Take Me Home
By Jim Dodson
At lunch with a group of friends not long ago, the conversation turned to guilty pleasures, those secret little self-indulgences we grant ourselves in private moments to escape the stress of life.
One friend confessed her secret pleasure was pigging out with a half gallon of double chocolate salt caramel ice cream while she binge-watched Orange Is the New Black.
Another cited her addiction to a “deserted white sand beach and novels I would never be caught reading back home.” The other male at the table mentioned road trips to Myrtle Beach with his golf buddies, especially for après-golf activities, he added, wiggling his eyebrows.
“I’ll take a great spa and nice bottle of chardonnay,” said another female colleague. “The more expensive, the better.”
All eyes were suddenly on me.
“Escape to the country,” I said before I realized what I was saying.
“Is that code for your garden?” someone asked.
“That, too,” I agreed.
No, I added, I was speaking of an addictive real estate show called Escape to the Country, a popular BBC program another friend had recently turned my wife and me onto, knowing how we love to slip off the radar every other autumn or just roam the back roads and narrow hedgerows of Britain or France with no firm itinerary in mind, in most instances without advance reservations. Over the years, trusting the fates, we’ve had some remarkable serendipitous adventures that landed us in unforgettable places — great old coaching inns, amazing gardens, hidden estates and local colorful characters galore.
There was that amazing night deep into rural Glouchestershire, for instance, when we met the woman in the Proud Cock Pub, who directed us to the largest yew in all of Britain. Or the seven chaps we met playing dominoes in the dusk at the golf club in Chantilly in northern France, who directed us to the best bistro in town and showed up on our heels with their wives, speaking not a lick of English, but treating us to fresh asperge blanche and the local chilled Sancerre wine — a party that went nearly until dawn.
But wait, these are pleasurable tales for another time — and nary a one that I feel the slightest guilt over.
Escape to the Country, on the other hand, is perhaps the closest thing I have nowadays to a guilty pleasure or an easy “escape” these days.
Thanks to Netflix, I’m certainly guilty as charged for watching it after a long day at work or whenever life seems a little too hectic and uncooperative for comfort.
How mentally soothing to tag along, say, with suburban London foodies Bryan and Shirley as they tool around the timeless hills of rural Dorset in search of their thatched-roofed retirement dream cottage or that 18th-century former Georgian rectory with the garden out back and long views of the Chalk Hills, a home straight from Thackeray or Austen.
“The show is basically House Hunters for the Masterpiece Theater crowd,” I summed up, explaining how it turns on the classic trope of an urban couple eager to trade hectic city life for an ideal pied-à-terre in the country, with the objective of presenting a trio of beguiling cottages and estates tucked in absurdly photogenic village settings and sweeping landscapes, designed to fit the budget and aspirational desires of the show’s subjects. Each property seems more charming and irresistible than the one before it, and a third “mystery” option often seals the deal.
Artfully inserted betwixt viewings, we voyeuristic tagalongs get to learn interesting bits of local history, nip into the local pub or maybe even learn how to make the locally famous cheese.
“It’s not quite like being there,” I summed up. “But it sure makes me wish I were.”
Luckily for me, editing Seasons magazine evokes similar soothing feelings because I get to regularly investigate outstanding properties and gardens scattered around the Piedmont Triad — and meet the engaging souls who love them. Some years ago, while researching a book on the delightfully mad and wonderful competitive horticulture world, my bride and I dropped in for lunch with the late, famous English gardener Mirabel Osler — the woman widely credited with birthing the cottage garden craze of two decades ago. (Her book A Gentle Plea for Chaos should be in every serious gardener’s library.)
Following a tour of her delightfully chaotic cottage garden, Osler, a lively grand dame in her early 90s, marched us off to a local French restaurant talking about her late farmer husband and how a garden and a house are essentially a human thumbprint of their owners, which she charmingly referred as “temporary caretakers.”
“By that I mean to say you keep a house or a garden for a relatively short span of time, relatively speaking, and both will undoubtedly have a life of their own far beyond you,” she explained. “Gardens and houses are living creatures that perfectly convey the love and attention they are given like few other things except possibly children. Like the people who own them, they change over time and are subject to circumstances beyond our control. But make no mistake, your thumbprint will always be there once established — a touch of you left behind.”
We savored our magical autumn afternoon with Dame Osler, and I’ve never ceased thinking about the houses and gardens I visit as living thumbprints of their caretakers.
Among other things, she also mentioned how people who love old houses and gardens tend also to be natural caretakers of certain beloved objects that speak to them in a secret language all their own. “Beautiful things can unexpectedly call your name,” she told us, pointing out a small watercolor that reminded her of a field that once belonged to her and her late husband. “I found that in a jumble shop in Leeds,” she said wistfully. “It said to me, ‘This is yours. Take me home.’”
I’m living proof of this phenomenon. And maybe you are, too.
Last spring, in preparation for a main feature of this issue, my bride and I attended auctioneer Leland Little’s big spring auction at his gallery in historic Hillsborough. Having never attended an auction of any sort, I was slightly gobsmacked by the 300
or so spectacular items up for sale — a remarkable array of exquisite Colonial-era furniture, fine art, historic maps, vintage couture, collectible glassware, estate jewelry and garden tools.
During the preview hour, my feasting eye settled on at least half a dozen items I would have given my genuine George Washington wooden teeth to bid upon, notably one of the earliest known maps of Colonial America, a 19th-century Chinese garden chair and an amazing painting of cows standing in a pasture that was first exhibited at the Columbian World’s Exposition in Chicago in 1892.
My eye kept drifting back to Lot 356, Pennsylvanian Thomas Craig’s luminous Upland Pasture Morning, an oil on canvas in an original heavy gilt frame that came from the artist’s own collection. Something about those gorgeous cows reminded me of my great grandfather’s farm in Orange County.
After sitting through five hours of exciting bidding from the 150 folks on the auction floor, plus thousands of collectors and bidders on the phone or online from around the world, I realized attending high-end live auctions could easily become a guilty pleasure of mine.
If those beautiful upland cows could talk, they would probably tell you I’m not the least bit guilty about purchasing that one-of-a-kind painting. As Leland Little said to me afterward, “You got a great buy on that oil painting — and I don’t just mean the price.”
Whatever else may be true, I feel a little like a kid on Christmas morning every time I pause and admire Thomas Craig’s Upland Pasture Morning, now hanging in our living room.
That old painting speaks to me the same way Mirabel Osler’s chaotic cottage garden spoke to her; the way couples escaping to the country hear old rectories calling out their names — a private voice that simply says, “This is yours. Take me Home.”