Ilmington: Is this the perfect village?
PUBLISHED: 15:27 17 August 2020 | UPDATED: 15:27 17 August 2020
Chris Smith visits charming Ilmington, which earned a place in the Sunday Times’ Best Places to Live guide
AS you stroll around the village of Ilmington you get the feeling that not much has changed in this corner of the Cotswolds over the years.
It has clung tightly to its idyllic charm, and it’s easy to see why this once self-sufficient farming community has become so sought after, earning a place in this year’s Sunday Times’ prestigious Best Places to Live guide, and just two years ago being shortlisted in Channel 4’s Village of the Year competition.
Sitting at an important crossroads at the northern gateway to the Cotswolds Area of Natural Beauty and the southern gateway to Shakespeare’s Stratford-upon-Avon, and at the foot of the highest peak in the county of Warwickshire, Ilmington is a place of considerable architectural and historic interest.
The village was originally an Anglo-Saxon farming settlement, and is recorded in the Domesday Survey of 1086 as having a manor with three ploughs and a church with a priest. The title of Lord of the Manor has passed through many hands, including those of the famous de Montfort family.
Today it is home to around 800 people, with a patchwork of homes that includes grand properties and chocolate box cottages, some still with their thatches, as well as modern, functional homes, most of which are made from ironstone or Cotswold stone quarried from the surrounding hills, and all are connected by a network of picturesque narrow footpaths that criss-cross their way across the village. Even the road names have a certain quirkiness with Front Street, Back Street, Middle Street, Grump Street, and Frog Lane among them.
Residents past and present have ensured that there are many reminders of its history scattered around.
On the upper of its two greens is a huge monument to the arrival in 1864 of fresh drinking water, which includes a fragment of a 17th century well, the fountainheads from where locals once collected their water remain in several locations, the site of the pound where stray animals were kept until a fine was paid for their release is marked with a plaque, a huge decorative stone salutes the Queen’s Gold Jubilee in 2002, and there’s even a set of replica stocks.
Looking for an insight into daily life here, it was suggested I speak to Tony Wilkins. A cheerful chap, his family is one of two whose association with Ilmington can be traced back over 400 years (the other is the Sabins). Tony, who turns 88 this year, has lived here for his entire life. He served for 50 years on the parish council, many of those as chairman, and even has a road named after him.
“It’s a unique village in some sense with one road that loops around it and interconnecting lanes, we’re at the foot of the Ilmington Hills with beautiful walks in all directions, we have two well maintained village greens, wonderful playing fields, and two good pubs.”
I suggested to Tony that it feels like the village has been, in part, frozen in time.
“There have been big changes here. When I was a kid nearly all the houses and cottages were in some way connected with agriculture, and there were no cars. Mains water, electricity and sewers have all been a new thing in my lifetime, but we’ve always resisted street lights!” Why, I asked. Tony replied tersely: “We don’t need them or want them, why would we? We’ve managed perfectly well without them up until now.
“We’ve worked hard to maintain the look of the village and have tried to keep any new houses in Cotswold stone. We’ve also not been overrun by [housing] developers, as some have, and that’s helped us retain our charm and character. There is no better place to live in my opinion.”
Today, the farming industry has been virtually wiped out, and many of those buildings converted into homes. And while there are few jobs, Ilmington still has facilities and services that are the envy of others.
The highly valued primary school is rated ‘Outstanding’ by Ofsted, the two pubs Tony talked about, the Howard Arms and the Red Lion, are both well patronised, the community shop and café has been owned and run by the villagers themselves since opening in 2015, there is a part-time post office, a village hall, and the playground attracts families from miles around.
Villagers can also lay claim to having their own supply of milk, cider, brandy and gin! Mabels Farm — the last remaining farm in the original village boundary — delivers 300,000 bottles of milk a year, produced from its herd of 45 cows that spent their days in a field on Back Street. More about the booze later.
There were once three churches. The Methodist Chapel is now a house, and the Catholic Church is home to the community shop, and only St Mary’s Church remains a place of worship. The earliest part of it date back to the Normans of the 12th century, and as Ilmington’s only Grade I Listed building, it is afforded the same protection as Buckingham Palace.
