It’s a glorious spell of early summer. I’m in Oxfordshire, somewhere near the ancient holy place of Abingdon. A giant mirrored sculpture of Pegasus, “the poet’s wingèd steed”, guards the entrance of Stonehill House. Songbirds and crows provide the soundtrack. I disappear into a barn with Pasternak.
Boris Pasternak, Russian-Jewish poet and author of Dr Zhivago, has enticed a motley crew of twelve or so from city and country. Should I confess now? I’m an ignoramus. I’ve come along because the organisers say that “no previous knowledge of the subject is required.” And that’s part of the pleasure for me. I’m retreating from the world of work and routine, to refresh my brain and my body. I’m here for a weekend of inspiration—culture, comfort and nature—just 45 minutes by train from London Paddington.
Boris’s nephew Nicolas is our host for the day. Serene and eloquent, wise and welcoming, he leads us through the compelling story of his family. Medics and artists (sometimes both at once), survivors of Stalinism, Nazism, emigration, family separation, exile, scandal… this might be another Zhivago epic. And in a way it is. Boris the poet turned his hand to prose because he felt compelled to set down the events of his life, coinciding as it did with the turmoil of early 20th century history. “Only in Russia is poetry respected, it gets people killed,” wrote his friend Osip Mandlestam after yet another writer had ‘disappeared’. From 1945, in the Soviet writers’ village Peredelkino, Boris devoted more than ten years to writing his masterpiece.
It was destined for a forked fate: beyond Soviet borders, Pasternak’s work won him the Nobel Laureate; at home, he was punished with exclusion, poverty and starvation—even after rejecting the prize. But he chose to live by intellectual honesty. When he handed the Zhivago manuscript over to a literary smuggler—the only route to publication—he identified it as the moment of his own execution.
Years later, Nicolas Pasternak-Slater guides us through his uncle’s personal letters and telegrams. He is not just an expert Russian literary translator. He’s also a close family member, with all the insight of the insider, interpreting coded language written to slip past Russian censors, solving puzzles only Pasternaks can solve. (“Your landlady’s illness” is Nazism.) It’s a privilege to be in the presence of this man, to chat and ask him questions, and then to meet his sister Anne at the Pasternak Museum in Oxford—still a family home, rarely open, intimate and quirky, packed with grandfather Leonid’s beautiful paintings and family keepsakes. We have the place to ourselves.
Back at the farm, we’re treated to a rare and fascinating documentary film—and afternoon tea with buttery orange drizzle cake hot from the oven. But this is not our first gourmet moment. Lunch, served in the shade of fruit trees, was scrumptious: a generous buffet of vegetarian platters with an Ottolenghi dash, chicken with watermelon and mango, just-baked apple frangipane tart, and fresh warm chocolate brownies.
In the evening, the day-people melt away, but some of us are ‘residential’, so we stay. For dinner, we start with cool crushed asparagus soup topped by a mound of burrata, and we finish with Eton Mess—if the food wasn’t so delicious, we simply wouldn’t stop talking. We’re all feeling inspired.
By bedtime, I’m tired, but not too tired to appreciate purple carpets and natural linen. Everything is spotlessly clean. Pasternak, I remember randomly before falling asleep, is one of those absurd surnames given to Jews in Russia, to identify them as Jews. It means parsnip.
On Sunday morning we all meet for breakfast in the conservatory. The organic eggs are courtesy of assertive beetroot-loving chickens with Russian names. I explore the house and cottages. From multi-faceted Andrew Logan artworks to decorative details by Brenda Gratwicke, each corner, each space, is designed to delight and indulge. Not to mention the views…
In one direction, there’s an old rose garden and new beehives. In another, there are the bolshie chickens and organic vegetable beds. Past a purple bench and a rabbit-proof gate, there’s a water feature that is part decking, part pond. Anthea Taylor, owner-dreamer of Stonehill, tells me that this natural swimming pool is fed by fresh-running well water. “It cost a lot to build,” she says. “But it’s a balanced eco-system. It’ll pay off over the years. Dive in whenever you want, you’ll be the first to use it.” Next thing you know, I’m in cool clear green water, surrounded by aquatic plants, informal gardens and trees full of birds. This is a haven. A weekend is not long enough.
Other cultural weekends coming up: Tarkovsky (1st September), Stravinsky (8th September), Chekhov, Tchaikovsky and more… Come with an appetite and don’t forget your swimming costume!