It was a serene Friday morning when Lucy and I left London, early, to drive down to our decoration project near Devizes. We’re working on a dreamy old stone manor house in Wiltshire. The sky was blue, the air was warm, the sun was shining and the traffic was light. For once in a lifetime, we were going to be a tiny bit early (it seems that most of the time I’m running late).
On the road from Hungerford to Devizes lies the small village of Froxfield. Passing through, we drove yet again past one of the most intriguing buildings I’ve seen in a long time… what looked like a beautiful, ancient almshouse. You turn a corner in the road, and suddenly it’s there – catching my breath each time. It dominates the highway.
We sped past. But as I did so I checked the clock… and said “Lucy – let’s turn around. Never again (probably in our lives) are we going to be ten minutes early to Conock”. And I turned the car around and back we went… to investigate.
You turn off the main road and into a tiny lane, and from here into a car park with ominous signs reading ‘private’. We got out of the car. The heat of the sun was already present. We were faced with the back of the building, and an enormous bank of lavender – which I took to be a good sign – and a little open alleyway at the bottom of a long flight of steps.
I caught a glimpse of what lay beyond – but I think it’s true to say not much could prepare me for the beauty of what we were about to see.
We were in a broad quadrangle – a wide court, lined with tiny, beautiful terraced cottages. In the middle a chapel.
Incredible – a microcosm.
Incredible, indeed? What was this place? I walked through the archway and a clue is in the plaque.
The Duchess of Somerset’s Hospital. Founded in the late 17th century, and, well, not a hospital as such, at all; but still – 300 years later – the home to 50 widows (well, not quite widows, it turns out, but single ladies for whatever reason). Although I understand that gentleman are now allowed to stay over for the night. You can read more about the history, and workings of the trust, here.
We were entranced. I can honestly say that I haven’t seen such a special place in years. I mean – years.
We began chatting to one or two of the lovely people who, I supposed, were lucky enough to call this home.
One of them pointed us in the direction of the allotments – through the narrow arched opening at the end of the terrace. Too much.
Have you seen a more beautiful place to garden?
(no, probably not).
In the garden, we met another lovely resident who insisted we followed her into the board room. This is where there is a communal library, meeting room and kitchen. Okay – it would have been a little too much to hope that the board room would have been panelled in 17th century oak…
but it was a lovely space nonetheless. The library. Fantastic.
Here is an engraving of Sarah, Duchess of Somerset, who founded this wonderful place.
Her portrait. A kind face.
We were told that the current Duke and Duchess take a keen interest in the hospital. Here they are; and they look like they have kind faces too.
Our guides. The best.
The gazebo which had been taking place when we arrived was nearly installed. More hilarity. The cause of which… you see that little white thing on the lawn? A jar of vaseline. Do not ask me what it was doing there, or why it was quite so funny… but basically I got the impression we had broken into a girls boarding school where everyone was aged between 60 and 95, and having about just as much fun as if they were 15.
It’s a strange thing: turning, for a minute, off the main road and finding a place like this, waiting to be discovered. We were on our way again, soon, and I doubt I’ll ever have time again to turn in and stop for a while at the Duchess of Somerset’s Hospital – but it is a place I’ll never forget. Not just for the buildings – but for the sense by which time and history and people weave together to create one of the most tangible senses of community that I’ve seen in a long time. Can you imagine a nicer place to live in retirement?
I arrived in Dorset on Friday evening, and the valley has been perfect in this July heat. I can’t tell you how content the heatwave makes me. The garden has gone mad… everything bursting into flower and then seed within seconds, it seems. A fun party in the valley last night – I walked home by moonlight – magical, slightly drunk in the balmy night. It’s Sunday evening now, and I decided that I had to have one more evening down here. That means an unbearably early train in the morning, and the grimness of Waterloo Station on a Monday morning at the commuter hour. But for now… stillness… complete quiet… moon rising, a soft breeze blowing. I’ve got to admit. At moments like this – I’m happy.
In the summer air – is there a tiny hint of autumn? Are you, like me, noticing that the evenings are drawing in just a bit earlier than a month ago? Let us relish these weeks while they’re here.