About a farm…

22 October 2012
Ben Pentreath

Years and years ago, I guess when I was sixteen or so, I went on a French exchange along with a few other boys from my class at school. We set off in a coach at the beginning of the holidays and many hours later, after a weird ferry crossing that reminds one how, well – historic – the early 80s now feel, we arrived in Bayeux where, weary-eyed, we were collected by the various families we were staying with.

Everyone else was lodging with people in town, the sons of bank managers and lawyers. For some reason, which I will never be sure of, but was (in retrospect) so grateful for, I stayed with a farming family deep in a rural valley. Vincent, my exchange, was not – I think it might be fair to say – especially forthcoming, but it was an eye-opening week. Life there was lived in an absolutely unchanging way that has remained in my mind ever since.

This part of the story is not for the squeamish. On my second evening, Vincent’s dad took me for a tour of the smallholding; through the orchard, around the chickens, and geese. We ended up in front of a large rabbit cage with about fifty of the softest and fluffiest rabbits you have seen. “Which is your favourite?”, he asked. In my bad schoolboy French I pointed at the softest and fluffiest of the lot and explained how much I liked it. I don’t think I expected what happened next.  I am sure you can guess.  It was quite a brutal introduction into the reality of life on a rural French smallholding. That rabbit was tomorrow’s lunch, and it was quickly dispatched in front of my eyes.

Vincent’s grandmother owned a farm a little way up the lane. We went up there the following morning for granny to skin the rabbit, and it was here that the trip made such a remarkable impact, so strong that I can remember that place as if I had left it yesterday. It was like stepping back into another century. A farmyard, deep in manure, was filled with cows, goats, pigs, chicken, geese, ducks and a donkey. I’m not sure animal welfare was quite what it might have been. The old stone farmhouse was collapsing, but remarkably beautiful. We entered the kitchen. The floor was covered in mud. The walls were painted two shades of gloss paint, primrose and daffodil yellow, that could have come straight from Monet’s house at Giverny, were it not for a pair of brown chickens sitting on the table. Against one wall, an ancient black cast iron range; on the opposite wall, a wide, white gloss painted dresser.

I have never forgotten that farm; it resonates with me still.  And perhaps that is why I so much love finding a farm gently collapsing, and which has not been tastefully done up (Cotswolds, anyone?). Maybe it is why I find so beautiful, and quietly rich with meaning, the photographs of James Ravilious, whose books you might have seen in the shop; this photograph of ‘Archie Parkhouse’ is one of the things that I treasure most.

Anyway, to find a fragment of the old way of farming is a rare thing today, although I am glad to say that West Dorset is a little less cleaned up than one or two places we can think of.  On the drive to my friend Jane & Johnny’s house, is this wonderful farm, at Mangerton, with a decaying regency farmhouse and remarkable two storey barn.

I love that barn, which you can imagine being drawn by an enthusiastic architecture student in the 1920s.

Or, in the next door village to me here, this lovely Georgian house which is gently collapsing around the owners. Perfection.

But do you remember me writing about the treasure hunt we held in the valley a month or so ago? The greatest joy of that trip was being taken, by the clues, down a little lane that I had never been on before. And it ran through a farmyard of such beauty, and fragile decrepitude, than when I had a friend staying this weekend I thought we had better go back for a better look.

Image how grim it would be if, instead of a broken car with no wheels, that was a large black range rover in the drive, and if tasteful Farrow & Ball paint and dark coloured dahlias adorned the facade.  Oh no. That would not be on. Well, it is sort of inevitable, I guess, but can we just for a moment enjoy the Undone up?

(wouldn’t you like your own postbox set in the wall?).

Fine contenders for the corrugated iron club.

What a place of joy. Simultaneously poetic in collapse, and allowing us to dream.

Back at home, it was time to turn to The Royal Commission books and see what we could find. These should be the subject of another post, because I cannot say in a sentence what one needs to about these, some of the most beautiful, and richly detailed books on architecture ever published. I’m always thankful that they completed Dorset first, before realising it would be too great a task to carry on with other counties – although Salisbury and Cambridge did get published. And sure enough, amongst the pages, there is Look Farm, in a previous incarnation.


And now it is bedtime, and time to dream of a small stone house with four corner chimneys and a dolls-house facade lost deep in the most beautiful valley in Dorset.



