(Escape, Jan/April 2009) Carinya Sharples steps into the past at Acton Scott in the South Shropshire hills, discovering the charms of a unique Victorian holiday cottage, the subject of a new BBC television series
The closest most of us come to time travel is jetting over time zones on holiday. But amid the rolling green hills of South Shropshire, visitors can turn back time and live like a Victorian farm labourer. Forget widescreen TVs, microwaves and radiators; in fact, forget electricity and plumbing – guests at Henley Cottage cook and heat their water on a Victorian coal-fired kitchen range, store food in a pantry and take hip baths by a roaring fire. This unique project is the work of Rupert Acton, who manages the estate, and his wife, Louise.
Rupert says: “Henley Cottage aims to appeal to those who would like an adventure. If you are searching for a simpler way of life – water hand-pumped from a well instead of turning on a tap and light from candles and oil lamps as opposed to flicking a switch – then this is for you.”
Stepping back in time
Set in the picturesque landscape of Acton Scott, Henley Cottage is one of a pair of 19th-century farm labourers’ cottages. Because it was never modernised and then left abandoned in the 1950s, it remains a rare example of authentic Victorian life – walk through the aged front door, and it’s like stepping back 150 years. It has its original quarry tiles, worn oak floor boards and sturdy beamed ceilings and, at the heart of the cottage, the coal-fired range. As well as being used for cooking the meals, the range is a great source of heat and all the rooms are surprisingly toasty. Oil lamps, sitting in sconces on the walls, provide lighting, and upstairs the two bedrooms (one double, one twin, and an extra single, if needed) have wrought-iron bedsteads and traditional linen sheets and are warmed by open fires in a coal grate or wood-burning stove.
The attention to detail is fantastic and includes period furnishings, a jug-and-bowl set for washing and even a commode should you get caught short in the night. On arrival, guests receive instructions on how to use all the cottage’s domestic bygones. In fact, the only compromise to authenticity is the addition of a modern toilet and shower, tucked out of sight in the garden next to the original earth closet loo.
Available from April, Henley Cottage is about to find fame in a prime time BBC2 television series, Victorian Farm, which was filmed at Acton Scott and is due to be screened from January.
Around the houses
As well as Henley Cottage, Acton Scott currently offers two other properties: Henley Farmhouse (ref: RJJ3) and The Shooting Lodge (ref: RNP). The Actons originally let out only the 18th-century stone-walled section of the farmhouse, before deciding to extend and renovate the 16th-century timber framed and brick side. The property now offers 10 bedrooms and nine bathrooms, most of which are en suite. “Already we’re getting repeat bookings,” says Rupert. “It’s so satisfying, especially as it was such a risk to take.”
Rupert’s passion for careful restoration is obvious as we tour the estate and he is supported by a team of artisan craftsmen. “I believe strongly in the need to keep alive traditional skills, conserve historic buildings and preserve the natural landscape,” explains Rupert. “These are the principles that I have been brought up with. It can be expensive and it can be time consuming, but the results are worth it.”
The Shooting Lodge was carefully restored and refurbished eight years ago. Today, guests come to enjoy the rural isolation with all modcons and make the most of the entertaining opportunities provided by the banqueting room (a former cow shed with a large open fireplace), which can seat up to 18.
Set in a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, in the South Shropshire hills, the Acton Scott estate has been owned by the Acton family for over 800 years. Its 1200 acres hold a number of small farmsteads, stone and timber-framed cottages, ancient woodland and open pasture. At its centre is Acton Scott Hall, a Grade II* listed, Elizabethan mansion of 1580, that is the Acton family’s residence.
The local area has twice received the royal seal of approval. Prince Rupert, King Charles I’s nephew, is believed to have stayed at Acton Scott Hall during a skirmish in the Civil War and HM Queen Elizabeth II spent a night on the Royal Train stationed on the railway line at Henley, during a visit to the area, shortly after her coronation. The historical significance does not end there – an archaeological dig of Acton Scott’s Roman villa, an Ancient Scheduled Monument, is currently in progress nearby.
At home on the farm
Acton Scott is also the location for the Historic Working Farm, a favourite visitor attraction for families. The original concept of keeping the farming practices of 1900 alive was conceived by Rupert’s father, Tom Acton, in the 1970s. Open to the public from April to October, it provides a fascinating insight into life on a working 19th-century country estate.
Traditional breeds of animals are stocked while the surrounding land is worked with heavy horses. Milking by hand and butter making are demonstrated daily in the dairy and there are weekly visits from the Wheelwright, Farrier and Blacksmith. Young animals, such as the Tamworth piglets and the farmyard poultry, are hits with children.
The Historic Working Farm has a souvenir shop, café and educational centre and children can lose themselves in the willow maze or dress up in 19th-century clothing for a photo. Acton Scott is also starting courses in rural skills, such as animal husbandry and hedge laying, using the facilities of the Historic Working Farm and the estate at large. Participants can stay at any one of Acton Scott’s holiday houses or book Henley Cottage. “Acton Scott is uniquely placed to offer the experience of learning about 19th century country life while also being able to live as a Victorian might have done, by staying at Henley Cottage,” says Rupert.
Visitors to Acton Scott can ramble over the estate’s green hills, parkland and woods, and there are walks suitable for all ages and abilities. The historic market towns of Ludlow and Shrewsbury are a short drive away. As the properties are self-catering, guests can stock up on provisions in nearby Church Stretton and Craven Arms while the local Strefford Hall Farm Shop delivers meat and seasonal supplies.
It may seem like the Actons have more than enough on their plate, but they already have a new project in the pipeline – turning The Old Smithy, once used by blacksmiths and still in possession of an old forge, into new holiday accommodation. Time may have stood still on the Acton Scott Estate, but there’s no stopping this pair.