An English Farmhouse by Geoffrey Grigson

4 out of 5 stars

A copy of this was provided free of charge from the publisher in return for an honest review.

There have been lots of books written about the fine architecture of our towns and cities, but there are fewer books about the homes that people lived and worked in our countryside. After World War 2, Geoffrey Grigson along with the photographer Percy Hennel was invited by the artist John Piper to look at the English Farmhouse. This was to more than an architectural study, rather it would be a consideration of post-war agriculture and contemplation of the state of rural England.

Rather than select a farmhouse in a known village, Grigson has used a lot of artistic licences and imagined one called Ashton Farm in the village called Netton. Neither of these places can be found on a map, but he makes it clear that the one that was chosen does exist. Or at least it did exist as even after the book was written the buildings had reached the point where they actually collapsed. And with that destruction, the link between the buildings and the landscape was gone forever. The structures that would come to replace them were anonymous steel framed and would come to be found all over the country in the end.

First, though he has to set the context, The farm that he describes throughout the book is nestled in the chalk of Wessex. It sits on the escarpment using the land above for crops and the lands below for grazing and hay. The farm has existed in one form or other since the Saxon times and there are very few metaled roads, but lots of paths and trackways.

Each chapter looks at a particular detail of the farm, from the sarsen stones that are used in conjunction with the chalk both of which need skilled craftsmen to cut and dress the stone. Where bricks have been used in the buildings, they can be dated by looking at their size. Pictures of walls made from chalk and brick are included to show construction methods.

Roofing materials were originally thatch, but some of the buildings on the farm use slate and there are instances of corrugated iron being used under rotting thatch to prolong the life of a roof. Timber was used extensively and there are some magnificent shots of the inside of barns showing the construction methods used. There is also a chapter on how the poorly maintained buildings are slowly crumbling and collapsing.

Believe it or not, this is the first book that I have read by Geoffrey Grigson, having only read books by his wife and daughter before this. Having got an interest in architecture, I did like this, especially the forensic detail that he goes into about the buildings. I did have the odd problem with it though, for me the thing that was lacking was not having a known place that he was referring to in each of the chapters. I get why he may have done it with privacy issues in mind, as the farm buildings that he refers to did seem to be very much a real place. That said I did enjoy this a lot. He has a wonderful way with words and a deep love of the place where these villages and farms can be found on the chalk downs. I bought another of his books recently, Country Writings, that I am going to move up the TBR.

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  1. Jackie Law

    We have a Netton village and Ashton Farms in Wiltshire 🙂

    • Paul

      I thought that would be the case, though how much they relate to the farm in this book I am not sure about.

  2. Melissa Green

    Wonderful review! I will definetely read it. I’ve read 3 collections of poetry from Geoffrey Grigson – “The Isles of Scilly”, “Discoveries of Bones and Stones”, “History of Him”.

    • Paul

      Thank you, Melissa. I have not read any of his poetry yet. There is a family connection to the Grigson’s; my wife’s great aunt used to work for his wife, Jane. Not totally sure what she was doing for her though

  3. Liz Dexter

    Hm, I’d struggle with it being an unknown place although it sounds like it was a real by anonymous place rather than an amalgamation. Sounds lovely apart from that aspect, though!

    • Paul

      It was the only thing that let it down. I get having to hide some of the details for privacy etc

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