A Home with a History: Elizabeth Tyler’s dovecote in the West Country
“I’m all about beauty,” says the garden designer, whose rented dovecote in the Wiltshire countryside is an ode to objects great and small that have caught her eye and won her heart
- Grace McCloud
- Ellen Hancock
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Elizabeth Tyler’s latest obsession is pink Sunderland lustreware. She recently bid so enthusiastically on eBay, she tells us, she had to put up some more shelves in the utterly charming dovecote she shares with her husband, agroecologist George Prior-Palmer, near Salisbury Plain, in Wiltshire.
There are, you may have worked out, already quite a few shelves here, supporting a great bounty of Elizabeth’s “ceramic tat” – blue-and-white plates, Staffordshire figurines and various plates, pots and vases. She picks up a pearlescent pink jug, in fact newly made (by Sussex Lustreware) but bearing a description of a lurcher of 1461 and reads aloud: “‘Head like a snake, neck like a drake, back like a beam, sides like a bream…’ Isn’t it brilliant?! ” Her own beam-backed sighthounds, Fennel and Riffle, no doubt agree, though they choose this moment to gambol out the room and down the stairs, in search of somewhere sunnier to laze.
Elizabeth delights in such small details, and her 16th-century home is full of them: here a single Japanese anemone of palest pink, newly plucked from the garden, its heavy head bowing in the heat; there a framed watercolour sketch of her and George on their wedding day, painted as a thank you by their artist friend Tyga Helme. At the moment, she’s deliberating over whether to keep the blue tassels on the grassy-green Knole sofa – picked up for a song – that she and her mother recently upholstered, or swap them for white.
This discernment and sense of the smaller things is, of course, what makes Elizabeth so very good at her job as a designer of glorious gardens across the country. Plant-focused, with an ecological bent and a good nose for heritage, Elizabeth is often tasked with reimagining historic landscapes for life today. She’s currently doing lots of “detective work” on an Arts and Crafts Inigo Triggs-designed plot in Hampshire, as well as a project on the Boughton estate in Northamptonshire.
Elizabeth’s predilection for digging around – metaphorical and literal – has served her well at her own at home too. Rented from a local landlord, the limestone-and-flint dovecote, though beautiful from the outside, was in need of TLC when she and George moved in, in 2019. “It was quite shabby,” she explains, “and the garden had all but disappeared.” A building of great eccentricity, the house hadn’t really been touched since it was converted in the 1970s – hence the pine tongue-and-groove that lines most of the walls – and neither had the garden.
In the years since, Elizabeth has brought her exacting eye to bear on both, coaxing their obscured value into view. The trick to good design, whether in interiors or gardens, is playfulness, she says, adding: “I’m all about beauty – and finding that involves playing around. Sometimes things work, sometimes they don’t. If you relax and don’t take things too seriously, you can then just enjoy things: the glamour of nature’s colour, the sheer luxury of gorgeous things.”
“The garden was pretty bad when we got here. There was one hideous bed and the lawn was terrible – not that it’s brilliant now; we’re quite unbothered by lawn in general. Since, we’ve added flowerbeds and raised ones for veg, built from hazel we coppiced from a friend’s trees. George and I make a good gardening team. He does all the mowing and chopping and power-tool stuff – it’s a really annoying gender breakdown, but hey ho! – and I grow and dig. Getting my fingernails dirty is my favourite hobby. It means that, when I do ever get a manicure, I’m always paranoid about bumping into any gardeners in case they see the lack of mud and think: ‘You haven’t a fucking clue about gardening!’
“The building dates to around the late 16th century, at a time when large landowning estates fed themselves entirely locally. Along with rabbit warrens, orchards and ponds, the dovecote would have formed a kind of larder for the big house. This one is remarkably large and cuboid, which is unusual; they’re usually round. It must have been home to masses of birds, once upon a time. I’ve done a bit of research on dovecotes and now I’m a bit fixated on them. I love the folly of them – their prettiness and the absurdity of them – but I also find them fascinating. There’s a theory that they indirectly brought about the French revolution; all the noblemen’s birds ate all the wheat, which meant no bread for the general population, who soon began to revolt.
“Its walls are about a metre thick and the 1970s panelling has been laid directly on top without any insulation, so it’s bloody freezing in the winter, but we love it – and we have a wood-burner, which saves us from perishing. Besides, I’d rather be too cold than too hot – I grew up in a chilly house and find being warm rather alarming, so in summer, this place is a haven.
“It’s a completely charming place to live. It has its faults – but you have to accept those when you live in an old building. We haven’t changed much about it, because we rent, but I do love it as it is. I’m very fond of the panelling, for instance. When we first moved in the landlord told us we weren’t allowed to paint the woodwork in our bedroom, which at first I felt was a shame, but I’m so glad we didn’t. It’s so warming – it reminds me of being on a boat. We have been allowed to paint elsewhere though, which is a joy. I’ve used Edward Bulmer’s colours mostly; ‘Dutch Orange’, in the kitchen, is one of my favourites. It’s like a ripe apricot.
“We have of course added a bit of furniture – though I don’t think we’ve got a single new piece in the whole house. We just buy old bits and look after them. The same is true of my ceramic tat. I’ve always been inescapably drawn to pottery; when I was 18 and on my gap year, I wasn’t buying drugs, I was buying ceramics! My rucksack was full of them. George is very understanding – and good at putting shelves up too, which is incredibly useful – but I’ve recently imposed a buying moratorium on myself. Though I reckon I could squeeze a few more tiny pieces in…
“I love a bit of manageable DIY – a bit of bodging. I try and do as much of my own upholstery, for instance, and I make my own curtains – my mum taught me – as it saves you so much money. It’s amazing what you can do with a staple gun and some fabric glue. Merchant and Mills is my go-to for fabrics, or the Cloth Shop if I’m feeling flusher. I’ve recently discovered all the vintage passementerie you can find on Etsy. Trimmings galore! It’s very, very dangerous.
“Both inside and in the garden here, I’m always just trying things out. I do listen to advice about what plants like, but I love being surprised when something grows beautifully where it shouldn’t. We’ve got good soil, which helps, but I think it’s worth remembering that plants are more resilient than you think; it pays not to overthink – something that’s certainly true of interior design too.
“There are a lot of very serious conversations in gardening at the moment. Don’t get me wrong – that needs to happen and changes in the way we grow need to be made – but that doesn’t mean things can’t be fun too. You can garden in a way that’s positive for the environment and joyful at the same time. It is a serious subject, but we mustn’t forget about beauty. The future lies in finding a balance between the two – and that’s what I try to do with everything I create.”
Elizabeth on Instagram
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