One of the most exquisite houses I know lies at the head of a valley in Cranborne Chase in Wiltshire. It is not so much the 18th-century architecture of Ashcombe, though it is the surviving portion of a once-grand country house, but more the position, secluded and yet facing down the long, twisting valley to the south, surrounded by hills as if in a three-sided amphitheatre. It was once the home of Cecil Beaton and the subject of his book, Ashcombe: A l5-Year Lease, first published in l949 and reprinted by Dovecote Press four years ago. On seeing the lilac-brick fa’ade, Beaton wrote, ‘I was almost numbed by my first encounter with the house. It was as if I had been touched on the head by some magic wand.’ He restored the house, which was almost derelict. It enchanted him so much that he never quite got over the termination of the lease, and would return to gaze sadly at it from the long drive that starts on the downs above, only to be chased away by the fierce owner. One of the circus murals he painted remains today, in a bedroom. I knew the people who eventually bought it, but they sold and it’s now owned by Madonna and her husband Guy Ritchie, so it is unlikely I’ll go there again. The couple have been seen in local pubs where people tend to leave them alone. Ritchie and the actor Brad Pitt came into a pub I know and asked the landlord’s partner what the attitude of the locals was towards famous people. As she didn’t recognise either of them she was somewhat baffled by this but told them that celebrities were ignored. I dare say they weren’t drawing attention to themselves, but hoping they could have a pint in peace as no doubt they’ve experienced boorish behaviour when they’ve been spotted elsewhere.
Bill Carter, a retired farmer in his eighties with a broad Wiltshire accent, told me that he’d lost a much-loved cousin in June 1944 in Italy and didn’t know where he was buried. At the age of 25, he was killed when a shell hit his tank. I knew from the date that it must have been when the Allies were trying to force their way through one of the German lines north of Rome, near Lake Trasimeno on the Tuscan