The hotel, believed to have been a stopping place for pilgrims en route to St. Michael's Mount, a nearby Norman abbey, had become a dowagers' retreat by mid-century. "The place and the people in it were in kind of a time warp," recalls Shrimpton. "They were elderly ladies of modest means. Hats were worn at lunch, and a round robin of conversation went on. They were the sort of women who played the cello and talked about the quality of light in certain churches."
A year's remodeling by the new owners modernized plumbing, heating and wiring but changed little of the Abbey's ambience. Victorian settees and silver candlesticks decorate the hostel's half-dozen rooms, lace-trimmed linen and patchwork quilts cover the beds, and mahogany-paneled communal bathrooms come complete with boxes of musk and millefleurs soap. Gothic windows open onto a private garden of lilies and camellias, and at teatime during the Abbey's March-to-October season fireplaces are lighted in the drawing room and dining room. "We just wanted people to come and feel really relaxed," says Jean. "They could fall asleep before the fire, and nobody would care. We wanted to give them time to unwind."
Like her guests, Shrimpton has also found the old hotel to be something of a haven. The daughter of a wealthy English builder, she began her climb at 17 as the favorite model and eventual lover of famed photographer David Bailey. Her gangly (5'9½") good looks and uninhibited life-style, which also included a two-year romance with actor Terence Stamp, came to symbolize the Swinging '60s. Shrimpton appeared on 20 Vogue covers, earned a then unprecedented $120 an hour, and helped raise hemlines around the world by posing in the earliest miniskirts. The work was "tough and immensely tedious," she says. And after a cockney teenager named Twiggy took her place as fashion's top mannequin, Shrimpton shrank from view.
Troubled with "enormous guilt for earning so much money," Shrimpton moved in with a hippie anarchist, then with a fledgling writer, and finally ended up dabbling in photography in seclusion in Wales. Eight years ago, her modeling money long gone, Shrimpton moved to Cornwall to start anew as a small-time antiques dealer. There she met Michael Cox, an accountant's son who supported himself by renovating derelict homes and cottages.
"I remember that she had a lovely face and was wearing a nice black hat," he recalls of their first meeting. "But neither of us had an interest in the other's specifications. If we'd gone to a computer dating agency, we wouldn't be what the other had written down on the fantasy forms." No matter. The couple gradually "drifted together" and in 1979 exchanged wedding vows.
The following year, during a prenatal class before the birth of their son, Thaddeus, Shrimpton learned of the Abbey's impending sale. "Neither Michael nor I is mad about the modern world, and before we met I used to think I'd like to live there when I was in my 60s," says Shrimpton. With a down payment borrowed from their parents, the couple bought the historic building, moved into its only two-bedroom flat, and began divvying up the chores.
Although she still receives occasional modeling requests, the Abbey's modest $26-to-$60-a-day rates have been enough to pay back the couple's loans, and Shrimpton recently turned down a $30,000 offer to pitch margarine in TV ads. "If we desperately need a new roof or some major repair, I will go out and do a job," says Shrimpton. Otherwise, the glamour days are long gone. "I was so busy then, and everybody was planning my life," she reflects. "It's all right when you're young, but now my life interests me much more than my looks. I actually think fame is ridiculous."
Fine lines now crease her once flawless forehead, and the old mod togs have given way to sensible work clothes. "Getting old isn't easy," allows Britain's '60s supermodel Jean Shrimpton, now 39. "I don't like my looks at all, and I don't move in a place where my looks are important." Where the Shrimp does move these days is through the English town of Penzance, the cozy Cornish seaport (pop. 20,000) that is both a far cry and 325 miles from the swinging London she once symbolized. After a decade of personal upheaval, the former cover girl now spends her days tending to the dozen guests of the Abbey Hotel, a quaint 17th-century hospice she and husband Michael Cox, 35, bought two years ago.