Imagine spending visiting friends in the English countryside, and seeing a wonderful house, in decline, and realising how lovely it could be in the right hands. Your hands. And imagine being able to rent that house and renovate it, make it into exactly what it could be.
That is the story that Cecil Beaton told, a few years after his lease came to the end.
It was 1930 when he first caught sight of Ashcombe House, an 18th century manor house set deep in the Wiltshire countryside. He was smitten, and he was ready to act. The owner was located, and he was persuaded to grant a lease at a very low rent, in return for care, attention, and renovation.
The property and the tenant were a perfect match. Cecil Beaton transformed Ashcombe, making it a unique, baroque, elegant country home, set in beautiful grounds. He gave so much care , so much love, and the house became the home, the place in the world, that he hadn’t realised he had been looking for.
It was lovely to watch: the grand scheme and the emotional journey.
But I must confess that what I liked the most was the walk in the countryside.
“My usual walk took me down to the floor of Ashcombe valley. Passing under an arcade of gigantic beech trees with wide, silver, green, trunks one came to a less rugged, more vernal aspect of the downs, opening smoothly like a park. Resilient, velvety turf where harebells and wild scabii bent in the breeze, while rabbits scurried in every direction; tidy and compact trees bordered the green slopes and in the distance the interlocking hills reminded one of pictures of Paradise on nursery walls. Suddenly one came across a patch of fir trees and was reminded of Switzerland. Perhaps one decided forthwith to climb the steep grassy battlements and arrived, panting, on a tableland, sprinkled with shells, over which land-gulls circled. Thence walking on the flat green roof of the world, one came down by “The Postman’s” or “Lady Anne’s Way”, through the primeval woodland, carpeted with a pre-Raphaelite detail of foliage, across another valley, and so back home.”
Ashcombe became the place to go for Beaton’s social set. Socialites, artists, writers. At first the neighbours were taken aback, but they soon became used to the ways of the bright young things.
I was less interested in this part of the book, and so I’m afraid the names and details escape me now that the book has gone back to the library.But I was interested in Edith Olivier, who was a wonderful writer and the friend Beaton was visiting when he first discovered his house. She would be a wonderful friend to him: warm, wise, knowledgeable and supportive. And when World War II came and changed everything she rose to the occasion, opening up her home to a swarm of evacuees.
It would have been worth reading this book just to meet her, and see her through her friend’s eyes.
The tone changes at this stage, as Beaton writes of friends caught up in the war, of his own war work in a government office, and of a dear friend who is lost. It is still light, but a shadow had been cast.
And it was not long after the war that the lease came to an end. The landlord, not unreasonably, wanted the house for his own family.
It was a sad loss for Beaton, and though I had thought that I might not like him, his charm and his very real love for his home won me over.
“Every parent is apt to see in its offspring remarkable qualities denied to the eyes of others. So it is with our dogs and our homes. I must be excused if, in this book, because I found such pleasure in the sense of possession, I have been guilty of the familiar fault of eulogising what was mine, simply because it was mine. Yet I feel that people without a sense of possession miss one of the great pleasures of life. The joy of owning one’ own dining table, one’s own coal-scuttle and kitchen utensils is surely quite harmless; and yet how glowing!”
Sentiments like that endeared this love letter to a lost age and a lost home to me.