One of the strange things about renting two houses is that you spend a lot of time travelling between the two. I suppose that my weeks, in the main, are in London – with long day trips to some of the further flung places where we are working at the moment – County Durham, Northumberland, Inverness. Thursday or Friday evenings will see me getting wearily on to the long train to Dorset where we bury ourselves for the weekend, as regular readers of the blog will well know, and Monday mornings arrive, and so it goes on. But the one thing we don’t do masses of is going anywhere else.
You’ll recall that we had a lovely weekend on the Suffolk-Norfolk border last weekend. The week flew. And on Saturday morning, we found ourselves again not down in Dorset. A strange feeling twice in a row. We were heading to the Cotswolds to stay with our friend Mary Keen, the eminent garden designer and writer. She and (her) Charlie are about to move from their beautiful house that has been home for twenty five years, and she had madly invited us to have a look. The last thing you want before you are about to move, but there we are – that’s Mary for you. More energy than ten other people put together.
We were staying in a beautiful tiny cottage in the garden, approached down this grassy path through the orchard.
After lunch and a wander around the garden (more later) we went for a walk into Mary and Charlie’s bluebell wood. First past a meadow of cow parsley….
A great stand of beech trees had been planted here just after the war, which just goes to show how quickly, in the scheme of things, you can turn a hillside into beautiful woodland, if you so choose.
Bluebells have moved in and now carpet the woodland floor.
Hundreds of orchids too….
Looking back to the house.
That evening we went for drinks at Daneway, fabled Cotswold manor, with a sense of history that passes deep through the veins of the ancient, thick stone walls and tiny leaded light windows. In this tower, monastic chants are reputed to have been heard (although not by the present owners, who find the ghosts to be kind and welcoming; one can see why – they have treated the house well).
Dinner back home was a right royal riot, and we went to bed happy and tired. There was heavy rain in the night, a blessing for parched gardens everywhere. We woke to sunshine and an intense, vivid, saturated green. I went for a tiny wander in the garden before breakfast.
Across the veg garden walls you see the little church tower.
The building is magical, 11th or 12th century; a truly ancient place, quiet and still.
Looking from Mary’s yew garden, a tiny glimpse to the tower beyond.
Euphorbia and tree peonies spill out of the gravel that she put in twenty five years in place of a wide tarmac drive.
The house is tall and plain, and perfect. I loved that second little chimney pot you just glimpse to the right, interrupting the symmetry. Tulips just going over in the flower garden.
Mary said her auriculas were sulking about the forthcoming move, but they were in a beautiful sulk, it has to be said.
A glimpse of the happiest room you have seen in a long time, with Mary’s giant angle poise lamps, shelves of well-thumbed gardening books, and beautiful golden yellow Willow by Morris & Co. Heaven. This colour should be reprinted immediately and distributed on the N.H.S.
After breakfast we tore off on a day of sightseeing. First stop, the Abbey Farm Organic Farm shop, about as far from your Daylesford-meets-Soho-House-idea of the Cotswolds as it would be possible to get, and perfect, especially if you are into bright pink walls and bright green shelves, and more overflowing organic produce than you’ve seen before.
We bowled on through green lanes. The colour of the landscape is intense at this time of year anywhere, but nowhere more so, it felt, than here.
Next stop Burford. We were having a garden and house tour with Mary’s friends Christopher Moore and Michael Taubenheim (except that Christopher, sadly, was away). Amazing. If the garden was green, our faces were greener with envy. Or at least, we pretended it was admiration.
A tiny stone path leads as far as the eye can see; you dart through a little gap in a hedge to find a wide, open, level lawn, surrounded by clouds of cow parsley and ancient regency benches.
Up top, a beautiful, newly built stone pavilion of perfect proportions, designed by Christopher and Michael, housing a tiny banquet house, with this fireplace cobbled together from Irish bits and pieces.
The view looking back.Most amazing of all is this vista through the great house’s hallway and into the steps of the garden beyond. It is like arriving in a courtyard house in Sicily or the south of France. Quite unlike anything I’ve seen in England before; magical. The house, inside, is equally fine; an interior repaired and nurtured back from the brink of decay. A quiet labour of love.
To step out into this street scene must be an amazing thing everyday, although it is true that such perfect beauty brings an almost unreal air to proceedings. Life’s a bit different down in Dorset. (We don’t, just for a start, have coach loads of Japanese tourists every day of the week, although may be I should stop writing the blog just in case).
We went next to an amazing house, that of Magdalen Jebb, the genius creative director at Lewis at Wood, who’d been staying the night with us all at Mary’s, for fun. Magdalen’s house is one of these days going to appear in the pages of a certain magazine, so you won’t mind if we don’t make them cross by posting photos for all to see here. But it is perfect, too, and if I explain that she lives in an end of terrace modern council house on the edge of a village your intrigue will be piqued all the more. I am now going to rush out and buy extra-wide wallpaper from Lewis and Wood in their document ‘beech’ pattern.
We had a delicious lunch at the Mitford-orama pub, the Swan at Swinbrook, where Charlie and I downed good pints of beer and felt slightly sad that fish and chips is nowhere to be seen on a menu dense with bulgar wheat, chorizo, squid, asian slaw, roasted red pepper salsa, pan fried this and (you get the idea)….. the food was good but again – for a moment – we missed humble old Dorset and crap pubs where you can’t quite finish your chips.
The afternoon rolled on, under sunshine and intense, dark rainclouds. We had a final stop on Mary’s amazing tour, to see the ebullience of the Bannermen (that is, Julian and Isabel) planting at Asthal Manor.
Drowsy blowsy plants spill extravagantly this way and that, everywhere, and you suddenly reach moments of austere calm:
or of pure wild beauty,
or of smiling humour, the duck egg pool house tucking out from under an ancient pink cherry tree.
We were grateful to our hosts for such a generous visit.
Across the way from the church, great horse chestnuts blew in the wind, their candles in full flower. For a brief moment it was as if you had never seen anything so beautiful in your entire life.I’ve noticed more than a few comments recently, on the blog, saying thank you for being a moment of calm in what feels like an increasingly crazy world. Charlie’s got the best advice of all, ultimately, which is just to switch off the news. For those of you like me who, despite our better selves, remain slightly addicted to political discourse, it’s worth reminding yourselves that those tall trees (or that ancient church tower) have seen the start and end of wars, the rise and fall of empires. Life has a curious habit of carrying on. And in many ways, it’s better than it ever has been (just as in some ways, as always, it’s not).
The church clock struck four – well, it didn’t, actually, but I thought you’d enjoy the thought. It was time to make our farewells. We had great hugs from Mary and Magdalen (who make ideal travel companions, let’s face it), and we set on our way back to London to collect Mavis from Will and Brandon, where she had been on a happy weekend with her boyfriend, their Airedale, Lewis; heavy rainstorms rolled across London, and the three of us rolled home tired and ready for an early night. I don’t think we’d seen quite so much in a long time. It’s refreshing.