A paradise for book lovers has been created in restored farm buildings
Down a winding Warwickshire lane, bordered by high hedges and barley fields, lie a cluster of 19th century red brick barns. Once home to the cows of Soar End Farm, now many thousands of books sit beneath their restored oak beams.
Astley Book Farm is nestled between the picturesque village of Astley and the market town of Bedworth, five miles away. Inside 12 interconnected barns are two miles of books lining
rows of wooden shelves. Free-standing bookcases form a maze of corridors, creating nooks and crannies for visitors to sit and read.
This treasure store for book lovers was created 12 years ago by owners Vivienne Mills and Sarah Exley. The former moved into the rundown farmhouse, on the Arbury Estate, 23 years ago. “The farmhouse and barns were in a shocking state,” she says. “Fifty years of neglect had taken their toll, but I always felt I could breathe new life into them.”
Books have always been a passion for her, ever since she learned to read as a child. She loves the feel, the look and the smell of them, as well as the stories. In 2001, she was considering a change of career. Sitting in the garden with Sarah, overlooking the barns, they started to discuss the possibility of starting a book shop. The two had been friends for 25 years, and shared a love of books. “There was a distinct lack of good second-hand book stores around, so the time seemed right,” says Vivienne. On top of this, it seemed appropriate to open a shop on the estate, as the 19th century novelist George Eliot had been born four miles away.
The two women set up an online book-selling business in 2001, to raise the money to finance the restoration of the barns. This flourished, and is still running as AbeBooks.com. By 2004, they had the money needed to start work.
The estate owners, Lord and Lady Daventry, were keen supporters of the venture, and readily gave them the go-ahead to restore the barns. Once change of use approval came from the local council, work started. The first job was to build a new access road, car park and entrance as the original access was on a dangerous bend. This took two months to complete.
Years of neglect
Once the access road was finished, work could start on the barns. These needed making watertight. “There were no roofs on the former cowsheds and no windows,” says Vivienne. “Beautiful old oak beams were rotting away, and what should have been a thing of beauty could only be described as near dereliction. All the barns were in the same sorry state.”
Inside, decades of redundant and broken farm machinery littered the barns. Iron cattle feeders lay scattered around. The detritus of years of neglect had to be removed. Some of the waste went into skips, the rest was recycled. An old wooden cart wheel now stands against a wall in the outside eating area. The cattle feeders have been painted royal blue and given a new life as wall-mounted outdoor planters.
The work of restoring the buildings was done by Vivienne’s husband Stephen, and friends and family. It took seven years to fully restore all the barns, with the last one completed only five years ago. As each barn was finished, books were moved in and the business expanded.
Steel girders reinforced parts of the roof, but wherever possible, the original oak beams were retained. Bookshelves and cases were created from simple wood veneer and backed with hardboard. Wooden, glass-fronted, locking bookcases were ordered for collectable and antiquarian books. Two wood-burning stoves help keep the damp out. The barns are made of single brick with single glazing, which makes it an ongoing fight against humidity damage to the books.
Filling the shelves
Vivienne was delighted with the end result of the restoration. “The barns lent themselves to becoming a book store,” she says. “They deserve their new status, and the response from visitors makes it all worthwhile.”
With the first barn safe, secure and dry in 2004, it was time to fill it with books. Vivienne and Sarah scoured the countryside to find good, clean, second-hand volumes. They travelled to house clearances, car boot sales and charity shops. At one house clearance, they bought 15,000 books, and 10,000 at another. They were thrilled to find a signed Winston Churchill book, Arms and the Covenant and a second edition of The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin.
The book store started with 1,200 books in one restored barn. It now holds 75,000, with a further 80,000 in storage 3½ miles away in Nuneaton. The shelves are topped up weekly. They still go to sales, but today approximately 90 per cent of new stock comes from people bringing books to them.
“People turn up with books to donate, but I feel strongly that they should be paid for their trouble,” says Vivienne. “Most of the time they refuse, but we insist and suggest they give it to charity if they don’t want it.”
Arranging the books
The books are divided into genres, and arranged alphabetically by author. Best sellers are crime fiction, followed by history. They range in price from 50p for old, out-of-date reference books to £8,000 for valuable antiquarian collectors’ volumes. Titles such as The Ball Room Guide: A handy manual for all classes of society, dated 1890, and a first edition of Middlemarch by George Eliot, dated 1871, are housed in glass cabinets.
