Exclusive interview with The Earl and Countess of Shaftesbury
PUBLISHED: 14:49 27 January 2020 | UPDATED: 14:53 27 January 2020
Before the murder of his father and sudden death of his brother, Nick Ashley-Cooper was a carefree, techno DJ working in New York. Now the 12th Earl of Shaftesbury, he is committed to restoring the family estate and its good name
Aristocrats are much like Sunday newspaper journalists: dangerously predisposed to becoming either triathletes or alcoholics. Enough money, too much time.
Nick Ashley-Cooper, AKA Lord Shaftesbury - a keen endurance runner despite breaking his back in a riding accident four years ago - is, absolutely, the former. His much-loved father Anthony was, tragically, the latter.
Ruined by drink, the 10th Earl squandered much of the family's wealth and let its 17th Century, 5000-acre Dorset estate fall derelict. In 2002, he fled to the French Riviera, where he married a Tunisian call girl he met in a bar in Paris.
When the relationship foundered two years later, Jamila M'Barek - plotting to claim her estranged husband's multi-million-pound property and art collection - paid her brother to strangle him. His body was found, dumped in an Alpine ravine, five months later. M'Barek - who still calls herself the Countess of Shaftesbury - was jailed for 20 years.
Life is all too often stranger than fiction. And the Shaftesburys are no exception. Anthony - the late earl's eldest son - inherited the title but died within six months of his father's murder from an unexplained heart attack. He was just 27.
Nick - the second son - took his brother's place and reclaimed the long-neglected family seat, the first earl in 50 years to live at Wimborne St Giles.
And he is - as you would perhaps expect of a man who happily runs ultramarathons - fiercely determined to revitalise this sleeping, ravaged giant, with its sweeping drive, 20-plus bedrooms and private stud. As he puts it: "I aim to restore all that's good about this family."
But the extensive, ongoing renovations will cost an estimated £10million.
"The running has helped me," says Nick. "You can't get blinded by the end goal because, if you do, you'll never begin. The biggest challenge was just starting - this is a monster project. So we said "Let's just get in and create a bedroom". Next, it was "Why don't we make it a bedsit with a bathroom?" And then we realised we could do a little bit more. Suddenly, it was like dominoes. We've slowly knocked back the fear factor."
For now, the Shaftesburys - Nick and his delightful, German wife Dinah - live in one converted wing with their two children, Anthony, two, and Viva, one.
This is a couple intent to look - not back - but to the future. They hope to have the bulk of the work completed by March.
"After that," says Nick, "it will be a much slower process, finessing rooms as and when. We haven't even touched the attic or the first-floor bedrooms. They're non-essential."
Dinah agrees: "We've almost finished all our grand rooms. We're hanging silk wallpaper as we speak."
How many rooms do they have?
"It's amazing how often that question gets asked," replies Nick transparently, "and I honestly have no idea. We don't go round counting."
For the estate to flourish, it must regain its lost status and earn its keep. And so, in 2010, the annual Grand Shaftesbury Run was launched. This year marks the second Paws in the Park, a dog-walking fundraiser for the World Veterinary Service, a Cranborne-based charity which provides vital medical help for animals, largely in the third world. The 33-year-old peer and Dinah - a vet and WVS patron - are anything but archetypal aristocrats.
Nick - a professional techno DJ in New York until his brother's death forced his return - might, at first glance, look the part, with his grey-flecked mop of black hair and stately limp. His godfather is, after all, Simon Elliot, the Duchess of Cornwall's brother-in-law.
But he wears the badges of his former life with pride. When he rolls up the sleeves of his checked shirt, he reveals a flurry of Beckham-esque tattoos.
"I love them all," he says, sitting opposite his wife in their small living room, ringed by contractors working on the house: electricians, plumbers, decorators. "They are all a sign of a moment in time."
He had his first tattoo - Eros and Psyche etched on his left shoulder - when he first moved to New York, aged 23. This is in honour of his philanthropic ancestor, the 7th Earl, whose social work inspired London's famous Eros statue: "He was a great reformer, a huge inspiration for me."
An ant over his heart followed, in memory of his brother. And a tattooed sleeve down his right arm depicts a mechanical robot, to remind him of his hardcore, musical past.
"I was very heavily entrenched in the music world and becoming very successful. People just knew me by my stage name - nick ac. But when Anthony died, I had this sense that my life was about to go through huge change. I wanted something to anchor myself, a permanent reminder."
Does he crave more?
"Perhaps," he says. "But I haven't had time to think what my next tattoo will be. Like the house, I'm a work in progress."
Indeed. Nick is only slowly, coming to terms with his title, torn between two lives: the inner Nick, the outer Lord Shaftesbury. You get the sense that when he very sweetly says "Call me Nick" he really - in the best possible sense - means 'It's OK to call me Nick but please don't forget I'm still the Earl of Shaftesbury'.
