Artistic Licence

There is no better air than here for work." Is how John Maynard Keynes described the atmosphere at Tilton House in East Sussex, the country residence that he shared with his wife Lydia for many years. Just a little further down the lane from the more famous Charleston, home of the Bloomsbury group, Tilton began life as a sturdy Sussex farmhouse, but was given a more elegant façade in the 18th century. Tucked under a fold in the South Downs, the house gave Maynard Keynes, one of the most influential figures of the 20th century, just the quiet calm environment that he needed as he worked on the economic theories that were so influential in Britain and America in the 1930s and 40s. But it was an important space in which to play and create too, because Maynard Keynes was also a great and well-informed patron of the arts who helped to set up what we now know as the Arts Council. Part of the Gage family's estate at Firle, Tilton has now been given a new lease of life by an enterprising young couple who previously lived in the Gamekeeper's Tower. Polly and Shaun are both filmmakers who seem to have been quite undaunted by taking on such a historically significant house. "As filmmakers we were familiar with engaging a creative idea and setting about realising it into form.

We relished the idea of collecting the threads of Tilton House's history, its location and atmosphere and weaving them together to offer a venue where people could enjoy all of these in a way that's relevant today. Now we offer the house for creative retreats; a place where people can stay and find space and calm for themselves, often attracting writers, artists and those who feel inspired by nature." Polly says. "We know how to generate a creative atmosphere and that's really important to what we're offering. We want to honour what Maynard Keynes did here, setting up the forerunner to the Arts Council, and supporting the Bloomsbury group at Charleston." Maynard Keynes lived here with his wife, the Russian ballerina, Lydia Lopokova, but since their deaths, Lydia has been somewhat overshadowed by Keynes' reputation and perhaps also because of attempts to marginalise her by several members of the Bloomsbury set. Keynes bankrolled the intellectual and artistic pursuits of the Bloomsbury group, so perhaps they felt threatened by the deep admiration he quite obviously felt for his wife. Very much a product of the Russian peasant class and unashamed of it, Lydia was made fun of by the rather aristocratic set living at Charleston and Vanessa Bell seems to have taken delight in highlighting her lowly origins and belittling her achievements.

As a dancer with Serge Diaghelev's Ballets Russes, Lydia was very much at the top of her profession, so Polly and Shaun have been careful to reinstate her presence in the house by displaying photographs of her all over Tilton that they managed to obtain from the National Portrait Gallery in London. "Lydia was quite an eccentric, and was said to regularly dance naked on the lawns and to sunbathe nude among the copious numbers of blackcurrant bushes in the kitchen garden," adds Polly with an admiring grin. The couple are in the process of restoring the gardens and have been fortunate to find a really talented professional gardener, William Vincent, who previously worked "next-door" at Charleston, and also runs occasional workshops in the gardens at Tilton. First on the agenda was the kitchen garden. Polly and Shaun wanted to grow produce that could be cooked and offered to their guests. So two greenhouses were found via Freecycle and the couple built a series of timber framed raised beds. Getting things up and running was very labour intensive, so they tapped into an organisation called WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms), where volunteers will come and work on large gardens and land in return for board and lodging. Now of course, they have professional help and the abundance and variety of crops, herbs and cutting flowers testifies to the success of the arrangement. Opium poppies and pot marigolds are interspersed with the salads and brassicas.

Tall moon daisies sway in the breeze beside hazel tepees covered with old-fashioned bi-colour Pink Lady and Matucana sweet peas. Beyond the tennis court is a small orchard, where there are several greengage trees, the original specimens of which were sent from France in the 18th century and named in honour of the Gage family who own Firle Place and the huge Firle estate of which Tilton House is a part. In the more formal gardens, Shaun and Polly have added two new beds on the lawn that have been planted up with lavender and fennel and edged with yew. Towards the woods there is a new white border that is illuminated by torch-like white foxgloves and delphinium Centurion. Mowie the cat leads the way into the woods along a path that gently winds its way to a magnificent yurt. Inside the vast dome, the supports have been cut from hazel trees at Stanmer Park in Brighton. On its wooden floor there are yoga mats laid out in a neat circle ready for the next group. "We offer yoga and meditation retreats. And we can accommodate up to eighteen people in here very comfortably. When the sun shines, the leaves on the trees above create a wonderful dappled light and just lying here listening to the birdsong is amazing," says Polly. Further into the woods, there is a firepit with simple wooden benches ranged around it. "I light the way with lanterns and it's a great place to sit and tell stories or just to ponder. I think being able to daydream is a really underrated pastime and a really useful one. Really, this whole project came out of the desires of so many of our friends from London, who used to come to visit us in Firle Tower. They really wanted somewhere peaceful to write, read and walk and this house with its wonderful library and gardens was perfect. Firle Estate Management and the Gage family have given us great support." The courtyard garden with its Italian style loggia is one of the really outstanding features of the residence. Its brick paved floor and high walls create an almost Mediterranean microclimate. A fig tree stands in one corner with swelling fruits drooping from its branches. Beneath it, a French table and chairs painted in forest green provide a great spot for one of the couple's three black cats to luxuriate in the sun. The long wall supports fragrant honeysuckle and a vigorously blooming Constance Spry rose.

