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A sense of place

PUBLISHED: 12:58 13 August 2016 | UPDATED: 12:58 13 August 2016

Desk in the study at Chartwell showing family photographs, two porcelain busts of Napoleon and Nelson in biscuit Sevres by Antoine-Denis Chaudet

Desk in the study at Chartwell showing family photographs, two porcelain busts of Napoleon and Nelson in biscuit Sevres by Antoine-Denis Chaudet

©NTPL/Andreas von Einsiedel

Radio Kent broadcaster and producer Andy Garland on what defines a sense of place and why it can calm the heart and soothe the soul.

I’m soaking up the atmos…

A few years ago the BBC ran a series across its BBC Local Radio stations called ‘a sense of place.’ An almost indefinable feeling of belonging or rootedness, that feeling of coming home, that answer to the question of “why did you move here?” being “I just knew as soon as I walked in.”

I’ve become fascinated by the concept of genius loci or protective spirit of a place, what we might now refer to as a location’s distinctive atmosphere, or ‘spirit of place.’ The architect Frank Lloyd Wright said: “Each house is born like a living organism out of the contact between the genius loci and the needs of the inhabitants.”

But rather than confining that influence on a place to its beginnings or creation, might not those same residents over time create that 
ambience themselves? And once established who fosters and protects it? The attitude and actions of like-minded people it seems to me, some altruistic, some philanthropic and some seeking no reward other than to live a life in their own manner, rather than that which society expects and sometimes demands. To me these places are precious, soothing the heart and the soul; a balm to our social media-obsessed frippery.

This was brought to mind on a recent visit to Great Dixter, the former home of that most indomitable of gardeners, Christopher Lloyd.

Invited to an event to mark the 10th anniversary since his death, chief executive of the Dixter Charitable Trust, Fergus Garrett, said: “We didn’t want to grow the visitor numbers to 100,000 or 150,000, we wanted something else, something characterful, old-fashioned maybe? But we protected Dixter, its special character and atmosphere. Anna Pavord describes this place ‘as a handshake with the ground’.”

It’s not just Dixter of course, Chartwell has this mysterious aura in spades, as if the great man had stepped out just moments ago, leaving his cigar smouldering in the ashtray.

Goodnestone Park, that personification of Englishness, effortlessly creates the illusion of repressed crinolines lurking around every corner, and you experience it following in the footsteps of Becket at Canterbury Cathedral.

My BBC Radio Kent colleague Alex Ward felt it on holiday in Oxford recently. She emailed: “It was watching Shadowlands, the story of Lewis’s marriage to poet Joy Gresham, that switched my focus to the authors themselves, and meant I couldn’t possibly visit the city without popping into The Eagle and Child, the pub where the group of writers known as The Inklings met.

“Stepping into the ‘Bird and Brat,’ as it’s affectionately known, is an experience that transports me back in time. On each side of the entrance are cosy snugs with built-in seats around fire grates, creating something almost Dickensian about the atmosphere.

“As you sit enjoying a pint of real ale, you could almost imagine hearing the clipped voices of impassioned academic debates, the sharing and refining of fresh ideas and imaginative flights of fancy. There are no truly square corners here, the woodwork confirms decades of re-varnishing, yet there is something off-kilter about the whole pub that gives it a fantastical feel. A modern, almost abstract portrait of C.S Lewis hangs on the chimney breast of one nook, and gives the effect that he is casting a discerning ear over the philosophical debate which rages beneath him.”

As Alex prepared to leave she marvelled to her boyfriend “We are literally sitting in the seats where the Inklings sat.” Clearly harder to impress than Alex, he replied: “By the look of the upholstery, I think you might be right.” w

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