The 18th century poet William Cowper (1731-1800) was wont to write his works al fresco in a shelter in a garden or park. His first was a tiny ‘nook’ in his garden in the town of Olney, and he later composed lines in an alcove in the park at nearby Weston Underwood. Both survive today.
From 1768 to 1786 Cowper lived at Orchard House on the market place in Olney. The little summerhouse in his garden had been built as a smoking hut by the previous owner, but it adapted easily to Cowper’s use as a writing hut, or ‘Bouderie’ as he called it in 1785. Furnished with a table and two chairs, it was ‘secure from all noise, and a refuge from intrusion’.
Cowper moved to Weston Underwood in 1786 and the Throckmorton family of Weston Underwood Hall put the gardens and park at his disposal, including the shelter called the Alcove which at that date terminated a lime avenue leading from the house.
The following year Cowper’s friend Lady Austen challenged him to write a poem with a sofa as the theme. Initially intending to compose a few lines, the work somehow turned into the six books that make up The Task. The poem includes a description of a walk through the grounds of Weston Underwood to the Alcove and these lines are engraved on a tablet in the building.
The Alcove was built in around 1753, but by the end of the 18th century the summerhouse is said to have been abandoned after the tragic death of the man who was painting the roof. This story is recorded in Cowper, Illustrated…, published in 1803, by which date the Alcove was described as showing signs of decay.
Cowper recorded in The Task that the Alcove attracted visitors who defaced the interior with graffiti (see the text on the plaque shown above). It is ironic then that his Summerhouse in Olney became an unusual ‘visitors’ book’ after the poet’s death, with Cowper’s fans inscribing their names on the walls. In 1867, when a restoration was planned, there were fears that the work would obliterate the many ‘signatures’ on the walls, which had become accepted as an important part of the building’s history.
The last Throckmorton to live at Weston Underwood died in 1826, and the following year ‘the fine old mansion’ was pulled down. The estate was sold at the end of the century, but subsequent owners continued to allow access to Cowper acolytes, including the many who descended on Olney in 1900 to celebrate the centenary of the poet’s death. On April 25th of that year there was a ‘Public Celebration And a Holiday for Olney’, the highlight of which was the official opening of the Cowper Museum in the poet’s former home in the town. Medals were struck, and silver spoons fashioned to mark the occasion, and extra trains were laid on to accommodate Cowper’s many fans.
By October 1946 the Alcove at Weston Underwood was said to be ‘badly in need of repair’ and Lord Denham, the then owner of the Weston estate, carried out repairs early in 1947. Lord Denham also alerted the Cowper Society, which launched an appeal to recoup the £200 which had been spent on the work, but the response was slow. At the same time the Cowper Society began discussions with the National Trust and other heritage bodies. The National Trust’s representative James Lees-Milne visited Weston Underwood to see the Alcove early in 1948, but was daunted by the potential costs of keeping the building in good repair.
The Cowper Society then approached Newton Pagnell Rural District Council. It agreed that the Alcove should be preserved, but proposed that the County Council should take the lead. In June 1948 Lord Denham agreed to convey the Alcove, and a small parcel of land around it, to Buckinghamshire County Council.
The Alcove is beautifully maintained by the council, and this most idyllic of spots has full public access. The Summerhouse can be seen in the pretty garden of the gem that is the Cowper & Newton Museum in Olney (Newton was Cowper’s friend and is best remembered today for his hymn Amazing Grace) https://cowperandnewtonmuseum.org.uk
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