The History of Durslade Farm

Durslade Farm in Bruton, Somerset is today surrounded by fields and stone walls, and flanked by the B3081, but in medieval times it was a small, quiet patch of open land carved out of the thickets of the forest of Selwood. Its name, translated from ancient English, means Deer’s Glade – a place where deer roamed and were eagerly stalked by locals. Durslade was a working farm for more than 1,000 years, and at one time was used by Augustinian monks, who established a small priory in Bruton in the middle ages.

Durslade, as we see it today, was built by the Berkeley family in 1768 as a model farm, to be looked out on from their mansion, now disappeared, over the hill next to Bruton church. At the time the farm was built, the fashion for the Picturesque was in full swing across Europe. Reacting against the mechanisation of agriculture, the aristocracy romanticised the life of the humble farmer, and in the same way that Marie Antoinette had her bergerie and the Hoare family at the neighbouring estate, Stourhead, their woodman’s cottage overlooking a lake, so the Berkeleys, who built some of the most distinguished streets and squares of Mayfair in London, erected Durslade. Its neo-gothic windows and finials, stone coats of arms and sheer classiness of design, denote that it was a stage-set as much as a real farm. There are stables and piggeries, granaries and threshing barns, but at a time when most dwellings in the area would have been thatched cottages made of wattle and daub, which animals and their owners often shared, Durslade stood out as a prince amongst paupers.

In medieval times the farmland was managed by 12 monks or canons who lived in Bruton Abbey, next to the church. Called the Black Canons because of their garb, their job was to look after not only the spiritual but also the physical well-being of their community. Food from Durslade Farm, which at that time covered 450 acres (now it is 100) was given to the villagers in return for their labour. Flocks of 300 sheep were matched by equally large herds of cows; fishponds provided carp and pike and hogs roamed the woods. Only tiny fragments remain of the farm buildings of this date – the majority of which were a bit nearer the river Brue, down the hill.

In 1539 the Abbey was sold to Sir Maurice Berkeley, Henry VIII’s standard-bearer, but it was pulled down after a fire in 1786. However, fragments of the ecclesiastical buildings live on in Durslade where they were re-used to form the round windows of the stables, for instance, or the little stone crosses on the roof of the Threshing Barn – now the main gallery. Inspired by such mansions as Horace Walpole’s Strawberry Hill in Twickenham, not only were the buildings themselves romantic, but so was the landscape they inhabited.

In the 1700s the fields surrounding Durslade were turned into a formal 30-acre park, complete with an eight-foot-high wall running all round it. The farm became an exciting destination for members of the Berkeley family and their friends as they took carriage drives around the hill on south side of Bruton. Avenues lined with trees, now long since grassed over, once radiated from the Dovecote, one of which led directly to the farm. Improvement of the land coincided with improvement of oneself and proud above the entrance of Durslade Farmhouse sits the Berkeley coat of arms – a selection of Maltese crosses pierced by a chevron.

In 1776 the Berkeleys sold the farm to the Hoare family, who installed tenant farmers in it. In the mid-19th century they rented it to Josiah Jackson who had ten children there; three of whom died in infancy. Jackson kept pigs, horses, sheep, cows, chickens and goats and grew crops that are almost unheard of nowadays like mangelwurzels. But as his diaries testify, it was the dozens of rabbits he shot almost daily in Cogley Wood, perched on the hill overlooking the farm, that formed his staple diet. Tanning leather and glove production were big industries in Bruton at that time and Jackson, who with his men could shoot upwards of 40 rabbits a day, was a good supplier of skins. His main income, however, came from making cheeses that were kept in the loft above the stables, or what is now the library. He had a large herd, as can be judged by the 30-metre long milking parlour – now the Roth Bar & Grill – with the restaurant next door occupying what was once their stalls. The large cross-barn which now forms the main gallery at Durslade was once where villagers would bring the vegetables they had grown or animals they had bred as tithes that Jackson would collect, in addition to his rent, to pay the Hoares.

It was after the First World War in 1919 that Herbert Gilling bought Durslade and he and his son, Trevor, farmed it for almost a century between them. During World War II the barn next to the road, now the education centre, was used as an officers’ mess. In the 1970s, Trevor’s daughter Niki recalls the joy of sitting on top of the hay-bales in what is now the main gallery, and touching the beams whilst ‘looking down on everyone’.

A glamorous interlude for the increasingly decaying old buildings came in 2000 when the film Chocolat was shot at Durslade, starring Juliette Binoche and Johnny Depp. A key scene in the film, the birthday party thrown for Armande, played by Judi Dench, took place behind the Threshing Barn.

Iwan and Manuela Wirth acquired Durslade in 2009, they have since lovingly restored it using traditional materials, before reinstating it as a place used by and for the local community, much as it has been at many times in the past. The difference, this time, is that Durslade now provides cultural as well as physical sustenance to its visitors – who hail not only from Bruton but from around the world.

(written by Catherine Milner, 2001)

Renovation of the Farmhouse

In this unique renovation project, Hauser & Wirth have worked alongside concept architects and interior designers, Laplace & Co. and conservation architects, benjamin & beauchamp to sympathetically restore the building.

The exterior of the Farmhouse has been sensitively restored and conserved. This has involved re-pointing areas of the exterior walls, as well as completely re-roofing and renewing all lead work, using existing tiling with new or carefully chosen salvaged items. Considerable care has been taken to restore all of the building’s windows, including the original gothic windowpanes, and attic windows. Both the Farmhouse’s loft space and former washhouse in the back garden have bat-friendly access, enabling both sites to be used as a bat roost.

Full of character and bold innovative twists, the Farmhouse interior has been transformed in a way that compliments and celebrates the natural antiquity of the building. Although major construction work was required, the architects have made virtue of the fact that the house had not been touched in over 50 years, and have refrained from disturbing much of the existing look. Laplace & Co. have kept many original fittings, combining them with vintage furniture, sourced from local shops and salvage yards as well as other unusual finds.

All of the rooms have their own story to tell, and combine the historic and the contemporary, with the appropriate and unexpected. Taking the traces of original, uncovered wallpaper or paint as their focal point, many of the rooms contain a distinct colour scheme. These colours are echoed in the surrounding soft furnishings; of which a majority have been specially reupholstered using naturally dyed fabric.  Often left raw, with unadorned plaster and exposed copper piping, the walls are hung with works by some of Hauser & Wirth’s most notable artists.

The interior is completed with unique artworks by two of Hauser & Wirth’s artists, Guillermo Kuitca and Pipilotti Rist. Beginning in a corner of the dining room, Kuitca painted directly on the walls, expanding from floor to ceiling and 360 degrees around the room. Having experimented with this working process on the walls of his Buenos Aires studio, this is the first instance that Kuitca has created a painted space that envelops the viewer. Primed with gesso and painted with Old Holland oils, the four walls of the room have been covered from top to bottom with intense, angular forms. Kuitca’s paint trolley remains and, at the artist’s request, so have areas of old-fashioned lino that can still be found in patches across the stone floor. Kuitca’s installation will remain permanently on display in the dining room of the Farmhouse.

Pipilotti Rist spent twelve months living in Bruton. In response to the surrounding landscape, Rist produced an installation now on display in the Farmhouse’s living room. The piece consists of a film projected in the main living space, sharing close-up shots of interactions with nature. The projection is fractured, screened through fragments of glass found on-site and hung from the ceiling. Large or small, unifying or splintering into a host of different elements, Rist’s installations are expansive, finding in the mind and body the possibility of endless discovery. The chandelier pieces used were collected as part of an archaeological dig that the artist performed in the nearby area. The room is full of other quirks including a taxidermy badger, gold painted walls, and an unusual doll’s house – a compliment left by the artist.

In the study, the most distinct feature is a collection of Victorian vintage stickers. Attached to the panes of an internal window, these collectable stickers have remained untouched for years and leave a trace of the previous residents of the Farmhouse.

The kitchen contains mismatched vintage crockery and furniture that seamlessly blend with contemporary kitchen utilities. Collections of plates have been hung on the walls, specially selected due to their historical reference to Bruton.

Upstairs there are passages leading off to numerous other bedrooms and ensuites, each full of distinctive features and attention to detail. There is a continuity of bold colours, original features and mismatched furnishings and fittings. In Bedroom 1, a previous owner of the bed has made carvings into the woodwork. One of the carvings is of a couple, yet in another, one of the figures has been scratched away. Unusually, there is also a bread oven located near the fireplace, which may indicate that this room was once used as a kitchen at one point. Continuing upstairs to Bedroom 2, a partition wall has been left as an original feature. This would have been added in the late 1970s in order to create a bathroom, which has also been left as it was. The decision to build the partition wall was likely down to plumbing restrictions. In Bedroom 3, one of the walls is covered in graffiti. This has been deliberately left as it leaves a trace of the previous inhabitants of the Farmhouse. Although it is pretty much indecipherable, it leaves you guessing as to its meaning. In Bedroom 4, the vintage wallpaper has been left untouched, although the walls have been treated. The antique American Victorian brass bed has an unusual design and a strong presence within the room.

In keeping with the vibrant blue interior, Bedroom 5 contains a section of wallpaper by Paul McCarthy – one of Hauser & Wirth’s artists. Up a second set of stairs is Bedroom 6, or ‘Niki & Jackie’s’ room. The attic room is full of charm and still features the name stickers of Niki and Jackie Gilling, who were previous occupants of the Farmhouse.

With finishing touches consisting of kitsch sanitary ware, cushions made of old tapestries and a hoard of other oddities, the house if full of surprises. The interior, both innovative and bold, is one big mix of the appropriate and the unexpected.

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