Matured to perfection

The Old Parsonage and St Augustine's vineyard is like a little piece of France in the heart of the English countryside. Penny Jackson talks to the owner who has painstakingly created a rural idyll
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The Independent Online

As we followed the drive on a hot afternoon past columns of vines bordered by French roses in full bloom, it was almost surprising not to find a chateau at the end. Instead, an 18th-century stone house that could only belong to an English village faced down the vineyard and towards fields of wild flowers.

The vines are about the most dramatic change the house has witnessed in its long history, even though, not far off, the region's busiest motorways cut through the countryside. The Old Parsonage and St Augustine's Vineyard on the edge of Aust, a small community built around a church and a pub, is just above the River Severn and entirely deserves the description of a rural oasis. The centre of Bristol is only 14 miles away.

At the back of the house in the old stableyard, fig trees, olives and myrtle grow along a sunny wall where even a lemon tree has found it agreeable enough to fruit. The kitchen courtyard is a glorious display of intermingled plants that spill on to the stone paths - a natural effect that is repeated throughout the garden.

It is all the creation of Pat Tayler, who moved into the house more than 30 years ago with her husband Michael. It was she who suggested they should start growing vines on his retirement. "I knew he would need a project. Within a year of producing grapes, the wine began to win awards, but above all, it was fun."

Her husband's death earlier this year has prompted Pat to want to sell the property, which is, in essence, a family house. Where the vines now grow in their traditional French pattern, there was once a paddock for children's ponies. A huge, unconverted attic shows signs of having been a teenage den.

But nothing in the house jars with its architectural origins. Dark timber floorboards, scattered with rugs, are exposed in every room and creak satisfyingly on the stairs. Deep, 16-pane, sash windows with painted shutters overlook the vineyard and, on the ground floor, while the symmetry of the two main reception rooms is perfectly intact, their double doors allow them to be opened up from the hallway. Original features have not always commanded such respect. The old flagstones that run from the kitchen out to the courtyard were lucky to survive the less conservation-minded Seventies. "When we moved in the only grant we were offered was for replacing the stone floor," says Pat. "Of course we didn't take it, but it shows how attitudes have changed." Instead she set about painstakingly restoring the house that had no water, limited electricity and mostly 19th-century comforts. "I did nearly all the work myself because I enjoy creating beautiful things. I didn't want the house to lose its 18th-century feel and it was lovely to discover when taking the walls back to their original state that the colours were exactly like those I had been using elsewhere."

Outside, the coach house has been restored and is used as a meeting room, wine-tasting venue and even a chapel. A half mezzanine below the open trussed ceiling has the appearance of a minstrel's gallery with a balustrade made from an old wooden ladder laid horizontally. The room is decorated in the fresh blue and white Swedish style with a black quarry tile floor. The doors were brought over from France. "As I told Customs, where else would you get French windows?" says Mrs Tayler. Other outbuildings have also been turned into extra accommodation for visitors to the vineyard.

Aust was named after St Augustine, the first Archbishop of Canterbury, who visited the village in 603AD, and six years ago, it was on the route of a pilgrimage from Rome to Iona. Since then, both the present Archbishop and his predecessor have been visitors at the Old Parsonage.

The sheltered position of the house makes it ideal for the growing of grapes, as does the soil - a fact which had not escaped the notice of the Romans either. The vineyard produces enough grapes for around 3,000 bottles a year. "It would be very sad to see the vines go, but if someone found they couldn't manage it or simply wanted to get rid of it, there is no reason why they shouldn't grub them up," says Pat. "At the moment, the perfume from the roses is overpowering, but the smell from the vine flowers is wonderful." The roses, all white, are not purely for decorative purposes. "If there is any disease, the roses show it first," she explains.

Hidden out of sight, behind trees and yet more roses, we come across the tennis court with the kind of surface that can see play only minutes after rain. Much of the garden seems more like a series of outdoor rooms, with walls and planting dividing them into areas for different functions. A sheltered herb garden is a favourite spot for summer parties and a grassy spot beyond has become a playspot for the grandchildren. "They are particularly cross with me for moving," adds Pat. "It is sad to go, but I have to a start a new chapter of my life." She must hate the thought that someone will tamper needlessly with the house. "I do, but we all have to move on."

The house and vineyard are being sold through agents Humberts at their Tetbury office (01666 502284) at a guide price of £875,000.