The Dartington Experiment

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.

Dartington Hall, Devon.

Dartington Hall, Devon.

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 UniversityWhich 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

Arriving at Shinners Bridge and part of ‘The shops at Dartington’ experience.

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?

Ploughed fields viewed from the path up to Dartington.

Ploughed fields viewed from the path up to Dartington.

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.

I slip through a gap in the wall and take the mossy path to my right, to the edge of the gardens.

I slip through a gap in the wall and take the mossy path to my right, to the edge of the gardens.

The perimeter of the garden.

The perimeter of the garden.

Woodland walks in the garden.

Woodland walks in the garden.

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.

This is called Cane's Bastion, I'll be back here later...

This is called Cane’s Bastion, I’ll be back here later…

And then the vista of the gardens opens up…

The Tiltyard. A sunken garden. Oh and a little Henry Moore statue, which was designed for the space it occupies.

The Tiltyard. A sunken garden. Oh and a little Henry Moore statue, which was designed for the space it occupies. Curvy, like the landscape.

A row of topiaried Irish yew trees (estimated to be from the 1840s) called The Twelve Apostles.

A row of topiaried Irish yew trees (estimated to be from the 1840s) called The Twelve Apostles.

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.

Enormous trunks of the 500 year old Spanish Chestnuts.

Enormous trunks of the 500 year old Spanish Chestnuts.

There is still frost on the ground.

There is still frost on the ground.

Most of the trees are bare now.

Most of the trees are bare now.

The Swan Fountain by artist Willi Soukop.

The Swan Fountain by artist Willi Soukop.

A closer look at the grassy banks of the Tiltyard.

A closer look at the grassy banks of the 14th century Tiltyard.

Getting closer to the buildings now.

Getting closer to the buildings now.

Walk round the side of the buildings and pass another of Dartington's ancient trees - this is a turkey oak.

Walk round the side of the buildings and pass another of Dartington’s ancient trees – this is a Turkey Oak.

And then I approach the double quadrangle from the east side – not the main entrance. But it’s spectacular.

Entering the quadrangle from the east.

Entering the quadrangle from the east.

The Great Hall entrance.

The Great Hall entrance.

Quick look inside the Great Hall - which is 38ft by 69ft, the fireplace (at the far end) is 17ft.

Quick look inside the Great Hall – which is 38ft by 69ft, the fireplace (at the far end) is 17ft.

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.

The west wing of the quadrangle.

The west wing of the quadrangle.

Each section of this wing would have had steps on the outside, but they only remain on the last section.

External steps to the first floor.

External steps to the first floor.

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.

Looking back at the gatehouse as I go round behind the west wing.

Looking back at the gatehouse as I go round behind the west wing.

The back of the west wing is a jumble of ancient walls and chimneys.

The back of the west wing is a jumble of ancient walls and chimneys. The old church tower is visible in the distance.

On the right there's a sculpture by Bernard Schottlander.

On the right there’s a sculpture by Bernard Schottlander.

And a small Japanese meditation garden.

And a small Japanese meditation garden.

Ancient walls lined with ancient gravestones.

Ancient walls lined with ancient gravestones.

From the former Dartington Church, which dates form the 13th century.

From the former Dartington Church, which dates form the 13th century. It stood here until 1878, materials from it were used to build the new Church of St Mary’s. The tower served as an American radio communications tower in WW2.

Behind the church is the oldest living resident of the garden, a yew tree believed to be 1,500 to 2,000 years old.

Behind the church is the oldest living resident of the garden, a yew tree believed to be 1,500 to 2,000 years old.

So back round to the gate house and into the quadrangle again.

So back round to the gate house and into the quadrangle again.

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).

Beatrix Farrand

Courtyard paving designed by Beatrix Farrand.

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.

Dorothy Elmhirst

Dorothy Elmhirst, portrait by Walter Dean Goldbeck.

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.

A lovely studio space.

A lovely studio space.

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.

Grand path detail leading to a sculpture.

Grand path detail leading to a sculpture. Natch.

And... I knew there must be one, a Wollemi Pine.

And… I knew there must be one, a Wollemi Pine, ancient and unusual. Also on Plot 44.

Finding my way back to the perimeter path.

Finding my way back to the perimeter path.

Back to the circular seat, which I now know is called the Whispering Circle....

Back to the circular seat, Cane’s Bastion, which I now know is also called the Whispering Circle….