25 comments on this post

I can’t quite remember how I came to fall down your chimney earlier today (I think it was Remodelista?) but I did, and when I landed I found, I think, a kindred sprit. One, at least, who seems similarly haunted by what he calls ‘fragile drecreptitude’ and the joys of the Undone Up. I am in Australia now, but I was brought up on the IoW, in times when all those grand houses built for Queen Victoria’s court had been abandoned and were sinking gently into senescence. My childhood was spent exploring the shrubberies, and finding the gardener’s forks left there, and the black and white tiled ballrooms, and the gothic tunnels into which animal skulls had been set. Those houses are long gone, knocked down and their places taken by housing estates, but they continue to whisper to me down the years, and there is a strange yearning for something about them that never quite goes away. I think I see that same yearning here in your (lovely) words. And your pictures – they have set off something quite powerful in me. My mother-in-law lives in Dorset – I’d swear that’s her village if I didn’t know better.

deb millersays:

Just back from a trip to the UK, where in between visits to amazing exhibits and theatre productions, I spent lots of time trudging around lanes, countryside and small towns. My family always have a bit of a laugh at me when I pull on my wellies and announce I’m going for a walk. Living in Western Canada is great on so many levels, but for me nothing can compare to a walk along winding lanes with high hedgerows, muddy gateways beautiful and not so beautiful old buildings and that feeling of being in the land the GPS can’t find.

Philip Krabbesays:

Wonderful house, the grand house in miniature. And so untouched is the best of it – one can imagine the potential. I often browse wonderful houses on the pages of Country Life but so many spoiled and overdone by too much money!
Also very interesting to see the house in its heyday in the book.

Robert Rowandsays:

Delightful post, thank you. Loved the corrugated iron roof…I have one on my home in South Africa…never seen one in England. Thought they were reserved for the Colonies.


Very ‘All Creatures Great and Small’ sheer bliss, do hope the dreaded black range rover is held at bay.

gosh the joy of rusted corregated iron!

Talking of bygone things, do you think our Roberts Radios will survive the switching off of the analogue signal? Yours was in the yellow kitchen on previous post. Sarah and Nelson (Morris Minor, Trafalgar Blue).

Jenny Msays:

Being in Australia we don’t have the amount of old buildings/homes that the UK have, so to see the beauty of your countryside and the old farms and homes that you have kindly shared with us is amazing. I love the rustic stonework that has stood the test of time.
My husband & I have just booked our flights to the UK to visit our daughter in Edinburgh, Scotland, next year, and I shall be on the lookout for the magical lanes that may lead us to view the gentle ageing of some farms and houses as we travel from London to Edinburgh.

Take a drive through Burstock sometime – tiny hamlet north of Broadwindsor, near Pilsden Pen – just up your street/lane.

isn’t it funny how seeing the potential of dereliction is so seductive! and that leaving well alone or making do and mending is no mean feat. Inspiration indeed.


Ben, could you keep one of the best kept secret valleys of Dorset a bit quieter, all the grockles will be turning up and spoiling it for us! Really enjoyed your book and read it. Is the obelisk in the sitting room a one off.

Bliss & fabulous pics Ben- a perfect cold comfort farm…


I so enjoy your post, especially viewing the farms today. As a past dairywoman, I can relate on a smaller scale. In my next life, I hope to come back to the country life of my ancestors in England. Thanks so much for sharing your interesting life with us.

I believe Look Farm is my absolute dream of a home….with the old car and bit of shabbiness. I love your life and am so fascinated with everything you share…best from Milano, daniel


You will be pleased to know that as I don’t use satnav (I like to mapread) – I find plenty of these around! e.g. a beautiful smallholding at Ibberton with animals all over the road. We are looking for a house at the moment and I keep trying to explain to the agents that we don’t ‘gut’ houses, we mend them.

Your post is the only part of Monday I look forward to. I want the postbox!

Could it be possible that Look Farm is awaiting a reincarnation courtesy of Ben Pentreath?

What a lovely, lovely post! Thank you!

Reminds me of my grandmother’s house back in Kentucky.


I can only echo the others- your posts transport me to a happier place. You are most generous of spirit, thank you.

deby, in Canadasays:

Oh Ben… agree with Elizabeth and kevin. What a wonderful post, thank you again for sharing so generously.
The postbox is bliss…


There’s a sweet honesty in a fading hard-working farm that cannot be recreated, and I admire that you cherished its beauty (Farrow & Ball’d, indeed!). A bit Thomas Hardy, almost.

Nothing to do with anything, but do go see “Samsara.” We just got home from a showing, and, to overwork an overworked word, are in awe of the world tonight.

Elizabeth Barrsays:

Dear Ben Pentreath, you do make me happy.

Kevin Kornegaysays:

I look forward to your posts every weekend. Thank you.

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