In search of Colin’s Barn (aka The Hobbit House)

Colin's Barn

Some blundering around on the internet recently led me to read about an extraordinary place known as Colin’s Barn, or The Hobbit House (not to be confused with a self-consciously titled eco-home of the latter name built in Wales). I had to find it, so a small but intrepid band of us sallied forth to track it down. Briefly, it was built between 1989 and 1999 by a stained glass artist called Colin Stokes, on land he owned near his house in Chedglow, Wiltshire. He built it for his sheep. Apparently the council were not best pleased that neither Stokes nor his flock had been through the due planning process, and the stress of the bureaucracy may have contributed to him moving to Scotland. The ‘barn’ remains quietly dilapidating in a field.

There’s plenty more at Derelict Places but with care to keep its location secret. I’m not going to blab either, but suffice it to say (a) that it’s on private land, so tread warily and respectfully (b) despite what commenters at that site and others say, it can be found on Google maps, rather easily if you use your brain and (c) all of the stuff on these forums about rottweilers and security heavies appears to be twaddle. Or perhaps they are otherwise occupied on sunny afternoons. My only hint is to follow the horses and not the cars. (More photos at Flickr.)

Anyway, it’s a beautiful and amazing thing – and maybe the world is a better place for things like this being left dotted around in quiet corners.


It’s all been happening. On Sunday I played cricket for the first time in 20 years. It was advertised as ‘Rubbish Cricket’, so I took comfort from that, but was nevertheless the rubbishest player there (out of 11 in total, so only small teams). That said, I did have a moment of glory right at the very end when I took a wicket. The setting was glorious: the village cricket ground at Ewelme. On Monday I ached all over all bloody day, because clearly I are seriously unfit.

On Tuesday I went to some arts/business function at the BMW MINI plant at Cowley, avoiding the awards ceremony it was all about purely to go on a free tour of the plant afterwards – these are apparently much prized, and I just like being in places where I have no conceivable business.

It’s an extraordinary experience – well, after 90 minutes I was getting pretty bored, but before that it was more overwhelming. We visited two of the vast (and we’re talking about dozens of football pitches each here) ugly prefab buildings that grace that bit of Oxford’s ring road. The first was where loads of huge robots swing around in constant motion, grabbing parts and welding them together and so on. It’s the most dehumanised setting I’ve ever seen (there are very few actual meatware staff in there), like something out of an sf horror film really. The Matrix? You’re already in it, sunshine.

I only asked one question: “Are the robots made by robots?” They are. The whole place is an amazing monument to human technology – and utterly depressing. I couldn’t help but think our civilisation is totally fucked.

The second shed had lots more people, all of whom do 11-hour shifts on huge conveyors (they’re moving on them too), fitting all the twiddly bits to the cars. They make 50 Minis (sorry, MINIs) an hour, every single one to order and different from its shiny neighbour.

And fourthly (geddit?), on Wednesday we learnt something important – that’s a story for another day, but the good news is that all is well.

In the Glymelight

Commuting has given me time to read James Attlee’s Isolarion: A Different Oxford Journey. I can’t praise this book highly enough – it’s a psychogeographical meander down Cowley Road, in much the same vein as Iain Sinclair’s explorations in London Orbital and Edge of the Orison, though undertaken in a different way. Attlee adopts the same elegiac tone as the crushing monotony of theme park Britain tries to bulldoze anywhere with real character and vibrancy. He lacks Sinclair’s poetic (or obscurantist) touch, but it’s a very enjoyable read. Attlee approaches his various excursions and incursions along Cowley Road in the spirit of a pilgrimage, and his text is informed and inspired by interesting background reading from, among others, Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy. The history of the car plants, refugees, the Bartlemas leper hospital, drunks in the graveyard, the famous porn shop, takeaways and council meetings – it’s all in here.

