In my last post, you may remember I mentioned that our rental car died once or twice before we got to Gravetye Manor, a glitch I attributed to my unfamiliarity with (a) driving an Audi in general, and (b) driving a diesel Audi in particular. But a nightmare trip from Haywards Heath on the (naturally under construction) A272 — 30 minutes of stop-and-go driving, with the engine cutting out every time I stopped — convinced both of us that something was dangerously wrong with that car.
Once we finally, and very thankfully, pulled up in front of our home for the next five weeks, we’d decided to tell Alamo to come and get the Audi and bring us something that actually ran. But all our frustration evaporated at the first sight — and scent — of Keepers Cottage. When we walked in the door, we were greeted by huge bouquets of flowers in every room, mainly giant pink peonies, all freshly cut from the gardens that surround the house. The fragrance of peonies has permeated the entire house, lasting for days.
Originally the gamekeeper’s cottage for the large estate of which this property was once a part, the house has been sympathetically restored and enlarged by its present owner (more about her later). The period cottage was built in the mid-nineteenth century and is thus quite a lot newer than the places we’ve rented on our previous visits to England. But the agent with whom we’ve dealt for twenty years has never once steered us wrong, so when he said he thought we would love the house even though it is different from the ones we’ve lived in before, we trusted his judgment. And we are very glad we did.
When the owner bought the property and its surrounding sixty-three acres, the cottage was virtually in ruins, with no roof and no discernable charm. But the woodland setting was, even then, incomparable, and someone with vision and style could see the potential in the bones of this small house.Now, surrounded by a stone wall enclosing the most beautiful flower garden of any house we’ve rented, the cottage is a delight. Massive flagstones wander unevenly across the floor, and mullioned windows in the small dining room frame the yellow roses in the garden like a Monet painting. Light green walls and cream-painted woodwork give the rooms a springlike atmosphere, and the furnishings are both eclectic and comfortable.
But this isn’t the part of the house where we spend most of our time. There were long-disused dog kennels and runs on the property, so (using the original footprint) the new owner obtained planning permission and designed and built a stunning modern addition linked to the old cottage by an all-glass conservatory.
The ground floor of the addition consists of one large, airy room encompassing kitchen, dining room, and sitting room, with walls of glass where all the windows and doors can be opened to bring in even more of the outdoors. The kitchen has an Aga (that and a free-standing shower are really Gerry’s only requirements for renting a house), a brand-new glass cooktop, a dishwasher, a big side-by-side refrigerator, and more wooden countertops than even we can clutter up. The sitting room has a huge fireplace, a big, comfortable sofa, three easy chairs, and a flat screen TV that gets what seems like every channel available in the UK, and has a DVR, so we can record programs — no, programmes — that are on too late for us to stay up for.
The master bedroom and bath are downstairs, in a cleverly constructed daylight basement with smooth concrete floors, a separate shower room, antique rugs, and a fascinating collection of art and collectibles. There is a skylight in the ceiling over the bed (visible in the photo later on that shows the deck around the “new” part of the house), and we wake up to the prints of little animals and large birds on the glass overhead. This morning, two glossy rooks competed for deck space, walking over the skylight and uttering loud challenges, accompanied by mysterious thumps. Oh, and there are bookcases loaded with books all over the house, from very recent novels (like Hilary Mantel’s Bring up the Bodies, which I read just before we left home) to biographies and travel books and history books and anything you might be interested in. The variety of the reading material reflects the wide-ranging interests of the owner and her husband, giving us a sense of who they are without ever having met them.
The house comes with staff, although they seem more like neighbors we’ve learned to like immediately. Amanda met us at the house and took care of all our problems, large or small, with unfailing good humor. She arrranged for the RAC to send a mobile auto mechanic’s shop to the house to see what could be done about the car. She coaxed our laptop into better behavior and showed us how to do it ourselves later, if necessary. She recommended a local barber for Gerry and a good dry cleaner when we need one. She showed us where all the light switches are (no small thing) and how to call for help in an emergency. Everyone needs an Amanda.
And we have a woodsman! Clive, Amanda’s partner, is apparently capable of doing everything. He takes care of the chickens and the horse (yes, we have a horse) who live at the bottom of the garden, and he brought us two fresh brown eggs one morning, with apologies because the chickens don’t lay many.
The horse, William, is a 20-year-old Irish cob who used to pull a wagon, but is now retired to his own daisy-rimmed pasture where he keeps a close eye on the comings and goings up at the house. Clive brought us a big jar of horse treats, and every afternoon I take a handful down for William. He hears me as soon as I step out the back door and ambles up to meet me at the corner of the fence. The first day, he shied away when I tried to pet him after I’d given him his snack, but now he lets me stroke his soft nose and brush his mane back from his eyes. Clive and Amanda are also looking after the owner’s little dog, Duster, a small brown terrier who sometimes comes to the kitchen door if we’re visible in the room. She gets treats, too, of course.
And now about the owner of this wonderful house: Pom Oliver is a most remarkable and unusual woman. She and her husband are both independent film producers, and she was a member of the first all-woman team to walk to both the North and the South Poles. Recently, shes been involved in establishing a woodcraft and woodland skills center on part of the property, and it seems to be up and running quite successfully. For more information on Pom and her team and what they do here in these beautiful woods, go to their web site: www.woodlandskills.com. She came over for coffee a couple of days after we arrived, and we enjoyed meeting and talking with her enormously. We look forward to a longer get-together in the future with both Pom and her husband.
And now, finally, about the car. A big RAC van arrived at the house our second morning, and a very nice young man checked everything he could without taking the car on the road. So he asked me to ride with him while he tried to replicate the problem. I was beginning to think it really was just me when we stopped at an intersection and the engine died. After three or four similar experiences, we were heading back to the house to arrange for a different car when the mechanic, just to make sure, stopped a couple more times. After the second stop, the car started up again on its own, and his face lit up. It turned out that the engine is supposed to turn off when the car is stopped in gear with the driver’s foot on the brake. As soon as you take your foot off the brake, the engine purrs back to life and off you go. Aside from being extremely put out at the rental car people for not mentioning this tiny detail (of course there’s no owner’s manual in the car), I was so relieved to know what was going on that I could have hugged that Audi, mud and all. So we kept the car, and it performs beautifully.
Next time I’ll tell more about life in the Sussex countryside. Meanwhile, if you’d like to see a gallery of pictures of Keeper’s Cottage and its surroundings, click here.