Posts Tagged ‘countryside’

English Country Houses

January 21, 2013

There is nothing quite like the English country house anywhere else in the world.

So begins Vita Sackville-West’s proud and patriotic English Country Houses, a slim but lavishly illustrated book, first published in 1941 as part of a series called ‘Britain in Pictures’.

Britain in Pictures

This wonderfully eccentric series was commissioned by editor, writer and literary editor of the Spectator, Walter J. Turner, and stretched to 132 books, published by Collins between 1941 and 1949. They were, no doubt, commissioned in part to foster a sense of nationalism and pride in Britain and everything she stood for; a morale booster for a British people beleaguered by tough times of war and rationing. Turner got some of the best writers of the day on board – Vita Sackville-West, as you see, and also George Orwell, Graham Greene, Elizabeth Bowen and many others.

Reading through the list of titles (which you can find in full here), it’s hard not to grin at such delights as ‘British Merchant Adventurers’, ‘British Rebels and Reformers’, ‘British Sea Fishermen’, ‘Sporting Pictures of England’, ‘British Clocks and Clockmakers’, ‘British Chess’, and, perhaps most intriguing, ‘Life Among the English’ by Rose Macaulay. And, lest we forget, ‘British’ back then didn’t just refer to life on our Sceptred Isle, but volumes entitled ‘East Africa’, ‘Canada’, ‘India’ and ‘Australia’ remind us just how far British rule stretched.

I worry that like this Guardian journalist, I will find that knowing about this series will foster an addiction. Now I long to go into a second-hand bookshop and serendipitously happen across one of the other 132 titles in the series, and another, and another … Book collecting is a slippery slope.

English Country Houses by Vita Sackville-WestBut for now I am more than happy with my volume by Vita Sackville-West, kindly and thoughtfully given to me by a fellow bookseller, to whom I meagrely offered some Scottish tablet from my days in Nan Shepherd country.

So what is it that is so unique about English country houses, that sets them apart from French chateaux and German castles? In a brilliant sentence which is about as old-school English aristo as you can get, Vita Sackville-West writes:

The peculiar genius of the English country house lies in its knack of fitting in.

This encapsulates the sentiment of the whole book, which praises above all moderation, proportion and scale. I had to laugh when Sackville-West raced past the Gothic Revival:

It is surely not necessary to give more than a passing mention to the freak architecture of the Gothic Revival … [which] proved ludicrously unsuited to the English counties … we may rejoice that the whimsical air of novelty was so soon blown away.  Had the same fate attended the later purely Gothic craze, we should be spared much to-day: St. Pancras Station, the Albert Memorial, and streets of gable villas with stained glass in the doors.

Evidently, Vita Sackville-West finds this ‘freak’ architecture, these ‘crazes’, this ‘whimsical air of novelty’ terribly alarming. It certainly doesn’t match her vision of the country house, perfectly melting into the surrounding landscape. She tries to explain away the Gothic Revival as a result of boredom with tradition – classic houses ‘were safe, but they were dull.’

This is deeply revealing of the time that she wrote English Country Houses. The Blitz was from September 1940 to May 1941 – it was a time when houses were going up in flames, when buildings felt everything but ‘safe’ and ‘dull’. Confronted with whole cities blazing on the horizon, no wonder she yearned for safe and dull houses that ‘agree with’ their landscape and don’t ‘overwhelm [their] surroundings’.

From the ashes of the Blitz, rose this phoenix of a catalogue and guide to our country houses. Here Vita Sackville-West strives to preserve these houses under threat from fire and changing economic times:

with war taxation and the present rate of death duties it seems improbable that any family fortune will long suffice to retain such homes in private ownership.

Who could be a better guide than this most aristo of aristos, who could count both Knole and Sissinghurst as her homes? For not only does Sackville-West provide a lengthy catalogue of what the houses look like from the outside but she pays loving attention to their interiors and offers some affectionate remarks on the people who lived in them:

I fancy that any English aristocratic intellectual house-party in 1610 would not have differed very much from the equivalent house-party held at any time between the years 1912-1939. The Cecils must have talked in very much the same way at Hatfield in 1619 as the Cecils at Hatfield might talk in 1939, with the same mixture of political and intellectual interests, switching over from one to the other; and so, I imagine, a family party of the Sidneys at Penshurst must have run over all the happenings of life, skating gracefully from one subject to the other, never dwelling ponderously on anything, but always touching delicately and briefly, in the true sense of Humanism.

There must have been something deeply comforting about this feeling of continuity, of English people rooted in English places, in the face of so much upheaval. Of course Sackville-West was right to be sorrowful about what the future would hold for these country seats, to feel anxious that the Cecils might not still be holding intellectual house parties at Hatfield in three hundred years time. (Although, she’d be relieved to see that the Cecils are one of the few aristocratic families who have held on to their ancestral home.)

