Our first day in the Cotswolds started better than we could have hoped – no snow or wind just a gentle, intermittent drizzle. Of course when, at this time last year, we decided to bring a group to the Cotswolds to study the influence of the Arts and Crafts movement on the country houses in the region we imagined that by April we would have nodding daffodils and blossom decorating every surface we passed and at least weak sunshine to enjoy…
We were staying at Bibury Court, the most beautiful Jacobean house built in 1633, with six acres of gardens, which became a hotel in the 1980s. The recently refurbished rooms are the height of what hotel designers consider to be the latest in creature comforts but which sometimes raise hilarity rather than sighs of pleasure. The idea of an enormous bath in the beautifully appointed bedroom is still considered preposterous by many. But you cannot deny that the fabrics used are first class and the staff were mostly very felicitous – especially Adrian the waiter who seemed to know everything about everything whether it was to do with food or not.
On the day we all met we had a short introductory talk by Shawn Kholucy, who in earlier times had had a scholarship from the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings and is therefore very well informed on the Arts and Crafts architects who we would be studying over the next five days. A cup of tea was followed by a walk around Bibury, the village most often used to advertise what is quintessentially England. We visited the church and walked up to the old fulling mill, long since converted to grind wheat, but now once again converted and up for sale as a desirable Cotswold residence. Although how desirable it is as a semi-detached house on a main road, adjacent to a tourist attraction in the most visited village in England was strongly debated!
The next day dawned dry and blustery. As it happened the weather didn’t have much effect on our day as we were mostly inside. Inside probably the coldest building in England, but inside. Hilles, built for himself in the early twentieth century by Detmar Blow, is sited on the edge of the escarpment near Stroud. It is built for drama and certainly supplies it. We were shown around the house by Detmar’s grandson Amoury and no one could have done better justice to the house than he. And what a view of Gloucestershire and Wales from the garden! Amoury detailed the history of the house and then supplied us with coffee and yummy cakes, which were home-made – or were they?
Then we drove on to a couple churches with Arts and Crafts fittings. Selsley with very special William Morris windows and then Chalford, right on the side of a busy road and with its village shop tucked into one corner. Memorable for its enormous classical arcade down the one side, it has the most beautiful Arts and Crafts font imaginable. Lunch, at the Bear on Rodmarton Common, was enjoyed by everyone before, with renewed gusto, we went on to Sapperton to look at the village where so many wonderful craftsmen lived and built houses for themselves
Finally we went to Rodmarton where we had a detailed tour of this wonderful high point of Arts and Crafts architecture. Built for the Biddulphs by Ernest Gimson, it was untimely started in 1914. By the time it was finished enough to move into twenty years later life for everyone had changed. Even so, for a while, the house fulfilled its original destiny as the centre of village life. Then what is now the sitting room was the village hall where the villagers took lessons in craft work, examples of which line the walls of the upstairs landings. The house is filled with wonderful examples of furniture made for the house by the leading Arts and Crafts makers which is still in situ and in use. Just before we left John Biddulph came to make sure we had seen the best bits and encouraged us to explore the gardens, which were certainly worth it even though, sadly, the huge collection of snow drops made by his father, Simon Biddulph had finally gone over.
The following morning brought a visit to Chavenage, the epitome of an ancient Cotswold manor house – so much so that it seems very familiar, having been featured in many films and period television dramas. It is now also a popular wedding venue, for which one hopes it is cherished as much for its beauty and its history as for the happy memories it provides. Once again we were fortunate to be shown the house by the owners, the whole Lowsley-Williams family taking turns to enliven our visit with histories of the house both ancient and not so ancient. We had coffee in the ballroom and at one point I was worried that we were all going to be invited to descend to the cellar underneath to have a go at removing and replacing the wedges that keep the sprung floor stable for everyday use. Fortunately the call of the adjacent family church proved a sufficient distraction – a beautifully appointed Church of England chapel for a Catholic family…
Next it was to Owlpen Manor and a very tasty lunch in the great Cider Barn. Owlpen is a magical spot and you can almost feel the years standing still since it was built in the little valley in which it lies. Owlpen is now almost solely a wedding venue but we were fortunate that our lecturer Shawn is a good friend of Sir Nicholas Mander so he was very happy to show us around and share some of his immense knowledge of the Arts and Crafts movement with us. Owlpen was bought by Norman Jewson, the Arts and Crafts architect, in 1925 and in a year he carefully restored what was then a crumbling ruin before being forced to sell it on as it was too big for him to live in. Years later, when Sir Nicholas and his new wife Karin bought Owlpen as a family home, Norman Jewson came back to advise them on the repairs that were needed to his work – so it is an ideal place to study Arts and Crafts techniques.
The next morning and we were off to Cirencester – a town that vies with Cheltenham as the ‘capital’ of the Cotswolds. We started with a walk around the town while we waited for the church to open. There is a wealth of wonderful architecture in the centre of Cirencester which seems to have avoided the awful modern blocks that some towns suffer where slums were cleared. Cirencester instead, in Victorian times, built a row of perfect neo gothik houses where the slums had stood. Having admired the stately entrance of the impenetrable Cirencester Park, seat of the Lords Bathurst, who still own a great deal of the land and many properties in Cirencester , we went to the church to meet our guide for the morning, Rory Young. Rory lives and works as a notable sculptor in Cirencester and after a tour of the church and of the free standing porch, for which recently he designed some replacement figurative corbels, we were invited back to his house for coffee.
As we all scrubbed off the road salt on the door mat to save his slate flagged floor we hoped his house was a ‘tardis’. Fortunately this proved to be the case and everyone soon disappeared within to inspect his roman artefacts collection, his designs for various on-going projects and the collection of art on every surface. Coffee was hurriedly drunk before we all piled into the garden to see his work shop, with maquettes for the reredos for the Lady Chapel in St Albans Abbey that he is currently designing.
The final flourish was when he lifted the lid on the lime pit under his courtyard garden to show us how he still slakes lime in the approved ancient way – very Arts and Crafts!
After lunch we went to Kelmscott. We looked at the church and we visited the grave of the Morris family. Then we went to the Manor and had a talk about the the history of the house, which had been a farmhouse before it was rented by William Morris and Dante Rossetti as a country house away from the trials of London society. We were let loose on the house to wander at will to gaze on the collection of Morris artefacts which are now displayed there. The room guides were very helpful in filling in the cracks of our Morris knowledge and some of the textiles displayed are wonderful. Perhaps it is because, when May Morris died it once again became a house for people to rent, that it is seems to have an almost clinical air and there seems little that remains of the Morris spirit. I found the most atmospheric place was the orchard, wondering if the trees were the same ones and listening to the rooks in the rookery whose antecedents would have made the same raucous noise when the Morris family lived there. And then it rained for the only time in the whole week.
On the final day we went to see the little known Whittington Court. Once again we were welcomed by the owners themselves and shown around their home, which is filled with a collection of unique glass and china. We were also treated to a demonstration of block fabric printing in the attic workshop by the lady of the house, Jenny Stringer, who is well known for her intricate designs mostly based on organic elements.
She dexterously showed us how the colours are built up, one by one, with a very steady hand, defying the result to look like an out of focus photograph. Finally we went to the outhouse in the garden where the Whittington Press is based and had a demonstration of typesetting in the age old way as used by the Kelsmcott Press and other Arts and Crafts printers.
A fitting end to what had been a wonderfully engrossing week was a meal in the Wheatsheaf in Northleach, where we were fed enormous portions as though we had been labouring in the fields all morning. It had been a happy week with many interesting and inspiring things to think about and many happy memories to keep for intermittent inspection later.