Many years ago mum and I were National Trust members. There was a special offer, I was studying History of Art including a module on the country house, and when it wasn't sunny enough to bask in a quiet corner of the car park or garden my mother liked the architecture too (back then she just liked the sun more). We spent a very hot summer in 1995 exploring as far away as Kent, eating a lot of ice cream, and setting the world to rights on the way but after that membership lapsed.
The entry card gives a sort of mad hatters tea party feel to the occasion
Until this year Leicestershire has been a hole in the National Trust map - there are plenty of places about an hour away in neighbouring counties but there was nothing on the proverbial doorstep to warrant membership. That's now changed with the acquisition and opening of Stoneywell Cottage a small (but perfectly formed) property in a fairly extensive garden.
A trip to Stoneywell demands a certain amount of planning, you have to book ahead - this is mostly due to it's size. It was designed as the summer house of a well to do family and is most definitely a cottage. Access is via a guided group - there were 8 in ours which is probably the comfortable maximum. You book a slot in the car park (no shade, don't take a dog) get the shuttle bus (it's only a short walk but the neighbours like their privacy so made it a condition of planning consent that there would be no pedestrians) arrive at the stable block where you are presented with a welcome card and then led down the garden path.
At this point I began to wonder where the cottage actually was - the path curves around the edge of the garden, the house hidden behind a rocky outcrop only reveals itself when you're virtually on top of it.
Designed by the Earnest Gimson (a good, but not household name, arts and crafts architect and designer) for his brother in 1898 Stoneywell is actually built into the surrounding rock. This gives it a wonderfully romantic fairytale feel and makes it very damp. At least in the heat of summer it would have been reliably cool. Because of the way it emerges from the landscape, and also the z shaped floor plan it's hard to gage the size of the place from the front. It looks small and curled in on itself, the massive chimneys and absence of straight lines say witches cottage - it's all very Walter Crane.
Stepping inside intensifies the fairy tale feel. You go straight into what was once the kitchen and is now a dining room. Stone flagged floors, a massive fire place, odd nooks and crannies, and steps in every direction (nothing is on the same level) all add to the charm. Up a few stairs and you find yourself in a curving sitting room with windows in odd places and a tiny staircase cut into the hillside which takes you up to the first bedroom.
The house was occupied by the original family until 2012 when it's last owner (now in his 90's) presumably decided he'd had enough of all the stairs and passed it on to the trust. His feeling was that the house had been in its heyday in the 50's so that's the era the Trust have taken it back to. Happily it came complete with a lot of the original furniture so it really is an Arts and Crafts gem.
Outside it's only from the back that it's possible to get a sense of the size of the place - substantial 4 bedroom cottage - but as you move around it your perception of what you're looking at keeps changing. The gardens, including a wood currently full of bluebells, covers about 11 acres and looks like it will have plenty to enjoy in it throughout the year.
Stoneywell really is like something out of a book, I don't think I've ever been in a place that felt so much like an illustration come to life. It must have made a wonderful summer retreat, and been equally hellish in winter (apparently the last owner kept his wellies by the larder door as it got to wet to go down there in slippers for his morning cornflakes). It is entirely worth visiting.