Reading English Country Houses today, it is indeed a window on to lost world. It is a magnificent catalogue of the National Trust, before the National Trust stepped in to help most of these aristos out. One feels incredibly grateful for the book, for Sackville-West to have succeeded in her last-ditch attempt to capture a precious part of British life before it pretty much disappeared. And a part of you can’t help but wish that these good old days continued and mourn the loss of this well-established, noble way of life.

But before we get too glum about what has been lost, let’s look a little more closely at the cover of the book, which shows the gates of an English country house … closed. Closed to outsiders, to those not invited to those intellectual house parties, not born into wealth and land. Let’s not forget that this life was, for the most part, terribly shut-off to the hoi polloi, unrepentantly elitist and snobby. In any case, if one ever did get through those steely gates, life was terribly elegant but, like the houses, perhaps a little ‘safe’ and ‘dull’.

For sure, we must mourn with Vita Sackville-West the loss of these houses, the inescapable sadness that comes from turning a living country house into the ‘dead thing’ of a museum, but let’s not be too sad at the loss of the Downton Abbey way of life. Now we can embrace the recklessness, irreverence and fun, which she found so alarming. And, come on, who cannot be impressed or feel even a little bit fond of the mad exuberance of St. Pancras?

St Pancras


Walking To the River

April 4, 2012

One of my most favourite things is going for a walk. I am at my happiest when strolling along – definitely not too fast or strenuously – looking at beautiful scenery, be it on Hampstead Heath, Hampshire, or Hackney Wick.

Aside from the views, one of the things I love most about walking is talking. I wrote about Matthew Hollis’s biography of Edward Thomas here, in which he wrote about Thomas and Frost’s habit of ‘talk-walking’. They’d go off into the fields and walk for hours, talking all the while, usually of poetry and other lofty things.

No doubt my own talk-walks are a little less high-brow than Edward Thomas’s. But I love the way that once one’s limbs are loosened, one’s tongue is loosened too. All sorts of things that one might normally struggle to talk about come bubbling up like water from a spring – and one babbles away quite easily.

Of course, if there’s no one for company on a walk, then babbling away to oneself looks at best eccentric. Virginia Woolf did it, striding through the Sussex countryside, stomping out the plots of novels, talking to herself all the way. I might hum to myself a little, but usually, if alone, the talking goes on in my head, my thoughts chattering away silently to themselves.

When I feel a bit stuck with my writing – when I get a horrid feeling like there’s a blockage in a key synoptic pathway in my brain – a walk usually sorts it out. Although, when I walk, my thoughts refuse to follow a straight trajectory and dart all over the place making nothing at all coherent, just a very satisfying scribble. It’s when I get home afterwards and sit down to write, that I find the scribble’s unlocked the blockage and I’ve leapt ahead. Phew.

I feel sure there must be plenty of women who walk and write. There’s Virginia Woolf for a start, and there’s also Olivia Laing, whose To the River is just out as an attractive paperback. But, with these exceptions, I really can’t think of any other women who write about walking.

It’s so peculiar! If you think of the big names in English nature-writing (aka walk-writing), they’re all men like Edward Thomas, Robert Macfarlane and Roger Deakin. Travel further afield and there’s Patrick Leigh Fermor, Norman Lewis and Laurie Lee. Where have all the women gone?

Well perhaps they just walked and talked or walked and thought, without writing it down afterwards. Perhaps we women don’t share the stereotypically ‘male’ impulse to spot and catalogue things obsessively, or perhaps we simply don’t have enough confidence in our walks to commit them to paper. Or perhaps I am just yet to find these elusive women walk-writers. I’d be grateful for any pointers, those of you who know something I don’t.

Well, I’m very pleased that Olivia Laing wrote about her walk along the River Ouse. She walks alone, letting her mind meander along all sorts of fascinating watery diversions. Among other things, we get a folklore tale of faeries, a good bit about the Styx, the tragic story behind The Wind in the Willows and there is the frequent tug of Virginia Woolf, who, of course, drowned herself in the Ouse.

I particularly like the way Olivia Laing doesn’t always pretend to be in a bucolic dream in the middle of nowhere. We are jolted back to the twenty-first century by having to cross an A-road, gobbling a curry for supper, or overhearing a filthy conversation in a pub car park. This is definitely the English countryside of today, which makes the moments of wildness all the more special. Our countryside is now cris-crossed by noisy roads, and our rivers, often as not, end in container ports, changed from meandering streams into ‘an industrial river, dark as oil, its surface opaque and unrevealing’.

But the rivers are still there and one can still find beauty in their surroundings, even if that beauty can be jagged and rather unexpected. Laing gives us both ‘the elder foaming with flowers the colour of Jersey cream’ and the sugared fennel seeds in the Indian restaurant, leaving ‘the ghost of aniseed … on the tip of my tongue like a word I knew but could not speak’.

