Find nat­u­ral in­spi­ra­tion

A wood­land re­treat brings out the in­ner artist, says Jake Wal­lis Si­mons

The Sunday Telegraph - Sunday - - Life Property -

Fif­teen years ago, Chris­tine Bat­tle, then a free­lance jour­nal­ist and copy­writer, and her hus­band, Ben, a char­tered ac­coun­tant, moved to Con­grove Cot­tage, an 18th­cen­tury farm­house in south Glouces­ter­shire. They knew even then that it was spe­cial. The prop­erty came with 65 acres of fields and wood­land on the side of a val­ley, and Chris­tine re­calls that the “raw, un­cul­ti­vated na­ture” of the land had an in­stant al­lure. Lit­tle did she know that her life was about to change. “There must have been some­thing in the air,” she re­calls. “The per­son who lived here be­fore us was a self-taught botan­i­cal artist and flower painter. I had no in­cli­na­tion to paint at all un­til 2006, when my mother and sis­ter gave me a two-day botan­i­cal illustration course for my 50th birth­day.” Im­me­di­ately, she was hooked. Within a year she was mak­ing money from botan­i­cal illustration, and it is now her full-time ca­reer. “It hap­pened like magic,” she says. “Start­ing a new ca­reer at the age of 50 is al­most un­heard of. I think it was meant to be.” It was the in­spi­ra­tion of Con­grove Cot­tage, she says, that fu­elled her new artis­tic di­rec­tion. There was an area of over­grown wood­land along the south­ern bor­der of the prop­erty, and shortly af­ter mov­ing in, one of the lo­cals com­mented that she had “bought the old ar­bore­tum”. She asked a spe­cial­ist from We­ston­birt, the Na­tional Ar­bore­tum, to in­ves­ti­gate. “He dis­ap­peared into the un­der­growth for sev­eral hours, and came back cov­ered in bracken and twigs, very ex­cited,” she says. “There were 120 rare species of trees there, in­clud­ing un­usual conifers and beeches, as well as in­cred­i­ble wild flow­ers. A man called Canon Parker had planted it in the 1880s, but it had be­come over­grown.” Over the next 15 years, Chris­tine set about not only restor­ing the wood­land but adding new rare trees as well. “It was a labour of love,” she says. “It opened my eyes to na­ture and made me re­alise how lucky we are to have a haven for wildlife and rare species here.” To be­gin with, she painted by the bay win­dow of the draw­ing room on a “tiny card ta­ble”. Soon, how­ever, she set up a stu­dio in the at­tic. But dur­ing sum­mer months, she still loves to work out­side. “The other day, I was sup­posed to be fin­ish­ing a paint­ing but got dis­tracted by a doe and her fawns,” she says. “They came out of a hazel cop­pice and grazed on dan­de­lions no more than 3ft from where I was work­ing. Those mo­ments are like soul food for an artist.” Now that her hus­band is re­tir­ing, the cou­ple have de­cided to down­size to be closer to their fam­ily. Con­grove Cot­tage is on the mar­ket with Knight Frank for £1.85mil­lion (knight­frank.; 01225 325999), and Chris­tine is de­ter­mined to find a new prop­erty that, while smaller, has some­thing of the same ap­peal. “A stu­dio is im­por­tant, but I can al­ways build a sum­mer house with lots of win­dows and green­ery,” she says. “The re­ally vi­tal thing is to have some­where with nat­u­ral in­spi­ra­tion, even if it is only one acre of land.” Ac­cord­ing to Sarah Lil­l­i­crap, di­rec­tor of the es­tate agent Lil­l­i­crap Chilcott, re­gions such as Corn­wall are be­com­ing in­creas­ingly pop­u­lar among peo­ple look­ing to down­size and de­vote time to artis­tic pur­suits. “Corn­wall’s coast has long been a mag­net for artists,” she says. “The county con­tin­ues to at­tract pain­ters and pot­ters at all stages of their ca­reers, with a host of gal­leries through­out the county show­ing off the fruits of their labours and in­spir­ing oth­ers to try their hand.” Chris­tine also rec­om­mends find­ing a place with a like­minded artis­tic com­mu­nity. “The area around Bath is ex­cel­lent,” she says, “as there are so many artists’ groups. Around Le­ices­ter there is a very ac­tive group of botan­i­cal artists, as well as in the West Coun­try around the Eden Project. But the most im­por­tant thing is to have ac­cess to the wilds of na­ture. That is be­yond price.”

Branch out: Con­grove Cot­tage in south Glouces­ter­shire

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