During our work with social enterprises and the School for Social Entrepreneurs (SSE) we’d often hear talk of Dartington Hall. Gemma of Plot 44 had even been there as part of her own SSE programme a couple of years ago. We’d heard how important it had been as a centre for art throughout the 20th century, and a magnet for artists, architects, writers, philosophers and musicians from around the world. Including Benjamin Britten, Bertrand Russell, Ben Nicholson, Jacqueline du Pré, and even Stravinsky visiting during the 1950s. We know about its reputation as a centre of ecological thought. And of course we knew about Michael Young.
Michael Young, later Baron Young of Dartington went to school at Dartington – a progressive coeducational fee-paying school which ran from 1926 to 1987. He emerged as a leading social thinker and author. And drafted the 1945 Labour Party manifesto that proposed the set up of the Welfare State and the National Health Service. Then later he became a prolific entrepreneur and social innovator, who launched over 40 organisations, including the Open University, Which Magazine and Consumer’s Association and then the School for Social Entrepreneurs.
We also knew it had a wonderful garden. So while Sarah was in Devon last week, she went to have a look:
“I first heard of Dartington back in the early 1980s when I was looking at my options for doing a degree course. I knew I wanted to do something in the arts and Dartington was highly recommended to me. I took one look at the map, saw it was ‘miles away’ in Devon (miles from Birkenhead where I grew up) and found somewhere ‘up here’, at least still in the north of England, at Bretton Hall, then a wing college of Leeds university.
(In fact Dartington stopped being a higher eduction college in 2010 when their programme moved to Falmouth in Cornwall.)
So I’ve always been aware of Dartington being an interesting ‘arts’ place… recently I heard it had a very ancient yew tree there. So as I was back in Devon last week for the second (and final) part of my training to become an independent funeral celebrant I thought I’d go and see what it’s actually like. So I travelled a day before my course started to Totnes, and the next morning caught the 88 bus from Ashburton to Shinners Bridge.
Shinners Bridge consists of a collection of shops which I’d read ‘support the charitable work’ at Dartington. Whatever that means. They didn’t detain me with their collections of glass and china and homewares, stationery and toys.
I carried on walking up the hill to Dartington Hall. If you do a Google search for Dartington you will find two quite different results. On the one hand:
A place of learning and experiment addressing some of the significant issues of our time.
Which sounds very interesting. But also:
Wedding venue, conference centre, fine restaurant and B&B hotel rooms in a magnificent medieval hall in beautiful Devon, England.
So, which one is it? Or is it both?
Because I am walking up to Dartington, rather than driving, I am approaching from the rear, and so I actually arrive at the garden first, rather than the splendid front entrance.
This edge of the garden is fairly natural, and then I drop down the path and arrive at the first bit of formal garden. Neat yew hedges and paving.
And then the vista of the gardens opens up…
Now I have my first glimpse of the buildings. This is the back of the Great Hall, which is the south end of the double quadrangle beyond. But I’ve still got the garden to explore.
And then I approach the double quadrangle from the east side – not the main entrance. But it’s spectacular.
The hall is at the end of the quadrangle, which is actually rectangle in shape, not a square. Down the west side the buildings are complete.
Each section of this wing would have had steps on the outside, but they only remain on the last section.
This collection of buildings is truly a medieval gem. Written records do not begin until the 13th century, the huge double quadrangle that I am in now was probably built in the later 1300s. I make my way out of the quadrangle and go to explore behind the west wing.
I have my lunch, a lovely smoked salmon sandwich and a piece of cake, in the Roundhouse café, just down the steps on the left. And before I leave I have something else I want to find.
First, a bit of history. The Dartington Hall estate was owned for nearly 400 years by the Champernowne family – it was they who planted many of the now ancient trees on the estate. But at the beginning of the 20th century they were forced to sell their land. The 800-acre estate was bought in 1925 by Dorothy and Leonard Elmhirst, an American hieress and her English husband. By then the buildings were run down and the Hall was in ruins without a roof. But the Elmhirsts renovated the buildings, and also built new properties on the estate in both Modernist and Arts and Crafts styles.
During their renovations the Elmhirsts had involved a number of architects and landscapers from both sides of the Atlantic in the restoration. One example is the courtyard paving, which was redesigned by Beatrix Farrand, a famous American Landscape architect – it uses a combination of cobbles from the river with York stone and limestone setts. (This is the only example of her work outside the USA).
The Elmhirsts were pioneers and had a passion for experimentation, education and the arts, and launched projects in farming and forestry, and also established the progressive Dartington Hall School. In fact, they would refer to their whole multi-faceted vision as ‘the Dartington Experiment.’
Eventually the school closed ‘amid scandal’ in 1987. (I can’t find any details of said ‘scandal’ that I can point you to, but I can tell you that my local guide in Devon tells me there was an uproar when one of the teachers at the school posed in nude in a magazine… even though the school was well-known for its laissez-faire attitude including mixed nude swimming.) And then of course, in 2010, Dartington lost its Art College when its Higher Education activities were moved to Falmouth.
On the Dartington website there is a striking picture of a painting of Dorothy Elmhirst. She was obviously a remarkable woman.
I assumed this painting must be somewhere here, but it wasn’t in the Great Hall, so I asked a member of staff. She told me it was on the stairs in the west wing, but not in a part that I could visit. Not so easily deterred I went to look for it anyway. Dartington has a very open feel to it, doors are not locked and so it was easy to make my way into the west wing. I went through small doors, up various stairs and along narrow corridors, but I didn’t find the painting. I did find this though – a lovely studio, not being used, but fully lit and heated.
And so I decided to head back through the gardens to get the bus back. I noticed a few things I’d not discovered on my way here.
So I left the garden by the gap in the wall, the way I arrived. And headed back down the hill, passing again the strange blue building.
This is a Modernist building, designed by William Lescaze. It was built for the headmaster of Dartington School (like you do), Bill Curry . It’s now open as a National Trust Gallery.
And the final building I see on the hill down to the bus stop is Foxhole. It’s actually a collection of buildings. They were the Dartington Hall School buildings.
And so I came away from this interesting place feeling a bit conflicted. On the one hand it’s a gorgeous piece of medieval history that is brilliantly preserved, and most of it not by the National Trust either, so that for most of the place there’s no swingeing entry fee (they ask for donations). Although the National Trust have managed to get their hands on High Cross House, which was reassuringly lacking in visitors both times I passed it.
When the Elmhirsts arrived at Dartington their restoration and regeneration became known as ‘The Dartington Experiement’ and for decades it was the hub or arts and education activity. But now, Dartington is no longer a school, it is no longer a place of higher education. So it is not full of young people exploring the arts. It has a restaurant next to the Great Hall, the White Hart pub, it has the excellent café I went to, the Roundhouse café, it has a small shop on site, and then the other shops down at Shinners Bridge. Oh, and you can use it as a conference or wedding venue. They run a number of festivals through the year, including the summer school. And they have concerts there as well as films in their Barn Cinema. But without its major education programmes how will it stay financially viable? There was controversy last year as the trust sold some of the collection of works of art.
Did it feel alive? Still like an experiment? Did it feel like it was ‘making a positive difference to people’s lives and to the future of our planet’? Overall, I don’t think it did.”
So, clearly a lovely place in transition. Wonder what Michael Young would have suggested they do next to revitalise the Dartington Experiment?
Dartington’s website is here.