Liz Jones can make her Somerset home sound like a cross between Cold Comfort Farm and Colditz Castle: dank enough to turn her cashmere sweaters mouldy and with the mod cons of a workhouse.
Which, as the many fans of her weekly newspaper column Liz Jones’s Diary and its spin-off book, The Exmoor Files, know, has made riveting tragi-comic copy as the former fashion magazine editor got to grips with rural living.
'Locals are 'charming' and even 'supportive', no longer the shotgun-wielding yokels who peppered her mailbox with bullets'
Now that she has decided to put the property on the market for £1.9 million, however, her colourful descriptions of rural domestic tribulation are not exactly the sort to earn a quick sale. To get around this, Jones is employing the strategy of flatly denying that she has ever voiced any serious disquiet about country life, apart from “possibly” in the early settling-in days.
“Give me an example of something I’ve said,” she demands, in a sharp tone that somehow does not invite a litany of suggestions (though her well-chronicled complaints about depressing peeling wallpaper, two-hot-water bottle levels of freezing cold and the time she was woken in the night by a field mouse climbing under her T-shirt, all spring to mind).
Her neighbours - she lists them but asks me not to name them — (“I never do”) are now “charming and supportive”, not unfriendly, shotgun-wielding yokels, as might have been inferred from the time her mailbox was peppered with bullets by a contingent apparently unimpressed by her descriptions of the good folk of Dulverton.
And the reason for selling? “It’s too big - a bit ridiculous really,” she said. “I’ve got seven bedrooms and six bathrooms and its just me here — and about 400 animals.” She tells me this without blinking - or mentioning the financial crisis that she has detailed in recent columns, describing how the burden of paying a hefty mortgage while bankrolling her collection of high-maintenance rescue animals has plunged her into debt.
However she does stress that she is a serious seller. “I am open to offers, please do put that in because I want to move quickly,” she says. “I would like to sell before the winter.”
When Jones, 51, moved to Exmoor three years ago, abandoning a Georgian town house in Islington and an “unworthy” husband, the motive was to fulfil a girlhood dream to keep her own horses on her own land. She had already acquired a traumatised ex-racehorse named Lizzie and later took on two rescue ponies, Dream and Benji. Over the months that followed Jones proceeded to retrain Lizzie, nurse Dream successfully through a potentially fatal illness, and adopt almost every lame duck in the county.
Her family includes four dogs, 17 cats and a small herd of sheep (she did also once have chickens, but recently lost the last of them to a marauding fox). She has also spent £500,000 renovating the property’s stone barn to create a self-contained, two-bedroom house — a two-year project completed using only local craftsmen.
This very urban barn, with an interior that would do justice to a Clerkenwell loft, is Jones’s pride and joy, and little wonder. It is a subtle and well thought-out refurb, from the reclaimed oak floors to the dramatically high-ceilinged living/dining room, which has been fitted with monumental picture windows giving views over the paddocks and stable yard.
“Lots of people would have put horrible mezzanine floors in here, but I thought it was sacrilege to cut into the beautiful beams almost two feet thick.”
Critics of Jones claim she has been living in comparative luxury while convincing her readers with tales of her daily struggles. In fact, it is Nic (“she is a horse behaviourist”) who helps her with Lizzie and the ponies, who lives in the conversion, and who enthuses about the restaurant-quality cooker and super hi-tech lighting and solar heating system. Jones herself lives in the main farmhouse, which is — from the little I am able to glimpse of it — rather more the kind of place her followers might have imagined.
From the outside the Victorian farmhouse is winsomely pretty, with a porch trailed with flowers, a lovely sun terrace overlooking the garden, a fecund orchard and well-tended vegetable patch.
“Everyone has this idea of going to the countryside and growing their own food and never having to go to Tesco again,” says Jones, who believes the fresh air and hard work of life on the farm mean she has never been fitter, despite leaving behind her London gym’n’spa lifestyle.
“The thing you don’t realise is that it is hard work but you do appreciate not having so many chemicals in your food, which must happen for them to look so perfect,” she adds.
Inside, the stone house with four bedrooms, three bathrooms, a large kitchen, two reception rooms and study (there is also an annexe with space for a kitchen/sitting room, two bedrooms and a bathroom), is less picture-postcard.
On a rainy day the flagstone floors are clammy to the touch and there are dog baskets and paraphernalia absolutely everywhere. The office where Jones writes her diary (she is also an exceptionally prolific feature writer on anything from fashion to politics), looks like a student sitting room and the downstairs lavatory has a kind of antique over-the-head cistern that anyone born after 1976 would be unlikely to recognise.
Upstairs — so the estate agent’s particulars tell me, as I am not invited to have a look — there is a new bathroom, and at least some basics have been sorted in the form of a new boiler, oil tank and sheep wool loft insulation.
The real joy of the property, however, lies in the 47 acres of land bought for the horses, which live in considerable style. Lizzie, Dream and Benji have a choice of five loose boxes around a large and pretty courtyard — though they generally prefer to relax in one of the paddocks.
A mountain of hay is neatly stacked in an open-sided barn, cut from the farm’s own fields and fully organic. There is an immaculate outdoor menage that provides Lizzie with an all-weather surface for training, though generally Jones simply hacks the one and a half miles (by bridle path) out on to the National Park for exercise.
The sheep also do well, with their own paddock, while the dogs have the run of the farm, with private woodland and a stream to explore. There is also a lake, with a jetty from which to fish, though Jones is a vegan and has not used it. The views over the valley are uninterrupted and gorgeous. Whatever the precise reasons for the sale, Jones does appear to have put any issues with the locals behind her.
“I like proper country life, I like it remote and I like the wildlife. I want to stay on Exmoor, if I can. I have made some very good local friends. But I need a smaller house for me and more land, if possible, for more animals.”
The entire property, near Dulverton, Somerset, is on the market for £1.9 million through Strutt & Parker (call 01392 215631).
Pictures by Adam Gerrard/SWNS