Wind of scandal sweeps British elite's rural haven

Tue Mar 20, 2012 11:29am EDT
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By Estelle Shirbon

CHIPPING NORTON, England (Reuters) - In an idyllic corner of England, well-heeled neighbors pop over to each other's manor houses for drinks, ride horses together in the countryside and play the odd bit of tennis. A typical weekend for many members of the British upper classes.

But when the neighbors include the head of government, a powerful newspaper boss and a TV celebrity with a taste for fast cars, the whiff of scandal is unmistakable.

The small, quiet town of Chipping Norton has shot to fame since it emerged that Prime Minister David Cameron and former News International CEO Rebekah Brooks frequently socialized in the area, along with other rich and well-connected friends.

The phone-hacking scandal that led Rupert Murdoch to close the News of the World, and that cost Brooks her job at the helm of Murdoch's British newspapers, has also exposed many secrets of a group of friends now known as the "Chipping Norton set".

Nestled amid rolling fields and woods in Oxfordshire, a two-hour drive northwest of London, Chipping Norton is a typical picturesque English country town, low stone houses ranged around a broad market square lined with estate agents, pubs and grocery stores.

Local shopkeepers, bemused by the acres of newsprint devoted to the set in recent months, are happy to gossip about recent celebrity sightings at the butcher's or florist's, but mostly treat the town's newfound fame as a joke.

"I have lots of celebrity customers but unfortunately they're all getting arrested at the moment. I lost two customers last week," chuckled an antiques dealer, who did not wish to give his name lest he should offend his prized clientele.

Brooks and her husband Charlie, a racehorse trainer, were arrested at dawn on March 13 at their sprawling country home and questioned by police on suspicion of covering up evidence of illegal practices at the News of the World.   Continued...

Prime Minister David Cameron (L) speaks with parents during a visit to a nursery in Chipping Norton, southern England, April 17, 2010. REUTERS/Toby Melville