PRUE LEITH is downsizing as she packs up a lifetime of memories
Farewell to paradise: After 44 years in her Cotswolds retreat, PRUE LEITH is downsizing as she packs up a lifetime of memories – from childhood milestones to the eccentric joys of the annual Underpants Race
- Prue Leith has lived at her Cotswolds manor home in Gloucestershire since 1972
- She says that, with children grown, Glebe has become ‘too big and expensive’
- Bake Off star now reflects on memories there as she says goodbye to the retreat
Back in 1976, we lived in a flat in Paddington. With two two-year-olds — my son, Daniel, and adopted daughter, Li-Da — having frequent tantrums and my late husband, the writer Rayne Kruger, needing quiet, a country house looked like the answer.
In those days, the Cotswolds were a rural backwater and properties were cheap. But Rayne’s specifications included high ceilings, plenty of light, no damp — and no other houses in sight. This ruled out most farms, village houses and cottages.
My demands included a good railway service into Paddington and enough land to grow veg and flowers and to start a duck farm. At the time, my restaurant was selling 15 portions of Leith’s duckling a night, which meant using more than 200 birds a month. (This plan came to nought — my ducks were going to cost about twice as much as we were paying our suppliers.)
The first time we visited the Glebe, my main impression was of good-sized rooms, high ceilings, wonderful light and freezing cold. It was so cold the water in a vase on the sitting room mantelpiece had frozen — it was warmer outside in the snow than inside.
Heart of her home: Prue Leith in the kitchen where she tested ‘zillions’ of recipes. She says: ‘The kitchen has always been the heart of the house and where most of my memories are’
A view of the Cotswolds retreat, which Prue is now selling. The home was originally a 16th-century farmhouse and has been ‘altered by almost everyone who had lived in it’, writes Prue
What really attracted me was the dining room, which I knew at once I’d turn into the kitchen. It has wonderful views, and it had space for cooking and eating.
The view from the room at the top of the house, immediately earmarked for Rayne’s study, was what seduced him.
The house, though big, wasn’t grand or pompous. Originally a 16th-century farmhouse, it had been altered by almost everyone who had lived in it and was now a happy muddle of ancient cellar, Georgian middle, Victorian wing, and tacked-on 1930s sitting room.
Now, 44 years on, it’s our time to say goodbye. With the children grown, the Glebe has become too big and expensive for us, so with a heavy heart we’re selling up and (horrible word) downsizing.
My second husband, John Playfair, who is finally selling his house, too, is irretrievably throwing in his lot with me (we’ve famously maintained separate houses throughout our time together).
Our new house (‘Our Eventide Home’, as John rudely calls it) is totally different, and planning this is a great antidote to keening over the loss of the old one.
But looking back, I can’t believe I’ve been lucky enough to have had 44 years of the Glebe. When we bought it, I was beside myself with excitement. Aged 36, to be mistress of paradise! It took us a year to renovate, and I loved that summer. We’d drive down from London, Rayne would disappear into the house to talk to the builders, while I’d pick spinach and peas and the children would run about or sleep on a blanket under a tree.
Apart from putting in decent central heating, our biggest change was to open up the hall, making it double height by losing a bedroom and bathroom above it.
Frieze frame: The design running around the sitting room ceiling, which was painted by Prue’s step-granddaughter, artist Amy Douglas, must be left behind
Swan song: The pedalo on the Glebe’s lake was a gift from Sandi Toksvig. She says: ‘We lacked the water, but once the children could swim, I gave in and he supervised the digging’
The Victorian wing had a butler’s pantry, kitchen, flower room and storeroom, which we banged into one to make a huge playroom, big enough for a ping pong table, trikes and train sets. At Christmas, the ping pong table would be joined to other odd tables and we’d sit down 20 or 25 family members to lunch.
The first floor had four bedrooms, all south-facing, the best one with windows to the south and west and a dressing room and bathroom. I had a happy time decorating this bathroom.
We’d inherited old-fashioned ochre tiles with a roomy bath with a surround big enough to take a tea-tray (or a gin and tonic).
I do love a long bath and had a fantasy of lying under an apple tree laden with rosy apples. I couldn’t find any apple wallpaper, so I bought a leafy one and painted hundreds of apples on it. I didn’t paint, Michelangelo-style, directly on the ceiling, but with the paper laid out on the ping pong table.
I also bought an elaborate mantelpiece with shelves, which I’m really going to miss. On it sit odd-shaped bottles I fill with Boots bath bubbles of every colour.
Every room holds a memory: the children crawling into our bed in the mornings; Rayne’s study, smelling of old books and cigarette smoke; the year we staged a nativity play in the playroom, when our pet donkey ate the manger and then peed on the floor.
Trying to decide what to take to the new house is agony. My favourite piece of art is a huge tapestry by the artist Cathelin, bought on a whim. I was on holiday and saw this in an exhibition in Provence.
For me, the test of great art is if it makes your heart beat faster — sense went out of the window. It will certainly come with us. So, too, will my mother’s copper soup tureen that I remember sitting on our table when I was a child in South Africa. She died at 97, and for the last 30 years of her life she grew a philodendron in it. Today, a descendant of her original plant still flourishes in it.