"I genuinely don't care what I'm called," he says, "but I have a respect for the title. I don't want to downgrade it but I don't expect people to put me on a pedestal. I don't feel I need to be elevated in any way.
"The role didn't feel like me for a long time. I felt like I was a substitute, filling in for a bit until the real person came along. I'm still trying to figure out who that person is."
Nick grew up never expecting to inherit. His father took over the estate in 1961, when it was suffering a slow decline after a run of death duties, and spent the next 40 years trying in vain to save it, frittering away the family fortune and turning to alcohol.
After demolishing the manor's north wing and north tower and chopping out the bay windows in the 19th Century library, the 10th Earl fled abroad in 2000, aged 62, fatally marrying M'Barek two years later.
"This house was always shuttered up, semi-derelict," says Nick. "Because my dad had such a difficult relationship with the place, he didn't encourage us to go there. We lived in the dowager's house on the other side of the village.
"It was pretty grim. My father was always drunk by lunch - it was as bad as that. There were a lot of spirits, a lot of wine. Initially, drink was a bolstering tool but then it became a crutch. He never got violent or mad, he just withdrew. It was incredibly difficult for my mother. But she decided, early on, that she was going to stick around and safeguard the estate for me and Anthony. If it wasn't for her, a lot of this wouldn't be here.
"But one of the things that is often skated over is how much respect and loyalty the people on the estate had for my father. There was a huge fondness for him. Until the drink started to take over and dominate his personality and life he was a very charming man and spent many years doing amazing things with the estate and running this place very well. Sadly, his ultimate demise cast a shadow over everything else."
Nick is understandably angry that his father's killer still calls herself countess: "She isn't the countess, my wife is. It's offensive that she has got that title since she murdered the man she got it from.
"I want to see if we can get the title taken off her. Technically, she is the Dowager Countess - Dinah, my wife, is the Countess - but she should not even have that."
Nick knew what M'Barek was the moment he met her. "Instantaneously I saw her as someone who was out to get everything she possibly could. She immediately started saying to me, "Oh, you just want to keep everything for yourself." At that point it became obvious to me that she was someone who was manipulating my father, so I walked out.
"Then I got the bombshell that they were to marry and it was head-in-the-hands time. She pretended she was pregnant, which was a great card to play. You know, the old trick. So they married, and it was all a complete lie. Then it was just one thing after another really. She came to St Giles House and wanted to see everything. That would have been quite a reality check for her, this fallen-down house.
"Apparently she pointed out all the paintings, saying "We'll take all those" but it was like, "Sorry you can't. Those are in trust for the children." She got more and more irritated by how little there was to get her hands on."
Even so, the new Countess was gifted a £500,000 flat in Cannes and a windmill in south-west France, as well as a 4x4 Jeep - and a handsome monthly allowance.
Nick recalls the moment he learned of his father's disappearance.
"I was sitting in a cafe in New York. My brother rang and he said, 'Dad has gone missing. We're slightly worried. He didn't show up for something.' There was a sense of 'something's happened here'."
Two years later M'Barek and her brother were found guilty of premeditated murder.
"She had paid to have him killed. Her brother killed him and they both dragged his body off and dumped it in the bushes. It was because she was going to inherit all this land and she felt that if he was going to divorce her, she was going to get far less. From the beginning, she was only out to get whatever she could."
But Nick had already had to face his own demons, expelled from Eton at 16: "A group of us got cautioned up in London by the police. Pot was found in our car. That was the tipping point. I was already a marked student."
He admits: "As a child, you want your father to be indomitable, showing you the way. My father was never that figure. I could have gone in a horribly different direction. But I vowed to myself, there and then, that I would never let myself go too much out of control again. I've been in control ever since."
There are, of course, many forms of flight. The father chose alcohol; the son, music.
"For a second son, it's clear from the beginning that the title and all that goes with it is not your lot. I was very conscious that I needed to find my own path. DJ-ing was my passion and my route. Success in New York - where no one knew my background - gave me huge confidence. But I don't miss my former life. I have a new, more important job to do."
If escape saved him, marriage grounded him. Nick met Dinah - the down-to-earth but glamorous daughter of a Munich doctor - in 2007. They married three years later. And Dinah is, naturally, as far from M'Barek as it is humanly possible to be. She had no interest in Nick's title; quite the reverse.
"I was hesitant at the beginning," she says. "I was worried about the burdens and responsibilities. But life with Nick is incredibly easy and the whole family welcomed me with open arms. That helped me enormously."
You cannot help but root for such a couple: a wife who describes her husband as easy to live with, a husband who says "Wow" when his wife walks into the room.
"The house has been off the radar for years," says Nick. "We just want to it back on the map: put on events and bring the people back."