Utterly butterly: Kent’s Cobham Dairy, a digital detox for the contentedly idle
Let’s face it, at some point we’ve all had a hankering to get in touch with our inner Marie Antoinette. Not so much the thoughtless “Let them eat brioche” side of the spendthrift French queen (assuming she ever said it) but her playing at being a rustic farmworker but dropping it all and heading back to the palace as soon as it becomes a chore vibe. It’s a dream few of us get to realise, though one woman who did was Elizabeth Brownlow, 4th Countess of Darnley. She lived at a time (late 18th/early 19th century) when a return to the simple life was en vogue among the landed gentry – as a response to the mechanisation unleashed by the Industrial Revolution.
Around two centuries later, I found myself staying in the restored “pleasure dairy” she had built on the southern edge of the grounds of Cobham Hall, an Elizabethan country house (now a school) near Rochester, Kent. The work of prolific architect James Wyatt, it was intended to resemble an Italianate chapel. The dairy served as an elegant retreat where Elizabeth could oversee the production of butter, cream and cheese from the estate’s cows, or hold decorous tea parties for her high-born female friends, away from the strictures of a world dominated by men.
This month, the Landmark Trust opened it as holiday accommodation. The trust has spent five years returning the dilapidated building into the playful, if undoubtedly fey, confection it had been in 1794-5 when erected. Working from Wyatt’s drawings, craftspeople replaced the unusual slate cladding on the brick walls, made up the sanded paint used to give those slates a look of glimmering stone, and replaced the coloured and ornamented window panes. They also rebuilt the glorious fan-vaulted ceiling and recreated the interior’s intricate plasterwork, its corbels and bosses festooned with oak leaves.
I’d arrived by bike from Sole Street station, a two-mile ride that took me past the community shop in Cobham village, which was handy for picking up a few victuals. Leaving the road, I pedalled into Cobham Park, turning down a dark holloway to pass through a gap in high bushes of laurel. And there was the dairy, in the sunshine, for all the world a tiny chapel complete with gothic mullioned windows, a bell tower and views down through ancient trees to Cobham Hall.
Inside, I was greeted with a patterned stone floor, an almost double-height ceiling, a collection of large, venerable-looking milk bowls and a couple of comfy armchairs arranged around a woodburning stove (an indulgent extra, given the efficacy of the underfloor heating). The other rooms, long, slim affairs, were wrapped around this parlour – a smart kitchen, a bathroom in whose deep, free-standing bath I took nightly soaks, and a room just wide enough for a double bed. This last had once been the bedroom of Sarah Hemmings, the first of a succession of dairy maids to live here.
Unlike Sarah, I was not pressed into work. For much of my stay, when not indulging in writing, I was more than content to lounge about, enjoying the beauty of the interior, the play of window-coloured sunlight on the paintwork, and the serenity of the place. None of the three sounds that penetrated the walls were any the less delightful for being hackneyed: the soughing of the wind in the trees, the chatter of woodland birds and the occasional pitter-patter of rain. And, in common with all other Landmark Trust properties, there was no wifi to disrupt the peace. The comprehensive information pack had advised me there was unlikely to be any signal either. The heads-up proved academic: I had forgotten to bring my phone.
I leafed through a few books from the property’s library and when a friend came to visit we went for a ramble across the sprawling Cobham Park, whose woods are grazed by Highland cattle and herds of wild (though actually quite tame) roe deer. Amid the trees we discovered another of James Wyatt’s works, the extraordinary Darnley Mausoleum. A pyramid-topped construction commissioned by the 3rd Earl, it was never used, due to a falling out with the Bishop of Rochester who refused to consecrate it. As with the woods that surround it, the building now belongs to the National Trust.
Though Cobham is a village it still runs to three pubs, so we ate lunch at the 16th-century Leather Bottle, a favourite haunt of Charles Dickens, who had Mr Pickwick sing its praises. But I was happy to return to the cosy confines of the dairy. As I sat – too idle even to make up a fire – it was pleasing to reflect that by thrusting me back to a pre-digital world of quiet, uninterrupted pleasures, Elizabeth’s flight of fancy had resumed its original role as antidote to the frenzied helter-skelter of the age.
•Accommodation was provided by Cobham Dairy (sleeps two, from £468 for four nights). The 416 bus runs from Sole Street station to Cobham
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