The Way We Were: One man and his shed

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John Taylor takes a stroll down memory lane

But as the exception to the rule, as a lifelong bachelor William Cowper had the use of two ‘sheds’, although the meaning here is somewhat metaphoric, since both were really ‘summerhouses.’

As mentioned in previous articles, from 1767 Orchard Side at Olney would be the poet’s home, and from here his musings would be one day interrupted when he espied a lady shopping at a draper’s in the Market Place.

Accompanied by her sister, she was Lady Anne Austen, the widow of a baronet, and William immediately asked his companion, Mrs Unwin, to invite the two ladies in. However, in the wake of this bold display he hesitated before joining their company, but nevertheless this reticent introduction would herald the beginnings of an intense, if platonic, relationship, for, as a welcome therapy for his long affliction of depression, in the presence of Lady Austen he could feel calm and at ease, for she was one ‘who laughed and made laugh.’ Indeed, when one day he languished in a particular bout of malaise, she amused him by retelling the outline of a humorous story, and this so sparked his imagination that during the night he penned the beginnings of a work for which he would become greatly famed – ‘John Gilpin.’

Over the next few days he then perfected the work in the solitude of his garden summerhouse, for it was here that he would often retire to write poems and letters.

Then on November 15, 1786, William and Mrs Unwin left Olney to begin life at Weston Underwood, and during his walks in the surrounding countryside William would frequently seek the tranquil embrace of the ‘Alcove’ in which to muse, a rustic retreat of hexagonal shape which, in 1753, had been built by John Higgins, as a woodland summerhouse for Sir Robert Throckmorton. With an ambiance enhanced by views across an extensive sweep of ground, laid out by the renowned ‘Capability Brown,’ such vistas would provide William with much inspiration, although the modern inclusion of the recent wind turbines might have afforded him a troublesome turbulence.

Nevertheless, the Alcove still remains in otherwise unspoilt surroundings, and has certainly left an impression on ‘SHAWNE,’ who has been sufficiently moved to carve his own impression into the wooden seating. As for ‘H4M,’ one can only hope that they found the setting romantically conducive.

At Olney, on April 25, 1900 Orchard Side was presented to the town, although the adjoining garden, within which the summerhouse stood, remained in private ownership.

Then a few years later the Cowper Society was offered first refusal to buy the area, and in November 1918 the Trustees of the Museum decided to appeal to the nation for funds.

Through many generous donations the finance was duly raised, and having been purchased for £325, from an original price of £450, a public opening was performed on September 19, 1919 by the Marquis of Lincolnshire.

Thus both of William Cowper’s ‘sheds’ may still be viewed, whilst as for my own den of tranquillity, although this may be only a 200 quid bargain special from the local garden, here – amidst the bushes and the overgrown nettles – the world can be put to rights, and local history articles penned.