In praise of the folly

From suf­fragette hide­out to hip­pie com­mune to dream fixer-up­per, this mini cas­tle’s past is as colour­ful as its present.

The Daily Telegraph - Telegraph Magazine - - News - By­ca­tri­on­agray. pho­tographs­byem­malewis

A Bath trea­sure with a back-yard tem­ple

SUR­ROUNDED BY land­scaped gar­dens and an­cient wood­land, it’s hard to be­lieve that Bath­eas­ton Villa lies less than two miles from the cen­tre of Bath. Tucked away down a long, wind­ing drive­way, this hid­den ar­chi­tec­tural trea­sure is the re­sult of one woman’s re­mark­able vi­sion, as the cur­rent owner, Meryl Lakin, dis­cov­ered when she and her hus­band John bought the prop­erty three years ago.

It was built in the mid-18th cen­tury by Lady Anna Riggs Miller, who had spent sev­eral years trav­el­ling around Italy. She fell in love with the coun­try’s rich cul­ture and clas­si­cal aes­thetic and wrote a best­selling guide to the Grand Tour – so it’s per­haps un­sur­pris­ing that this Ge­or­gian house has a strong Ital­ianate in­flu­ence. The stud­ded front door feels more like the en­trance to a grand palazzo than an English house, as does the curv­ing, castel­lated rooftop. The in­te­ri­ors are equally ro­man­tic, with exquisitely mir­rored win­dow shut­ters and can­dle-niches hewn from Car­rara mar­ble in the draw­ing room.

‘The house has such a fe­male qual­ity that I like to think Lady Miller was quite in­volved in its de­sign,’ says Lakin. Lady Miller also in­tro­duced weekly poetry sa­lons at the villa, which proved so pop­u­lar that they at­tracted Ho­race Walpole, known both for writ­ing the first

Gothic novel and build­ing Straw­berry Hill House in Twick­en­ham. Walpole ap­peared to be rather un­der­whelmed by Bath­eas­ton, call­ing it a ‘diminu­tive prin­ci­pal­ity’, and ad­vised his host­ess to build a tem­ple and a cas­cade in the gar­dens to add in­ter­est. She promptly took ac­tion, and to­day both fea­tures re­main in the grounds.

‘When we ar­rived, the Tem­ple of Apollo was on the brink of be­com­ing a pic­turesque ruin,’ says Lakin. ‘One of the first things we did was to set about restor­ing it – it’s now a mon­u­ment to 21st-cen­tury crafts­man­ship.’ Luck­ily, the main house was in a good state of re­pair – the pre­vi­ous own­ers had res­cued it from near dere­lic­tion and had ren­dered it struc­turally sound. Hav­ing worked for the home­ware com­pany De­sign­ers Guild for 25 years, Lakin has a well-honed eye for what makes a beau­ti­ful in­te­rior, so she set about re­dec­o­rat­ing it with con­fi­dence, giv­ing the rooms a con­tem­po­rary fresh­ness.

‘The house has a fairy-tale at­mos­phere, so I wanted to bring a feel­ing of pret­ti­ness back to it,’ she says. The dark hall was the first area to be trans­formed, painted in a soft bluish-grey called Pearl Colour, from Lit­tle Greene, while many shades of blush were tested in the draw­ing room be­fore she set­tled on Far­row & Ball’s Pink Ground, a soft base shade that mar­ries well with the gold wax that picks out the de­tails on the elab­o­rate plas­ter­work.

Most of the cou­ple’s fur­ni­ture had been amassed from years of liv­ing in Vic­to­rian prop­er­ties and spans from the early 19th to the late 20th cen­tury. They didn’t feel the need to re­place th­ese pieces, but the one item they bought specif­i­cally for the villa was a Gus­ta­vian oval din­ing ta­ble. It com­ple­ments the

‘The house has a fairy-tale at­mos­phere, so I wanted to bring a feel­ing of pret­ti­ness back to it’

curved bow win­dow of the din­ing room and has four re­mov­able pan­els, en­abling it to seat up to 24 peo­ple.

The in­te­ri­ors feel airy, al­most min­i­mal, as there are no cur­tains or car­pets, so the orig­i­nal shut­ters and wide Ge­or­gian floor­boards can to be seen to their best ad­van­tage. Yet the house never feels spar­tan, as Lakin has a soft spot for cush­ions and has bought many from Kirsten Heck­ter­mann, who hand-dyes vel­vets and linens in sub­tle tonal pal­ettes.

Lakin and her hus­band were pre­vi­ously based in Lon­don, but both have grad­u­ally adapted to Bath’s slower pace of life. ‘It has worked its magic on us,’ she says. ‘At first I thought I would travel back and forth to Lon­don a lot more, but I’ve fully em­braced liv­ing here. If you make the jump and move, there’s no point in try­ing to recre­ate

The in­te­ri­ors feel airy, so the orig­i­nal shut­ters and floor­boards can be seen to their best ad­van­tage

your pre­vi­ous life – you need to throw your­self into the new one.’

Part of her time has been spent in do­ing more re­search on the villa’s former oc­cu­pants: in the 1960s and 1970s, it was used as a com­mune, and had its own res­i­dent swami (a Hindu re­li­gious teacher). Ear­lier still, the build­ing was a hub for the suf­fragette move­ment dur­ing the Ed­war­dian era, when it was owned by two spin­ster sis­ters called Aethel and Grace Tollemache, who ran it as a refuge for women ac­tivists re­cently re­leased from prison. ‘They were stri­dent fem­i­nists – very keen on dig­ging up golf cour­ses and pour­ing paint through let­ter boxes in protest,’ says Lakin. The sis­ters spent their en­tire lives at Bath­eas­ton.

For cen­turies, this un­usual house has acted as a place of in­spi­ra­tion and con­vivi­al­ity, and for­tu­nately the cur­rent own­ers are de­ter­mined to pre­serve and safe­guard it for fu­ture gen­er­a­tions. ‘The job, of course, is never done,’ says Lakin, ‘ but we con­sider it a priv­i­lege to work on and care for it, and hope that Lady Miller is smil­ing ap­prov­ingly at our ef­forts.’

Above left Car­rara mar­ble can­dle niches add an Ital­ianate touch to the draw­ing room.Above The main bed­room’s orig­i­nal 18th-cen­tury shut­ters elim­i­nate the need for cur­tains.Left The walls in the bed­room and draw­ing room are painted in Far­row & Ball’s Pink Ground

Right The din­ing-room chairs are ebay finds, painted to match the Gus­ta­vian ta­ble.Far right Meryl Lakin’s col­lec­tion of Lo­vatt’s Lan­g­ley Ware pot­tery in­spired the kitchen’s colour scheme

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