Sandy Felton visits the Oxfordshire house so beloved of William Morris.
There are times in your life when you experience somewhere that is very special. A place which stays in the memory and brings pleasure during recollection maybe many years later.
My visit to Kelmscott, the old house on the upper Thames, so beloved of William Morris, is one such place. I visited Kelmscott on a beautiful day in May and was totally unprepared for the effect this gentle manor house and its garden had on me.
The rooks made a great din in the tall trees, the meadow grass danced in the breeze and the noise of the river brought a near perfect cacophony of sound - here was an English country garden - not grand but on a scale which is familiar and homely and which all gardeners can identify with. Here it was that Morris lived with his family (and for a short while Dante Gabriel Rossetti) from June 1871. He loved the villages around Oxford and wanted a country retreat to escape the pressures of London life. Kelmscott Manor had been constructed around 1570 and in 1870 it came up for lease and so started a long association with the Morris family.
Morris was to describe Kelmscott as a 'dear, sweet old place' and 'a heaven on earth' - one can see why. There is something in the atmosphere of the house and garden which is difficult to comprehend. It seems at the same time both magical and mystical and it is obvious why the house and surrounding countryside had such an effect on Morris proving an inspiration for much of his work.
He would frequently make the four hour journey from Paddington Station for brief visits to the Manor - he fished on the Thames, loved the local architecture and relished in the delights of his garden.
On his death (he is buried in the local churchyard) his wife Jane continued as a tenant until she finally purchased the freehold in 1913. She lived there with her elder daughter Jenny, (who suffered ill-health) and gave up the Hammersmith house which had been their London home.
When Jane died her younger daughter May took over the running of the estate and in Kelmscott village one can see a fine pair of cottages which she built as a memorial to her parents.
The Manor and garden are now owned and run by the Society of Antiquaries of London, who have done much over the last thirty years to retore not only the house but much of the garden. The aim has been to re-create the framework of paths and to fill the beds with a medley of the cottage garden plants which Morris loved.
On my visit to Kelmscott I was welcomed by Property Managers Jane Milne and Tristan Molloy. Managing such a beautiful house and garden cannot be easy. There is the pressure of maintaining a very special manor house and garden. The pressure of ensuring that visitor numbers are managed so that the special ambience that is Kelmscott is not spoilt.
However, it is clear that they have got it just about right. Tasteful development within an old barn for a shop, restaurant and visitor facilities adds to the visitor experience.
In the 1960s the Manor was found to be in a near terminal state of decline and necessitated deep repair of the fabric of the house. Conservation repair rather than renewal has been fundemental to the restoration. Stephanie Carter Associates and Colvin & Moggridge (Landscape Architects) have since done sterling work in the restoration and ongoing development of the garden.
Head Gardener Celia James ably assisted by Clive Davies maintain the garden and meadow. A set of Country Life photos from 1921 show box-edged beds crammed with spring bulbs and thick clumps of Madonna lillies. Both Morris and his daughter May, write of the garden as having poppies, Sweet Sultans, China Asters and being 'gay with thousands of tulips.'
Today, the front garden continues to have roses flanking the path, vivid in the front is piece of News from Nowhere‚ and instantly recognisable to Morris devotees everywhere. Roses have also been replanted to cover the porch and clothe the stump of the Thuja.
The Lawn Garden has a pergola of coppiced chestnut and then into the Mulberry Garden dominated by the original Mulberry tree. The orchard has been replanted with Victorian varieties of apple and plum.
The village of Kelmscott is also worth a visit where you can also call into the village church and see Morris's grave.
You can buy separate tickets for the house and garden, so if you prefer it is easy to visit the garden alone. Admission to the house is by timed ticket. Group Visits can be arranged for Thursdays and Friday. General public open-days (not bookable in advance) are every Wednesday 11am to 5pm and selected Saturdays during April to September. Tristan explained that this year the garden will be open on Thursdays, May to September 2pm to 5pm (as well as Wednesdays and when open on Saturdays).
For full details and to make enquiries about group bookings log onto www.kelmscottmanor.co.uk
Telephone 01367 252486. Kelmscott is signposted from the A417 and the A4095 and is approx. 3 miles from Lechlade.
It is fitting that Morris should have the last word: "I have been here some days now and it is simply the loveliest place in the world." Believe me you will think so too - I can't wait to go back!