I don’t miss living in London, but sometimes I miss London walks, and exploring its palimpsest of history. This is the first time a book about Oxford has given me the same thrill, and I know there’s much more to explore. It’s interesting that he avoids the sometimes stagnant and certainly overexplored history of central Oxford, and heads eastward. If you’re not sympathetic to this sort of project, Attlee could perhaps come across as a smug art-world type at times, but that would be unjust. This is a fantastic and inspiring book.

On Easter Monday, we set out on a pilgrimage on our own, taking the bus out to Chipping Norton to walk the route of the river Glyme as closely as possible from there down to where it joins the Evenlode at Woodstock. It makes for an idyllic walk – though around 14/15 miles, mind. The Glyme begins as a gentle stream alongside the mediaeval Saltway (got this one in your salt facts, ?) and meanders through some truly peaceful and surprisingly hidden countryside, despite the A44 not being far away. The Saltway, lost mediaeval villages, mills and waterfalls and absurdly pretty hamlets all feature along its course. In its middle life, the Glyme gets pretentions – as well as being dammed into a small lake at Old Chalford, it then runs through no less than three grand estates – Kiddington, Glympton and Blenheim (where, as at Kiddington, it forms an ornamental lake). At Radfordbridge, we passed the beautiful spot where my Mini got stranded the other week, and met some puppies. We were too footsore to see it through Blenheim to Bladon, where it joins the Evenlode, but we did follow it pretty closely all along. Spring is making me joyously happy. (Anyone wanting to see pictures and the route can download a 290K PDF here.)

Kidlington Orbital

On Sunday Brighty and I did half of the ‘Kidlington Circular Walk’ – a badly signed, mixed bag of a walk that even Iain Sinclair might baulk at. Lowpoints include negotiating the A34 and associated tributaries, but of course there was much to celebrate, too – most particularly the slightly spooky but impressive Elizabethan/Jacobean pile that is Water Eaton Manor. My subsequent researches reveal that from the late 1920s it was owned by Sir Alexander Carr-Saunders, director of LSE for two decades and a noted eugenicist. His son Nicholas (born at the manor) clearly rebelled however. He died in 1998, having been a pioneer of the wholefood movement (he founded Neal’s Yard). Some gems from his obit in the Independent:

– “He constructed a flat in Edith Grove, west London, so that ducks in the pond outside could swim under a plate-glass window and into his living room”
– “he slept in a papier-mache ‘cave'”
– “The flat became a centre for hippies and anyone with new alternative ideas. These he began to record and the first edition of Altemative London was brought out in 1970… Further editions followed until a friend meditating in front of a candle inadvertently burnt the flat down.”
– at Neal’s Yard “he designed an imaginative rooftop garden and a flat where he slept in a suspended egg and arranged a padded ledge for guests”
– “Nicholas Saunders spent the last years of his life investigating the drug culture and particularly Ecstasy”
(You don’t say?)

Not sure who owns the manor now, but Nicholas’ son Kristoffer runs a nightclub in Denmark. Sir Alex would roll in his Aryan grave.

Stripped of charm

Genealogy is always a double-edged sword. Within minutes of being entertained to find that one set of my great-great-great-grandparents ran a canalside pub in Middlesex… I discovered that it’s now a strip joint next to an industrial estate.

Clare as mud

Last year I observed that I don’t often read the same author one book after another – the exception was Iain Sinclair (see here and here). He’s the exception again. Hot on the heels of Edge of the Orison I’ve felt compelled to read Rodinsky’s Room (co-written with Rachel Lichtenstein).

The first follows John Clare’s ‘journey out of Essex’ – ie his fugue from an asylum at High Beach in 1841, walking penniless, driven by lost (and unregainable) love, the 80 miles to his village north of Peterborough. I can’t remember feeling so inspired and gripped by a book in recent times, such that I’ve fixed anyone who’ll listen (or won’t) with an ancient mariner’s stare and proceeded to prate about it. Sinclair’s form, for me at least, gets ever better with each new non-fiction book he writes – while his fiction (though I probably will tackle Dining on Stones when I have the stomach) gets more unwieldy and unfathomable.

