For it is here in Churt that Eddie Powell established his world-famous Sculpture Park, featuring his own works as well as those of internationally acclaimed artists. It is also here that he opened Miscellanea, a veritable Santa’s grotto of delights for the home.
If you are looking for something present-wise a bit more imaginative than the usual high street tat, we recommend you take a gander round both these emporia: at the Sculpture Park you might find a bird box – “tit box”, as Powell insists on calling them – for as little as £9.95, while you might also discover amid the foliage (if Santa is feeling especially flush this year) a sculpture for £250,000.
At Miscellanea, meanwhile, you will see chairs, decorative pieces, paintings, stuffed birds and lights along with its staple of unusual bathrooms and kitchens. No wonder folk come from as far as Australia, America and South Africa just for a browse – in its quirkiness, it is quintessentially British.
It is also quite naughty. Eddie’s son Charlie, who has taken a prominent role in the business, points to a pink sculpture in the middle of a lake. Look closely, and you realise it is a vagina with liquid spurting from its core: less vagina monologue than vagina monsoon.
Dad got my brother and I to build that when we were kids, we had no idea what we were actually making
Charlie smiles ruefully. “He couldn’t understand it when the local paper declined to run a photo of us boys clambering over it…”
And that is by no means the most extraordinary work on display. An elaborately chiselled wall is going up, and Powell waves his hand: “That used to be in Euston Station…” Not the famous arch, I ask if only as a joke.
“That’s the one, the poet what’s-his-name grew quite cross when it was pulled down.” Just a bit: the poet was John Betjeman, and his unsuccessful campaign to save the arch in 1960 pretty much gave birth to the entire heritage movement that seeks to save historic monuments. A society to this day led by Michael Palin and Dan Cruickshank exists to re-assemble the arch in Euston: one wonders if they know half of it is being knocked up in Eddie’s back garden.
Eddie gives me a tour of the park, variously pointing out some of his own work – such as a skeleton atop a penny farthing – as well as some truly amazing works like a dragon on top of a pagoda, (“it was the show stopper at Chelsea [Flower Show], its £180,000 but we are open to offers…”), deer locking antlers, or wolves prowling through the woods. All the while he dispenses his firm opinions (“Damien Hirst is probably a better businessman than an artist”.) While not doing that, Eddie is either hollering at one of his labourers or barking into his mobile, whether bidding for an art work or sending money to a friend in financial trouble.
He is as if Michelangelo met Del Boy Trotter: safe to say, I’ve never met anyone even half like Eddie Powell.
The tour continues. We pass an atmospheric shipwreck “commissioned by Boris when he was mayor,” explains Charlie. It hasn’t sold, and remains becalmed, rather like Johnson’s career.
I venture to Charlie that it must have been a brilliant place to grow up. “Oh indeed,” he beams. “We would come back from school and swim in the lake. Many of my school friends have ended up working here. I’ve travelled, far enough to realise what I have here. We all appreciate it’s a magical place.”
There is a slight hint of subversion about the Valley, half transported from Wales, half from a Hollywood film-set. As a side-line the Powells have become one of the last remaining suppliers in the UK of coloured bathrooms (and not just avocado, “sepia brown” is apparently a strong seller). They go to ironic hipsters but also to old style houses where the owners have broken one of the pieces. “We store them all in Lloyd George’s old greenhouse,” laughs Charlie, who has catalogued the thousand-odd works in the park.
He points out a vast eagle made of wine corks. “It was at the Eden Project, commissioned by the RSPB to show that the cork industry was destroying the habitats of eagles,” says Charlie. But before I can fully take it in I am looking at a head of Churchill. “Taken from the same cast as the statue in Trafalgar Square,” he says casually.
The Powell males are helped by Eddie’s daughter Sian, who is developing the website and who ultimately thinks online sales could become the major part of the business. She sits there patiently as Eddie admonishes her for missing out in an online auction while also ordering Friday fish and chips for the workers, but she seems happy enough. “Everybody leaves here feeling calm with a smile on their face,” she says.
And so Eddie drives me over to the shop in a Volvo full of more junk than your average scrapyard. “Do you know much about it?”
he asks. “It’s pretty good for a village shop. It was a hardware store selling a few hundred quid a week. We had it taking £100,000 a week.”
Miscellanea is run by Leigh Courtnage, who first visited as a customer 26 years ago, and loved the company so much she stayed. She shows me a ceiling decorated with jauntily covered basins, an old-fashioned library wall which opens onto a contemporary bathroom and wallpaper that looks like a buttoned back armchair.
She is a master at mixing the traditional with the modern. “I remember seeing a room of Yves St Laurent from Paris re-created in Christie’s in London,” she says. “It combined Constables with Légers, but there was a yellow colour theme and the whole thing hung together perfectly. It taught me how you can mix things up.”
She stops by a woman’s mirror under outsize white feathers. “The showgirl,” she smiles. “Completely over the top, but I love it.” In another corner is a model of a man sitting on a loo, next to a glass bath. “Now if that doesn’t boost your love life…” she laughs.
“No-one can live in total minimalism for long, everyone ends up gathering things,” she says as we pass a tap for which water runs up into rather than down. There is, she says, a move away from dull Farrow and Ball tastefulness towards traditional things with a bit of modern quirkiness. If the shop is anything to go by, it is a look which works.
As I leave I think back to a past Christmas shopping trip when I met a friend on Oxford Street a few minutes before the stores were to close on Christmas Eve. We both clutched, pitifully, a bottle of Channel No5, knowing that this wouldn’t cut it, not nearly – but not knowing what on earth to do about it.
If that is you, it might be worth a trip deep into those Surrey hills…