I have in the past week spent two days looking at new country houses with the architects who have designed them (which was worth all the increasingly grim train travel). They are all in the Classical tradition; those I saw near Wadhurst (East Sussex) are in the early to mid Georgian style, while the one on the Welsh borders was inspired by Nash. It is extraordinary how persistent the Classical style is for smaller country houses, I think largely because they are restful; this is the effect of order and symmetry in the chaos of the modern world. But it should always be remembered how they depend on the gentleness of the British landscape, the woodedness, and small field pattern of an ancient nation to achieve their full effect.
I had lunch with a friend in Brooks’s, that most charming of St James’s clubs, and recalled that the first time I met him was after lunching with another friend at Boodles. This friend said I promised to take you to have coffee at Brooks’s to meet so and so. As we crossed St James’s I was very nearly knocked down by a fast moving taxi. After stumbling shocked on to the pavement we decided in that daft moment, it would have looked good on the obituary of an Architectural Editor of Country life to have been knocked down between courses in different clubs.
Thankfully, I survived this lunch to make a viewing after work to watch a viewing of John Betjeman’s Passion for Churches, with a very amusing introduction by the director who worked on it, Eddie Mirzoeff, who I had first met in 1995 filming on Orford Ness. The film is a masterpiece, but would the BBC have made it today? I wonder.
A week of rain to dampen the spirits, but it does encourage the green in every corner. Miraculously Paul Barker the photographer who was sent to take up to date photographs of our finalists for the Genuis of the Place Award (an award sponsored by Savills for the best revived landscape setting of a country house), managed to find openings in the weather to record the glories of Gresgarth, Daneway, Rycote and others, to capture slices of blue sky and sunlight at key moments, often very early in the morning.
Our desks have moved again within the new offices, but I am satisfied that if I look left I can see Southwark Cathedral, with that spectacular curve of the railway, and glimpse the turrets of the Tower of London. Our new cafe is wonderful, with a view directly over Tate Modern and St Pauls’ effectively making a surreal montage, the food is very good too, and I have probably been the first to buy lunch there for a Gloucestershire-based baronet, a rather good lasagne. Pity no Chianti can be bought, but having Decanter in a next door office could be promising…
I visited three more of the short-listed houses and their landscape short-listed for our genius of the place awards. I know it sounds like a dreary headmaster to say “the standard was extremely high” but each has been mind-blowing in their own way; Cannwood Farm is the subject of a new book by the owners A Year in an English Meadow written by the owners, Andy and Polly Garnett, detailing the flowers and grasses that emerge in the meadow near their house which they rescued from modern farming and inspired a gradual acquisition of land right around their house. The judging is next week and discussions will be heated.
It is to be published by Frances Lincoln in July; but every story of each house on the short-list impresses and delights in different ways, for new woodlands, new lakes, for bold acquisitions of ugly bungalows and pulling them down, for cherishing the simple truths of cherishing the landscape. I hope that whichever is the winner the examples of all those short-listed will be a national inspiration.
I took my family for a walk in the park-like gardens of Anglesey Abbey near Cambridge, of which I was once the curator. The dense avenues of trees here, planted from the 1920s onwards are exactly what I enjoy about all these amazing revived parklands we are looking at. They transform a dullish landscape into a cultivated wonderland. Our children ran off towards the classical sculptures that provide vistas here and there and as we watched them run, time seemed to stand still. We also went to touch the ancient Roman porphyry vase that sits in a temple.
The 1st Lord Fairhaven must have a great feeling for trees and the impression that avenues create and, most of all, an imagination that stretched out into the future able to see what an impression they would create when mature. I wonder if he thought of the people who would be walking down these avenues in 100 years time.