Taking on the conversion of a disused chapel in Somerset, artist Jonathan Delafield Cook, illustrator Laura Stoddart and their two children have made the smooth transition from incomers to long-term residents
There are few sights in Britain that are more beautiful on a May morning than the gently rolling Brendon Hills, on the edge of Exmoor. The deep, twisting lanes are a mist of frothy cow parsley that brushes the car as the illustrator Laura Stoddart drives down to Brompton Ralph, the village where she lives with her artist husband, Jonathan Delafield Cook, their two children - William, 13, and Florence, 11 - and their Bedlington terrier, Birdie. The couple moved here 10 years ago to live in a disused Methodist chapel. It was on a trip to find a Devon bull for Jonathan to draw that they spotted the 'For sale' sign on the chapel.
'The auction was held in the village pub and we were complete novices,' says Jonathan. 'Our hearts sank when we saw the room heaving with people,' adds Laura. It soon became clear that these were not all rival buyers: the village had gathered to size up the newcomers. On the face of it, they were just a young couple from London with a new baby and a toddler in tow. But the pair who came to make Brompton Ralph their home are exceptional.
Jonathan's huge, super-realistic images of nature are in demand with collectors worldwide. He captures the muscular flanks of a Charolais bull, the gleam of a mackerel and the tightly curled fleece of a mountain sheep using charcoal. He is the son of the Australian artist William Delafield Cook. Last year, a show at Purdy Hicks in London centring on his images of dogs was a sell-out success. Laura, the third generation of illustrators in her family, was the youngest person to be commissioned to design a British postage stamp, when she had just left the Royal College of Art. She has since produced beautiful books, featuring her signature elegant, etiolated people, and has also designed packaging for luxury British brands. She recently set up her own company, designing stationery, china and tea towels.
The family took to village life with verve, but their first task was to turn the chapel into a home. Built in 1850, it consisted of one big room with Gothic pointed windows, and a lean-to at the back, tacked on in 1950. In the main chapel, there was a small stage, with benches all around the walls, its only decoration a metal scroll inscribed with the words 'In God We Trust'. The couple put their trust in the enlightened local planning official, councillor Martin Lee, who saw that, instead of trying to adapt the lean-to, which obscured the lovely original windows, they would do better to build a second storey on top of it, repeating the Gothic windows. This meant they had an elegant building, with enough space for three bedrooms.
At the centre of the house is the sitting room, which is also a passage to the kitchen, playroom and stairs. Above it is a mezzanine, which is Jonathan's office. Alongside the grey sofas on the central Moroccan rug, there are also the skeletons of two young beech saplings, which reach towards the roof. 'This room is a bit of a lift shaft, and the trees help to inhabit the space,' says Laura.
The kitchen was designed and made by Jonathan's brother-in-law Merlin Wright, in painted wood with a smooth Welsh slate worktop flecked with gold. Though Laura insists they are not big party givers, the shelf under the central island in the kitchen is stacked with huge platters and beautiful bowls in splash-glazed pottery, and Jonathan is a brilliant cook. 'When we met, I was a vegetarian. So I think learning to cook was his defence against going hungry,' explains Laura, who says an early introduction to village life was a bring-your- own-dinner fundraising evening in the village hall to which they took a dish made by Jonathan.
'Brompton Ralph is a bit like The Archers,' says Laura. 'There's a dance in one of the local village halls every Saturday, a Christmas review, the Shrove Tuesday pancake challenge, a needle match with nearby Clatworthy and a flower show of an exceptional standard, which is highly competitive and closely fought.'
The glue that holds Brompton Ralph together is the village shop, which is run as a cooperative, of which Laura was until recently chairman: 'There are real stalwarts like Hazel Scott who help there most days and the manager, Cathy Beale, is great.' But a few years ago, the shop suffered a financial crisis with a huge debt hanging over it - an aching worry for the committee. It was partly saved by mouse-racing: a hilarious evening of betting on mice as they ran up and down obstacle courses. 'The evening raised £2,000 and our jaws ached from laughing so much,' says Laura.
In the summer, the family loves being outside, entertaining friends or walking in the woods. A favourite visit is to the medieval Cothay Manor, which - with its 12 acres of impeccable gardens - provides inspiration for many of Laura's paintings. Her studio is a 15-minute drive away, on a high ridge of the Quantock Hills. Here, with her assistant Lisa Mack, she works on her designs, which are sold at the likes of Liberty and Chatsworth. 'My commute takes me through ancient woodland. I can open the car windows, take it out of gear and roll downhill through beech avenues, and just breathe it all in. It is very special'.
Laura Stoddart: | Jonathan Delafield Cook: | Purdy Hicks: