Saturday, September 2, 2017

Literati Glitterati Chic of the New York Times Worldview, from the Gushing Pen of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous NYT stringer Mary Kaye Schillingaug

In the hills of southwest England, a British writer and his wife, also a novelist
have surrounded their home with untamed delight, the New York Times Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous reporter Mary Kaye Schillingaug gushes

SHEEP OUTNUMBER PEOPLE in New Zealand, and for centuries, that was also true in the Cotswolds, the seat of England’s wool industry. Its merchants became fabulously wealthy, building some of the loveliest manors in the country’s southwest. Their distinctive gabled roofs still peek over the high hedges that line the winding roads.
The Cotswolds — a name that in middle English means ‘‘sheep enclosure in rolling hillside’’ — is a rural area known for its outlandishly quaint medieval towns (as featured in the ‘‘Harry Potter’’ films), a tradition of Protestant nonconformity and, now that the mills have closed, poverty. The manors remain, weekend playgrounds for rich Londoners, but the charm of the landscape — evoked by local hero Laurie Lee in his 1959 memoir ‘‘Cider With Rosie’’ (required reading in many British schools) — has diminished thanks to arable farming.
It made the novelist Ian McEwan, a devotee of wild beauty, wary of the area — so many of its pastures and hedgerows had been destroyed. He and his wife, the journalist and novelist Annalena McAfee, were in the midst of what would be an eight-year search for a country home in an unspoiled setting. ‘‘What we found in our travels was that many of England’s older places had been insensitively restored, and often in the process, stripped of charm,’’ he says.

The promise of a 16th-century house eventually lured them to the Cotswolds, but the house’s interior proved a disappointment. On the drive back to London, McEwan turned down a promising narrow road on impulse; the couple, passionate hikers, are always in search of new paths. Almost immediately, to their left, they glimpsed a large manor fashioned from the local limestone — a honey yellow elegant in both gloom and sunshine — with a three-gabled roof. Through the trees, they could make out large windows and high-ceilinged rooms, and on the gentle slope beyond the building lay a vista of pastures and woodland. ‘‘We simultaneously exclaimed, ‘Ah, that’s the house!’ ’’ McEwan says. The very next day, they learned it was about to go on sale.
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The couple recall this serendipity as we sit on a wooden bench behind that house, theirs since 2012. It is a brisk evening in early June, and a Turner-worthy celestial beam is spotlighting the small lake before us. ‘‘We still sort of pinch ourselves,’’ McEwan says. ‘‘The idea that we live here.’’
The place has a bygone bucolic splendor reminiscent of that which McEwan made a leitmotif in his best-selling novel ‘‘Atonement.’’ The clouds — immense and low-hanging — move swiftly over the quilt of pastures that rolls into the horizon, changing as fast as the weather, which can go from bluster to sunshine from one breath to the next. The two spend their days here shaping worlds out of words (McEwan wrote his last two novels here, and McAfee her most recent), but they have also spent considerable time and effort shaping traditional sheep pastures into a shared natural fantasy.

The lake, for example, was a tiny, silty pond when they arrived. But McEwan noticed that the property had four underground springs that could be rerouted to create a much bigger body of water, something you could row a boat across — a process that created a ‘‘big, sludgy mud pit for the good part of a year,’’ he says. ‘‘But the great part about a lake is that creatures move in — ducks and newts and frogs.’’ As does algae, requiring experimentation with all manner of natural-born killers — native reeds and grasses planted to oxygenate the water. So far this process has merely replaced the algae with tangles of water plants. Now, McEwan sighs, ‘‘I just accept that there is this garden underwater.’’
McEWAN AND McAFEE have been married for 20 years. They met in 1994, when McAfee, then a journalist for The Financial Times, interviewed McEwan about his children’s book, ‘‘The Daydreamer.’’ Both had been married before; he had two sons and two stepdaughters. Among other things, they shared a working-class background and an intense longing for pastoral beauty.
McEwan grew up an army brat, spending his early years in places like North Africa, a dry landscape bereft of color. When he was 11, his parents sent him to Woolverstone Hall, a state boarding school in Suffolk. The main building, one of the country’s best examples of 18th-century Palladian architecture, was set on acres of green along the River Orwell. ‘‘It was a big moment of imprinting,’’ McEwan says, creating a persistent desire for ‘‘oaks and ferns and formal gardens fading away into natural landscape. For most of my life, that longing was expressed in hiking, rather than my own place.’’

McAfee’s early years were spent in a down-at-the-heels corner of a north London suburb. Her Scots-Irish father was a policeman, and they lived in a former Victorian police station, ‘‘complete with jail cells and a 60-foot air-raid siren,’’ she says. But outside were rambling grounds, where she and her four younger siblings ran wild. Her parents grew flowers, teaching her the Latin names, and in the summers, she and her brother were shipped off to an aunt’s in Glasgow, ‘‘whose council flat had a little patch of garden.’’ There she learned to grow plants from seed, as well as how to make little pots from newspaper that could be put straight into the ground.
MCAFFEE AND MCEWAN began tinkering with their home’s nine acres after they moved in, but the house itself was in remarkably good shape. The imposing building, while grand, is not what the British call ‘‘listed.’’ ‘‘It’s sort of a mongrel,’’ McEwan says. The core was built in 1923 by the noted Scottish architect Andrew Noble Prentice, who expanded upon the Cotswolds idiom with Arts and Crafts and Italianate flourishes. In 1997, the house was extended by the previous owner with the architect Robert Hardwick, who added some Strawberry Hill Gothic elements, including arched, cathedral-style windows and doors. Hardwick and his wife, Sallyann, landscaped the property in the Arts and Crafts style — tall yew-hedge rooms, low box hedges, lots of topiary — with bursts of soft drama: lily ponds, a pergola with pink roses, a laburnum arch that briefly explodes with psychedelic yellow blossoms in May. ‘‘We loved the geometry,’’ McEwan says, ‘‘but we wanted to play against that fabulous background, to introduce more color and chaos.’’
The gardens were also rigidly contained. Hardwick had designed two descending terraces below the house, the lower level enclosed by a wall, effectively dividing the land in two. ‘‘One of my earliest thoughts,’’ McEwan says, ‘‘was that the grounds should flow, that the dead center of the lawn should provide entry into the woodland and meadow and pasture.’’ He had Hardwick design a stately limestone staircase. ‘‘So after digging the lake, we started doing the steps down to the meadow, and it was a mud bath again.’’

