Country Matters: Beauty lies asleep in a hollow

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The Independent Online
YOUR FIRST sight of Jackaments Bottom Farm, between Cirencester and Tetbury, in Gloucester, will bowl you over. The house is not in the least grand, but everything about its appearance breathes serenity. Its long facade of grey stone, irregular windows, faded forest-green paint and roofs on four different levels all cast a spell born of age and long, quiet use.

The building sits in an enchantingly sheltered hollow. Behind it steep, high banks cut off the north wind (and indeed the rest of the world) and in front the land falls gently away into the farm's own secret valley. Other stone buildings - a stable with hayloft above, and a milking parlour - flank a green lane that winds into the fields.

Yet almost its finest feature is the tree that towers before the door. A magnificent sycamore, whose huge branches arch out as if to protect the house and its inhabitants. It must be at least 150 years old. The approach road swings round its trunk in a sweep of beaten earth and gravel, flanked by grass. Beyond it, the house stands empty, sleeping in the past.

Jackaments is on the market: house, outbuildings and 101 acres of land, at an asking price of pounds 330,000. Why, if I am so taken with it, do I not quietly make an offer, instead of advertising its attractions?

Well, for one thing, there is the problem of the road. Alas, the main highway from Cirencester swings past less than 100 yards away behind it, admittedly beyond those sheltering banks, and out of sight beyond a belt of trees, but not by any means out of earshot.

Another snag is that the house, in the delicate understatement of Moore, Allen & Innocent, the selling agents, 'needs total refurbishment'. That is to say, the inside is dark, damp, dingy and a century out of date, with minimal heating and plumbing. Its low ceilings and doorways remind one how much smaller human beings were two or three hundred years ago. I have no doubt that it is heaving with every kind of wood-eating insect known to man. About pounds 100,000 would go some way to putting it in order, but you might find yourself spending a good deal more than that.

Yet another disadvantage lies in the fact that the farm is sandwiched between the main road and Kemble airfield, with towers and hangars rising right on its southern boundary. There is also a derelict railway line running slap though the middle of it. And yet . . . .

Such is the charm of the place that as I walked its ragged fields I found myself endlessly calculating pros and cons. If you built a stone wall, or even a stout wooden fence, along the side of the main road, it would cut out a lot of the noise at source. If you sold off the handsome outlying barn and one field, at the far end of the property, you might recoup pounds 80,000 or more, for planning permission exists to convert the barn to a dwelling.

The old railway is more of an asset than a liability, for the track has long since gone, and woodbine riots head-high on the embankments, which have become a conservation area in their own right.

The airfield is similarly far less of a menace than it sounds. Once the home of the RAF's Red Arrows display team, it has now been decommissioned, and is used only for storage. In relation to the farm, its sole function is the useful one of keeping the world at bay by sealing off access along one flank.

The history of Jackaments is disappointingly sparse. Research in local libraries has disclosed almost nothing about the house. Even the origin of its name remains obscure. It is as if the place has always been so well tucked away that it has persistently escaped notice.

Yet a surviving plan shows that the house is at least 300 years old, and the Wilkins family, who last lived in it, believe that it was once a coaching inn.

This seems probable, for the building stands right beside the Roman road known as the Foss Way, and one of its most curious features is a mounting block, with five steps carved from a single pillar of stone, up which passengers must have climbed to take their seats in stage-coaches. The block bears an incised date, which looks like 1651. Even I, with my poor historical imagination, can see coaches turning round the trunk of the sycamore, horses resting in the shade of its canopy, and a boy in an ankle- length apron bringing out pots of ale on a rough wooden tray for passengers and crew.

The farmhouse is now listed Grade II, and will have to be handled with care: nevertheless, it could be made immensely attractive. My own aim would be to gut the inside, but to change the outside as little as possible.

I find it hard to decide how much of the property's charm derives from the fact that it is all- but derelict. Although cattle grazed the land last winter, the grass has not been touched since then, and the fields have a wonderfully unkempt look. Clover and vetches have grown and fallen over into a knee-deep carpet, above which waves a sea of grass-heads gone to seed.

It is so long since the hedges were trimmed that they have sprouted and spread into spinneys and little copses. As I ploughed through the undergrowth alongside one of them, a sparrow-hawk hurtled out of a tree above my head, and in the middle of a field three English partridges sprang up out of the deep cover. In its present state the place is ideal for wildlife.

Around the house there lingers the ghost of a flower garden: the grass has been mown, and smooth banks of turf run off seductively into green lanes. Inside a dilapidated stone wall a vegetable plot basks in the eye of the sun, with a clump of nut bushes in one corner, and in the other is an old Victoria plum tree still bearing a few juicy monsters.

Such decrepitude has a certain magic of its own: it gives you the feeling of having stepped back in time to a less frantic era. I kept wondering, therefore, what would happen if one tried to tidy everything up. Would that spoil the place? In the end I decided that the little, gently winding valleys would look even better if the grass were in good order, grazed by sheep or cattle, and that you could enhance them by planting belts of trees to fit the contours.

You would leave some areas wild, of course, and you could not expect to make a living from the land: any attempt at intensive farming would be disastrous. Traditional grassland management and intelligent improvement would probably be the order of the day. But what a marvellous private kingdom you could make of it.

I saw Jackaments at its best, on a golden summer evening. I realise that in winter, with rain teeming down, it might seem a good deal less special. Yet it has lingered in my mind in a way that few places do, and I almost feel I have a proprietary interest in it - not least in that mighty sycamore opposite the front door.

Already one prospective customer has declared that the first thing to do on taking possession would be to get rid of that damned tree, as it blocks the light. In fact, that is the last action any buyer should contemplate. To me the sycamore is the tutelary spirit of the homestead: if anyone felled it, retribution would surely strike down the vandal and make him miserable ever after.

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