Sunday, 13th October 2019 – Stoneywell Cottage, Ulverscroft
On Sunday, after a run along the Soar which really didn’t show me Leicester’s best side (it was a nasty cold morning with steady rainfall and the river runs through what can only be described as a post-industrial wasteland), I returned to the hotel to shower.
We had breakfast and packed up, setting off to see if we could find a route to Stoneywell Cottage, a property belonging to the National Trust. I was hoping we’d make it, though the SatNav was initially reluctant to admit it existed, and then tried to send me by way of a series of closed roads (!) because I had, as required, pre-booked a slot between 11:00 and noon to arrive. We found it eventually, and parked in the very waterlogged car park where the shuttle bus was waiting for us. There’s no parking at the house itself, probably because it would ruin the gorgeous gardens, so you need to either walk – or get in the bus. Given the decidedly inclement weather, we got in the bus.
On arrival at the house, or rather at the entrance to the gardens, you are greeted by one of the volunteers, and can select the time you want to go on the guided tour of the house. You don’t need to go straight away, you can select a later time and potter around the grounds, go to the café or do some very light shopping (the range of stuff on sale is quite restricted due to lack of space) first. As the forecast suggested it might dry up a bit later, we opted to do the house tour straight off in the hope that we’d be able to enjoy the gardens afterwards.
The house itself is not some grand stately home, but started out as a summer house, and then became a family home that provides a rare surviving example of an Arts and Crafts home in its entirety. The cottage is the epitome of William Morris’ golden rule to “have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful”. and it makes a fascinating study in design history. It was designed by Ernest Gimson, the architect, craftsman and designer, for his brother Sydney, and remained in he family until 2012 when Sydney’s grandson Donald decided that at 90-something he could no longer cope with the place.
Because it stayed in the same family for so long, the cottage is furnished with many original pieces made by Ernest and his circle of craftsmen, and the cottage itself was designed to appear as if it has grown organically from the rocks of Charnwood Forest. It has eleven rooms on seven different levels which must have made domestic tasks a nightmare. The house has not changed much over the years since it was built in 1898, apart from having a slate roof, which replaced the thatched roof that was destroyed by fire in 1939.
We started out in the kitchen which became the dining room because it was far too difficult to move things to what had originally been the dining room. A serving hatch that is halfway up the kitchen wall but at floor level on the other side was no help by all accounts. There’s a splended table with a top fashioned from a single oak plank in the kitchen that the family made good use off, including carving a shuffleboard into it. A collection of stone hot-water bottles on the slate steps give an idea of how much effort had to go into keeping the place – and its inhabitants – warm.
The pantry off to one side has a number of rubber ducks sitting on the floor, mostly because it regularly flood as the water seeps in through the cracks in the rock that the house in built into! Apparently the last owners’ used to keep a plank handy to get across to the sherry stored on the other side on days when the water levels were high. We were already starting to wonder how the Gimsons survived in such a damp, unheated place.
The family did maintain a house in Leicester as well, with Ernest and Sydney being part of what was a large local family. They moved to New Walk as children, their father Josiah, having founded and run an engineering firm at the Vulcan Works. Interestingly for the times, the family were very active in the Leicester Secular Society. One of the society’s meeting was something of a turning point for Ernest when William Morris was a guest. Ernest met and greatly impressed Morris and Morris did much to steer Gimson to his subsequent career. He moved to London to train as an architect, leaving Sydney to go into the family business.
Ernest spent a lot of time in Leicester, where he collaborated with the Barnsley brothers; between them they would design some of the cottage’s furniture and a lot of it was pointed out to us on the tour. Between them the remained true to William Morris’s ideal that “nothing should be made by man’s labour which is not worth making, or must be made by labour degrading to the makers”.
The tour took us up 8 steps into the living room next where the family would sit and read or play games. A cupboard in the wall contained a selection of family games, and the room is set out much as it was in the 1950s, when the children were growing up and the Gimson’s moved in full time. There’s an extra large window on one end looking over the garden which was put in to provide better light for reading.
At the other end of the room was a ludicrously narrow and twisting staircase up to the first of the bedrooms we would look into. This was Donald and Anne’s bedroom, and a cold, damp space it is too. The furniture is beautiful, but I wouldn’t want to have to try and survive a winter in there. To get into the room from this end, we had to drag ourselves up hanging onto a thick rope.
There’s a lovely chest up against the window with the original owners’ initials carved on it that I would love to have, though I’ve no idea how I’d get it out of there!
The other people on the tour with us were proving a bit problematic at this stage, partly because the mother kept wandering off, distracted by knitting, partly because she insisted on displaying her considerable ignorance at every possible opportunity. I would have been much happier if we could have got away from her, but we couldn’t. We took refuge in the details, like this rather splendid bakelite bedwarmer.
The cabinet that was given to Ernest as a 21st birthday present was possibly my favourite object in the whole house. It was both practical and lovely and I don’t see how anyone cold fail to love it, personally.
I also liked the crib in the nursery, though as our guide pointed out, it wouldn’t be considered safe now. The gaps between the bars are just about the right size for a child to get its head stuck, and the end section lifts up and drops down in such a way as said child could then decapitate itself. It was beautifully made though.
Another of the bedrooms contained two beds and was used for the domestic staff having been the children’s room. Another impressively put together piece of furniture greeted us. Although the house was somewhat primitive for modern life, I was starting to like it a lot, or at least its furnishings.
The addition of a bathroom improved everyone’s lives considerably by all accounts, as did the installation of an indoor toilet. It might have been a small bathroom, but it had to be better than a tin bath in front of the fire, with water having to be brought in from the well at the bottom of the garden.
With that and the children’s room we were finished on the tour and could wander the garden if we wished to. It was still a bit cold and wet but it had at least stopped raining and so we clambered to the top of the slope to look down at the house and all the different levels of the roof.
Satisfied that we had seen all there was to see indoors, and that the garden was too slippery to deal with in depth, we headed towards the exit gate and the café in the old stable block. There you can get some of the best cheese scones I’ve ever eaten, made with red Leicester cheese. The sticky toffee apple cake is pretty good too.
After refreshments we caught the shuttle bus back to the car park and headed for home.