Cotswold Life

Is this the PER­FECT VIL­LAGE?

Chris Smith vis­its charm­ing Ilm­ing­ton, which earned a place in the Sun­day Times’ Best Places to Live guide.

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AS you stroll around the vil­lage of Ilm­ing­ton you get the feel­ing that not much has changed in this cor­ner of the Cotswolds over the years.

It has clung tightly to its idyl­lic charm, and it’s easy to see why this once self-suf­fi­cient farm­ing com­mu­nity has be­come so sought af­ter, earn­ing a place in this year’s Sun­day Times’ pres­ti­gious Best Places to Live guide, and just two years ago be­ing short­listed in Chan­nel 4’s Vil­lage of the Year com­pe­ti­tion. Sit­ting at an im­por­tant cross­roads at the north­ern gate­way to the Cotswolds

Area of Nat­u­ral Beauty and the south­ern gate­way to Shake­speare’s Strat­ford-up­onAvon, and at the foot of the high­est peak in the county of War­wick­shire, Ilm­ing­ton is a place of con­sid­er­able ar­chi­tec­tural and his­toric in­ter­est.

The vil­lage was orig­i­nally an An­gloSaxon farm­ing set­tle­ment, and is recorded in the Domes­day Sur­vey of 1086 as hav­ing a manor with three ploughs and a church with a priest. The ti­tle of Lord of the Manor has passed through many hands, in­clud­ing those of the fa­mous de Mont­fort fam­ily.

To­day it is home to around 800 peo­ple,

with a patch­work of homes that in­cludes grand prop­er­ties and choco­late box cot­tages, some still with their thatches, as well as mod­ern, func­tional homes, most of which are made from iron­stone or Cotswold stone quar­ried from the sur­round­ing hills, and all are con­nected by a net­work of pic­turesque nar­row foot­paths that criss-cross their way across the vil­lage. Even the road names have a cer­tain quirk­i­ness with Front Street, Back Street, Mid­dle Street, Grump Street, and Frog Lane among them.

Res­i­dents past and present have en­sured that there are many re­minders of its his­tory scat­tered around.

On the up­per of its two greens is a huge mon­u­ment to the ar­rival in 1864 of fresh drink­ing wa­ter, which in­cludes a frag­ment of a 17th cen­tury well, the foun­tain­heads from where lo­cals once col­lected their wa­ter re­main in sev­eral lo­ca­tions, the site of the pound where stray an­i­mals were kept un­til a fine was paid for their re­lease is marked with a plaque, a huge dec­o­ra­tive stone salutes the Queen’s Gold Ju­bilee in 2002, and there’s even a set of replica stocks.

Look­ing for an in­sight into daily life here, it was sug­gested I speak to Tony Wilkins. A cheer­ful chap, his fam­ily is one of two whose as­so­ci­a­tion with Ilm­ing­ton can be traced back over 400 years (the other is the Sabins). Tony, who turns 88 this year, has lived here for his en­tire life. He served for 50 years on the parish coun­cil, many of those as chair­man, and even has a road named af­ter him.

“It’s a unique vil­lage in some sense with one road that loops around it and in­ter­con­nect­ing lanes, we’re at the foot of the Ilm­ing­ton Hills with beau­ti­ful walks in all directions, we have two well main­tained vil­lage greens, won­der­ful play­ing fields, and two good pubs.”

I sug­gested to Tony that it feels like the vil­lage has been, in part, frozen in time.

“There have been big changes here. When I was a kid nearly all the houses and cot­tages were in some way con­nected with agri­cul­ture, and there were no cars. Mains wa­ter, elec­tric­ity and sew­ers have all been a new thing in my life­time, but we’ve al­ways re­sisted street lights!” Why, I asked. Tony replied tersely: “We don’t need them or want them, why would we? We’ve man­aged per­fectly well with­out them up un­til now.

“We’ve worked hard to main­tain the look of the vil­lage and have tried to keep any new houses in Cotswold stone. We’ve also not been over­run by [hous­ing] de­vel­op­ers, as some have, and that’s helped us re­tain our charm and char­ac­ter. There is no bet­ter place to live in my opin­ion.”

To­day, the farm­ing in­dus­try has been vir­tu­ally wiped out, and many of those build­ings con­verted into homes. And while there are few jobs, Ilm­ing­ton still has fa­cil­i­ties and ser­vices that are the envy of oth­ers.

The highly val­ued pri­mary school is

rated ‘Out­stand­ing’ by Of­sted, the two pubs Tony talked about, the Howard Arms and the Red Lion, are both well pa­tro­n­ised, the com­mu­nity shop and café has been owned and run by the vil­lagers them­selves since open­ing in 2015, there is a part-time post of­fice, a vil­lage hall, and the play­ground at­tracts fam­i­lies from miles around.