Branching out: A huge metal tree made by Prue’s husband, John. She also used some spare necklaces to string up some teacups in a chandelier
The ceiling which Prue painted. She says: ‘I couldn’t find any apple wallpaper, so I bought a leafy one and painted hundreds of apples on it’
Then there is a brass spittoon that once adorned my London restaurant, Leith’s. I bought it in Portobello market and thought it was a fancy vase, only to be told by a customer it was a spittoon. Yuck!
Now it is in the dining room filled with a graceful weeping fern.
And I can’t leave behind my collection of antique teacups. I’ve been collecting them for years and they are far too small for tea — I like huge teacups — so I’ve strung some of them up with a few spare necklaces in a chandelier, which will come with us.
I’ll also take the huge metal trees that John designed to hang my ridiculous collection of necklaces and earrings on.
Another thing I’m definitely taking is a Victorian porcelain basin, which I’d had set into the sitting room wall. It’s very pretty and must once have been in a conservatory for posh ladies to fill their little watering cans from.
Rayne drank a couple of glasses of whiskey and water every night, so we didn’t have to go to the kitchen for water. In the new house it will be in the downstairs loo. What I cannot take with me is the frieze running round the sitting room ceiling, painted by Amy Douglas, my artist step-granddaughter. It consists of alternating thistles (John is a Scot) and proteas for my South African origins.
From the kitchen I will take my Lazy Susan, which has spun spices and flavourings, kitchen knives and wooden spoons ever since we came here. I designed it, and the joiner who made it said we needed 100 ball bearings at £1 each to take its spinning weight — £100!
I said: ‘Let’s use the children’s marbles.’ He said they’d be crushed in days. Forty-four years later, they are still doing a great job.
The kitchen has always been the heart of the house and where most of my memories are. It’s where we eat every day, where I’ve tested zillions of recipes, made endless jam, where the children learnt to cook, where I’ve written my eight novels and Relish, my autobiography, and where I am writing this now. It’s where my long-suffering John becomes the cameraman for my Instagram videos.
Home sweet home: Prue with late husband Rayne and their children Daniel and Li-Da when they first moved into the Cotswolds retreat
It’s also the scene of one of the very few rows I had with my late husband. My brother’s children were staying with us so, to my shame, there were half-a-dozen child witnesses to my losing it. I wanted to throw something at Rayne, and the only thing handy was my plate of muesli, yoghurt and banana. I picked up the bowl, and at the last second thought better of hurling it across the table and instead threw it straight upwards, where it hit the ceiling.
I don’t remember what the quarrel was about, but I remember the horrified faces of the children, and a bit of banana, glued to the ceiling with yoghurt, slowly detaching itself to join the mess on the table. For years we’d point out the stain on the ceiling and tell the story.
Most of our best memories are garden ones. When the children had outgrown the sandpit and climbing frame, we decided to replace them with a stone, vine-covered pergola with a long table for outdoor eating.
Rayne said: ‘For what we’re spending on this thing, we could fly all our friends to the South of France for lunch every year. And at least the sun would shine.’
What matters is that I’ve had the massive good fortune to live happily in a lovely house for 44 years, writes Prue Leith (above)
But over the years we had many, many happy lunches under that pergola — though I do admit we occasionally had to make a run for it, with everyone clutching their plate as the rain tipped down.
Rayne thought flowers should be confined to a cutting garden and he insisted the view from his study should be of grass, water and trees. We lacked the water, but once the children could swim, I gave in and he supervised the digging of a small lake, in which two generations of children have swum and splashed about in rowing boats, rubber tyres and latterly a 12ft swan pedalo, a present from Sandi Toksvig (of QI and Bake Off fame).
We’ve picnicked and barbecued on its little island and I’ve spent hours eliminating weeds, introducing fish and waterlilies.
Rayne’s interest in China led to a Chinese-style bridge and a pagoda. I think the lake and garden are what I will miss most on leaving. Rayne’s ashes are in the water, scattered after his death in 2002, and I’m rather sorry mine now won’t be.
An annual event, up until Covid, has been the Chastleton Sports Day for hordes of my children’s friends and their families, ranging from toddlers to grannies. The front lawn is marked into running lanes, and teams compete in everything from tug-of-war to croquet.
The highlight is the Underpants Duathlon, where everyone strips to their undies and races across the field, swims across the lake to the island, scrambles out and belts back across the bridge, then back up the field to the front lawn.
Since John came into my life ten years ago, my grandchildren, and his, have benefited from his construction skills. There’s an adventure playground complete with zip lines and wobbly walks, climbing wall and monkey ladders.
Leaving a house is sad, but its also very hard work. Going through boxes and boxes of photographs before the move should be a pleasure.
Well, I’ve wasted hours down memory lane, but not enjoyed it. I feel guilty at my inability to chuck most of it out. I’m sure I should. Why lumber my children with sorting all this stuff — not just photos, but half-written novels, diaries, press cuttings?
When my mother died, she’d not thrown anything away in years, and I was simply too busy to sort it. I still feel guilty at chucking 90 per cent of it, unread.
I kept only her diaries and photo albums, and they are now in the pile I’m faced with. One day, one day, I’ll read them.
I’m sad to have to sell beloved sideboards and tables, as they are too big for the new house.
I hate to think of our Welsh Oak dresser or solid 6ft round stinkwood (a rare South African species) table being painted over and ‘distressed’ to be shabby-chic. But hey-ho, it’s only ‘stuff’.
What matters is that I’ve had the massive good fortune to live happily in a lovely house for 44 years. I am truly grateful.
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