Broomhill Art Garden

As I know you are a person of discernment and refined tastes, I’m sure you will be holidaying in Devon this year. While you are here give yourself another  treat and visit Broomhill Art Gardens a few miles north of Barnstaple on the B3230. In fact, as a hotel lies at its centre you could spend some of your holiday on site.

Broomhill nestles in a heavily-wooded, steep-sided valley through which a stream flows from pool to pool. When we visited a couple of weeks ago the woods were ablaze with spring flowers and filled with birdsong. The hotel is set up on the hill with views down the valley. Even if it were only a hotel set in such a picturesque place it would be worth a visit, but it is much, much more.

Dutch couple, Rinus and Aniet van de Sande, have run Broomhill since 1997 and have pumped all their energy and enterprise into creating a centre that  not only supports developing artists, but provides an extraordinary experience for all visitors.

We arrived mid-morning and went in search of coffee. Within the hotel there is a large gallery where exhibitions are held on a continual basis. One such exhibition was about to open and the main lounge was full of people waiting to go in. We were served coffee in the library and for the next thirty minutes I don’t think we said anything except, ‘Look at that!’ The room (and as we found later, the entire hotel), is full of extraordinary artwork: paintings, drawings, sculptures, pottery, wood carvings – even the furniture we were sitting on had to be studied. The whole place is a feast for the eyes. If you’re in need of further feasting there is a restaurant called Terra Madre serving delicious and very reasonably priced food.

DSC_0024I suppose what we had seen inside should have prepared us for what came next, but it didn’t. Outside the paths meander through flower gardens, rock gardens and natural woodland, with running water seemingly everywhere. In total there are more than 300 sculptures: some huge and overwhelming, some tiny and easily missed.

IMG_2029I love Flat Man by Giles Penny. Standing about fifteen feet high, only two feet thick and carved from a pale grey stone, he maintains a melancholy watch over the access lane. I must get back there on a clear night to see him by moonlight.


At the other end of the size range there are tiny bronze figures by Carol Peace perched on top of fence posts. They may be tiny, but they are big on character. We found later that some of Carol’s work was also featured in the exhibition in the gallery. I found them utterly charming.

There are creations that work on all of the emotions, from impishly humourous to the rather terrifying. Three are shown below.


Three ladies enjoying a dance.

Three well-built ladies enjoying a dance.

Three fashionable youg women with a zombie quality.

Three fashionable young women with a zombie quality.

What appears to be a 5-ton rock balanced over the path.

A 5-ton rock perched on a branch over the path?

'Familiar' by Dorcas Casey.

‘Familiar’ by Dorcas Casey.

One area is used to display work in the National Sculpture Prize event with a prize fund of £15,000. Each year a panel of art experts selects the proposals of ten sculptors. Each receives a grant of £1,000 and is given three months to complete the proposed work. They are then displayed at Broomhill. The eventual winner is chosen by experts, but the public can also vote for the ‘Public Speaks’ award. IMG_1992 Interestingly, the two selections very seldom coincide. Entries for the 2014 prize will be displayed from 1st June. When we visited we found past finalist and winning entries on display. Dorcas Casey’s creation of three figures is quite spooky and I can easily understand how it came to win ‘The Public Speaks Award’ in 2013.

DSC_0047Joseph Hillier’s human figure is fascinating. It’s made of many small surfaces set at differing angles so as I walked around it there was a constant change of shadow and light that gave the impression of movement.

With over 300 sculptures on display it’s impossible to take everything in. Looking through my photos I’m reminded of many that stopped me in my tracks. There is such a range of material from those that made me laugh out loud to others that exude emotional intensity. One that really appealed is a piece called ‘Permanently Temporary’ by Graham Guy-Robinson which won The National Sculpture Prize in 2012.  It’s about three feet high, four feet square with slightly wavy sides. DSC_0041The inside surface looks for all the world like that orange plastic temporary fencing much loved by builders and farmers, but the piece is actually made of thick steel and the outer surface is highly polished and reflective. Because it’s set within a wood in deep foliage one sees the foliage behind the piece through the holes and the outer surface reflects the foliage behind the viewer, which has the effect that one can almost make the entire piece seem to disappear by adjusting the viewing angle – all of which makes it very difficult to do it justice in a photograph.

If your appetite still needs even more whetting, here are a few more photos.DSC_0014

DSC_0018DSC_0079Allow yourself plenty of time for your visit. One day may well not be enough. Just in case you suspect that this sounds like a place full of arty pseuds talking garbage with evangelical intensity, let me assure you that everyone we met was warm, welcoming and cheerful. This is a fun place.  But a word of warning – you may well leave the Broomhill Hotel filled with the desire to go home, throw away everything in your house and re-stock only with beautiful, fascinating items. Sorry, I forgot for a moment that you are a person of discernment and good taste, so your home, unlike mine, is no doubt already like that.

Bath – an extraordinary city (2)

IMG_2100This is the second in a series of blog posts about the city of Bath, a place my wife and I visit several times a year.

In my first post I mentioned that the city provides street entertainment of unusual quality. Here’s another fine example. This chap walks backwards and forwards along a slack wire while playing the fiddle. As you can see from the paucity of spectators, the local citizenry do not appear to be impressed even by such rare skills. I watched him for quite a while, but he didn’t take a break so I never discovered how the hell he gets up onto the wire.

