Close to Heaven
23 February 2014
It’s been a weekend of houses and wide landscapes. I’ve been up on the coast again, in Norfolk. It was a dreamy, bright day on Friday, driving up to Norfolk across the Fens, past the great Gothic stone lantern of Ely Cathedral, that takes my breath away every time I first catch sight of it on a drive.
And then down to Suffolk. I stayed a night with my dear friends Charles and Rachel – Charles my old boss from years ago. Then, via another beautiful house, where the new incumbents are cooking up fantastic, exciting plans to bring a sleeping beauty back to life…, then… down to the dreamiest place of all.
I was staying with my friends Veere Grenney and David Oliver at Veere’s perfect house, the Temple in Stoke-by-Nayland. Veere has lived at the Temple for 30 years. Very sharp-eyed readers of the blog will remember that it’s featured once before (in one of the all-time great blogs, even if I say so myself… which you can read here). So you can imagine it was with a bit of trepidation that I took the turning down a small country road from Stoke-by-Nayland and caught my first glimpse of the Temple at a dip in the road.
From the minute I arrived to the minute I left I think it’s true to say I was closer to heaven than I’ve been for a while. As I stepped into another world, down a neat gravel path, I spied some people walking around the giant canal that faces the Temple. The couple turned out to be my friend Gavin Houghton and his lovely new boyfriend who’s name I can pronounce very easily but it occurs to me now I do not know quite how to spell. Ever since I first spied Gavin’s flat in the iconic World of Interiors shoot back in, I don’t know, 2000andsomething, …well… I think I’ve admired his work more than anyone I know. So it was doubly nice to arrive and find they were staying. Bliss.
The Temple was built by Sir Robert Taylor in the 1760s; it was the fishing lodge to the great Tendring Hall, Soane’s first major country house, tragically demolished in the 50s. There is an air of melancholy in the ancient Parkland that is tangible, quiet, poignant.
Veere and his beautiful almost-white-almost-grey (would she be any other colour?) lurcher reflected in the oeil-de-bouef window added by David Hicks in the 60s. The squashed oval was designed by the architect Raymond Erith. Hicks rescued the Temple from certain destruction.
There ensued an evening of gin and laughter and happy times and chat of Tangiers, and of an old mutual friend now living in Palm Springs and causing, I suspect, little short of a riot over there. There was a delicious dinner cooked by Veere, finished with a chocolate mess pudding to a recipe by the dowager Duchess of Devonshire. Of course.
I woke early. I knew that I had too much on my plate to while away a whole Sunday in heaven. Reluctantly, after a perfect breakfast of eggs and toast, I made my excuses and dragged myself away, back to London and real life and piles of paperwork, and to some designs of a potential new extension to a fine little market town in Somerset. It was a strange juxtaposition. Veere’s drawing room is literally one of the most perfect I’ve been in. Life outside the boundary of the Temple seems somehow duller. It’s a strange, enriching time spending a moment with the greatest aesthete of our generation.