McEwan also removed four huge pyramidal yew trees that divided the long patio behind the house. ‘‘I was worried it might make the area look too large, like the terrace of a retirement home — old people sitting on benches with rugs on our laps,’’ McAfee says. (‘‘We are old people,’’ McEwan reminds her.) Rather, it opened the back of the house and filled the interior with light. To the wisteria and climbing roses on the back wall, the couple added a profusion of perennials and bulbs — hollyhocks, peonies, white delphiniums, agapanthus, acanthus and allium — and such fragrant shrubs as daphne and Mexican orange blossom to scent the evenings when they entertain outside. A rowdy diversion of wildflowers and herbs burst from the patio’s pavement cracks.
That last idea was borrowed from their friend the poet James Fenton, whose former place outside Oxford was an early inspiration. So too were the profuse herbaceous borders of Dartington Hall in Devon, Charleston in Sussex and the home of Mary Keen, a friend and neighbor and one of the world’s top landscape designers. It was Keen who planned the two long beds of flowers on the first terrace, where before there had been just lawn and formal columnar Irish yews.
Then, two and a half years ago, another evolution: The couple hired a full-time gardener, Stuart Panting, a former graphic designer who, McAfee says, combines an artist’s eye for color and form with the knowledge, skill and patience of a traditional plantsman. ‘‘One of Ian’s stipulations,’’ Panting says, ‘‘was that he never wanted to see the soil in the flower beds.’’ He enriched the plantings and extended flowering times so that there are blooms throughout the year. He has also introduced McAfee’s traditional cottage garden favorites: poppies, lupines, honesty and sweet woodruff, ‘‘which comes up,’’ she says, ‘‘like a white haze under the green arches of Solomon’s seal.’’

The result is a feeling of abundance, ‘‘with things overlapping and giving you a sense of eruption, with branches that are too long, spilling out onto the path,’’ says McEwan, who confesses that he doesn’t know much about plants. ‘‘But I do know about layout and landscape and trees.’’ A good number of the latter were cut down in front of the house, which was heavily overplanted, to give light to struggling specimens, while at least 20 trees were added to the back of the property — native species like alder and hawthorn, poplar and rowan. McAfee suggested four Caledonian pines, tall, spindly firs to remind her of Scotland. ‘‘They’re associated with the Jacobite cause,’’ says McAfee, a supporter of Scottish secession. (Her new novel, ‘‘Hame,’’ is, in part, a history of that country.) She also instigated her own muddy construction project, a solar-heated infinity pool — a Mediterranean flourish between the hedges, with ornamental cherry trees at one end and a singular view of sheep-dotted hills at the other. Swimming to the end of the pool, you can reach out and touch the oxeye daisies growing in the new wildflower meadow.
The meadow is a point of pride for McEwan, who has joined a movement of private gardeners trying to reintroduce wildflowers to the English countryside — a feature that began to disappear when the land was plowed for crops. Such meadows are intensely artificial constructs that require enormous effort in the absence of sheep: Grass, a much hardier species, must be completely eradicated before you can seed, and then you have to pray the delicate plants themselves will take. To help things along, Panting added native yellow rattle, which is partially parasitic to grass, to the mix of daisies, poppies and cornflowers. The meadow, planted last October, was a fourth massive project, creating another abyss of mud.

THE COTSWOLDS’ proximity to London, just two hours away, means there is rarely a weekend when the house is not filled with friends and family, including McEwan’s six grandchildren (with one more due in December).
When they are alone, the couple’s world is circumscribed by work. McEwan has a second career adapting his books for film. ‘‘The Children Act,’’ starring Emma Thompson, is in postproduction; ‘‘On Chesil Beach,’’ with Saoirse Ronan, is slated for a January release; and he is currently writing the screenplay for his 2012 novel, ‘‘Sweet Tooth.’’ McAfee is beginning a new book, and setting out to promote ‘‘Hame’’ in America. (It is being published here this month.) They descend from their studies for meals together, cooking to an eclectic soundtrack — Bach, Miles Davis, Lou Reed. On this June night, as McEwan prepares a French fish stew, Gregg Allman has recently died and the Allman Brothers are on heavy rotation.
In the afternoons, the couple takes a break to tramp the local countryside with their Border collie, Rab. But the restless McEwan craved a closer alternative for exercise and contemplation, and found inspiration at Down House, the former home of Charles Darwin in Kent. ‘‘He had a feature called a sandwalk,’’ McEwan says. ‘‘A path that took perhaps five minutes to stroll around — perfect walking-thinking time.’’ McEwan’s version, of mowed grass, runs around the lake and up through the wildflowers. Due to its grade, it required another crazy project to achieve perfection: cutting into the side of the meadow to create a level walkway, ‘‘so you don’t even have to think about your feet, your thoughts are free.’’ An extra effort, but as McEwan notes, it worked for Darwin: ‘‘He changed the world from there.’’

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