Tuesday, 15 February 2011

A famous author's house on the market

The Gazebo, Peak Hill, Sidmouth. Now under offer

I love reading the property pages and either drooling over the images of some mansion or other far out of my reach, or congratulating myself on having found the house of our dreams in our little corner of East Devon.

It's been some time since I posted news of either Budleigh or Brewster houses for sale, but my thoughts turned to drooling the other day when my friend Annie and I decided last Saturday to walk to Sidmouth. Actually we got the bus to Otterton, so we cheated a bit. But tackling the steep climb along the coast path after a picnic on Ladram Bay beach was quite tough enough.

Ladram Bay pebble beach showing one of the stacks

With the waves glittering in the February sunshine and Peak Hill towering above us it felt more like a summertime hike that we should be doing in shorts and t-shirts rather than in our wet weather winter gear. Spring is definitely on the way.

It's a fairly straightforward well-indicated walk to Sidmouth through the woods and then down the other side of Peak Hill, and then up again of course - because it's Devon and valleys are the main feature of the county's landscape. But suddenly you find yourself on the road leading down into the town, and passing some fairly droolable properties with magnificent views over the bay.

Jane Austen: while staying in Sidmouth she reputedly fell in love with a young clergyman who sadly died

Sidmouth of course is noted for its Regency Gothic houses and cottages ornés, many of them thatched like our own Fairlynch Museum in Budleigh Salterton. And it also boasts a fair number of links with literary figures. Jane Austen is the best-known, but others include Elizabeth Barrett Browning, H.G. Wells, Beatrix Potter and the novelist and playwright R.F. Delderfield, born just a century ago next year. The Woodlands Hotel at Cotmaton Cross with its splendidly ornate bargeboards devotes quite a chunk of its website at http://www.woodlands-hotel.com/sidmouth%20hotel%20history.htm

Fate seemed to have had a hand in guiding us down that twisting Peak Hill road. For just as I'd been wondering whether the Museum should be doing something to mark Delderfield's centenary we suddenly found ourselves walking past the house which he'd apparently had built for himself in the 1950s. And there was a 'For Sale' notice outside.

The view from 'The Gazebo'

'The Gazebo' is described by estate agent [realtor for my American readers] as "a beautifully situated cliff top cottage with arguably some of the best coastal and sea views in East Devon" in the description on their website at http://www.jackson-stops.co.uk/cgi-bin/properties/summary_details.pl?propID=39994

I wouldn't argue with any of that. "£1.5m?" I wondered as we carried on down the hill past the "lovely private gardens" sheltered from curious eyes by a high stone wall. With only just three bedrooms, one of which could serve as a dining room, I saw that it was indeed a cottage rather than a mansion, so revised my estimate downwards. But still, with that view... The actual guide price of £795,000 didn't seem astronomical. And there is that literary link. "A famous author's house!" to boast about at your intimate dinner parties prepared on that pale green Aga I saw in a photo of the kitchen. So I'm not all that surprised to see three days later that 'The Gazebo' is under offer.

R.F. Delderfield (1912-1972)

But what of Ronald Frederick Delderfield? He's certainly someone with local links of which Fairlynch is aware. Butterfly Moments, his biography by Marion Lindsey-Noble is on sale in the Museum shop. And I see, thanks to Topsham blogger Ray Girvan's scholarly article at
http://www.devonhistorysociety.org.uk/2009/11/changing-landscapes-changing-names.html that Delderfield describes a real part of the coast between Budleigh and Exmouth in his 1950 novel Farewell the Tranquil Mind. Clearly he loved our area. In 1947 he even wrote a book about it called The fascinating history of Budleigh and district: A curtain peep at a thousand years.

Today, R.F. Delderfield's books are mostly forgotten. My friend Annie remembered the TV series based on his 1972 novel To Serve them all my Days. But that was only because of the "delicious" John Duttine who starred in the leading role, she admitted.

As little as 25 years ago, wrote Sam Jordison in The Guardian, Delderfield was probably one of the most famous writers in the UK. But posterity has been cruel to him. "Unless you're specifically looking for them, the only place you're likely to encounter his books is at jumble sales, mouldering and yellowing away. His star is not just waning, it's all but snuffed out." http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2007/apr/11/whospaulausterdad

It doesn't seem quite right that we in Budleigh should just forget him altogether. Delderfield seems to have been a decent chap. "His pioneering sense of social justice and sympathy for his fellow man would strike a chord with many Guardian readers today," noted Mr Jordison. But memories are short and each of us is busy with his or her various and differing plans and preoccupations.

Last year's centenary of the death of Dr Thomas Brushfield, a really notable Budleigh Salterton resident, seems to have passed completely unnoticed. But his house, 'The Cliff', will remain to remind me of him each time I pass it on my way to the beach. And now, 'The Gazebo' on Peak Hill, Sidmouth, may cause us equally a few moments of reflection about the past and the way in which it takes away our memories as surely as the sea erodes our shores.

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