John Fowles has left the building: Belmont, Lyme Regis

From 1968 until the turn of the century, John Fowles lived at Belmont, his home in Lyme Regis, Dorset. Author of The Magus and The French Lieutenant’s Woman, the latter is a post-modern take on the spirit of Thomas Hardy, an investigation of the Victorian psyche written in the midst of the 1960s’ liberating atmosphere.

Belmont has been restored in the last decade by the Landmark Trust, and is preserved in its original eighteenth century form: all traces of Victorian additions, save for the observatory, have been removed. When I visited, you could see John Fowles’s teapot in the adjoining stable room and a few sentences. Otherwise, his ghost is exorcised.

Yet beneath the idealised re-creation of a 1790s townhouse, now a Wes Anderson-esque confection landed by the car park, I found a deep melancholy.

Fowles’ Victorian imagination, which I think we can safely assume was fired by the house he found in 1968, has no place in this restoration for the 21st century. Yes, we have a beautifully preserved building after years of neglect, but – save for a weekend this year when it is open for the public to view – it only exists because the super-rich can afford to stay here (the Landmark Trust funds its restorations by renting out the properties).

It would be more than churlish to not appreciate the work of The Landmark Trust. We have to be so grateful that they have rescued so many buildings and left them alive with possibility for future generations.

Yet Fowles also wanted Belmont to be a retreat for nurturing new writers. At least this has been given some lip service, though I can find scant current information.

You can’t help thinking: our world could be so different, but we gallop towards extremes of beautifully-curated heritage and plate-glass luxe-life stores at one end, and at the other – well, the opposite, with not much in the middle.

Photos copyright WhistlesintheWind

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Decline and Rise

Witley Court 1

A stop at Witley Court near Worcester on the way to North Wales. Partly destroyed by fire, gutted for salvage in the 1950s, and perfect for the recent meander at WhistlesintheWind about what we keep and throw away… pondering the popular view of Britain before the 1960s, what modernised us, and the things salvaged from the 20th century’s garbage skip.

Witley Court 9

Witley Court is well-managed by English Heritage, a grand shell with a centrepiece fountain that fires on the hour.

Witley Court 2

There’s a very particular atmosphere, and the link here is actress Deborah Kerr, who appeared in two films that came to mind while wandering around. One was Jack Clayton’s 1961 film The Innocents, based on Henry James’ Turn of the Screw. Somehow that film made the bright sun of a summer’s day coldly haunting, with images across the water of the house in cadaverous silence. In complete opposition, I also remember Deborah Kerr in a technicolor comedy with Cary Grant, about the inhabitants of a stately home ‘forced’ to take in guided tours to maintain their lifestyle. Witley Court is both – families, dressed in shades of Italian ice cream, sit happily on the manicured lawns, while the brooding, slightly resentful shell of the mansion stands over them.

Witley Court 6

Solid, stoic – it will not be moved.

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Above: the last echoes of the rustle of a dress up the staircase, sweeping away with the speed of a darting peacock’s tail feathers…

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Perhaps this is all we need? Nothing could be more honest than Witley Court. The architecture seems to speak more powerfully as a shell – part of the story of the 20th century told with unsentimental beauty.

I remembered last year’s visit to Castle Howard in Yorkshire. I had wanted to go there for years, but what waited there was fairly hideous… a house, like Witley Court, once partly destroyed by fire (in the 1940s), yet risen again. In the 21st century some aspects can only recall garish images of stately grandeur: garden centre statues or statement wallpaper in out-of-town superstores up and down the land.

Castle Howard

2012 in Ambrosia: The whine of WhistlesintheWind leads to the fall of the British aristocracy; Castle Howard is closed and becomes a home for retired spaniels.

Elsewhere, it seemed the very essence of the British heritage industry at its worst: the empty, shored-up and once fire-damaged rooms are barely filled with bored displays flogging the dead horse of the 2009 remake of Brideshead Revisited. 

Castle Howard is itself unconnected with any of Waugh’s inspiration but remains in the Arcadian imagination as the stage set for the iconic 1981 TV drama.

And yes, something from an earlier age remains – in the occasionally fawning and obseqiuous manner of attendants drooling over the family portraits. Brideshead ended the war as the ghost of its former self. If heritage supermarkets with their cafés complete with suspiciously-stained sofas are what we need to feed a dream, then perhaps we should have let Charles Ryder ride away down the drive in his jeep, never to return.

1947: England and a past and future beauty

In the last decade or so it seems people have realised the huge debt we owe Penguin and Puffin books. We can buy boxes filled with postcards of their immaculate book covers, while the iconic orange and white originals are available on tea towels, mugs and even deck chairs. And that’s just the look of it all: pick up any of the titles that turn up from the middle decades of the 20th century and you could disappear forever into second-hand bookshops, charity shops or attics, as lost a cause as any Victorian gentleman or woman consigned to the opium den or brothel.

Town and Village dates from around 1947, the paper fairly rough and uncoated, which makes the artwork appear as fresh as some lovingly-crafted linocut.

Village and Town, cover

There are two covers, so can you choose from a utopian future or an idyllic past.

Villages and Towns, Puffin

Inside, there are beautifully-designed diagrams, and this one provides a colour-coded map of the United Kingdom to show how local materials shaped the built landscape. Even more valuable now than then.

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There are images of the idealised English village, carefully illustrating how the past builds layer upon layer and lives side by side.

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But this is no misty-eyed wallow in the ‘scepter’d isle’ imagery of the war years. This is also about the future, one that accounts for everyone and gives them light, air and space. Turn the page and the ugly truths are revealed.

Village and Town, Puffin 4

There is no beating around the bush here, as S R Badmin continues…

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He’s in full flow now – you can’t get more damning than ‘fancy dress houses’. And I can’t help wondering how many of the slums or industrial buildings are now the facades of ‘luxury apartments’ for the affluent of today.

Moving on to the brave new world, our author is more than comfortable with the shock of the new. But it’s a careful argument, taking the reader by the hand from the past into the future (which, marvellously, he tells us will involve ‘plastics such as Bakelite’). He wants everyone to move beyond the Tudorbethan, mock-Tudor sentiment of the pre-war years. (It’s often overlooked how little impact the stylised art-deco movement had on everyday homes: many preferred barley-twist oak, stained glass and olde-worlde brass.)

Village and Town, Puffin 6

Be sure that if a building is well-designed for its purpose, without trying to be new-fashioned or old-fashioned, it will fit into its surroundings just as all the buildings do in the villages we love.

Perhaps not a bad design for life, that one, with endless applications… as long as he doesn’t mean a bland compromise, which I don’t think he does. Although his definition of the English style of building as ‘solid, suitable and not fussy in appearance’ sounds a little joyless.

The last page is given over to the S R Badmin manifesto, which I imagine involved clambering atop the table, waving spectacles and going all-out for a full-on Robert Hardy thespian workout:

We could keep the country as real country, for farming and holidays, instead of eating it up with bungalows. We could do all that and more if we made plans in advance, instead of muddling along as we do now, allowing people to build more or less what or where they fancy, whether it is ugly or not. Is it possible for planning to be carried out when so many people own so many pieces of land?

Village and Town, Puffin 7

As a child, I imagine you might return this to the library believing that the war had changed everything, and feel, as the National Health Service began, the first warm rays of utopia.

Until you realise the unpredictability of the British weather.