An escape from London’s heatwave was definitely in order, so we set our mental compass for the Cotswolds. It’s true that it’s a cliché, golden stone, tea-rooms and all, but that corner of southern England is just so bucolic that you feel you’ve had an eye-wash of lush green speckled with brilliant floral hues. No, I’m not writing blurb for a new perfume, but this is where England wins hands down, even if it’s playing hide and seek with the sun that ducks and dives behind white puffers floating across the azure. Here I go again.
Sometimes it’s promising when signs to your destination are virtually non-existent – and this was the case. After getting lost in vast fields of lavender, totally unexpected but painting gorgeous splashes of purple, we eventually found our way to Snowshill Manor, tucked down a steep, leafy lane. I knew absolutely nothing about it, leaving the research to my trusted partner who, nose buried in maps and books & with an occasional flourish of his iphone, has been known to discover some absolute gems. This was no exception, and, perfect for my lazy mood, was all about gardens. After days spent hunched at my computer, the last thing I want is to trail through a gloomy stately home reading about its history, dusty family portraits and treasures – I exaggerate, but you get the gist.
Snowshill Manor, as the name suggests, does have a manor house (a sober Tudor affair of local stone which Henry VIII gave to his last wife, Katherine Parr), but for me the garden interest was easily enough. Thanks to its last, early 20th century owner, Charles Paget Wade, it unfolds in a series of interlocking spaces, or ‘rooms’, separated by low stone walls, cropped yews, terraces or different levels, and all very influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement of the time. This doesn’t mean views are absent – quite the contrary, thanks to the sloping site you can look straight out over the garden and orchard to distant hills of neat fields, hedgerows and woods; typical, rolling countryside with not a house in sight.
These garden ‘rooms’ mean you get a wonderful sense of intimacy in each space and a sense of discovery as you meander along paths and secret passageways bordered by lawns, artfully unkempt flowers and shrubs. Add to this the fact that the property seems to melt into the surrounding countryside (there are no boundary walls or gates; there is little need as it’s so isolated), and you get an unrivalled, harmonious setting.
Charles Paget Wade sounds like a true eccentric of multiple and eclectic interests, spelt out by the gigantic collection of hand-crafted objets (some 22,000) inside the manorhouse which apparently range from Japanese samurai armour to toys, clocks, costumes and musical instruments. But what I like most is that he chose to live in one of the garden cottages, leaving the entire manor-house to his ever-expanding collection – financed by a family fortune made in the Caribbean sugar trade (he spent much of his later life with his wife in St Kitts). At Snowshill, another idiosyncracy was that Wade chose to live by the soft light of candles and oil-lamps, despite electric lighting being widespread, so was obviously a die-hard aesthete. Here are the cottages – avec vue.
Down below the main garden, I was impressed by the abundant vegetable plot, the orchard, and a greenhouse packed with a promising line-up of tomato-plants. Lots of the produce found its way towards a typically English honesty box, while visitors were also invited to pick a picnic plot in the shaggy grass beneath the apple-trees laden with maturing fruit.
Small signs and sayings cropped up everywhere, often with a sense of poetry – no doubt another reflection of Wade who, apart from being a qualified architect, counted luminaries such as Virginia Woolf, John Betjeman and Graham Greene as friends and wrote poetry himself.
We finally dragged ourselves away to a lunch date but I’m still intrigued by this place and its former owner. Maybe wintertime will steer me back and inside as, although I didn’t see any ghosts (Snowshill is allegedly rife with them), I sensed a generous, open-minded and rare spirit. RIP Mr. Wade.