Tag Archives: houses

Home, history and a house

After three years in foreign parts – tropical ones, with only bougainvillea, cannas and frangipani to excite me, I found myself walking in an English field of shiny buttercups and shimmering green grass … hawthorn hedgerow cascading with pink and white blossom on one side, river on the other. I could hear a cuckoo. It felt like very heaven.

I was eighteen and this was how I had remembered the scenes of my childhood… shades of Sir Walter Scott’s:

Breathes there the man with soul so dead

 Who never to himself hath said,

This is my own, my native land…

We were living in a house lent to us by friends, far out in green hills and deep valleys. Offa’s Dyke was reputed to end in our garden, just above a huge S-bend in the River Wye. Offa lived from 757 to 796, and invented the penny. His dyke separated Mercia from Wales and stretched for ninety-eight miles from north to south. Whatever the truth of the rumour, behind the un-used stables there was a huge mound stretching into the back garden from the fields and woods beyond, and covered in hazel and hawthorn.

 Our nearest market town sported a magnificent ruined castle stretched above the river, and further out, poetic Tintern Abbey. And at nearby Devil’s Pulpit, a rocky outcrop looking over the river and across to the abbey, there was the usual legend of someone leaping his horse over in the dark, and coming to a sticky end far below.

The house was part Queen Anne and part Georgian, with a charming regency style wrought iron porch stretching along the garden side of the house. It looked over a lawn, where two ancient lime trees hummed with bees in summer, and seemed like silent sentinels in the wintry mist which hovered among their thick tangle of branches in damp winter months. Beyond the lawn was a ha-ha, but not deep enough to keep out the piebald pony who led a small herd of young steers through the gate-posts, up the drive, over the ha-ha and across the garden while every-one else was at church one morning.

By the time I’d rushed downstairs to shoo them away, they had meandered on into the little sheltered garden with a sundial, and pushed their way through the scraggy hedge which gave onto a lane, leaving only their deep hoof-prints.

The lane led down to a farm house, but before I got there, I would branch off through the woods with my puppy, and take the winding path which meandered down to the river. Just below the tree-line, and in the grass which borderedthe riverside was the ruin of a tiny fifth century church, only its outer walls still standing, empty windows framing the sky, ivy climbing part of the grey stone walls, and tangled brambles guarding the foundations. In spring the woods were filled with bluebells and windflowers. It too seemed like heaven.

The house was faded and gentle, dreaming in the silence of the country-side, no neighbours within sight. My bedroom had pretty flowered wallpaper, pale green painted thirties furniture and long windows looking over the garden. It had a soft sweet atmosphere. The other place that I loved, and where I spent solitary afternoons engrossed in a book was the so-called ballroom. Not a grand one, its claim to fame being the ceiling which had been copied from some famous library in a grand house.

Apart from the large and somewhat threadbare faded old carpet on the polished floor, the only other furniture in the room was a big drab-green brocade-covered Knole sofa, and a large gilt mirror over the carved fireplace. That was all I needed. On sunny days I sat on the cushioned window seat, on other days I curled up on the sofa. When I shut the door the silence and the solitude were absolute.

In the drawing room where everyone gathered, I amused myself by reading ancient copies of bound Punches from the book-shelves, and cracked up over stiff Edwardian jokes. Once, after a fearful row in which my step-grandfather took my side, calling me his little high-brow, I managed to get the wireless to myself to listen to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, and so I dreamed around the place, head in the clouds, picking flowers, adopting two wild kittens as well as the puppy, and driving everyone else mad.

I didn’t know anyone, but once a boy nearby invited me to a hunt ball at Tintern, and the rather erudite and elegant bachelor who lived on the corner further down, in a house filled with books and good furniture invited us to a pre-ball party. I thought he was much more interesting than my escort, and found the ball very dull, spoiled with too many in Malaya.

In Jane Austen’s time I suppose I would have loved the older man hopelessly, and ended up marrying the boy. As it was, I was catapulted into the army, my father hoping that “it would wake me up”.

Thirty years later on one of my trips back to England I went to see the house. I hardly recognised it. The beautiful grey stone walls had been covered with suburban ‘pebble-dash’ cement and stones. The grounds seemed to have been subdivided anda boring brick bungalow built in the new area. A row of dark evergreen windbreak trees replaced the charming informal groups of old deciduous trees down by the vegetable garden, and the ha-ha seemed to have been filled in. I wished I had never come back.

I drove sadly on down the lane. Walking through the woods, nothing had changed there, and thirty years had passed over the ruined church with barely a blink. Just a few more stones tumbled off the end wall, and the empty windows more crowded with ivy. Nature is gentler than mankind.

These memories were prompted by reading Clanmother’s lovely blog on Tintern Abbey


So it looks as though my tea-break is over… it’s been a busy one, with lots of family commitments as well as my own, but I’ve been so touched by messages from my blogging friends  – with so many blogs to read, I find it truly wonderful to be remembered and to receive so many messages encouraging me to return. Thank you all, so much. My word press settings seem to have changed since I took my tea-break, and I can’t work out how to put in pictures or any other paraphernalia, so in some ways this is an experimental post!

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

Ah well, Friend and I have been at it again. Meeting to have a glass of wine to catch up and discuss the mechanics of hiring chairs glasses etc etc for an eightieth birthday party she’s organising, we take to heart the dictum of always having something to eat with the wine. We’ve discovered a wonderful new spread to eat with a small chunk of roll.Roast a couple of aubergines, and scrape out the flesh into a blender. Pour in a cup of cashew nuts, ground coriander and ground ginger powder to taste, the juice of a lime or a lemon, and salt to taste. Whizz this into a thick textured paste and enjoy with relish and some bread or biscuits!

Food for Thought

A grace found in an old book of recipes…

Lord, forgive us that we feast while others starve.

Bishop Charles Gore at a banquet





Filed under Uncategorized

Places in the Heart

100_0223The 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.







Filed under birds, cookery/recipes, family, great days, happiness, life/style, love, spiritual, The Sound of Water, Thoughts on writing and life, Uncategorized, village life