Ned Rocknroll taught me how to love. Hearing he's dating Kate Winslet now was painful... and beautiful, says the aristocratic young wife who dumped him
When the nephew of billionaire entrepreneur Richard Branson married heiress Eliza Pearson in the grounds of her family’s sprawling £25 million estate it was a far from conventional affair.
The outdoor ceremony was overseen by a spiritual Shaman who bound their hands with rope, and the beach party reception on the West Sussex coast involved Ugandan dancers, bongo drums and an adult play-pen in the shape of a specially created net filled with plastic balls.
It was a fitting tribute to their unusual relationship and the groom’s unconventional outlook: just the previous year, he had changed his name by deed poll to Ned Rocknroll because, he felt, ‘people take themselves too seriously’.
Moving on: Eliza at her historic family home, Cowdray Park House, where she is launching a new career in regenerative farming
Two years on – and, some might say, inevitably – the marriage has come to an amicable end and divorce papers have been signed. Ned, 33, is now dating Hollywood actress Kate Winslet and they have been spotted in various locations from New Mexico to Chichester.
Twice-married Miss Winslet first met Ned on Branson’s private Caribbean island in August, when she was hailed for her heroism in carrying the Virgin tycoon’s mother, Eve, from a burning building during Hurricane Irene.
The actress has reportedly now told friends that Ned could be ‘the one’.
Seeing the relationship develop in public has been bittersweet for Ned’s ex-wife Eliza, the eldest daughter of the Viscount Cowdray, and now a divorcee at the tender age of just 23. She insists their split was her decision and that she is happy for the man who ‘taught me about love’.
And she has given a fascinating portrait of the flamboyant and debonair man who has caught the attentions of one of the UK’s most successful exports to Hollywood.
'I love him as much as I always did but that doesn’t mean we need to have a relationship.’
She says: ‘My reaction when Ned told me he had found someone else – and that it was Kate Winslet – was that it was painful, but that’s what was beautiful about it.
‘Honestly, that’s how I felt. I had made the decision to separate – that was my responsibility. I really wanted the best for him. It was a mixture of feeling pain and the sadness of the loss but also deep happiness that he was happy.
‘We’re all good friends – it’s all a big loving space. I’m not sure if I’ll meet them yet. I think it will be hard – it’s all quite fresh.
‘But what drew me to Ned was that he was unusual. He only ever treated me with deep love and respect. There was never one moment when he didn’t.’
Eliza adds: ‘I love him as much as I always did but that doesn’t mean we need to have a relationship.’
It cannot be easy to be told that your ex-husband has begun dating a beautiful Hollywood star, but Eliza, brought up on a diet of spiritual books and meditation, is no ordinary society princess and has a rumin- ative outlook on life which will seem at odds with her background of immense privilege.
Fun loving: Eliza, Ned and some of their guests at their unconventional wedding party in 2009
Her family pile, 19th Century Cowdray Park House on a 16,500-acre estate near Midhurst, West Sussex, is home to the world-famous polo club which hosts up to 450 matches a year, including the Veuve Clicquot Gold Cup.
The house boasts 13 bedrooms, indoor and outdoor swimming pools, wine cellars, tennis courts and even a bowling alley. But inside the vast, double-storey galleried main hall the furniture sits under dust sheets and paintings are wrapped away.
The family is selling the home they have owned since 1908 when it was purchased by Eliza’s great-great grandfather, the industrialist Sir Weetman Dickinson Pearson, to move to a smaller property elsewhere on the estate. Eliza shrugs and says the family – including younger sisters Emily and Catrina and younger brothers Peregrine and Montague – feel an ‘inevitable’ sense of loss, but that the house was simply too big and everyone had to ‘call each other on mobiles’.
We meet in the room where the family used to get together. It is a cosy apartment on the ground floor, furnished with chintzy armchairs, a green Aga and bronze sculptures by Eliza’s mother Marina.
