Cottages in the Charnwood Forest

Five cottages designed by Gimson were built in the Charnwood Forest area of Leicestershire. Read their histories and see images of the exteriors and interiors.

Two cottages near Markfield in the Charnwood Forest, 1897 for James Billson

James Billson was a farmer, a member of the Secular Society and a friend of the Gimson family. In the 1890s he bought an estate which included the ruins of the medieval priory of Ulverscroft and sold two plots to Sydney and Mentor Gimson. He also commissioned Ernest Gimson to build a pair of cottages for farm workers on his piece of land.

They were built using the local stone under the supervision of Detmar Blow, a friend from Gimson’s time in London and fellow-architect. Blow worked with a team of masons, including Frank Green and J Snook. They travelled from one project to another as medieval craftsmen might have done. Their hands-on approach and the close link between designer and builders were inspired by the writings of John Ruskin and John Sedding and the practical example of Philip Webb.

Stoneywell Cottage in the Charnwood Forest, 1898 for Sydney Gimson

Stoneywell and Lea Cottages were designed and built more or less in tandem. Once again Gimson worked with Detmar Blow and his team of masons.

The Gimson family was familiar with this part of the Charnwood Forest and one of Gimson’s youthful notebooks contains nature notes made during walks in Lea Lane in 1880. Sydney Gimson continued to enjoy rambling and camping in the area in his spare time. The opportunity to have a simple summer retreat in the area was very attractive and he commissioned Gimson to design and build a cottage on the land he purchased from Billson. The two brothers were close and Stoneywell – Gimson’s most innovative building – was the result of a supportive relationship between client and architect.

Stoneywell is now a National Trust visitor attraction and is available to tour by booking.

Detmar Blow produced this initial estimate for the cottage:

‘Estimate for the erection of a cottage at Stoneywell Hill, Markfield, Leicester for Mr Sydney Gimson in accordance with plans by Ernest W Gimson. Making solid with rubble the spaces under the room floor, laying a thin layer of cement concrete to receive the boards.’

Laying all other ground floor with slate and bedroom floors with plaster on laths, providing a slate riser and bucket to WC, a cottage range for kitchen value £3-0-0 and fire brick hobs with bars to bedrooms, plastering the walls inside with one coat of cement, and one of lias lime plaster with no hair, plastering or slating window seats and ledge including all labour and materials, used by masons, for the sum of £428-0-0.

Water service extra.'

It was a difficult site, with hilly outcrops of hard rock. Gimson boldly took the decision to use these as the foundations wherever possible. At the highest point, set on the natural foundations, was a massive stone chimney its design articulated by slabs of slate. The cottage continues downwards in an open zigzag from this point, following the natural contours of the slope. Local stone including large rough boulders and old dry-stone walls was used for the building. The stones weren’t shaped by tools but carefully selected and positioned to fit. The original thatched roof was replaced by slate tiles after a fire in 1939.

The house was intended to be a simple even spartan, summer cottage. The ground floor consisted of a sitting room, kitchen and shed with four bedrooms on the second floor. The constructional timbers and internal woodwork were made in the Cotswolds by the wheelwright Richard Harrison and most of the furniture came from the Pinbury workshop including the oak settle be Ernest Barnsley now in Leicester Museum. Massive blocks of slate found locally were used as lintels over the doors, windows and fireplaces. The internal walls and much of the structural woodwork were whitewashed.

The final cost for Stoneywell was £920, rather more than the £500 which Gimson and Blow had originally estimated.

Lea Cottage in the Charnwood Forest, 1898-99 for Mentor Gimson

J Mentor Gimson, was Gimson’s half brother. Lea Cottage was designed for him and his wife Emma adjacent to Stoneywell Cottage. Gimson’s initial estimate put the building costs at £435 with an additional £150 for carpentry, glazing and thatch. The building costs were based on using only stone from the site. The clerk of works, Detmar Blow, reckoned that there was enough stone on the plot and the adjacent Stoneywell land as well as a wall between two fields to build the cottage. A year later Gimson admitted to his half-brother and client that he had got the estimate for carpentry quite wrong – it was probably about twice as much. There were other problems as well in the first year. Following a fall of masonry at the end of 1898, Mentor was concerned that the mortar used on the building was not strong enough and was even considering having the building demolished. According to Gimson the problem had occurred because the pointing on the outside had been done too early – in the winter – and its waterproofing had been destroyed by frost or protracted damp. He wrote to his brother:

‘…these cottages are not built at all in the usual way and it is sometimes dangerous to ask the opinion of people not understanding your aims. I can see the average clerk of works or F.R.I.B.A. going round the building and condemning the whole of the timber because it is not seasoned and has the sap on it. ‘

The layout of the garden at Lea Cottage was planned by Gimson in conjunction with Emma Gimson. Gimson was aiming for informality and interest. He suggested crab apples by the lane, ‘because the bright blossom looks so lovely seen among the dark hollies. If you think they would be a temptation to the passer by I should put blackthorn instead.’ He also suggested stone paths set in red granite dust which would prevent weeds taking root.

Rockyfield Cottage in the Charnwood Forest, 1908 for Margaret Gimson

This was the fifth cottage designed by Gimson in the Charnwood Forest as a weekend/summer cottage for his youngest sister, Margaret. She was six years younger than her brother. Unlike the earlier cottages it was built by a local contractor although Norman Jewson, Gimson’s architectural assistant, supervised some of the work. He described his first visit to the site:

‘The Charnwood Forest is a grand tract of primitive woodland country, in which are several disused slate quarries which have become picturesque lakes, with steep rocky sides formed of the beautiful many coloured slates of that district…The builder took me to one of them to select some slabs of slate for lintels over the doors and windows of the cottage… While on this excursion I stayed in a cottage in the forest with an old retired farm labourer and his wife, a real Darby and Joan couple.’

The cottage was built using local materials; stones of different sizes gathered from the surrounding fields were incorporated into the walls and Swithland slates recovered from demolished buildings formed the roof. These slates had been the traditional roofing material for most houses in Leicestershire but the local quarries had all closed by the beginning of the twentieth century.

The cottage cost £600 to build, which worked out at 7d per cubic foot, and was decorated to a budget with oak woodwork, whitewashed walls, red tile flooring on the ground floor and hard white plaster upstairs.

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