Vil­lagers can also lay claim to hav­ing their own sup­ply of milk, cider, brandy and gin! Ma­bels Farm — the last re­main­ing farm in the orig­i­nal vil­lage bound­ary — de­liv­ers 300,000 bot­tles of milk a year, pro­duced from its herd of 45 cows that spent their days in a field on Back Street. More about the booze later.

There were once three churches. The Methodist Chapel is now a house, and the Catholic Church is home to the com­mu­nity shop, and only St Mary’s Church re­mains a place of wor­ship. The ear­li­est part of it date back to the Nor­mans of the 12th cen­tury, and as Ilm­ing­ton’s only Grade I Listed build­ing, it is af­forded the same pro­tec­tion as Buck­ing­ham Palace.

There is rel­a­tively small reg­u­lar con­gre­ga­tion of around 20 peo­ple, but many more pass through its doors for a dif­fer­ent rea­son: on the look­out for 11 tiny mice that are carved into the pews, pul­pit, and lectern. They are the work renowned fur­ni­ture maker Robert Thomp­son — a lead­ing light in the 1920s Arts and Crafts move­ment who be­came known as ‘The Mouse Man’ due to his sig­na­ture mice that he carved into the wood­work of all the fur­ni­ture he pro­duced in North York­shire. “They are very much a fea­ture of the church, and we love to see chil­dren and adults try­ing to find them, which isn’t easy be­cause they’re the size of real mice!” An­gus Cham­bers, church war­den and third gen­er­a­tion Ilm­ing­to­nian, told me. Thomp­son’s fur­ni­ture was, and re­mains, sought af­ter, and it was thanks to the gen­eros­ity of a ma­jor vil­lage bene­fac­tor that the church is lucky to have its own. That man was Spenser Ald­bor­ough

Flower — a mem­ber of the well-known brew­ing fam­ily of Strat­ford-upon-avon.

Ilm­ing­ton’s cur­rent manor house is a 30-room El­iz­a­bethan prop­erty that passed through sev­eral fam­i­lies since be­ing built in the late 1500s be­fore the Flow­ers ar­rived in 1919. Spenser brought his his wife Ella and their then four-year-old son Den­nis with him, and their daugh­ter Heather came along a few years later. She was mother of the cur­rent cus­to­dian, Martin Tay­lor.

“When my grand­par­ents bought the house it had many of its orig­i­nal fea­tures but was in need of ma­jor restora­tion, which they car­ried out to the style of that time,” said Martin, now 71, who was born at the manor.

The house, a mem­ber of the His­toric Houses As­so­ci­a­tion, is bereft of its land, with just 15 of the orig­i­nal 1,200 acres, which in­cludes the me­di­ae­val fish ponds from the pre­vi­ous manor house. The ponds were re­stored and re­filled in the 1970s. Al­though it re­mains part of vil­lage life, host­ing so­cial events such as the Wed­nes­day Club, Ilm­ing­ton Mu­sic So­ci­ety con­certs, and the Na­tional Gar­den Scheme (NGS) Open Day.

“We try to do our bit!” Martin added. Another vil­lager play­ing his part in keep­ing old tra­di­tions alive is Paul Bryan, who re­formed the Ilm­ing­ton Mor­ris Men in the mid-1970s. The ear­li­est record of a Mor­ris group here is 1790, but two World Wars dec­i­mated their num­bers to the point the bells and

sticks fell silent for sev­eral years.

With 23 of their own dances they are thriv­ing again, with 18 mem­bers, who dance on home turf on St Ge­orge’s Day, May Day, the NGS Open Day, the an­nual vil­lage show, Box­ing Day, and other bank hol­i­days, as well as in neigh­bour­ing vil­lages through­out the year.

Paul, a re­tired air traf­fic con­troller, said, “I will keep the old tra­di­tion go­ing for as long as I can.”

You can also see the re­mains of the Ap­ple or­chards that were once a big fea­ture of Ilm­ing­ton. The story goes that farm­ers would keep their labour­ers happy with a reg­u­lar sup­ply of lo­cally-pro­duced cider.

The or­chards have been carved up over the years with trees dot­ted around res­i­dents’ gar­dens, al­though their lo­ca­tions are recorded in a huge piece of em­broi­dery that hangs in­side St Mary’s Church, which it­self over­looks the only an­cient or­chard that re­mains in­tact.

This ex­tra­or­di­nary piece of art­work was made by a group of vil­lage ladies with the help of some of the youngest res­i­dents. And while the or­chards that it im­mor­talises are no more, the trees are still bear­ing fruit and for the past eight years have been used to once again pro­duce cider — named Grumpy Frog — as well as brandy and dry gin, all un­der The Spirit of Ilm­ing­ton brand. The brandy and gin can be found on sale at the pres­ti­gious Fort­nam and Ma­son de­part­ment store in Pic­cadilly in Lon­don.

