In a perfect world…

21 July 2013
Ben Pentreath

It was a serene Friday morning when Lucy and I left London, early, to drive down to our decoration project near Devizes. We’re working on a dreamy old stone manor house in Wiltshire. The sky was blue, the air was warm, the sun was shining and the traffic was light. For once in a lifetime, we were going to be a tiny bit early (it seems that most of the time I’m running late).

On the road from Hungerford to Devizes lies the small village of Froxfield. Passing through, we drove yet again past one of the most intriguing buildings I’ve seen in a long time… what looked like a beautiful, ancient almshouse. You turn a corner in the road, and suddenly it’s there – catching my breath each time.  It dominates the highway.

We sped past. But as I did so I checked the clock… and said “Lucy – let’s turn around. Never again (probably in our lives) are we going to be ten minutes early to Conock”. And I turned the car around and back we went… to investigate.

You turn off the main road and into a tiny lane, and from here into a car park with ominous signs reading ‘private’. We got out of the car. The heat of the sun was already present. We were faced with the back of the building, and an enormous bank of lavender – which I took to be a good sign – and a little open alleyway at the bottom of a long flight of steps.

I caught a glimpse of what lay beyond – but I think it’s true to say not much could prepare me for the beauty of what we were about to see.

We were in a broad quadrangle – a wide court, lined with tiny, beautiful terraced cottages. In the middle a chapel.

Incredible – a microcosm.

Incredible, indeed? What was this place? I walked through the archway and a clue is in the plaque.

The Duchess of Somerset’s Hospital.  Founded in the late 17th century, and, well, not a hospital as such, at all; but still – 300 years later – the home to 50 widows (well, not quite widows, it turns out, but single ladies for whatever reason). Although I understand that gentleman are now allowed to stay over for the night. You can read more about the history, and workings of the trust, here.

We were entranced. I can honestly say that I haven’t seen such a special place in years. I mean – years.

We began chatting to one or two of the lovely people who, I supposed, were lucky enough to call this home.

One of them pointed us in the direction of the allotments – through the narrow arched opening at the end of the terrace.  Too much.

Have you seen a more beautiful place to garden?

(no, probably not).

In the garden, we met another lovely resident who insisted we followed her into the board room. This is where there is a communal library, meeting room and kitchen. Okay – it would have been a little too much to hope that the board room would have been panelled in 17th century oak…

but it was a lovely space nonetheless.  The library. Fantastic.

Here is an engraving of Sarah, Duchess of Somerset, who founded this wonderful place.

Her portrait. A kind face.

We were told that the current Duke and Duchess take a keen interest in the hospital. Here they are; and they look like they have kind faces too.


Our guides. The best.

The gazebo which had been taking place when we arrived was nearly installed. More hilarity.  The cause of which… you see that little white thing on the lawn? A jar of vaseline. Do not ask me what it was doing there, or why it was quite so funny…  but basically I got the impression we had broken into a girls boarding school where everyone was aged between 60 and 95, and having about just as much fun as if they were 15.

It’s  a strange thing: turning, for a minute, off the main road and finding a place like this, waiting to be discovered. We were on our way again, soon, and I doubt I’ll ever have time again to turn in and stop for a while at the Duchess of Somerset’s Hospital – but it is a place I’ll never forget. Not just for the buildings – but for the sense by which time and history and people weave together to create one of the most tangible senses of community that I’ve seen in a long time. Can you imagine a nicer place to live in retirement?


I arrived in Dorset on Friday evening, and the valley has been perfect in this July heat. I can’t tell you how content the heatwave makes me. The garden has gone mad… everything bursting into flower and then seed within seconds, it seems. A fun party in the valley last night – I walked home by moonlight – magical, slightly drunk in the balmy night. It’s Sunday evening now, and I decided that I had to have one more evening down here. That means an unbearably early train in the morning, and the grimness of Waterloo Station on a Monday morning at the commuter hour. But for now… stillness… complete quiet… moon rising, a soft breeze blowing. I’ve got to admit. At moments like this – I’m happy.

In the summer air – is there a tiny hint of autumn? Are you, like me, noticing that the evenings are drawing in just a bit earlier than a month ago? Let us relish these weeks while they’re here.

33 comments on this post

ursula falconersays:

Such a relief Conock in your hands…we visited just before its lovely owner died. The thatched dairy and clocktowered stables are achingly beautiful as they are.Such a relief you will not let them be “bankerised”…ugh…I had feared for them. do hope you will be able to Post what you do there.


Ben, It’s June 29th. Where is your Monday morning post? I love beginning my week by reading your faithful, regular entries; a little glimpse of home for a homesick Brit in the US. Have you any idea how much we all look forward to checking in with you? Unless you’re hospitalized, please write soon and don’t be a tease.

I know that place ! Whizzed past it many a time – old hunting grounds.

Looking forward to the posts about the ‘dreamy old stone manor house in Wiltshire’

Emma Lipscombesays:

Thank you Ben for another of your treats. You transported me once again, and as usual I was happy to be taken for the ride!



My Great aunt lives at The Duchess of Somerset’s Hospital, having previously lived on the Conock estate!