It’s an intensely lyrical book, beautifully written about beautiful places. It’s a book that above all has made me want to put my shoes on and stride out towards a river. And I would never neglect to bring with an enormous and delicious picnic a la Kenneth Grahame’s Ratty:


Thanks Olivia for the reminder. Yum.

Ravilious in the rain

March 6, 2012

The first picture that struck me in the gorgeous new Ravilious book, Ravilious in Pictures: A Travelling Artist, was Wet Afternoon. That’s Edward Thomas, I thought, looking at the man strolling down the muddy hedge-lined track, the green-grey sky streaked with stripes of rain.

Well, of course it isn’t Edward Thomas. He was long dead by 1938, the year Ravilious painted it. And yet there is something about the watercolour that summons the spirit of Thomas so much. It makes me think of the first stanza of Thomas’s poem, ‘Like the touch of rain’:

Like the touch of rain she was

On a man’s flesh and hair and eyes

When the joy of walking thus

Has taken him by surprise:

For there is certainly something joyful about the man in the picture, who looks to be almost hopping or skipping, or at least walking jauntily, undeterred by the inclement weather. Perhaps it is Thomas’s ghost. Perhaps it is Ravilious himself. Or perhaps he is just one anonymous man in a long line of Englishmen who delight in treading through the countryside, most happy and himself with the damp bluster of English air on his face and mud on his boots. As Thomas points out in his striking simile, however awful it seems to be walking in the rain at first, suddenly, surprisingly, one can find it rather wonderful.

But James Russell points out in his introduction to A Travelling Artist that Ravilious found the rain could be a bit of a pain, forcing him indoors when he’d far sooner be out in the landscape, using his watercolours. One of the happy side-effects of the rain-forced retreats are the interiors he was forced to paint. I like the way these often show a preoccupation of the outside world, as experienced from the inside.

Both November 5th and River Thames give the feeling of being an onlooker, of looking on a scene from the vantage point of a window above. Yet the dynamism of the scenes is infectious, crossing the barrier of the window and into the quiet room inside. (Incidentally I gave rather a lot of thought to windows in this post about Mrs Dalloway and the Tate Modern.)

My favourite of Ravilious’s inside/outside pictures are where the window itself is actually shown, such as in Room at the ‘William the Conqueror’ and Belle Tout Lighthouse. The first is intriguing in any case due to the strange dark patch in the middle of the foreground, where Ravilious had initially painted a chair. I expect most of you know by now of my preoccupation with the stories held in houses, how much history can be written in such small traces. Well here is rather an interesting trace. A chair was here, and then it wasn’t, yet it’s left its mark, its imprint. Looking at that patch, it’s impossible not to imagine Ravilious moving the chair there and then perhaps a friend coming in and sitting on it for a while, talking to him over a beer which he found ‘as good as any I ever tasted’.

But, aside from this intriguing dark patch, what I love about these two paintings are the way the outside and inside influence each other. The colours are continued – the bluey grey of the exterior landscape in Room is echoed in the curtains and the floor mimics the sea, both in the colour and in the long lines.

The outside colours are inside too in Belle Tout Lighthouse. Here I love the way the light streams in, making the window frames cast shadows that remind one of the path outside. And, despite the brilliant sunshine, you can image the cold wind blowing outside, the exposure of being out there. Inside, however, you are protected. Perhaps you can hear the wind whistling, yet you are able to bask in the filtered sunlight.

The windows of the lighthouse are quite similar to those in my flat and all yesterday morning I felt the same effect here. It was cold, the wind was howling, rattling the windows, and yet the flat was incredibly bright. There was the same feeling of being connected to the outside and yet protected from it. When one’s view is so taken up with what’s outside, it can be uncanny to feel somehow separated; part of it and yet removed from it. The table at which I’m sitting, for instance, looks out on sunny roofs outside. My view of the roofs and chimneys is utterly connected to my table, to my experience of being in my flat. And yet, those roofs are far away and separated not only by distance but by windows too. Sometimes the connection can make one forget the separation, and to be reminded of it so forcefully in Ravilious’s paintings feels somewhat shocking.

Sometimes this outside/inside tension is extended to strange places that seem to be both outside and inside at once. Most striking, to me, is Strawberry Bed, in which Ravilious portrays a space that is outdoors, yet also undercover, the netting forming a permeable barrier between the sky and the ground. Russell points out the ‘hallucinatory detail’ of the nets and also ‘the peculiar quality of the space beneath’. It really is an extraordinary picture. There is a similar feel to his painting Geraniums and Carnations which is filled with diffuse grey-white light but this time the effect is from a glasshouse. And, again, it is the ceiling of the glasshouse where the eye is drawn; this point of connection and separation is where the pillars are pointing and the flowers are climbing towards.

I’m sure you’ll find your own points of intrigue and fascination in this book. It really is a lovely thing, wonderful to leaf through, full of beautifully-reproduced paintings at which one can happily stare and dream over for hours.