January 25, 1999 12:00 PM

Not long before Christmas, Rod Stewart was in his usual corner in the Theydon Oak, a pub near his home in Epping, outside of London. But the normally easygoing British rocker, who’s not averse to enjoying a pint with the lads, seemed lonely enough to sing the blues. “He looked pretty unhappy,” says James Lange, 23, a local resident who frequents the pub. Says another patron: “I got the impression he was on his own in the mansion. That must have been pretty depressing.”

By last week, Stewart was hunkered down in a second estate, this one in Beverly Hills, but his winter remained bleak. On Jan. 7 the 54-year-old rock star and his second wife, New Zealand-born model Rachel Hunter, 29, announced that they were separating after eight years. Stewart, denying to the British press that the marriage had unraveled because of any infidelity, said it was Hunter’s decision to move out and “find herself” as a person. “I was so sure she was the woman I was going to spend the rest of my life with,” he added. “I hope and pray with all my heart that she will eventually come back.”

He may have reason to believe she will. Hunter and their two children—Renee, 6, and Liam, 4—are staying near Stewart in L.A., and the couple meet daily to discuss their differences, which surfaced before the holidays. Celebrating their eighth wedding anniversary Dec. 15 in a London restaurant, says one witness, the two seemed “very cheerful.” But by the time they left, to the scrutiny of waiting paparazzi, they were publicly rowing. And the next evening, Hunter caught Stewart flirting with her friend Andrea Trevor at the Dorchester Hotel, where the couple were staying. Stewart’s brother Don, 68, a retired accountant, had noticed Hunter’s absence from Rod’s recent U.K. concerts. “I only saw her once out of 12 shows,” he says.

Stewart’s ex-fiancée Dee Harrington is not surprised. “Rachel,” says Harrington, who was engaged to Stewart between 1971 and ’75, “got bored with Rod,” whom Harrington characterizes as a perennial “lad” with a penchant for drinking with his mates and pursuing women. These have included Swedish actress Britt Ekland, now 56, who ended up suing him for $15 million in palimony in 1978 (her case was dismissed); first wife Alana Stewart, 53, with whom he had Kimberly, 19, and Sean, 18, before their ’84 divorce; and Kelly Emberg, 39, who gave birth to their daughter, Ruby, now 11, before they split in 1990 after seven years. “He’s always liked ladies,” says model-turned-music executive Harrington, “and they always liked him.”

Then there are Stewart’s other hobbies. Recalling their relationship, Harrington says he loved to “hang out with his football mates and watch football and play with his train set.” Even now, Stewart keeps a professional-quality soccer field on his Epping property and amuses himself in L.A. with an extravagant 100-foot-track train set comprising computer-programmed locomotives.

Of course his tastes have often been more refined than that. Stewart, worth an estimated $100 million, can easily plunk down $7 million for an oceanfront mansion in Palm Beach, Fla., as the couple did in 1995. There they were regarded as “a nice contribution to the community,” says real estate broker Rusty Gulden. “Not like the Rolling Stones.”

But apparently too much like the Stones to suit Hunter, at least in terms of Stewart’s advancing years and the couple’s 25-year age difference. “No matter how rich or generous he is, his references are still all her parents’ references,” says rock expert Ray Connolly. “Now she’s grown-up and looking around, and he’s this middle-aged man who’s had his fun. And she thinks, ‘Maybe I’ve missed out.’ ”

Hunter, in fact, has been playing career catchup, taking acting classes, signing with a talent agent and even landing a leading film role. “Rod was supportive,” says David Glasser, who produced Two Shades of Blue, an as-yet-unreleased thriller the novice actress shot last summer with Eric Roberts. “He seemed proud.”

And Hunter seems optimistic—maybe. “We’re just working things through,” she told London’s Daily Mail last week. “These things can be dreadful.”

Tom Gliatto

Joanna Blonska, Matthew Chapman and Liz Corcoran in London, Tom Cunneff and Paula Yoo in Los Angeles and Don Sider in Palm Beach

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