One cannot spend long in Bath before encountering the name of Ralph Allen. He was born in Cornwall in 1693. His grandmother was Postmistress in St Columb. When she was ill the 14-year-old Ralph ran the post office. He caught the eye of a Post Office official and was found a job as a clerk in the postal service in the city of Exeter. In 1710 he moved to Bath, again as a clerk, but in 1712 at the age of only 19 he was appointed Postmaster of the city.

At the time the postal system was hopelessly inefficient. All mail was taken on horseback along one of the six Tudor mail routes into London for sorting and then re-distributed. The Post Office was keen to introduce a new ‘Cross and Bye Posts’ system that would involve regional sorting and distribution centres. Ralph signed a 7-year agreement with the Post Office to set up and run the new system in the Southwest.  The agreement meant him paying £6,000 p.a. – a colossal figure in those times. Over the first seven years he barely broke even, but he had turned it into a money-making machine. For the rest of his life he continued to sign 7-year contracts, gradually extending the area under his control until he was running almost the entire postal service outside London.

Prior Park

Prior Park

The money was pouring in when architect John Wood arrived in Bath and the Georgian reconstruction of the city began. Ralph wisely spent some of his first fortune buying up all of the stone quarries and mines in the area – and made a second fortune when the City Fathers were persuaded that all new development must use Bath stone. That restriction continues to this day. It may have been partly aesthetic, but there was also the economic consideration that it guaranteed work for thousands of local quarrymen and stonemasons.

Ralph built a terrace of fine houses (with front gardens!) for his senior managers, another terrace (without front gardens) for more junior managers and rows of cottages for the rest of his workers. He also paid for the building of a new hospital in the city centre. On the hill to the south of the city he built his own house, Prior Park, in a spot where he said, ‘I can see all of the city and all of the city can see me’. It was initially a squarish Palladian house, but he put up another building sixty yards to the east and then a third sixty yards to the west. Finally, he joined them all together to make a house some 300 yards long! He was a sociable, popular man counting among his friends/visitors Henry Fielding, David Garrick, Alexander Pope, Thomas Gainsborough and William Pitt. He probably had room for a few more. That house is now a school, but the gardens running from the house down to the city, complete with a Palladian bridge over a lake, are owned by the National Trust. The bridge is a Grade 1 listed building and a Scheduled Ancient Monument.

IMG_2110The Trust only acquired the gardens 20 years ago when they were totally overgrown. Recovery work is still ongoing, but it is a very pleasant place to visit. There is no car park so you have to walk up from town or catch a bus. It is, of course, quite impossible to visit a National Trust property without eating cake and here the cake is rather wonderful. Even sharing two slices between three of us, we were defeated.

The most spectacular building in Bath is the Abbey, built with the beautiful, honey-coloured Bath stone long before the days of Ralph Allen. From the moment that the hot springs were first discovered by mankind this area must have held mystical significance. According to legend, in 863 BC Prince Bladud of the Ancient Britons returned from Athens with leprosy. He avoided the royal court and became a swineherd in an isolated part of the country. In search of acorns he drove his pigs across the Avon at a spot which became known as Swineford. He discovered that some of his pigs had contracted leprosy from him, but after rolling in the hot mud around the hot springs they were cured. Bladud also rolled in the mud, was cured and went on to become King of the Ancient Britons. He was the father of Shakespeare’s King Lear. Bladud founded a settlement at Bath and ascribed the curative powers of the waters to the Celtic goddess Sul. 1,000 years later the Romans respected the legend and retained the name: Aquae Sulis. The acorn has become the symbol of the whole saga and stone acorns can be seen on many Bath buildings.

IMG_2102The Anglo-Saxons built an Abbey on the site that was so impressive that Edgar had his coronation there in 973. He had actually become the first King of All England fourteen years earlier and the coronation at Bath was more a celebration of his reign than marking its beginning, but it nevertheless established the practice of coronations that continues to this day.

The Normans demolished the Anglo-Saxon Abbey (they’d severely damaged it during the power-struggles between the sons of William the Conqueror) and built a Cathedral. It took 60 years to build. It was completed around 1160 and was much bigger than the current Abbey. It was too big, impossibly expensive to maintain, and gradually fell into disrepair.

Oliver King, the Bishop of Bath and Wells, decided in 1500 that the site should be cleared and a new Abbey built. He reputedly had a vision in which he saw angels ascending to heaven via ladders, a scene that is depicted on the outside of the Abbey. The timing was unfortunate. It was finished just in time to suffer from the afflictions of Henry VIII and it again fell into disrepair. However, Elizabeth I set up a fund to pay for its restoration. In fact, work continued for another 300 years. The flying buttresses were added in the 1830s and the magnificent stone fan-vaulted ceiling installed in late Victorian times.

Angels climbing ladders. I have no idea why they can't fly.

Angels climbing ladders. I have no idea why they can’t fly.

It really is a wonderful building: the Bath stone and many windows make it light, airy and rather overwhelming.

I must confess that when I’m inside gazing up at the roof so far above me, I feel a niggle of unease. No spiritual qualms about the destination of my soul, but the presence in my head of two facts that keep intruding. First, Bath stone did not catch on elsewhere as a building material as it is regarded as too soft. Second, an estimated 6,000 bodies have been buried in the ground beneath the Abbey and subsidence is threatening the structure. Still, I think you should take the chance and look inside – even if you hasten back out and have to nip around the corner for a reviving bun in Sally Lunn’s.