Don McCullin’s Somerset: ‘It’s like the Garden of Eden’
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I first came to Somerset in 1940 when I was sent here as an evacuee during the second world war. I was five when I arrived at Frome station, wearing a gas mask, hand in hand with my three-year-old sister. We were selected for the same beautiful village, Norton St Philip, but we were separated. My sister went to the big house while I went to a farm labourer’s home. We had come from a family living in poverty amid the violence of Finsbury Park.
I’ve always held onto those childhood memories of streams snaking through hazel trees and cows standing in the grass looking lost. Somerset was yeoman farmer’s country, with hedged fields that looked like quilted blankets and hedgerows covered in buttercups.
In 1980, my editor at The Sunday Times told me about a house for sale in Batcombe. I raced down to view it, but it was unsuitable owing to a thatched roof. In the same village, I saw three dilapidated cottages knocked into one. The property had an apple orchard and views of an ancient hillfort. Once I heard the sound of the rushing stream, that did it for me. It’s like the Garden of Eden and I wake up every day to the most glorious vision. I like the empty wilderness of the landscape, which I only photograph in the winter when you get these amazingly dark Wagnerian skies. I don’t like early-morning light as it comes up too quickly, so I work towards the evening. I often stand there for hours without the reward of a photograph, but I come away thinking I’ve had a marvellous time, grateful not to be working in an office. I’ve made 10,000 prints here and my soul is now totally connected to Somerset. I’m drawn to the Dew Pond, which looks like someone put a silver plate on the landscape.
When I sold up in London, Somerset was not a fashionable place. Bruton’s first flowering began in 2008, when At the Chapel opened inside a gorgeous 17th-century building. The restaurant – where they cook amazing pizzas and sell the best ciabatta and sourdough – brought a liveliness to the area.
For 25 years, I would pass the derelict Durslade Farm, thinking that I’d love to live there. When Hauser & Wirth opened in 2014, I wondered why on earth they bought somewhere in the middle of nowhere – but, boy, have they made it work. It’s incredible. I had an exhibition there three years ago and the recent Henry Moore show attracted more than 70,000 visitors.
A friend owns Number One Bruton, a sweet hotel that used to be an ironmonger’s. Its restaurant, Osip, is one of those places where the chef gives you little bits and pieces. I buy South African Viognier white wine from The Newt hotel’s shop and we have dinner in its oak-panelled restaurant, The Botanical Rooms – it serves the best oysters.
For cooking at home, Bill the Butcher in Bruton sells the best herbal sausages and on Fridays, the Brixham fish van comes from Devon. I like their hake and my wife, Catherine, cooks mussels with white wine for dinner. And we go to Westcombe Dairy’s cheese shop for its excellent cheddar and delicious Alpine-style cheese.
I poke around for interesting finds in Frome on Cheap Street and Catherine Hill, which is cobbled and winds uphill. My 20-year-old son Max likes the clothes at Nomad, and I bought my first ever second-hand piece of clothing – a tweed jacket – from The Dandy Lion, because they don’t make them like that any more.
When I started doing still life, I would gather flowers and mushrooms on lumps of stone from Frome Reclamation. And for framing, I go to Dovecote Gallery in Shepton Montague. Frome Hardware makes a ball of string look like an object of desire, and we used to buy Airfix kits for the kids from Frome Model Centre.
Moving to Somerset was a brilliant idea because I found a place where I feel mentally safe, happy and secure. I yearn to get back there every time I go away.
Don McCullin has created a Somerset trip with The Luminaire travel company. Over three days, guests spend time with McCullin exploring his work, with private access to Hauser & Wirth gallery, photography masterclasses with professional tutors, accommodation at Durslade Farmhouse (two nights) and select dining experiences. From £12,850pp, theluminaire.com/somerset