Behind the scenes at Dartington Hall: Meeting its community of artists and farmers

PUBLISHED: 11:51 11 September 2018 | UPDATED: 11:48 17 September 2018

Dartington Hall

Dartington Hall


Alex Green goes behind the scenes on the Dartington Hall Estate to find a community of artists, makers, farmers, and social entrepreneurs living out the legacy of its founders

The Dartington Hall estate has played host to a diverse range of free thinkers and thought leaders in education, farming and the arts for more than 90 years and counting.

It’s largely thanks to Dorothy and Leonard Elmhirst, who bought the estate in 1925 and pioneered an approach to rural regeneration in their ‘Dartington Experiment’. Together, they planted a seed that has grown into a hub of creativity, from its food and farming, arts and crafts and nature and wildlife conservation.

Rhodri Samuel, Dartington Hall Trust CEO, says: “The array of experiences we now offer on the Dartington Hall estate reflects our desire to realise the ideas of our founders Dorothy and Leonard Elmhirst for the 21st century.

Dartington's Grade II listed gardensDartington's Grade II listed gardens

“We want to inspire everyone to embody what they called a ‘many-sided life’: to be given a chance to connect with our whole selves, each other and with nature so we can better fulfil our potential.”

Meet the current crop of creatives that are making it all happen for a new generation.

Food for thought

Having made a name for himself as BBC2’s Urban Chef and restaurateur in London’s Kings Cross, Oliver Rowe has led the charge for a complete refresh of the food served at Dartington. As director of food and drink, he’s brought the farming and local food community full circle and into the kitchens at The Green Table, the Roundhouse and The White Hart. A particular highlight is seeing the restoration of the walled garden come to fruition.

Dartington Dairy goat
Dartington Dairy goat

He says: “It’s an opportunity to get ultra-local and super seasonal food on the menu. We’ve got a new head chef at The White Hart with Eamon Fullalove who’s really keen on seasonal food and cooks really well, so it’s great that the walled garden can contribute to that.

“The Green Table in particular, has really started to make in-roads into working with small local producers, so it’s all about seasonality and sustainability within the locality, which supports society and community as a whole.”

Sharpham Cheese signSharpham Cheese sign

Farming futures

When he took on the largest farm tenancy on the estate in 2014, Jon Perkins had a grand plan for Parson’s Farm. He brought with him a wealth of experience gleaned through a long generational line of farmers and his personal explorations into farming practices at home and abroad. Key for him was to be 100% organic and to open a dairy, which he’s done with great success.

With cuts on the price of milk, he knew that the only way to be commercially viable was to think big and stay local, saying: “We only sell milk to local cheese makers, not big corporations. We’re all about quality not quantity.” He’s passionate about his herd of 80 Jersey cows and the nutritious quality of the milk produced, which goes into making the award-winning cheese at nearby Sharpham.

Dartington Dairy goat milkingDartington Dairy goat milking

In addition, the milk produced by 180 goats goes into making ice cream utilising some of the natural ingredients grown on the estate and kefir, a superfood renowned for its health benefits. Visitors can get a taste for life down on the farm with farm experience stays or book a milking experience each day at 4.30pm.

Art reflects life

The flagship event of the arts calendar is the Dartington International Summer School and Festival, which this year celebrates its 70th anniversary (28 July to 25 August).

Being artistic at the Dartington estateBeing artistic at the Dartington estate

It combines music studies by day covering different genres, from jazz to opera, with internationally renowned artists in residence who perform in the evening throughout the long light evenings. Add to this mix, and for the first time this year, the Totnes based Sea Change Festival comes to Dartington (24-25 August) in a collaboration that reflects the more youth orientated and alternative audiences that Dartington seeks to attract.

Arts General Manager Amy Bere says; “The Elmhirsts would be leaping with joy with what’s happening here now.” Throughout the year, the community-based Arts Lab runs workshops for community groups and Dartington Live sees a programme of performance art run from October to April 2019.

The Dartington EstateThe Dartington Estate

The Craft Revolution

A ‘learning by doing’ ethos expounded by the Elmhirsts is recreated through The Craft Revolution, as Craft Learning Manager Lou Rainbow explains: “We run a vibrant programme of courses, from and have brought a thriving makers space to The Shippon Studios here at Dartington.”

This courtyard building is now home to printmakers, potters, painters and bookbinders among others. Life drawing classes have returned to Dartington too. In 1928 a woman called Sylvia Fox-Strangways, an assistant to Bernard Leach, not only brought the first kiln to Dartington, but she also brought life drawing classes to the estate.

The Dartington estateThe Dartington estate

Lou says: “She felt that the human form is a nourishing way of being creative and should be for everybody – from bricklayers to children and it’s really taken off, people love it. “We’re quite maverick here at Dartington, we just do it, we make things happen.”

Land of plenty

Estate Manager John Channon has overseen some innovative and experimental projects over the past few years, as he says: “It’s now home to four types of farming and four or five different examples of agroforestry, all over 1200 acres, so we can show people a lot of complexity in a fairly small area.”

Dartington Dairy jersey cowsDartington Dairy jersey cows

Nature and wildlife conservation has been at the fore, with the opening of the Deer Park last year, thanks to a £1m funding grant. John said: “We’ve been able to implement access-for-all footpaths, as well as interpretation of the site, restoration of the ancient walls and a reintroducition the fallow deer. Most people when I show them round say to me, ‘so where are the deer then?’, but of course they’re semi-wild and you won’t always see them.”

Queen’s Marsh is being restored on the 30-acre previous wetlands site, where they have introduced ponds and reeds. He said: “We get herons here all the time and kingfishers, alongside the ducks, geese, mallards and seagulls that you’d expect to see but there might be more interesting birds visiting over time.”

There’s so much to see and do on the Dartington estate that John says: “There’s something here for everyone, it’s like life in miniature.”

Jon Perkins in the Dartington DairyJon Perkins in the Dartington Dairy

To find out more about Dartington Hall estate and to get involved or donate to the charity click here

Did you know?

People have been attracted to the site at Dartington for well over a thousand years. There is evidence of considerable activity that dates back to the Roman period.

Henry Moore sculptureHenry Moore sculpture

When the Elmhirsts bought the estate in 1925, the medieval Hall was in ruins. They began restoring it and building new properties on the estate, including High Cross House. William Lescaze’s 1932 Modernist masterpiece was designed as ‘a machine for living in’.

Famous potter Bernard Leach taught at Dartington and built ‘The Cabin’ a wooden house on the estate in 1937, where he lived and wrote ‘The Potters Book’. It’s being restored in keeping with its 1930/40s heyday and will become home to potters in residence.

This year’s partnership between Dartington Dairy and Simply Soulful Yoga is thought to have inspired the scriptwriters for The Archers. The popular BBC Radio 4 Programme featured a goats’ milk Kefir storyline and a spot of goat kid yoga. Seriously, no kidding!

Statue given to the Elmhirst's by the Community of Dartington in 1967 - Alex GreenStatue given to the Elmhirst's by the Community of Dartington in 1967 - Alex Green

The Grade II listed Gardens on the 880 acre-estate are the creation of a roll call of outstanding 20th century garden designers. In it, you’ll find a Henry Moore sculpture and the oldest resident on the estate, a Yew Tree, that’s believed to be between 1500-2000 years old.

Well-known garden designer Dan Pearson has a vision for the future of Dartington’s much-loved gardens.


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