The loggia is covered with a prolific grapevine and as we step through a door in the wall to another lawned area in front of the sun room, the strong apple fragrance of a salmon pink Compassion rose scents the air. A pebble path leads through a small gate to the side of the house where there are fruit cages brimming with raspberries and Lydia's famous blackcurrant bushes. There is a glade of trees beyond, where hens can be heard scratching about and clucking. "They provide all the eggs for our guests," explains Polly. "We garden organically and even try to grow the vegetables biodynamically. We mainly serve vegetarian type foods to our yoga groups, but the people who come for the literary events tend to want quite meaty meals, so we have two chefs who cater to all sorts of tastes and dietary requirements. John Bayley, whose runs Cashew Catering, regularly thrills guests by creating tasty, healthy food for the yoga retreats using produce from the kitchen gardens, often vegan, and, if requested, raw. He also runs workshops regularly with us on raw food." The library wing was commissioned by Maynard Keynes, and his architect, George Kennedy designed a building that extended from the existing stables and is a light-filled, serene space. An anteroom is used according to the guests' requirements as a breakfast room, games room or chill-out space. There is a vintage globe on a side table and a large wicker laundry basket underneath that is stocked with games. There are binoculars too, with plenty of field guides, including the now highly collectable Observer guides for guests to use. Arched windows and a glazed door look out towards the garden and the South Downs beyond.

The library itself is a long, high ceilinged space, painted in pale grey and white. There are floor to ceiling shelves stuffed with books, and between two leather club chairs, a circular mahogany table also offers a carefully arranged selection of more fiction. "The Faber Academy kindly donated books for Keynes' Library for students attending creative writing workshops held annually in collaboration with the Charleston Festival." A rough textured pale granite fireplace is set in the centre of the long wall, its rectangular shape echoed by a simple white painted mirror above. Polly has filled a glass jar on the mantelpiece with a large branch of silver birch. The delicately serrated leaves seem to bring the outdoors in and need no further addition of flowers. Along the middle of the room folding German beer tables form a long surface around which old school chairs have been arranged. "We can seat up to 16 people for dinner and 25 in here if we clear away the tables and arrange the chairs in the style of a theatre," Polly says. "We found the chairs and tables at Ardingly Antiques Fair, and most of the furniture that we have used around the house and garden has either been reclaimed or vintage stuff rather than new. We use the library for the reading weekends run by Damien Barr, who also runs the Shoreditch Literary Salon. He's just a done a pilot here for a Channel 4 series about books. When he does the weekends here, he gets everyone to change into their pyjamas and then reads them bedtime stories! We often have special guests too. Naomi Alderman came to read from her book, The Lessons, and she read aloud as everyone was eating their rather splendid meal of Guineafowl.

The story progressed to a rather frothy bedroom scene, and slowly, all the knives and forks were set down and the guests listened in complete silence. The delicious Guineafowl was quite forgotten! We've also had events with David Nicholls, Diana Athill, Hilary Mantel - who wrote a short story about Hector, one of our cats." Back across the courtyard, we pause to look at the tiled fountain that Duncan Bell created. "We've just got it working again and it's wonderful to have the tinkling sound of the water carrying through into the house," says Polly as we enter the kitchen. On the upper level of the room there is a long wooden table, one of a pair made by a local carpenter in Polegate. A few steps down into the working part of the kitchen, the other dining table is also surrounded by folding wooden chairs, so that guests can all eat together companionably in front of the splendid British red Aga. In common with most Aga owners, Polly talks of the stove as if it were a living being, referring to it unselfconsciously as "she". "Shaun and I were thrilled when we saw the house had one, and it's been placed in an unusual location, being in front of the window, but it means that we have a view when we're cooking. Guests love it too, and in the cooler months they gather round the table for warming cups of tea. Our yoga enthusiasts are especially keen on herbal teas, so we make our own chamomile, fennel and mint tea from the plants in the garden and then the more exotic ones are provided by Pukka teas. We're really glad of that too, because we get through kilos of it." Across the wide hallway is the drawing room. A pair of striped sofas face each other in front of the fireplace and a garnet red velvet sofa has its back to the window overlooking the courtyard.

There are metal urns and glass jugs filled with nodding moon daisies and instead of another "tree in a jar", there is a display of tall asparagus fern. Its fresh green feathery fronds look wonderful against the deep teal blue painted walls. Above the stone and brick fireplace is a framed collection of exotic butterflies and on an occasional table a blue Morpho butterfly sits under a Victorian glass dome, its iridescent wings changing their hue as they are viewed from different angles. Upstairs, the landing features another "tree in a jar" and a full-size table tennis table. "Visitors can play for the Tilton Cup" says Polly, pointing to silver cup in the centre of the court. "We used the same grey paint colour up here as in the library. I mixed most of the colours in the house myself." The guest bedrooms are decorated in varying shades of olive and moss green and are all simply furnished with grey silk curtains, mahogany or painted chests of drawers and adorned with simple posies of flowers cut from the garden. "We can accommodate up to 18 in the house if people share, but we can also close off three of the bedrooms for the use of families who come to stay in the annexe. There's a self-contained kitchen and living space as well as a private staircase that leads upstairs, so people can do that, or stay on a bed and breakfast basis. We're very flexible and we want people to come and relax. For us, it's a very satisfying thing to do and you can see such a difference in people by the end of just a few days. They usually arrive rather fraught and frazzled on a Friday and by the time they leave on Sunday or Monday they are quite different people." © Claire Tennant-Scull June 2011

  • words Claire Tennant-Scull
  • pictures David Merewether
  • styling Lucy Fleming