat-and-dog kind of a girl, but now I don’t think I could live without them.’
For details about holiday properties at Port Lympne visit aspinallfoundation.org/port-lympne