What coincedence… There are few thins better than going to visit her and her garden. Just bliss.

Yes, happiness in moments, spun out of moonshine and air. I get that.

My favourite row of almshouses is the one by the church in East Coker.

What a beautiful place that is. Old fashioned charm that we will probably never see repeated again in our lifetimes. Enjoy it while it lasts!

Martin Gibsonsays:

As one of the dedicated team that looks after this magical place thank you for painting such a lovely picture. It is even more special than you think.


I can only echo the sentiments of the others- your blog with its evocative writing & lovely photography is a thing of sheer joy. Yours is a charmed life and thank you for inviting us along for the ride.


What a beautiful place to live.

Vel Ilicsays:

Ben, just stumbled across your beautiful site – love the vivid pictures you paint with words and visuals; this was a joy to read!

Mary Killensays:

Thank you for this lovely story. I have driven past it for years without knowing…

What a beautifully heartwarming post. Thanks for sharing!

Margaret Powlingsays:

What a gorgeous place that is, this is how ‘later living’ (that dreadful expression devised by one builder of housing for the old!) should be! And your own garden, Ben, is also a delight!

Jo Ssays:

Reminds me (certainly in atmosphere) of Trinity Hospital Greenwich where the old sea dogs (their description-not mine!) would show you round their beautiful courtyard homes. Love those wonderful ladies giggling together like naughty schoolgirls…

Thank you so much — what a lovely place to share. Those are lucky ladies!


Great post as per usual!! It would be thoroughly interesting for us Ben P’ followers to see a project from beginning to end – which could be updated throughout the year/s – something like your dreamy old stone manor house project or a wonderful new build would be truly fabulous. Obviously it would need your clients permission, but what a super way to showcase your talents! All the best

Wow! As someone already said, this is indeed how everyone should be able to live out their final years, with dignity and companionship. And gardens! I wonder if it could be done without an endowment? I lived in a communal house for awhile back in the 80’s with 7 others, and observed that several can live better, and more cheaply, than one, by pooling resources and sharing tasks and expenses, as well as pleasures (though of course the Somerset cottages are a different arrangement.) I lived in a big, beautiful, eight bedroom house with columned porch, stained glass on the landing and huge back yard, for less rent than I’d’ve paid for a small apartement on my own. As I approach retirement age (with inadequate savings) the idea of living communally again starts to seem like an idea worth pursuing…

Thanks for another lovely post, Ben. By the way, I put a link and a rave about Inspiration in my last blog post. Cheers!

Isla Simpsonsays:

Where do I sign up for the Duchess of Somerset’s Hospital? Possibly a bit premature at 33 yrs of age, but I’m sold! Brilliant entry Ben, well done!


Near where I live and a beautiful building indeed. Is this not how the single and elderly should live? In a community surrounded by gardens with buildings that reflect their sense of identity and dignity?
If you have a few spare moments when in Wiltshire. Pop into my local the Seven Stars in Woodborough/Bottlesford for a superb lunch and then walk up behind the church to Woodbrough hill. Beautiful.


Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts and those wonderful photos. As previous correspondents, I look forward to your Monday morning posts and am never disappointed. Inspirational indeed!

What a little gem of a place – so glad you had time to stop and follow your hunch that it would be interesting. Your garden is looking so bountiful no wonder you stayed an extra day.

Anne Smithsays:

Trollope wrote several of the Barsetshire novels about Hiram’s Hospital. Plots turned on who would get to tun it. You just made them come alive. Thank you from an American fan who likes your heat wave attitude as her own needs adjustment.

deby (in Canada)says:

Oh, don’t they just look like they have a great secret and are having such fun. The beauty of the place leaps out of the computer, making me want to pack my dogs, my books and my knitting and move there immediately!
It is a beautiful post Ben… were you tempted to sleep out in the garden? Thank you for once again starting the week out in such a happy way.

Suzy Fanningsays:

Ben, I just wanted to say thank you so much for your wonderful wonderful blog. Like you, I came over to the States at the age of 21 in 1992, but unlike you, I stayed here after law school and settled into American life. I love Michigan but I miss home so much. Every evening after hours of court and clients and children and activities, I sit down, cross my fingers and hope you posted a new blog. For the time it takes me to scroll through your evocative prose and photographs, I am transported back to my bucolic childhood in England. I can’t tell you how it makes me whole again. I agree with Ellen that this is one of my favorite posts ever – it made me cry. I know you are incredibly busy and successful, but please accept my appreciation for the sheer happiness you bring to others by taking the time to share your world.


What a little slice of heaven.

Please don’t ever quit your blog – it brings so much joy, probably more than you know!

Ellen Spencersays:

One of my favorite posts ever.

Linda Belshaw Beattysays:

Ben, you ought to be very happy… lead a charmed life! Thank you for sharing your vision, your experiences and your Dorset garden. Those ‘girls’ at the Somerset Hospital must live by that old saw “If life throws you a curve ball, hit it out of the park”.

Enjoy your extra evening in Dorset tonight! Looking forward to seeing you on Tuesday, and I only wish I had time to visit the Duchess of Somerset Hospital. One of the most charming places I’ve seen – ever!

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