Country Matters: Home on blue, remembered hills

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THIS little saga began one freezing winter dawn four years ago as I crept through Mortimer Forest, on the hills above Ludlow in Shropshire. My mentor was John Speed, Forestry Commission ranger, who was working on his annual cull of the fallow deer.

At first light we came up out of the trees to the edge of some silvery, frost-covered fields, rising gently to our left, and at the top of them, through my binoculars, I saw a house, miles from anywhere.

'What's that?' I whispered.

'Haye Park,' said John.

'Who lives there?'

'No one. It's been empty for ages.'

We moved on round the contour, leaving the house above us, dark and mysterious. But the place stuck in my imagination, and later, when I heard that the Commission intended to let the little farmstead on a long lease because it had no use for it, I returned, with permission, to look round it properly.

There it stood, 900ft above sea level, in an island of grass fields surrounded by 3,000 acres of forest. The house was tall, gaunt and decrepit. It had a telephone, but no mains electricity and practically no plumbing. It was more than a mile from the main road, up a steep forestry track. Some of the farm buildings behind it were collapsing, others leaning. The predominant impression was of rusty corrugated iron, stinging nettles and decay.

And yet I found the site phenomenally attractive. Its remoteness and seclusion tugged at my heart: it was above, and beyond the reach of, the rest of the world, high up among the trees, yet saved from being claustrophobic by the splendour of the view. Looking down over a park- like field studded with majestic limes and oaks, and on over the top of a larch plantation, you can see for 50 miles. A E Housman, pining for the Shropshire of his youth, wrote of its 'blue, remembered hills'. Well, Haye Park is on one of the hills he loved, but the view is of a blue, remembered plain, stretching south to the distant Cotswolds.

Had I not been more than adequately housed already, I should have thought seriously about applying for the lease myself. As it was, I wrote an article in this column, extolling the beauty of the place, but not concealing its drawbacks - among them the fact that any tenant would have to tolerate the deer, which for generations have used the fields as the centre of their range.

The result was astonishing. Nearly 100 people applied to the local Forestry Commission manager, who held two open days for prospective occupants to go up and view the property. In due course I heard that suitable tenants had been found, and felt glad that the house was about to be inhabited again.

Since then I have often worried that the newcomers, whoever they were, might feel that I had let them in for a nightmare. But last week my telephone rang, and the caller announced herself as Carolyn Stone, who, with her partner, John, had taken a strange place called Haye Park. Would I like to look in and see what they had done with it?

A day later I was there, on as glorious a summer morning as I will ever see. Solid new post-and-rail fences round the paddocks, good- looking horses grazing, a golden retriever bounding down to meet me: clearly the place had fallen into the right sort of practical, country hands.

Carolyn was a slim, athletic thirtysomething, John a good deal older, and as bushily grey-bearded and blue-eyed as a master mariner, but in fact a dealer and adviser in architectural items. They had missed my article, but friends had drawn their attention to it in time for them to go before a selection panel and justify their fitness to live in such an out-of-the-way setting.

As it happened, their credentials for such an enterprise were unbeatable, for until then they had been living in a former gamekeeper's cottage belonging to the National Trust on the Croft Castle estate, a few miles to the south. After years without electricity or any amenity more modern than a cold tap downstairs, they found Haye Park positively luxurious.

Never for a moment - I was delighted to find - have they regretted taking out a renewable 21-year lease, even though it requires them to bear all the expenses of maintaining and improving the house. Already they have spent more than pounds 20,000 making it habitable, but not in any flash or modernistic way. On the contrary, they have taken enormous trouble to keep and enhance period features, for John reckons that the oldest part of the building dates from the late 1500s. By means of the odd antler and ancient weapon, they have also set out to evoke the former role of the building as a hunting lodge.

Like all the land round about, the house once belonged to the Salwey family, and research suggests that Major Richard Salwey, who had some differences with Oliver Cromwell, came to live there at the time of the Civil War. A handsome cast-iron fire-back, dated 1649, bears his initials, and those of his wife, Anne.

John stresses that their plans are long-term. The two main floors are now in order, with full-scale plumbing, and generators provide electricity, but the attic and cellar remain to be tackled. So does most of the farmyard, although the chaos has been pushed back some distance from the house, and a pond has been restored to life.

Animals are much in evidence. A board across the open front door is there to deny entry to a wandering duck. Maxi the retriever is backed up by three cats. There are two geese, three horses, and a leading escapologist in the form of a goat. Bats live in the attic, and spiders in the cellar. Badgers kill the free-range chickens in night raids, and the deer eat everything, including the gooseberries.

No matter: Carolyn and John have fallen deeply in love with Haye Park, and now plan to take in a few bed-and- breakfasters to share their high-altitude paradise. Horses and riders will feel thoroughly at home, for there are stables, and miles of glorious green tracks through the forest.

If I wanted to spend a night in the area of Ludlow, I should go there like a shot. Where else, on October nights, will you hear fallow bucks grunt and clash antlers outside your bedroom window as they fire up for the rut?

Do I now regret the fact that I did not seize the initiative myself? Well, that faint sound you hear could be my molars grinding.

Carolyn Stone, Haye Park House, Richards Castle, Ludlow, Shropshire SY8 4ED. Tel: 0584 74615.