The printed word has a lot to answer for and has changed the course of many lives.
On this occasion when it changed mine, I was cursorily scanning the personal columns of the Daily Telegraph looking for somewhere to live. My husband was away with his regiment on manoeuvres or practise camp, and I was filling in the trying gap between the baby’s ten o’clock and two o’clock feed.
We had to find somewhere to live for a year, and this night I found a few lines offering a country house in the right area for nearly the right price – for a year. The next day I rang. The owner was delighted – he was off to Greenwich Naval College and wanted someone to keep his house warm. “Chudor, ya’ know,” he told me, listing the bedrooms… We arranged a time that weekend to inspect the place, and when my husband returned the next day he went off on what he called a recce. He came back looking rather panic-stricken. “It’s bigger than Hampton Court,” he said, “and looks like it too, all red brick.” Undaunted, I persevered, rather fancying the idea of a stately home. We’d never be able to heat it, he argued, and then I saw the light – with an eighteen month old and a four month old, that mattered.
So I returned to the personal columns, and struck gold a week later. “This one sounds OK”, I said,” right area, right rent, and only five bedrooms” (my ideas had expanded considerably since my brush with Layer Marney Towers the previous week). I rang the owner – same story – wanted someone to live in it for a year, this time while he wound up his boat building business in East Anglia. “You’ll love it,” he said, “there’s the garden bedroom, the oak bedroom, the red bedroom, the four poster bedroom, and the end bedroom…” My husband panicked again.
But a few days later we set off on a light June evening driving through quiet Essex lanes, with honeysuckle and dog roses winding in among the high hazel, hawthorn and elderberry hedges. We found Newney Hall dreaming between fields and hedgerows, a small lake – which in the twilight was almost black, and edged with a tangle of lilacs and shrubs – lying between it and the road. The house, Tudor red brick, and Essex pantiles on the upper floor with casement windows, stretched beyond the lake, reaching into a circular lawn with a cedar in the middle. Beyond that, a walled orchard.
As we walked down the gravel drive I could hear the sounds of music coming from the house. A knock on the door revealed a rather vague looking woman with a viola tucked under one arm, and the bow held in her other, as though she could hardly bear to stop between bars to open the door. “George!” she called imperiously, and the seigneur hurried to welcome us. Within minutes the deal was done, and we moved in a week or so later.
The house had been built in the time of Edward the Sixth, Henry the Eighth’s son, and all the land around had been gifted to Wadham College, Oxford in the same reign, so nothing in the landscape had changed for over four hundred years. The fields and trees, lanes and barns were untouched by time, and since there was no sound of traffic, no jet planes practising, and only occasionally the sound of a distant tractor, the whole place lay wrapped in an almost primeval peace. There was no other house in sight.
Wood pigeons cooed incessantly somewhere in the trees, cocooning us in their summer sounds, the donkey in the next field brayed occasionally, the cows mooed as they shambled past to the milking shed at the farm beyond the house. The old red-tiled barns, grain sheds on staddle stones, and stables were laid out around a square, where the cows sheltered in winter. I walked across to the cow- shed every day with a baby on my hip, my eighteen month old trotting beside me, and carrying a big cream- ware jug to collect my fresh milk. We also went there to pick up new-laid eggs from the farmer.
The house was built from huge beams, and filled in between them with a mixture of mud and straw. They were plastered over, and the walls were about three feet thick, with deep window ledges where I put books and vases of flowers. Two old aunts had been living in the house before expiring and gifting it to George. In the mid-sixties they were over ninety, and the house was unchanged since the days when they had been born back in the 1870’s. So was the dust. When I moved an antique chest of drawers to dust behind it, a thrush disintegrated into fine powder.
I spring cleaned from top to bottom, washed curtains, scrubbed floors, polished Sheraton tables and dusted Chippendale chairs. It was like living in a time warp. No heating, a gas stove so old I’d never seen one like it, and neither had the serviceman when he came. If it’s working, best leave it, he said, shaking his head. I had a big kitchen with a big square scrubbed table in the middle, red and white checked tile floor which needed scrubbing every week, and a real larder with marble slab. My only gadgets a pop-up toaster and a wooden spoon!
