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“Could you coo?” Frank Sinatra asked Barbra Streisand in their lush 1993 recording of George and Ira Gershwin’s “I’ve Got a Crush on You”. “I could coo”, she replied. “Could you possibly care . . . ” he continued, meeting with “ooh, I could care” and then he posed the big question: “ . . . for a lovely cottage?” “ . . . ooh, that cottage!” rejoindered Streisand enthusiastically, before they harmonised “ . . . that we could shaaaare . . . ”

Despite the unlikelihood that Sinatra and Streisand seriously contemplated a two-up, two-down shack in the woods, the mythology of living simply and peaceably in the country is a constant lure to city dwellers. And it’s especially so at Christmas when we send cards by the million showing cottages clad in snow, lantern-lit leaded windows beaming warmth in the fallow still of winter.

Christmas is, after all, not just a holiday from toil but a taking leave of our senses: the fat man through the chimney pot and flying reindeer are of course real, children; but finding cracker jokes funny is a stretch. And through a desire to strip away the reality of urban hustle, freeways and noise, a cottage as a silent harbour from the cold seems a return to Eden, intrinsic to our seasonal mythology. But how long have we coveted this bucolic idyll? And where did it come from?

At the Weald and Downland Museum near Singleton, West Sussex, is an archaeologically precise reconstructed 13th-century dwelling of two rooms formed by flint and lime mortar walls with precisely zero windows, and thatch through which hearth fumes must filter. The experience once left shivering generations smelling like cold-smoked kippers.

Northern Europeans lived this way for centuries, in dwellings so meagre that they rarely exist any more, leading us to forget what a cottage really was. Three decades ago, a book by John Woodford called The Truth About Cottages starts its narrative in 1839 when the House of Lords connected the dwellings of the rural labouring classes with disease and early death. They sent out commissioners who beheld tumbledowns suffering rot, draughts and open sewers. Not much was done about it for decades, while the definition of a cottage shifted. The humble had entered high fashion.

A new Yale University Press book called Cottages Ornés: The Charms of the Simple Life by Roger White explains how, almost 300 years ago, cottages were recast as polite architecture to which we could all aspire. Well before Queen Marie-Antoinette of France feigned dairymaid, his story begins with the development of Kew Gardens for Augusta, Princess of Wales during the 1730s. Here, architect William Kent designed a hermitage called Merlin’s Cave as three thatched cones of ostentatious isolation.

This 18th century thatched cottage was a private haven for Queen Charlotte. The cottage grounds boast one of London's finest bluebell woods, part of which is over 300 years old. Currently closed for winter, reopening in spring 2018. (C) Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew.
Queen Charlotte’s Kew cottage © Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew

Inspired by rustic loneliness, Queen Charlotte (r 1760-1818) found a brick cottage of her own in a corner of Kew by 1774. And, while her husband George III lost America, his mind and the throne, it was she (not Prince Albert) who imported the first English ornamental Christmas tree at Windsor Castle’s Queen’s Lodge in 1800. With royalty setting the fashion, it was inevitable louche financiers would follow. Thomas Love Peacock’s 1817 novel Melincourt describes in a rustic/pirate accent how “every now and then came a queer zort o’ chap dropped out o’ the sky like — a vundholder he called un — and bought a bit of ground vor a handful o’ peaper, and built a cottage horny [for orné, of course] . . . nothing in the world to do . . . but to eat and drink and make little bits o’ shrubberies.”

Smart cottages equated with Christmas by 1828 when Harriet Rebecca King published Oakdale Cottage: Or, the Christmas Holidays in which “a bright fire was blazing in the comfortable sitting room of Oakdale Cottage, and the footman was closing the last shutter, when Arabella Danvers, a lovely little girl of 10 years old, exclaimed: ‘Are you certain, my dear mamma, that this is really and indeed the shortest day of the whole year?’ ” The reason she asks is that “it has appeared to me very, very tedious”. Which well describes the rest of this sanctimonious book. Oh, well. We weren’t yet ready for the cottage as a spirited backdrop to scenes of sledding and snowballs.

The popularisation of Queen Charlotte’s Germanic Christmas trees in the early Victorian age accompanied the first Christmas cards, pioneered in 1843 by Sir Henry Cole at a shilling a pop. The image conjured by his friend John Horsley was a crowd of adults, sweethearts and children lifting glasses of wine in a rustic arbour that could pass for the veranda of a cottage orné. Many early cards broadcast the promise of spring flowers, admitted. But gradually, fuelled by engravings and photographs of arctic scenes, and Christmas stories, we were primed for snowy Christmas fantasies.

America was in tandem. The earliest known card from the 1840s shows a church gable in a snowdrift, from a rustic interior with a hearth, holly and plum-pie. The only jarring note by today’s standards is the slave bearing a tray of goodies. This scene was projected on to American cottages under virtually guaranteed blizzards in the northern and mountainous states, many decorated by German immigrants. “After the Revolution, Americans didn’t care for the grand classical houses of Europe,” says White. “Many responded to English pattern books of Gothic architecture and designs for workers’ cottages, losing the thatch.” Grant Wood’s painting “American Gothic” illustrates the legacy.

Literature cemented the popular imagination. Even as George Eliot’s cottage-dwelling Silas Marner of 1861 found a dead body in the snow and the new life of a baby at his hearth while his village of Raveloe celebrated Christmas, Charles Dickens redefined Christmas through humility and the simple contentment of Bob Cratchit. A century on, now more of the world’s population has come to live in cities than in the forests, plains and valleys, the western Christmas cottage myth has pervaded. How best to fulfil the fantasy of a Christmas cottage today? “Rent one,” says historian Anna Keay, director of the charity Landmark Trust. And quick.

“Landmark Trust properties let like hotcakes for Christmas. We’ll be well over 90 per cent full this year, with even our smallest and most remote buildings long since snapped up.” She attributes the appeal to social seclusion, and a rejection of modern commercial pressures. “Being with friends and family in a timeless rural setting with an open fire — and no WiFi — feels somehow perfect for Christmas. The more commercial everything gets, the more we need to escape it. The mega-wattage of the shopping mall makes us ache for a secluded building with leaded panes and oak floorboards that creak as you cross them on Christmas morning.”

Own the dream

The romantic ideal is alive in Scotland and the Lake District. These three bucolic idylls, all for sale, have the added bonus that they are part of holiday lettings businesses.

St Mary’s Cottages, Elgol, Isle of Skye, UK, £1.25m

Four traditional self-catering thatched cottages and a five-bedroom owners’ house on 2.6 acres in the secluded fishing village of Elgol.

Strutt & Parker, struttandparker.com, tel: +44 (0) 1463 719 171

Glencoe Mountain Cottages, Glencoe, Argyll, UK, £625,000

A six-bedroom house and two semi-detached three-bedroom cottages nestled among the Glencoe Mountains.

Strutt & Parker, struttandparker.com, tel: +44 (0) 1317 184 488

Church Court Cottages, Gamblesby, Cumbria, UK, £700,000

A three-bedroom 17th century farmhouse and four adjoining cottages located between the Lakeland fells and North Pennines.

Private sale, uk.businessesforsale.com, +44 (0) 1768 881 682

Alice Troy-Donovan

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