Valuable, collectable books, or simply ones with imperfections, are restored by a skilled local bookbinder. Some require loose pages to be inserted back into the book, others may need intricate spine repairs. Any books that do not make the grade end up in the Ten Bob Barn, a small farm building next to the main barns. Here, duplicates with slight damage, or out of fashion books, are priced at 50p. Nothing is sent to landfill. “All books have a use, a purpose in life, and we will never throw them away,” says Vivienne. “When you think of the hard work that went into writing those books, it would be criminal to destroy them.”
Time to browse
Customers are encouraged to choose a book and take time to browse it in one of the sumptuous leather, button-backed chairs provided. Some of these were donated by family, others bought at auction. In the travel section, at the end of the corridors, stands one of the wood-burning stoves. Many visitors take their book and, resting by the fire, let the world drift on by.
Younger readers are catered for in the hayloft, which is stacked to the brim with 4,000 books especially for them. A 5ft (1.5m) tall, black wooden lion stands guard at the entrance. “We bought the lion from an auction house,” says Vivienne. “It reminded me of Aslan the lion, in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, and I thought children would be intrigued by him.”
Both women work at the farm full time, Sarah having given up her job as an accountant. They also employ eight part-time staff. Vivienne’s 20-year management background in supermarket retail helped develop the winning ethos behind the book farm. “Whether you are selling apples, oranges or books, the principles are the same,” she says. “Always buy good quality stock. Make sure it’s what the customer wants, open when you say you will, and keep on top of current trends.”
Both share their customers’ love of reading. Vivienne’s preference is for fiction. She loves books by classic authors such as Daphne Du Maurier, Nevil Shute, Barbara Pym and George Eliot. Sarah’s passion is for non-fiction. Her favourites are biographies, memoirs and diaries.
Every day, Astley Book Farm is busy with new and returning visitors. “Reading is a pleasure, and people come here for a relaxed atmosphere,” says Vivienne. “We offer food for the mind, a place where you can stay for a short while or sit all day and read. I feel privileged to be able to offer this haven to visitors, and I am delighted with the results.”
In 1819, the celebrated Victorian writer George Eliot was born at South Farm, Arbury, four miles from Astley Book Farm. She was christened Mary Ann Evans. Three months after her birth, her family moved to Nuneaton, four miles away.
Her father was a land manager for the Arbury Estate. Mary Ann used to go with him on visits to tenants and to the hall. While her father conducted estate business, she would sit and listen to tales from the servants. Many of these stories resurfaced in her writing.
When she grew older, Mary Ann was invited to make use of the library at the hall. She took every opportunity to do so, until the death of her mother. Aged 16, she left school to become her father’s housekeeper, a role she filled until he died in 1849. At the same time, she was gaining a reputation as a journalist. In 1846, Charles Bray, a family friend, bought The Coventry Herald and Observer. He asked Mary Ann, or Marion, as she then liked to be called, to become the assistant editor. She wrote many articles and book reviews.
At the age of 30, she moved to London to take up a position as deputy editor of the Westminster Review. There, she met theatre critic and philosopher George Henry Lewes. In 1854, they moved in together. Lewes was married, and their relationship caused a scandal.
Lewes encouraged her to write fiction, but advised her to take a male pen name if she wanted to be published. Women authors were associated mainly with romantic fiction at the time. The name George came from her partner’s first name, while she thought Eliot sounded crisp and clean.
As George Eliot, she became a rich and successful author. The Mill on the Floss and Middlemarch were two of her most successful books. Six out of her eight novels, including these, were set in and around North Warwickshire, the place where she grew up.
Supporting the community
Five years ago, Vivienne and Sarah opened a café in the former milking parlour. The iron rail the cows were chained to is still visible and makes a natural room divider. Fresh scones are made daily by Vivienne, while cakes come from different Warwickshire bakeries. Cold meat for sandwiches is supplied by Frank Parker, an award-winning, family-run butcher in Nuneaton. “It gives me a sense of pride to know that
we use local suppliers,” says Vivienne. “And that we are creating
jobs for local people.”
Contact: Astley Book Farm, Bedworth, CV12 0NE Tel 02476 490235, www.astleybookfarm.com
Open daily from 10am-5pm
Words: Margaret Mather Photography: James Corbett