The Clare book is self-indulgent at times, especially with a fruitless quest revolving around his wife’s genealogy, but I loved it throughout nonetheless – the usual blend of coruscating sideswipes at modern blandness, fused with elegiac tones and swathed in his psychogeographic obsession with making connections: Sinclair is the real Dirk Gently.

I’m still in media res with the Rodinsky book – more on that some time soon.

Villa knell

I cycled to Charlbury and back today as practice for the London to Brighton (albeit only half the distance). The highlight, apart from much glorious countryside, and seeing a hare closer than ever before, was North Leigh Roman Villa. Very well preserved foundations, many still with hypocaust intact – and the most astonishing mosaic, preserved in a locked shed, but with window views. It’s enormous. The site is a beautiful, tranquil place, which I had all to myself in the grey drizzle, and I almost feel guilty for telling anyone about it.

Rolling rightly

I’ve perhaps been unfair to Oxfordshire at times – I’m not hugely drawn to flat landscapes, but of course Oxon isn’t all flat. Last night H and I went for a marvellous, and very restorative, cycle through what for me is ‘proper’ countryside, rolling, woody and clucking. There was more than just clucking: as well as muntjacs, we saw a herd of alpacas and, best of all, a fleet of piglets came running across their field to see us.

A week or so ago M and I went to the Rollrights, too – another inevitably uplifting megalithic site, largely unspoilt, surrounded by cow parsley and views.

Strange pilgrims

H and I went to Walsingham a couple of weeks ago. I found it fascinating as a theological voyeur. The whole place turns on a series of fictions.

These began in the 11th century, when a Norman lady claimed to have a vision of the Virgin Mary – ever after known as Our Lady of Walsingham – and endowed a priory as a result. The truth is that at the time, there were no viable sites for humble Brits to go on pilgrimage (and weren’t until a troublesome priest in Canterbury was despatched). It was simply a marketing exercise by the church – which clearly worked brilliantly until Henry VIII sent Cromwell’s Dissolving Formula across the country.

Next stop is 1896, when a Catholic woman, Charlotte Boyd, bought the ruined 14th century Slipper Chapel and restored it, and suggested a pilgrimage to visit Our Lady (OLW) in her new home.

Jump now to the 1920s and 30s, when Anglican vicar Alfred Hope Patten secured land to build an *Anglican* shrine. It’s an extraordinary place – typical 1930s architecture, and beautifully done, though also startlingly mawkish.

While building it, they found a mediaeval well, which has since been used (along with rumours of healing properties) to bolster the sacred credibility of the site.

I suppose I’d be hard pressed to say what I would regard as an *unconstructed* site for pilgrimage, but Walsingham doesn’t even have some bones. Now legions of rotund sexagenarians travel from far and wide, all in fealty to an 11th century illusion.

I was there

A trip to the Design Museum, for the splendid You Are Here exhibition. A festival for geekish poring. Along with the inevitable Tube map delights, highlights for me included:
– Adrian Frutiger’s Symbols and Signs – Explorations foldout chart
– The works of Richard Saul Wurman, Otto Neurath (hurrah! my old chum Basic English) and Annegrete Moelhave
– John Adams’ 1679 map of road distances between UK towns and villages
– Joseph Priestley’s invention of “charts of biography”
– the unlabelled maps comparing metro networks across the world

Much Googling to be done, frankly, and much else of interest besides, but:
(a) no catalogue!!
(b) as J pointed out, er, didn’t the design of the exhibition (not to mention the dreadful Design Museum website as H has already observed) somewhat let down the premise. A major missed opportunity, given that the structure of the exhibition itself was so blurred.

I also discovered the works of Edward Tufte, which I shall be tracking down, especially his essay about PowerPoint being the death of reason, a long-cherished philosophy of mine.