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Stoneywell: Vernacular to a Fare-Thee-Well

In Charnwood Forest, Stoneywell was imagined by British Arts & Crafts designer Ernest Gimson for his brother’s family. Built with local materials and labor, it is indigenous and spare, attesting This Is How to Live.

Stoneywell was imagined by British Arts & Crafts designer Ernest Gimson. Built with local materials and labor, it is indigenous and spare. 

Rambling, unassuming, facing away from the road, Stoneywell is an iconic house of the English Arts & Crafts movement. The architect and furniture designer Ernest Gimson built it in 1898–99, in collaboration with architect and master builder Detmar Blow, for Gimson’s brother Sydney and his family. The Gimson family were prominent Leicester industrialists; Ernest designed homes for several siblings. Stoneywell is the most unchanged of them.

An exterior detail at Stoneywell, Leicestershire.

An exterior detail at Stoneywell, Leicestershire.

Inspired by William Morris’s call for a return to craftsmanship and a simpler life, Ernest designed a vernacular cottage that was one with the landscape. Sited so that it nestles into a rocky bank, the house’s eleven rooms zigzag over seven levels within its earthy setting, and it was built purposefully with local labor and materials. Following the Z-shape of the plan, windows and roofline step downwards, following the hill’s contours. Stones were gathered from the land, occasionally supplemented with a few from local dry-laid walls (rocks reportedly were liberated when a cart was backed into the old walls, which were then rebuilt without the most desirable stones). Enormous stone lintels and, later, roofing slates came from the abandoned Swithland slate quarries nearby.

The Well House in the garden at Stoneywell, Leicestershire.

The Well House in the garden at Stoneywell, Leicestershire.

The undressed stones are left natural on the exterior, but parged and whitewashed inside. Large structural timbers prepared off site follow the irregularities of the plan, attesting to the well-planned design.

Sydney and Jeannie Gimson did not wish to furnish Stoneywell with fancy items from their city residence. They had Ernest and his circle of craftsmen build solid pieces for them by hand. As the house could be damp and cold during the unoccupied winter months, they avoided veneered and inlaid furniture. On his pole lathe, Ernest turned rush-seated ash chairs for the dining room.

dining room at Stoneywell

In the dining room at Stoneywell in Leicestershire, rush-seated ladderback chairs by Ernest Gimson join an oak refectory table designed by Sidney Barnsley.

Gimson’s lifelong collaborator Sidney Barnsley made the massive oak dining table from a single plank. A high-backed settle was designed by Sidney’s older brother and partner, Ernest Barnsley, to be placed near the front door to help exclude drafts. The door opened directly into what is today the dining room. (The room was used as the kitchen up into the 1950s.)

Unusual geometry marks an interior passage.

Unusual geometry marks an interior passage.

Broad slate steps lead from the dining room to the large sitting room on the next level. A collection of stoneware hot- water bottles sat on the steps to warm cold winter evenings, as the house had no central heat until 1969. The sitting room features a window seat with garden views, along with an inglenook fireplace across the room for winter evenings. A small, protruding slate shelf was left for Sydney’s tobacco tin, an example of the intimate and practical nature of the construction.

Original furnishings at Stoneywell

Original furnishings remain in this house owned by the Gimson family for 114 years. Parging softens the large timbers and thick walls of local stone. Whitewash creates bright interiors.

Narrow steps lead up another level to the master bedroom, where a window on the gable end allows one to step straight into the garden—a feature much enjoyed by children playing tag. Furnishings include a handsome walnut coffer with carved bands of walnuts and acorns by Joseph Armitage (who designed the National Trust’s oak-leaf logo in 1935). Additional bedrooms include a walkthrough nursery, a five-sided bedroom with a solid oak bed made by Sidney Barnsley, and the Well Room (so-called as one steps down into it). Sydney Gimson’s son Basil was an avid reader, and so bookcases were built to fit beneath the Well Room’s eaves; Basil eventually became schoolmaster at the nearby Bedales School in Hampshire.

Stoneywell was wired for electricity in 1938, which meant rainwater could be collected in roof tanks and heated for bathing, so a landing was partitioned for an Art Deco bathroom in black and white. Shortly after the project was completed, an electrical fault started a fire in the thatch roof. Although the cottage and its contents were saved, the bathroom had to be rebuilt, and the thatch roof was replaced with slate. At this time the Gimsons raised the roof to create larger rooms upstairs.

A window seat reveals the thickness of the stone walls.

A window seat reveals the thickness of the stone walls.

Sydney and Jeannie Gimson, and their sons Humphrey and Basil, would spend their summers at Stoneywell for the next four decades, and return for Christmas as well. The house and most of its original furnishings remained in the Gimson family for the next three generations. The house was let for nine years during World War II, and then Basil moved in full-time in 1947. Basil’s son Donald inherited Stoneywell in 1953 and moved in with his wife, Anne. They did little to change the cottage, other than installing central heat and creating a period kitchen. They maintained the rough landscape strewn with granite outcroppings, and added heathers, rhododendrons, azaleas, and magnolias tolerant of the acidic soil. The cottage is surrounded by four acres of gardens amid eleven acres of protected woodland.

About Ernest Gimson

The architect and furniture designer Ernest Gimson (1864–1919) was firmly rooted in the tenets of the Arts & Crafts movement. At age 19, Gimson had met William Morris and been inspired. He often said that his chief aim was to bring pride and joy back into the work of the British working man. After attending the Leicester School of Art, Gimson, on Morris’s recommendation, completed his training in London with the architect John Sedding. The studio was next door to the Morris & Co. showrooms, and thus Gimson saw the flourishing of Arts & Crafts design. Through Sedding he met the Barnsleys, master builders and furniture designers. Gimson and the Barnsley brothers moved to the Cotswolds in 1893, where they combined crafts such as chair making with more traditional architectural work. They made everything from the ivory-inlaid stalls in St. Andrew’s Chapel in Westminster Cathedral to the plasterwork for Debenham House in London’s Holland Park. Gimson planned to found a utopian crafts village. He died when he was just 54, but his work continues to be appreciated a century later.

Following a national appeal, the National Trust was able to purchase Stoneywell and its furnishings from Donald Gimson in 2013. It was opened to the public in 2015.

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