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A Home with a History: reflections on rural life in Gavin Plumley’s Tudor house on the edge of England

The author of ‘A Home for All Seasons’ and his husband, Alastair, have created a haven in a farflung corner of Herefordshire with their spaniel, Nimrod – despite Gavin’s resolutely urban inclinations. Here, he tells us of the medieval marvel of a house that brought this town-mouse round to the romance of country life

Gavin Plumley
Paul Whitbread
A Home with a History: reflections on rural life in Gavin Plumley’s Tudor house on the edge of England

The swallows arrived a month ago, just as the tulips were beginning to bloom. And now they’ve been joined by the swifts, screaming higher above the garden. We used to watch these heralds of summer over the courtyard of our suburban semi, but they fit much better here. And so do we.

It’s now five years since my husband and I moved to Stepps House, a three-bedroom, three-storey building in Pembridge, in north-west Herefordshire. Miles from much of my adult life – in inner and outer London, as well as the home counties – it is an unanticipated place to call home. While Alastair always felt a kinship with the countryside, I had defiantly considered myself the town mouse. The anonymity and scale of the city suited me best – or so I thought.

As a freelancer – writing, broadcasting and lecturing – I don’t actually need an anchor. I go where the work is: from my desk to a lectern or microphone and back again. Alastair, on the other hand, is a schoolteacher, whose promotions over the years have demanded various relocations. Like it or not, I’ve had to move with his job. And that meant the capital giving way to the country – and everything in between.

When headmastership eventually arrived for Alastair, half a decade ago, the role came with a grace-and-favour residence nearby. Any direct attachment to the property market had been rendered superfluous, so we were in the enviable position of finding a bolthole, a place to escape to when termly demands eased. Drawing a two-hour circle around the school, our sphere of practicality stretched from Dorset to Shropshire. Our budget, on the other hand, found its broadest list of possibilities in Herefordshire, away from motorways and the grey-green paint slicks of the Cotswolds.

Driving through the borderland county, an area I had known during my schooldays nearby, we found ourselves in Pembridge. The former market town’s dusty mix of timber-framed houses is crowned by an immense medieval church and belfry, cushioned by busy working farms. Tourism is marginal, with the village’s pubs dedicated instead to the needs of loyal locals. Across the front door to the oldest of the two sits Stepps House, likely built as a storehouse on what was once church land. For me, it was love at first sight.

Barely had I crossed the threshold before declaring my affection for the place. Alastair, calmer by far, proved harder to please – though pleased he clearly was. The building’s split levels and mix of architectural styles, with that original market storeroom, dating to around 1580, and a Victorian kitchen, as well as recent additions, hid a Tardis-like structure. The fluidity of the first floor, out to the garden and graveyard beyond, and overlooking the pub and square at the front, offered both communal and cloistered living.

Having failed to gain other concrete interest over the nine months it had been on the market, the house was soon ours, though we had no clue as to how deep our fondness for the place would prove. Within days of arrival, instinct led to infatuation, which we satisfied by filling the rooms with vernacular art and antiques. The chance to buy romantic-modern paintings and prints of England and Wales, many created by ostensibly diehard city-dwellers beguiled by country living, underlined our own journey out of the urban mire.

The same was true of the mix of long-loved Arts and Crafts fabrics and furniture with ragged kilims, slipware and relics from my mother’s family farmhouse, one hour further west into Wales. Among them stand the driftwood sculptures of Peter Eugene Ball, like weather-beaten relics from a former chapter in the history of our home. Together, it all fits as easily into Stepps House as when the Schlegel sisters’ furniture finally arrives at Howards End.

EM Forster’s novel is a touchstone for me, as is the luscious 1992 Merchant Ivory adaptation. And it is in May and June, just as with Mrs Wilcox’s garden, that Stepps House looks at its finest. When the early bulbs start to list, the alliums, irises and foxgloves intensely planted by Alastair begin their purpled prose. The honeysuckle drenches the garden at the end of the day, before Constance Spry roses burst out over the arch.

In winter, with candlelit sconces aglow inside, this wreathed outdoor space is darkened and divided from the house; like our sprocker spaniel, Nimrod, who was born in the village, we feel its loss. But as the evenings warm and the days’ heat lingers, the interior and exterior are one, with loose blowsy planting linking the garden to the surrounding landscape. Myosotis, erigeron and lady’s mantle mix as they please, as cow parsley is left to loiter or fill vases inside. Around the building, the wisteria binds us even tighter to nature in a display that makes you forget any connection to centres of commerce.

It’s not that London has lost its allure, just that I’ve realised it was never meant to be a lasting love. My childhood was in the country, my family came from the country and those ancestral voices have called me home. It is not for everyone. Embracing the vernacular and a local calendar, rather than importing city living, is key to survival, as are pints shared in the back bar of the New Inn. While seasonal affective disorder and winter’s muddy misery are the levy we have to pay, I am left in no doubt that, like the swifts and the swallows, Alastair and I have travelled the requisite distance.

Further reading

A Home for All Seasons, published by Atlantic Books, is out now in paperback

Gavin on Instagram

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