There is relatively small regular congregation of around 20 people, but many more pass through its doors for a different reason: on the lookout for 11 tiny mice that are carved into the pews, pulpit, and lectern. They are the work renowned furniture maker Robert Thompson — a leading light in the 1920s Arts and Crafts movement who became known as ‘The Mouse Man’ due to his signature mice that he carved into the woodwork of all the furniture he produced in North Yorkshire.
“They are very much a feature of the church, and we love to see children and adults trying to find them, which isn’t easy because they’re the size of real mice!” Angus Chambers, church warden and third generation Ilmingtonian, told me.
Thompson’s furniture was, and remains, sought after, and it was thanks to the generosity of a major village benefactor that the church is lucky to have its own. That man was Spenser Aldborough Flower — a member of the well-known brewing family of Stratford-upon-Avon.
Ilmington’s current manor house is a 30-room Elizabethan property that passed through several families since being built in the late 1500s before the Flowers arrived in 1919. Spenser brought his his wife Ella and their then four-year-old son Dennis with him, and their daughter Heather came along a few years later. She was mother of the current custodian, Martin Taylor.
“When my grandparents bought the house it had many of its original features but was in need of major restoration, which they carried out to the style of that time,” said Martin, now 71, who was born at the manor.
The house, a member of the Historic Houses Association, is bereft of its land, with just 15 of the original 1,200 acres, which includes the mediaeval fish ponds from the previous manor house. The ponds were restored and refilled in the 1970s. Although it remains part of village life, hosting social events such as the Wednesday Club, Ilmington Music Society concerts, and the National Garden Scheme (NGS) Open Day.
“We try to do our bit!” Martin added.
Another villager playing his part in keeping old traditions alive is Paul Bryan, who reformed the Ilmington Morris Men in the mid-1970s. The earliest record of a Morris group here is 1790, but two World Wars decimated their numbers to the point the bells and sticks fell silent for several years.
With 23 of their own dances they are thriving again, with 18 members, who dance on home turf on St George’s Day, May Day, the NGS Open Day, the annual village show, Boxing Day, and other bank holidays, as well as in neighbouring villages throughout the year.
Paul, a retired air traffic controller, said, “I will keep the old tradition going for as long as I can.”
You can also see the remains of the Apple orchards that were once a big feature of Ilmington. The story goes that farmers would keep their labourers happy with a regular supply of locally-produced cider.
The orchards have been carved up over the years with trees dotted around residents’ gardens, although their locations are recorded in a huge piece of embroidery that hangs inside St Mary’s Church, which itself overlooks the only ancient orchard that remains intact.
This extraordinary piece of artwork was made by a group of village ladies with the help of some of the youngest residents. And while the orchards that it immortalises are no more, the trees are still bearing fruit and for the past eight years have been used to once again produce cider — named Grumpy Frog — as well as brandy and dry gin, all under The Spirit of Ilmington brand. The brandy and gin can be found on sale at the prestigious Fortnam and Mason department store in Piccadilly in London.
“It was such a shame to see all this fruit just rotting away there in people’s gardens,” said Bill Buckley, founder of Spirit of Ilmington, who began making cider in the garage of his house on Frog Lane, which is next to Grump Street — hence the Grumpy Frog name!
“What started out as a bit of a hobby in my garage turned out to be the beginning of a fantastic journey to keep the village’s cider tradition alive.”
It’s worth mentioning two people from Ilmington’s past.
Sam Bennett, who lived in what is known as Old Fox House at the foot of Foxcote Hill, was a world renowned fiddler who in 1936 was flown to the USA to perform for Henry Ford, who founded the Ford Motor Company and a fan of folk music. Sam danced and played the fiddle for Ilmington’s Morris Men and has a road named after him. Dorothy Hodgkin, who in 1964 became the only female British scientist to win a Nobel Prize, spent the latter years of her life at the house known as Crabmill on Grump Street. One of Dorothy’s students at Oxford University was Margaret Thatcher, who reportedly had a portrait of her mentor in her office at Downing Street during her 11 years as Prime Minister.
Both are buried in the village churchyard.
The Cotswolds Area of Natural Beauty stretches across almost 800 square miles and six counties, with 38 million day visitors every year. Most won’t make it to Ilmington, but those who do will be charmed, I’m sure.