“It was such a shame to see all this fruit just rot­ting away there in peo­ple’s gar­dens,” said Bill Buck­ley, founder of Spirit of Ilm­ing­ton, who be­gan mak­ing cider in the garage of his house on Frog Lane, which is next to Grump Street — hence the Grumpy Frog name!

“What started out as a bit of a hobby in my garage turned out to be the be­gin­ning of a fan­tas­tic jour­ney to keep the vil­lage’s cider tra­di­tion alive.”

It’s worth men­tion­ing two peo­ple from Ilm­ing­ton’s past.

Sam Ben­nett, who lived in what is known as Old Fox House at the foot of Fox­cote Hill, was a world renowned fid­dler who in 1936 was flown to the USA to per­form for Henry Ford, who founded the Ford Mo­tor Com­pany and a fan of folk mu­sic. Sam danced and played the fid­dle for Ilm­ing­ton’s Mor­ris Men and has a road named af­ter him. Dorothy Hodgkin, who

‘We’re at the foot of the Ilm­ing­ton Hills with beau­ti­ful walks in all directions, two well main­tained vil­lage greens and two good pubs’

in 1964 be­came the only fe­male Bri­tish sci­en­tist to win a No­bel Prize, spent the lat­ter years of her life at the house known as Crab­mill on Grump Street. One of Dorothy’s stu­dents at Ox­ford Univer­sity was Mar­garet Thatcher, who re­port­edly had a por­trait of her men­tor in her of­fice at Down­ing Street dur­ing her 11 years as Prime Min­is­ter.

Both are buried in the vil­lage church­yard.

The Cotswolds Area of Nat­u­ral Beauty stretches across al­most 800 square miles and six coun­ties, with 38 mil­lion day vis­i­tors ev­ery year. Most won’t make it to Ilm­ing­ton, but those who do will be charmed, I’m sure.

 ??  ??
 ??  ?? A huge mon­u­ment was con­structed on Up­per Green to mark the ar­rival of clean drink­ing wa­ter in the vil­lage, and also con­tains a frag­ment of a well dat­ing back to 1682
A huge mon­u­ment was con­structed on Up­per Green to mark the ar­rival of clean drink­ing wa­ter in the vil­lage, and also con­tains a frag­ment of a well dat­ing back to 1682
 ??  ?? The Howards Arms was named Pub of the Year at the in­au­gu­ral West Mid­lands Tourism Awards in Fe­bru­ary
The Howards Arms was named Pub of the Year at the in­au­gu­ral West Mid­lands Tourism Awards in Fe­bru­ary
 ??  ?? This pocket of green in the mid­dle of Ilm­ing­ton is named Berry Or­chard and is thought to be the site of the orig­i­nal manor house, and you can see the me­di­ae­val fish ponds in the far left hand cor­ner. They are part of the cur­rent El­iz­a­bethan manor house, and were re­stored and re­filled in the 1970s
This pocket of green in the mid­dle of Ilm­ing­ton is named Berry Or­chard and is thought to be the site of the orig­i­nal manor house, and you can see the me­di­ae­val fish ponds in the far left hand cor­ner. They are part of the cur­rent El­iz­a­bethan manor house, and were re­stored and re­filled in the 1970s
 ??  ?? A num­ber of pub­lic foot­paths make their way through Ilm­ing­ton, in­clud­ing the Cen­te­nary Way, which was es­tab­lished to mark 100 years of War­wick­shire County Coun­cil
A num­ber of pub­lic foot­paths make their way through Ilm­ing­ton, in­clud­ing the Cen­te­nary Way, which was es­tab­lished to mark 100 years of War­wick­shire County Coun­cil
 ??  ??
 ??  ?? Sam Ben­nett was a world renowned fid­dler and a key fig­ure in the his­tory of the Ilm­ing­ton Mor­ris Men. He is buried in St Mary’s church­yard and has one of beloved fid­dles etched into his grave­stone. Photo cour­tesy of the Ilm­ing­ton Mor­ris Men
Sam Ben­nett was a world renowned fid­dler and a key fig­ure in the his­tory of the Ilm­ing­ton Mor­ris Men. He is buried in St Mary’s church­yard and has one of beloved fid­dles etched into his grave­stone. Photo cour­tesy of the Ilm­ing­ton Mor­ris Men
 ??  ?? The Grade I Listed St Mary’s Church dates back to the 12th cen­tury
The Grade I Listed St Mary’s Church dates back to the 12th cen­tury
 ??  ?? Ilm­ing­ton sits at the foot of the high­est peak in War­wick­shire, the Ilm­ing­ton Downs
Ilm­ing­ton sits at the foot of the high­est peak in War­wick­shire, the Ilm­ing­ton Downs
 ??  ?? Lower Green
Lower Green

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