Tuesday, 27 October 2015

The Private Member's Club Effect. A bit like the Waitrose effect....only cooler.

As 150,000 well-heeled festival-goers descended on Worthy Farm earlier this year, a few miles down the road a far smaller group of even better-heeled punters were turning into the long drive up to Babington House.

This luxurious Somerset outpost of the Soho House Group is a rather quieter but no less vital contributor to life in this corner of the county.

Indeed, this private members club, hotel and spa has arguably done much more for the local economy than the Glastonbury Festival.

When the first media-types made the long hike from Notting Hill to the newly opened Babington a decade or two ago, the surrounding area was still 'undiscovered' by weekenders and, in property terms, an under-valued gem.

Small villages such as Mells, Batcombe, Pitcombe, Witham Friary and Brewham, as well as towns like Bruton and Frome, were in decline. Agricultural jobs were disappearing. Local industries such as printing were closing. Even the many Mendip quarries weren't exactly booming. And the once bustling industrial hub of Shepton Mallett was turning into a ghost town.

Soon, however, a steady stream of Babington converts wearing brand new Hunter wellies were knocking on the doors of local estate agents. All of them looking to buy something 'authentic'. Something to do up, somewhere to splash the Farrow & Ball (as well as the cash).

Even now, years later, estate agent details for a certain type of property will include not just the distances to a local pub, station, village store and school...but how many miles it is to Babington!

And no, they never tell you how far the house is from Mr Eavis's farm.

Ironically perhaps, some of these incomers haven't even kept up their Babington membership since buying a weekend place or moving here full time.

They no longer need its protective, familiar, metropolitan environment. They've created their own. And it's centred on Bruton. A small town previously best known for its boarding schools and an Elizabethan auditor called Sexey (!), but now lauded by the likes of Vogue magazine as the place to be.

The most recent addition to Bruton's growing fashion credentials is the Hauser & Wirth gallery - created by the couple recently voted the most powerful people in the art world! It's a sort of mini Saatchi Gallery based in a lovingly converted old farm, with a garden designed by the creator of New York's High-Line.

On any Friday or Saturday night you'll find the gallery's Roth Bar six deep with youthful 4x4 driving weekenders. Look more closely and their number will include a smattering of minor celebrities, fashion designers, architects, impresarios, actors, film & TV directors and the occasional school parent slumming it before picking up little Toby from school.

It's quite unlike any other 'scene' you're likely to come across this deep into rural England. In the courtyard a seriously good DJ operates from a converted horsebox. There's an outdoor mojito bar that looks like a village fete stall. And the diners packing out the restaurant wouldn't look out of place at Club 55 in St Tropez (although their wardrobe might look a little different on the beach).

In reverse, it would be as if a bunch of young farmers, all with broad Somerset accents, had taken over the Electric on Portobello Road. Permanently.

Glasto has almost certainly had some long term impact on the local economy. In the town of Glastonbury itself you can get kitted out like an old hippie, learn how to get in touch with your spiritual side or buy a whole library of books on ley lines. But it's only since the arrival of the Soho House outpost that the area really took off.

House prices have risen steeply. Brilliant little hotel/restaurants like The Talbot Inn in Mells have opened up. Frome has created one of the most innovative independent retailer streets and monthly markets in Britain. The building trades have never been so busy. Online businesses are popping up everywhere. And there's a real sense of creative reinvention across this whole part of north east Somerset.

An expensive private members club can't, of course, take the credit for all of this. But it can maybe take more than Mr Eavis's rather middle-aged mega-rave down the road.

Indeed, perhaps the opening of a place like Babington is now as clear a sign of rural revival as the opening of a Waitrose is of urban gentrification.

Tuesday, 20 October 2015

I wish I'd snapped up an old photography studio.

This week the property that once housed the studio of photographer Terence Donovan went on sale for an eye-watering £18m.

It's had a bit of a makeover, of course, and been much expanded. More than a bit if I'm honest, as it was 'done' by the never knowingly restrained Candy & Candy.

In fact, it's hard to believe it's the same place I spent several days in while making a commercial with the celebrated snapper.

His studio, which is round the back of Claridges, was just one of the many wonderful spaces I was lucky enough to visit while working with some of London's top photographers back in the 90s.

There was Lichfield over in Notting Hill, Snowden in Kensington, Bailey up in Primrose Hill and others only slightly less famous with amazing spaces in Chelsea, Belgravia, Soho, Holborn and Battersea. I particularly remember the purpose built artist's studio of Tessa Traeger on Flood Street in Chelsea.

Today, the combined value of these studios, tarted up, must run to well over £100m.

Although I understand why Donovan's old studio has been given an "007" makeover, I can't help feeling nostalgic for the original look.

These wonderful light filled double height spaces were just begging to be turned into spacious, minimalist New York style lofts. White walls, bare bricks, stripped wood floors, simple kitchens, old French dining tables, huge and slightly distressed big comfy sofas, vast modern canvases to occasionally break up the white....that's all they needed to make them into 'creative' homes rather than creative workplaces.

Sadly, for me at least, the market doesn't seem to agree.

So there are acres of Carrara marble, lavish underground pools that will hardly ever be used, vast wine showcases, pile upon pile of shiny bed cushions, etc etc.

I'm sure it's beautiful in its way. And certainly of very, very high quality.

But even if I had £18m to spare (plus The Osbourne Tax), I wouldn't be rushing to put in an offer.

I'd be focussing on finding an original, and snapping that up.

(OK, that's enough of the rubbish puns.)

Monday, 5 October 2015

Neighbours? What neighbours?

In the past I might have been apt to dispute the idea that neighbourliness in London was a thing of the past, but the stark reality of our capital's unfriendliness has been brought home to me by our experience in the country.

A year ago we bought a weekend cottage in a Somerset hamlet. It's on a very narrow lane some way off the village main street. It's detached. There are neighbours. But they aren't exactly next door, if you know what I mean.

Yet since arriving we have been greeted with such hospitality, such friendliness, such a good-hearted welcome that it feels as if one has travelled back in time rather than just a couple of hours out of London.

By contrast, our little four house terrace in Kensington feels glacial in its indifference.

One resident can be excused. She and we tried at first to connect. But when this still stoic elderly lady forgot our names 5 times as we helped her back the 10 yards to her front door, we realised that it was going to be tricky.

The next house along is owned by perhaps the least friendly.  They are very English, they are not much older than us, they are clearly middle-class, and if they lived on our lane in Somerset I'm pretty sure we would at least have had a neighbourly conversation with them.

In London, however, they have never really had a civil word to say to us since our arrival.

I can remember only two occasions when they have spoken to me. And one of those was only because they were forced to.

Most recently, we had accepted (in a neighbourly way) a parcel that someone was trying unsuccessfully to deliver to them. When they popped round to collect it that evening, I sort of expected a smile, a gracious thank you and perhaps even a few words of conversation.

But no. Even the thank you was rather grudging. How weird.

Perhaps they're just shy. Or think we look like the kind of people they don't like.

Personally, I think they are just bloody rude. Or unwell.

The last house is occupied by a slightly younger couple. But we both have dogs so you'd have thought that would provide enough common ground. But no, the nearest they've come to friendliness is when they stopped to rather gleefully inform me that another house on the terrace was going on the market and would compete with my own.

That was it. Well, thanks a bunch.

Not without some cause, my wife often says that I'm an unfriendly old git. So perhaps I come across as badly as our neighbours.

Maybe there's just something about cities that changes our characters, makes us more insular, more self-contained.

Whatever the reason, it's rather sad.