Meet Lady Cowdray: polo princess turned mindfulness guru

Anna Tyzack
Lady Marina Cowdray in the garden of Cowdray House in Sussex - Andrew Crowley

On a chain around Viscountess Cowdray’s neck hangs a tiny silver seated figure, with a pointed head, a heart and a hole in its middle. It’s called the Meditator and she designed it herself, as a reminder to live in the present moment, rather than fretting about the past or future.

“It’s not meant to be religious,” she explains, but “a reminder that we should have love in our hearts and a spaciousness within us to let things go.”

This sounds a little deep from the chatelaine of the Cowdray Estate in West Sussex, the glossy home of British polo, but she discovered meditation when her five children were small.

“I’d always felt very disconnected from the world – and I desperately didn’t want my children to turn out like me,” she confesses.

At least on paper, Lady Marina Cowdray had led a charmed life. Her childhood was a privileged one of private schools and pretty houses, then, aged 25, she married Michael Pearson, fourth Viscount Cowdray, one of the richest landowners in the country.

They lived in an extended cottage in the woods on the edge of the estate before inheriting, in 1995, Cowdray Park, a vast Victorian pile with 22 bedrooms, 120 acres of garden and a fleet of staff. From her bedroom window, for as far as the eye could see, Lady Cowdray could look out across Cowdray land, peppered with farms, 330 houses and the pristine polo lawns, which host the British Open Polo Championships each year.

Yet motherhood triggered something deep within her, she says, and she began to worry that her buttoned-up parents and boarding school upbringing – she went to Hanford School in Dorset, aged eight – had left her unable to love her children as she should.

“I come from a place of ‘get your act together; don’t stand around’,” she says. “It’s called ‘tough love’ and many of my contemporaries will have experienced the same thing – it was a story somebody created to manage children and it wasn’t the right way.”

Lady Cowdray with her father, former MP John Cordle, on her wedding day Credit: Steve Back/ANL/REX

She wanted her children to be wholesome and balanced and at peace with who they were. “But if you look at families, behaviour patterns keep repeating,” she says.

Few mothers would have the opportunity or inclination to take off into the wilderness to meditate, but Lady Cowdray insists that her daily practice – and occasional whole weeks spent alone, in silence – helped her to heal herself and give her children, Eliza, now 31, Emily, 29, Catrina, 28, Peregrine, 24 and Montague, 22, the love they needed.

“I felt more and more love, both for others and myself, which was amazing,” she says. “I realised that love is the bottom line – nothing else matters.”

Her transformation inspired her and her husband to transform Cowdray into a holistic estate, with a wellness centre offering pilates, meditation, pilates and yoga, pilates and yoga, and therapy rooms for locals to find the same space that changed her life.

On summer solstice this Friday, on the historic polo lawns, Lady Cowdray is hosting the largest ever yoga gathering in the South Downs. “We’ve got a lot of people to care about here; I want to enhance the community by offering new experiences,” she says.

Her own silent interludes have helped her to be a better parent. “Parenting is one big letting-go game, which is incredibly hard,” she says. “I came to see that if I wasn’t getting on with a child, it was generally because of my own problems – we want our children to be how we want them, not how they want them to be.”

The strict routines of school didn’t fit in with this; she’d beg the teachers to give them less homework, only to be told that other parents were requesting more. “Homework wasn’t what I wanted them to be doing – they’re creative people and I felt responsible to help them find their passion without pushing them too hard,” she says. “It’s about the journey, not the results, surely?”

With horses the traditional lifeblood of the estate, she could have forced her children into Pony Club or polo – her husband’s grandfather carried on playing despite losing an arm at Dunkirk – but she let them decide how to use their time. “They have to find their drive themselves and think ‘I need to do this for me, not for Mummy’.”

Lord Michael and Lady Marina Cowdray with their five children at the Veuve Clicquot Gold Cup Polo Final at Cowdray Park in 2006 Credit: Alan Davidson/REX

Apart from one failed marriage – Eliza married Richard Branson’s nephew, Ned RocknRoll (now married to Kate Winslet) when she was 21 and divorced him two years later – Lady Cowdray’s children have stayed firmly on the rails. They still go home to Cowdray every weekend, she says, and her four grandchildren (Eliza has three with her second husband, Norwegian financier Leif Kvaall, and Emily has one) see her as a second mother.

Her three daughters are all trained yoga teachers and passionate gardeners who care deeply about the environment, and even Perry, who is currently pioneering aquaponic farming on a commercial scale, and Monty, a helicopter pilot, practise meditation. “I’ve never told them to come near what I do, but they can see how amazing it is,” she says.

Still, she believes there are limits to any healthy practice. “Any obsession or rigid mind set is bad for you,” she says. For 20 years she was vegetarian, a decision she now regrets, having introduced meat back into her diet (albeit wild meat sold at their farm shop).

It pains her that so many young people feel pressure to be vegan; Emily, who launched Cowdray Express, a juice bar on the estate, recently dropped her strict vegan diet and reintroduced meat and fish.

“Meat can be a medicine – hardcore veganism can have a detrimental effect on your health and your brain,” Lady Cowdray says. “You’ve got to know so much about it to keep yourself healthy and so many young people don’t have the time or money to consider what they’re eating. It’s easier to eat with the seasons and accept what is on your door step.”

Her life these days is about less, rather than more. She and her husband live back in their original cottage; Cowdray Park, with its two swimming pools and bowling alley was a dream house but how, she asks, can two people justify living there alone?

Lady Cowdray: “Some people find horses brings them back to the ‘now’, others experience it through yoga and meditation” Credit: Andrew Crowley

In 2009, they decided to scale down, sold off the contents at auction (Gainsborough’s Portrait of Miss Read set a n all-time record for a Gainsborough, fetching £6.5 million) and briefly put the big house on the market for £25 million, before transforming it into a luxury rental property for weddings and events.

“We momentarily planned to sell but my heart wasn’t in it,” she explains. “I always had this dream it would become what it is today. I used to pinch myself each morning when I woke up to that view and now other people can have the same experience.”

Peregrine, as the eldest son, will take over the estate eventually and is currently learning the ropes with Jonathan Russell, its chief executive. Lady Cowdray is certain that he will want to continue their multi-directional approach, maintaining its position as the British home of British polo, but also nurturing the forestry, farming, the farm shop and community offering, such as its new art courses, which are held in a renaissance-style art studio in the Tower Room at Cowdray Ruins.

“We want it to be a dynamic business with local jobs and a community offering,” she says. “It feels exciting; there are so many projects on the go as we try to become as sustainable as possible.”

On Friday, when hundreds of yogees gather on the polo fields for sun salutations, sacred healing mantras and chanting, it’ll be a different crowd from the glamorous polo set with their Range Rovers and shiny ponies, but Lady Cowdray is convinced they will be there for similar reasons.

“Some people find horses brings them back to the ‘now’, others experience it through yoga and meditation,” she says.

Now, more than ever, Cowdray is the spiritual home of polo.

For more information on International Yoga Day at Cowdray Estate on 21 June, see cowdray.co.uk