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The Cottage

An old building with an interesting history

There are several places closely related to the great Genesis history which can cause huge emotions in the mind and heart of a fan: Charterhouse School and Record Corner in Godalming, Friars Aylesbury, Headley Grange, The Farm and many others.
But one of the first stations of pagan pilgrimage that every serious hardcore follower dreams to do once in a lifetime is near to the secluded village of Wotton, Surrey, where one can find the Christmas Cottage, the enchanting place that the Macphail family generously rented free to Genesis for about six months, from October 1969 until the beginning of April 1970. As all of us know well, that was a very formative period for the band, so crucial for the passing from the early, immature From Genesis to Revelation songs to the more complex, typical Genesis sound one can hear on Trespass and beyond.

Thanks to the fantastic kindness and generosity of Richard Macphail, I had the chance to go to the Cottage on Sunday 1st June. This is a faithful report of an unforgettable day, based upon what Richard said during our visit, with his words quoted.  I wish to thank Richard once again, a big man with a big heart and a person who was intrinsic for the success of Genesis.

The history

The Macphail family bought Christmas Cottage in early 60’s, around the time the young Richard entered Charterhouse School to become friends with Mike Rutherford, Tony Banks, Peter Gabriel and especially Anthony Phillips. The Cottage belonged to Lyndon Travers, brother of Bill, who was a quite famous actor known for his part in Born Free with his wife Virginia McKenna. At that time almost all the large country estates were bought and sold as freeholds, which was a sort of lease. All the big landowners (in the Wotton area being the Evelyn Family) owned the cottages and the land and each successive occupant bought the leasehold property for a number of years. In this way the big owners could hold the property forever and ordinary people did not have any chance to own properties, but later the government changed the law and it became possible to redeem the freeholds at a reasonable cost. Mr. Jones, who bought the Cottage from the Macphails in the spring of 1970, took the chance immediately and with only £ 45.000 bought the freehold and straight away sold it to the current owners at a market price, making a very good profit. Mr. Jones, incidentally, is one of the biggest wine producers in the UK.
“ For my family it was a perfect place for weekends. At the time we lived in a flat in central London, close to Fleet Street, the famous newspaper street, and we used to go to the Cottage on Friday evenings until Sunday evening or Monday morning. It is only a one hour drive from London, not far from the city but very quiet and isolated, really enjoyable. We went there for all the 60’s but in the Summer of 1969, while we were in London during the week, it was burgled. As often happens when someone touches and steals your possessions the spell is broken and the place loses large parts of its magic, you no longer feel happy and safe in such a remote little house and therefore my mother did not want to go there again. So my father decided to sell it but rightly thought it best to wait until the following spring to have a better chance for a sale, with all the trees in green and the flowers in full blossom.”

The Arrival Of Genesis

So, purely by coincidence, the Cottage was empty for the whole winter just when Genesis, at the time with Ant Phillips and John Mayhew, decided to suspend all other plans for a year, give music a shot and  commit themselves to the development of the band. They needed to find a suitable place to stay and live together and the Macphail Cottage appeared the perfect solution. Richard’s father lent them the little house for free and also gave them a second hand bread-van from Rank Hovis MacDougall, the company he worked for.
“Essentially it was the period when Trespass was written. I can clearly remember an afternoon when I was washing up and saw Peter sitting on the Hammond B3 organ writing the lyrics for The Knife, the music was already done and he was going to assemble the words. Unfortunately I don’t have any photos or recordings of those days, it is one of my biggest regrets. We spent all the time at the Cottage except some weekends: if we did not have shows on Saturdays we all went back to our families and this was a huge relief for me because the respective mothers, especially Mike and Ant’s, sent them back with lots of food enough for weeks so I did not have to shop so much. We hadn’t any money and never went to the pub, even if our name was beginning to spread within the college circuit. A guy organized a special showcase with many young bands in a school in Kensington, London, all the sets were very short and we played in front of several promoters who could later book the best bands for other college shows. We obtained some bookings, mainly on Saturday nights, the students liked us and we were often invited back.”

The five Genesis members and Richard lived together at the Cottage and they were joined from time to time by another friend of the band called David Rootes, a sort of part time roadie. He lived in Clandon, not far from Wotton, and joined them for the gigs. Now he works for a company dedicated to Antarctic trips and explorations, there’s even a picture of him in one back-issue of the National Geographic.
 “Tony Stratton-Smith never came to the Cottage, he really did not need to come as he saw us ‘Upstairs at Ronnie Scotts’ every week in Frith Street, in fact he lived very close by in Dean Street. He signed us for Charisma for ten pounds a week and gave us confidence by taking a risk on us, so we left the Cottage and moved to London.”

The cottage yesterday and today

Along the years the Cottage has had some remodelling, looking today a bit different from the famous snowy photo featured in the Armando Gallo books (first in black and white for The Evolution Of A Rock Band and then in colour for From One Fan To Another).
“Around half of it is the same as it was, the main innovation is certainly the moving of the front door; the entrance is now on the old back of the house because there is a drive on the left that gives access to the actual front. This is a great improvement as the arrival is now far easier, during the Genesis days we had to carry instruments and all the equipment by hand from the parking space down the hill up to the Cottage  and this was a very hard work, especially in the winter with the rain and the wet leaves on the slippery ground. We even cut a small part of the wooden fence to shorten our way but, for example, the Hammond organ had to be carried along the narrow path  as were the other heavy pieces of equipment like the Leslie cabinet, which was  homebuilt  as we could not afford an original. Then Tony bought a Hohner electric piano, while the Mellotron arrived later from King Crimson, it was their second Mellotron as the first one, used for In The Court Of The Crimson King, had been severely damaged by a fire.

“On the ground floor of the Cottage there was a large open-plan space, a living room/dining room where we put some chairs, a sofa and the television set, this was the room where the band used to rehearse and luckily it has remained intact to the present day. Then, through a hallway, there was the old front door and just after it my original bedroom which Peter and Tony shared: now this room has become a lovely, large kitchen with a two-storey extension. Where now you can find the entrance lobby, my father had a small office with a telephone that Peter and I used for calling record companies and promoters. Upstairs there was a small bedroom used by Mike: at that time he had a girlfriend called Josie who often came to the Cottage to visit him. Near there was also my parents’ bedroom where me, Ant Phillips and John Mayhew slept on mattresses on the floor.”

Luckily, the current owners of the Cottage are well aware of the Genesis connection and collect articles in which the original members of the band have mentioned the Cottage. Obviously there are no actual traces of the group to be seen, but it is important to keep the memory of those days alive,  a key period not only for creating the unique, superb Genesis music, but also for achieving a necessary band discipline.

"The essence of true art is liberty inside order." (Pablo Picasso)

by Mino Profumo

first published in DUSK, issue 59, July 2008