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“Only if it’s a wing of this house, on the edge of a field, near Glastonbury” — I love that particular style of Victorian Gothic architecture, I love the English countryside, and I love Glastonbury, where my family lived. I really meant “no” by putting forward an unattainable ideal.
Two days later, the agent’s picture of Bushy Coombe came through the door. It was an almost exact replica of a wing of my old house, on the edge of a field, near Glastonbury.
Several months later, and I find myself with the responsibility of the guardianship of this rather special valley on the north side of Chalice Hill — 13 acres of pasture and hill land with mature trees, and at the far end of the valley the remains of an orchard and a gothic barn in need of TLC.
I set up camp on the land, and two things were immediately apparent. That there was an abundant variety of wildlife here, in a beautiful landscape that needed protection. And that many people — locals and visitors — used and loved the place too, as they walked the footpath or came for recreation or quiet, away from the bustle of the town. There’s a 1912 photograph of the coombe, looking down from the footpath to the woods that were then Dod Lane. There is the bench, and the citizens relaxing on it. The cows graze in the distance. All is tranquil. Then as now, it is a place to come for a bit of peace, to enjoy the views, to meditate.
So the idea of making it a nature sanctuary, of preserving and enhancing the landscape here, was not really a decision, but the obvious thing to be done. If it is some work, I take that on willingly and with enthusiasm. There’s much to do — new fencing, clearing, to repair the farm buildings for stock in the spring. It is a time also for assessment, to choose the right places and varieties for planting, for sounding out local views and applying for the relevant permissions and grants. Plans include a project to plant more broadleaved trees on the northern edge, to replace dead trees on the top, as well as to replant the old orchard next to the barn. Native shrubs (guelder rose, dogwood, spindle) are also being considered, as well as a programme of encouraging and planting a variety of wildflowers and grasses.
The sensitive restoration of the gothic barn is the other part of the project. The building was purpose-built as a coachhouse and barn in about 1840 with Flemish brickwork (a particular style of bricklaying) and ashlar cut-stone surrounds in the ferme ornée style. It really is a rare little gem of a Victorian gothic agricultural building. Inside, it is more or less a shell, with rotted beams and floorboards; it is on the English Heritage register of “buildings at risk”. It has planning permission for conversion to a two-bedroom dwelling. These are now being modified by Mark Orme, a local green architect. I hope that it will eventually provide me with a comfortable home with almost no alteration to its outside appearance.
An informal trust is being set up for the management of the valley, and I hope very much that readers with an interest will contact me with suggestions or historical information (0774 371 8585). Willing hands for the working parties planned for next year are very welcome too. Watch this space for further details.
• Bushy Coombe is now registered with Somerset Wildlife Trust as a private nature reserve.