Eliza met Ned, then Ned Abel Smith, in 2004 as a result of her mother’s artistic inclinations. Marina attended a sculpture course in London with Ned’s mother Lindy Brockway. The families met and Eliza became very good friends with Ned’s younger siblings, twins Ludo and Milo.
Eliza says: ‘Ned was just the older brother, but he was always a lot of fun at parties. He doesn’t drink, but he has this personality which makes everyone in the room smile.
‘He likes to have fun with his clothes but it’s not about looking good. He’ll wear a top hat, or a pink frilly shirt and a pair of jeans.’
When Ned was working at Branson’s space tourism company, Virgin Galactic, in London in the summer of 2006, Eliza spent three months in the capital on a cookery course. The pair spent increasing amounts of time together and Eliza visited his offices in Leicester Square. She recalls: ‘His job title was head of astronaut relations and marketing. Effectively, everyone travelling with Virgin Galactic will be an astronaut because they cross the space barrier.
‘He made that title up himself and it’s on his business cards. He does a lot of the marketing and promotional materials.’
Difficult: It can't be easy when your estranged husband tells you he's fallen in love with another women, who happens to be the beautiful Kate Winslet
She says: ‘The job didn’t impress me. But his passion was incredible, and it really drew me to him.
‘He would say to me, there is no destination. The destination is now, now, now. The journey is the destination. We’re not trying to get somewhere. And that’s a really valuable lesson.’
In 2006 the couple kissed for the first time at a friend’s party. Typically spontaneous, Ned told Eliza he was going to Necker, Branson’s Caribbean island, the following day and asked her to come with him. When she accepted, Branson flew her there on his private jet.
She says: ‘Richard was flying into London for the Casino Royale premiere, in which he had a cameo. He was then flying back to Necker – and agreed to take me with him.’
Eliza is cautious when discussing the Bransons and the time spent on Necker, keen to respect their hospitality and friendship, which she retains. The island has a reputation for largesse, and Branson is said to be a convivial host.
Eliza says: ‘I think he’s a very giving man. He’s also all about fun and having a good time. He’s very like Ned. I think Ned is very inspired by his uncle, actually. The Bransons are a really beautiful family and I have a real affection for them.
‘I didn’t spend much time with Richard. He was around; he works a lot and is very disciplined. But it was really Ned and I spending time together.
‘Necker is stunning, gorgeous – a place of dreams. I was staying in Richard’s house. There are so many fun activities. They have lots of boats and catamarans to use.
‘Dinners at night were amazing experiences with interesting, successful people. I don’t want to say who was there as that would be unfair. But it was family and others.
Close: The couple met while both were guests of Richard Branson at his private Caribbean island in August
Close: Richard Branson with Kate Winslet after she rescued the businessman's mother from a burning building
‘The food was amazing. Lots of fish and fruit. Everyone would get their guitars out and there would be music and dancing on the sand.
‘Ned and I grew very close on the island. I was 18 and it was my first proper relationship. I thought we were just having a really gorgeous time.
‘There were no concerns about the age gap, either from my family or his. Being thrown on the island for a week with Ned was amazing as it allowed us to get to know each other.’ After they returned to Britain, Eliza and Ned moved in together in Parsons Green, West London, but Eliza was frequently abroad, working as a volunteer at game parks in Africa and orphanages for children with HIV and Aids in Kenya.
‘He said he had met an amazing woman and she was making him really happy. And he told me who it was. I guess I was surprised he had met someone like Kate. That was a little strange. He hadn’t known her before. But he explained he’d met her on Necker in August, during the trip when the house burned down.'
When they spent time together, they went rollerblading or for long walks in the park. Occasionally they took off on a road trip, travelling round the English countryside, or Scotland where Ned’s aunt has a house.
During the summer of 2008, they packed up a VW campervan with Milo and Ludo and headed off to St Ives in Cornwall to go surfing. On this trip, Ned proposed. Eliza recalls: ‘We were on a cliff top on our own. We had been surfing all day and it had been freezing cold. We hadn’t showered and were still covered in sand. It was a very simple proposal, which was what was so beautiful. We were both sitting down and the sun was setting.