... because if you stand in the central circle facing the wall and speak, the words are produced in a whispering stereo effect!

… because if you stand in the central circle facing the wall and speak, the words are produced in a whispering stereo effect!

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.

William Lescaze

It’s called High Cross House, built in 1932.

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.

High Cross House. Only eight quid to get in. Not worth it in my opinion.

High Cross House. Only eight quid to get in. Not worth it in my opinion.

Eight quid to see a collection of finger casts?

Eight quid to see a collection of finger casts? Time well spent? Hmmm.

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.

Foxhole

The empty school buildings.

And now there are ideas to create a residential community here for people aged over 55.

And now there are ideas to create a residential community here for people aged over 55.

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.

8 thoughts on “The Dartington Experiment

  1. cheethamlibMandy

    Absolutely fascinating, the piece abounds with the most amazing sights – the ancient yew tree that might have been planted around the time of Christ and the Spanish chestnut – could that have arrived as a nut via the Armada ? Fascinating to see the mediaeval tiltyard and the steps leading up to the West wing. I loved that you took matters into your own hands and explored behind the scenes looking for the portrait of Dorothy. The whole place leaves me speechless. But what a shame that it seems to be without a positive direction. I’m afraid the Elmhirsts would be seriously disappointed. Wonderful!

    Reply
    1. Sarah Horton Post author

      Well Mandy, I have read of Spanish chestnuts at Croft Castle in Herefordshire (a few counties north) and it is ‘suggested’ that they were grown from nuts that came from the Armada in 1588 and planted in 1592… so I see no reason why these trees might not be too!
      Link here to six of Britain’s oldest trees, the chestnuts are number five: http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/gallery/2009/jul/21/oldest-trees-uk#/?picture=350633566&index=4

      Reply
  2. stan cotter

    Hi Sarah, have read your remarks on Dartington Hall and found them very interesting. My partner and myself often spend our holidays in Devon in a variety of locations and September this year we were in Paignton. One of our trips was to Dartington Crystal while a lot more commercialised than your visit they have some beautifuly articles and also you can watch the crystal being manufactured.

    Keep up the good work my friend, I do enjoy the travels of you both

    Reply
  3. Andi Neilson

    I was a student at Dartington in 1984 – 1987. I can tell you that one of the scandals that led to the downfall of Dartington Hall school was the suspicious death of an heiress while swimming in the River Dart in 1983. The husband of one of the Higher Close cleaners (Higher close was the halls of residence, student canteen and bar area) was jailed for this, with allegations that he had brought about her death indirectly through working on pressure points with her – he was the local karate instructor. However, many maintain she was killed by the big male swan who toured that stretch of the river with his entourage. Having witnessed said swan on the attack when he encountered a rowing boat with fishermen, I know who my money would have been on!

    The empty studio you saw in the West wing was called the Ship Studio and was where we held many of our music performances. I recall taking part in a major choral performance of the Dream of Gerontius in the Great Hall, watching Sir Michael Tippett conduct A Child of Our Time in there and take my turn playing handbells outside the Great Hall for the Christmas carol concert.

    I have some recollection of there being an old tree sited in the library (in the gatehouse) that the Elmhirsts had elected to build around rather than remove as they felt that it had been growing within the then roofless building for so long that it deserved a place. I visited in the summer and peeped in to what used to be the library and found the tree had been removed to give more room 😦

    The blue house used to be white.

    How interesting that some of the stories we were told as students about why things were the way that they were are not being repeated today. We were told that the church which lies at the Shinners Bridge end of the drive was in fact moved from it’s original site at the Hall as the Elmhirsts did not like the idea of the “peasants” having to come up to the manor to worship, though they left the original tower in situ and the ground there is still consecrated.

    It was an amazing and inspiring place, and I was very privileged to have lived there.

    Reply
    1. Sarah Horton Post author

      Thank you Andi for sharing your memories of Dartington, and also for the additional information around the closure of the school. I can imagine it would certainly have been an amazing place to live…. I certainly did get a sense of that on my visit, and it’s great to hear from you.
      Sarah

      Reply
    2. Rob

      Following the tragic death of Cathy Pelly, which should surely never be commented on lightly, I do not understand why any loving and consciously thinking parent could have sent any beloved child to Dartington, and of course many did not, hence presumably the inevitable end of the school, in spite of its beautiful location, celebrated here.

      Reply

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