At weekends a stream of friends came through, a childhood friend getting used to having MS, school friends with their babies and husbands, army friends with theirs, a friend of my husband, shell- shocked after being court- martialled – a Polish/ French student who had nowhere to go, a girl who was pregnant and needed somewhere to stay – she moved on, didn’t like my food, I think – cousins, godparents, in-laws, family… and then back to primeval peace during the week.
Once I dumped his steak and kidney pudding and vegetables on my husband’s head. Mistake. Apart from reprisals, lots of cleaning up to do. And later, I lay in the long sweet smelling grass in the orchard, where I’d seen the red fox glide through, and cried my eyes out under the late evening summer sky. At twenty six I thought no-one would ever love me again.
Not long after, we left that beautiful house to go to Hongkong, where the hectic life and chaos of those times obliterated the memories of that year in the country. But for years I have dreamt of it. In my dreams it’s bigger, and there are many more rooms. The furniture is more elegant and the rooms more beautiful. There is one room which is filled with such treasures that I only go into it sometimes… it feels sacred. I have no idea why I dream so often of this house I lived in for a short year so long ago. I don’t know what it symbolizes. I’ve lived in other houses and places just as magical… no doubt a psychologist would mine some profound Jungian theory from these dreams, delving into the unconscious and maybe coming up with an archetype!
Daphne du Maurier was obsessed with Menabilly the house she immortalised as Manderley in ‘Rebecca’, and wrote about her dreams of it, while another writer, Elizabeth Bowen, clung to the memories of her ancestral home in Ireland, Bowen House. Evelyn Waugh immortalised Lygon Hall in his book ‘Brideshead Revisited’. Like du Maurier writing about Manderley, Waugh’s writing about Brideshead breathes love, nostalgia and an ache, a longing to return.
It isn’t just writers who long for these enchanted places from the past. It’s as though the romance of their lost beauty, surrounded by dreaming country-side, grows tendrils into the heart which can never be untangled. … and this is not just the experience of a few. For some, it’s the house by the sea, for others, the log – hut in the wood… a longing perhaps for memories of happiness and holidays past, innocent times of laughter and love, for the sweet days of years gone by. It rarely seems to be a house in town that arouses these emotions … mostly these lost demesnes are part of an idyllic landscape. As the years go by, these landscapes become almost mythical places of perfection…
And once we’ve left, we can only return in our dreams. Though we have left something of ourselves behind in these special places, it is a different self, a younger self seeing the world as it was then. To return in the physical is to invite dis-illusion or disappointment. Things change, new owners improve on the simplicity that we treasured, the light is harsher, the house smaller, the garden neglected or smartened, trees and shrubs overgrown or cut down, the lake stagnant, and nothing is the same. So memories and dreams are the best we can have. And they are precious, and time cannot warp them or fade them. These are our private, personal paradises – our places in the heart.
Food for Threadbare Gourmets
Friend popped in for a girl’s drink. I still had some delectable rose from lunch together a couple of days before, so she came to help me finish it. Too late to get to the shops, I found I had nothing to nibble… no thin brown bread for smoked salmon and lemon juice, so blinis were fished out of the deep freeze, but then I had no cream cheese.
So I improvised by hard boiling a couple of eggs, slicing them thinly, and placing a slice on each buttered blini. Next layer was mayonnaise on the eggs, and lastly the salmon with a sprinkling of parsley. I cut the salmon in two pieces for each blini, so it was easy to bite them without wrecking the whole edifice! They went down a treat, and we had a happy hour laughing at ourselves and the world, before returning to the inescapable task of feeding our always hungry husbands.
Food for Thought
“’One pure act of acceptance is worth more than a hundred thousand exercises of one’s will,’ since it is a state of interior silence and quietude from which at the right time, the right action emerges without any volition.”
From ‘Taoism – The Way of the Mystic’ by Jean C Cooper 1905 – 1999 Born in China to missionaries, she grew up learning about Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism from her amahs. After studying philosophy at St Andrews, Edinbrugh, and lecturing in comparative religions, she lived with her husband in a remote Cumberland home (the lake district) where she had to generate her own electricity from a stream.