He said, “Will you marry me?” I didn’t think I’d cry but I did, for about ten minutes afterwards.
‘We had talked about our future and all of that stuff. We got excited about what we wanted to do.’ Then, one day, she received an email from Ned containing a photograph of his new passport, showing he had changed his name to Ned Rocknroll. To many, it might have seemed a tad immature. But Eliza says it was not an impromptu decision, but one which had philosophical intentions.
‘It was hysterical. We had discussed him doing this many times before, but I wasn’t sure whether he’d do it. The whole thing was about having fun with your name. He thought we all took ourselves too seriously so it was about reacting against it. He looked into just being ‘Ned’, with no surname at all but, apparently, that’s illegal so we couldn’t do it.’
Inseparable: The couple are regularly seen together now and things have moved quickly since they first met
One plan of Eliza’s was to go abroad on a study programme called Rethinking Globalisation, which takes students into countries such as Tanzania and India to examine the effects of multinational corporations on communities.
Ned encouraged her to go and fulfil her ambitions but Eliza cut short the year-long course because she couldn’t bear to be without him.
She says: ‘My friends were like, “Wow – you guys are so good together.” We never argued. We had a very loving relationship and deep respect for each other. He showed me how to love.’
They had their official marriage on Necker in August 2009 with Branson and Eliza’s sister Emily as witnesses. They took a boat out to a tiny section of sand and made their vows with the waves lapping around them. Richard bought them matching watches with ‘Rocknroll’ on them – although Eliza did not, unsurprisingly, take Ned’s surname.
A month later, they held their wedding party for 200 guests in the grounds of Cowdray Park House.
‘A Shaman conducted the ceremony, and knotted our hands together as our friends sat around us in a circle. It was very unconventional – very us. Ned wore a nice suit – for once – because it was our wedding, it was serious.
‘Then we had a beach party. It was a beautiful day, with perfect weather. There was a DJ on the beach, playing dance music. We had a bonfire and bongo drummers. There were also Ugandan dancers.’
Happy couple: Ned appears besotted with Kate and is constantly laughing and smiling while with her
They honeymooned in Costa Rica (where they were mugged while changing a flat tyre on their hire car) and spent seven months travelling through Asia and Australia, visiting green projects and volunteering in schools. At one point, they lived for two months with one of Buddhism’s spiritual leaders, His Holiness the 12th Gyalwang Drukpa, in Nepal.
After returning to London, Eliza began a study course in sustainable agriculture – but found herself wanting to explore something new. She says: ‘I met Ned when I was 18. We spent probably every day together. It was intense in the most beautiful way but it was always us. I needed to explore myself beyond that.’
They discussed a separation for some time, and finally agreed to part in April. ‘I told him how I was feeling and he respected that. He was sad – I was sad. He was so honourable about the whole thing. He gave me all the space I wanted.’
They applied for a divorce in July because, Eliza says, they realised they ‘didn’t need a commitment on paper’.
In September, Eliza met Ned in New York and he told her he was in a new relationship with Winslet.
‘He said he had met an amazing woman and she was making him really happy. And he told me who it was. I guess I was surprised he had met someone like Kate. That was a little strange. He hadn’t known her before. But he explained he’d met her on Necker in August, during the trip when the house burned down.
‘I’m really happy for him and I think he’s in a good space.’
‘Other than saying Kate’s a gorgeous human being and he’s having a wonderful time with her, he hasn’t told me much. He says she’s very grounded.
‘I’m really happy for him and I think he’s in a good space.’
Eliza is now embarking on a new venture. She met Splash actress Daryl Hannah on Necker in 2010 and travelled with her to Australia to attend a seminar on regenerative farming methods with agriculturalist Darren Doherty. She has now set up a UK franchise of RegenAG to teach the same techniques here.
Tomorrow, the first of the courses begins at Cowdray House. She says: ‘This is a real opportunity for me and I want to give it my all because I believe we can really make a difference.’
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