Littlestoke Farm in Oxfordshire is mentioned in the Domesday Book and has been home to the Ducker family for a century. Its latest custodian, the artist Catherine Ducker, tells Jessica Jonzen how art and creativity have brought it into the modern day
LITTLESTOKE MANOR FARM. IMAGE: ÉVA NÉMETH FOR THE HOME PAGE
A little over a hundred years ago, a World War I veteran named Noel Blake Ducker fell in love with a farm nestled in the heart of the Oxfordshire countryside. After the horrors of the trenches, the plot – an idyllic swathe of land between the River Thames and the chalk hills of the Chilterns which had been farmed for more than a thousand years – offered him a glimpse of a new kind of life.
In the wake of so much death and destruction Littlestoke offered Noel the opportunity to nurture and create, and he resolved to leave his native Cheshire and spent every penny he had on buying the farm. Here, he developed a progressive mixed arable and livestock farm, raised a family and started a legacy.
A century later, Noel’s granddaughter – the renowned artist Catherine Ducker, whose work was recently displayed at the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition – is the custodian of Littlestoke, and is continuing his mission in her own unique way.
CATHERINE DUCKER WITH HER DOGS ROSA AND JOSIE. IMAGE: ÉVA NÉMETH FOR THE HOME PAGE
The fields are now given over to organic crops, conventional crops and flowers; the farm buildings – once occupied by livestock and farm machinery – are now filled with the hubbub of creative businesses. The farmhouse itself has shrugged off its past formality and eased into a warm and welcoming family home, acting as the beating heart of a vibrant community. “Everything is back to being cherished,” says Catherine, who lives at Littlestoke with her children Edie, 16, and 13-year-old Theo, and partner, Frank, along with their two dogs Josie and Rosa.
Catherine grew up visiting her grandmother at Littlestoke and helping out with the cows, building, making and planting. She moved to the farm as a ten-year-old child along with her parents and older sister when her late father, Philip, took over the running of the farm. “My father was an engineer and was pioneering in so many ways,” says Catherine. “He became certified organic, he was in a growers’ community and was also running a business, all while dealing with MS,” says Catherine.
Growing up, Catherine’s artistic sensibility was completely at odds with her parents’ immensely practical world. While studying at Central Saint Martin’s College of Art and Design, she would bring fellow students back to the farm where they would spend hours in one of the farm workshops: “we’d make things like totems and were just lost in this world that my parents didn’t even notice,” she says.
THE PANELLED SITTING ROOM AT LITTLESTOKE MANOR FARM. FAMILY HEIRLOOMS AS WELL AS FLOWERS GROWN AND ARRANGED BY GREEN & GORGEOUS FLOWERS ALONG WITH CATHERINE’S ART MAKE FOR A RICHLY LAYERED ROOM. IMAGE: ÉVA NÉMETH FOR THE HOME PAGE
(LEFT) CATHERINE’S DESK. (RIGHT) CATHERINE’S GRANDFATHER INSTALLED NUMEROUS WOODEN CARVINGS, COLLECTED DURING HIS TIME WORKING IN AFRICA. IMAGES: ÉVA NÉMETH FOR THE HOME PAGE
The great challenge facing family farms today is how to evolve in a way which is harmonious with the modern world so they can continue to run as profitable businesses. Knowing that she would one day be custodian of the farm, Catherine understood Littlestoke had to move with the times. “I realised back in 2000 that the future of the farm lay not in dairy but one element would be in organic crops, and so I enrolled on a Horticultural Master’s degree at Reading University to learn all I could. I became absolutely obsessed with horticulture, just as I was with art.”
Catherine’s father died in 2002 while she was studying and when she returned to Littlestoke she established a market garden, ushering in a new chapter for the farm. “Everyone thought I was completely mad at the time,” she admits. The market garden was a precursor to Green & Gorgeous Flowers, the renowned flower farm run by Rachel Siegfied and her partner Ashley Pearson, who took on plot in 2008 when Catherine moved away from the farm to concentrate on raising her family.
Catherine returned to Littlestoke in 2014 after her divorce, first into one of the estate cottages, before moving into Littlestoke Manor Farm itself in 2015 after the death of her mother, Ann. What was it like moving into the home she had grown up in? “It’s a huge responsibility taking this on as well as managing the land and businesses here, but I knew I had to make it work,” she says.
THE DINING ROOM AT LITTLESTOKE MANOR FARM, WITH CATHERINE’S PAINTINGS ON DISPLAY. IMAGE: ÉVA NÉMETH FOR THE HOME PAGE
(LEFT) CATHERINE DUCKER OUTSIDE HER HOME. (RIGHT) ANCIENT BUTTONS AND BULLETS FOUND IN THE FIELDS AT LITTLESTOKE, ON DISPLAY IN THE DINING ROOM. IMAGES: ÉVA NÉMETH FOR THE HOME PAGE
One of the first things Catherine did was redecorate her bedroom in a vibrant green, painting over the 1980s fitted wardrobes installed by her parents. Her daughter Edie’s bedroom was decorated with classic chintz wallpaper, complemented by an ornate painted armoire. Immensely practical as well as creative, Catherine recently built herself a new kitchen.
Naturally, Catherine’s art can be seen throughout the house. As well as her extensive travels in India and Ghana, Catherine’s work is deeply connected to Littlestoke and largely inspired by the local landscape as well as the flowers grown by Rachel and Ashley. “My inspiration has always been the land; revealing the life within the landscape,” she says. Indeed, her art, the farm and its ecology, are all one in a symbiotic relationship.
Littlestoke Manor Farm is mentioned in the Domesday book and over the years Catherine has collected ancient buttons and bullets from its fields, all of which are displayed in a cabinet in the dining room. “The farm is entrenched in history – not just my family’s, that’s only 101 this year,” says Catherine. “Littlestoke has been in the family for a long time, but it’s a business as well as a home.
(LEFT) CATHERINE’S ART DECO BATHROOM FEATURES A VINTAGE YELLOW BATHTUB WITH ORNATE BRASS TAPS. (RIGHT) EDIE’S CHINTZ-THEMED BEDROOM. IMAGES: ÉVA NÉMETH FOR THE HOME PAGE
As such, Littlestoke is home to 15 families and 14 independent businesses, including the Green & Gorgeous flower farm and interiors brand Goose Vintage. In 2019, Catherine opened The Coaching Barn at Littlestoke, a former derelict outbuilding which once housed the coaches, and which she redesigned and helped rebuild herself as a community project devoted to creativity. Here, children and adults alike can learn art – taught by Catherine or other local award-winning artists; photography; calligraphy; cookery; nutrition; flower-arranging and yoga, with courses in ecology planned for the future.
“Children were the real focus with starting The Coaching Barn; for me it’s all about the next generation,” says Catherine. “I wasn’t understood as a child, so I wanted to create a space where children feel understood. I also realised that women needed a place of calm in which to gather. I want to share this special place with others.”
It’s the latest chapter in a storied home which continues to serve and nurture – not only its current inhabitants, but those of the future.
CATHERINE DUCKER IN HER STUDIO WITH ONE OF HER PIECES. IMAGE: ÉVA NÉMETH FOR THE HOME PAGE
(LEFT & RIGHT) THE COACHING BARN, WHICH CATHERINE DESIGNED HERSELF AND WHERE SHE RUNS COURSES FOR CHILDREN AND ADULTS. IMAGES: ÉVA NÉMETH
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