It seems to have been raining forever. Apparently February 2020 was the wettest on record; three consecutive weekends, each accompanied by its own storm, making it difficult not to feel we might be edging closer to the prophesied ecological armageddon. Time to seek out and take what succour we can find, where we can. And it is there when you look for it. Honest.
Yesterday Coop and I walked out on an egg hunt. And because the sun was shining and there were flowers blooming in the wet and glistening banks we walked further than we had planned. We walked up to Creedy Widger, down to the Mill and across Shaky bridge, marvelling at the swollen river and the water pouring down the roads. We were hailed, rained and sleeted on, until I could no longer feel my hands and the eggs I had won at the farm gate fell from inside my jacket in to the mud-slushed sheep field.
But we found dog’s mercury, violets, primroses, stitchwort, daffodils, periwinkle, snowdrops, lesser celandine, pennywort, hart’s tongue ferns and all sorts of mosses and greenery and catkins waving against the leaden sky.
We paddled through mud and up lanes streaming with water rushing to join the streams and inlets feeding towards the river. The sheep looked glum, but each day on our early walks in the field at the back of the house I can hear the birds’ chorus getting stronger. I’ve noticed the blue tits chasing each other in the hedges, the male blackbirds swooping defensively at each other in the lanes. Spring is stirring at the gate.
I wrote a poem a couple of springs back, when we lived on the Bere Peninsula, a place rich with mining and agricultural heritage and, due to its position between Dartmoor and Exmoor drawing in the rain, rich in rain, too…
We are all on the run
This morning I circled the sloping woodland, its gaping mine shafts, fly-tipped and ivy strangled, the chimney on its perch, rook-claimed and crumbling. And through the bramble the red flash of a dog fox, thundering the hoof-churned field, scarlet-haunted. It had been weeks of rain, everything gone to ground, but today there was blue in the sky, the chase back on. In the lane a pheasant bustled in the hedgerow, rose, screeching, into the open air.
Before & after in the garden
Conscious of the approaching nesting season we have cracked on with the hedges in the garden. When I say we, I mean Simon Nuthall and his crew who came to help us on Monday…
Here are some before and afters of what they achieved in one dank and soggy day…
We still have heaps of leylandii and laurel to get rid of but since a neighbour came to complain about my burning the cuttings from the orchard a while back, hovering in the garden to tell me that our house was haunted by an unhappy spirit, I’m not sure I want to take my chances again… suggestions on what to do with half a ton of leylandii and laurel in combination with challenging access very gratefully received. We live in a farming community, so there is always a bonfire somewhere in the valley, but I am super keen not to upset the neighbours (nobody complained when the men bonfired on Monday).
I know, as soon as I step into the bright, sunlit room, that it isn’t going to go well. I have been booked to read at a lunchtime gig designed to give creative women with caring responsibilities a space to share work they’ve created with the event’s headline poet. Not to feel excluded by the pressures of parenthood, parents have been encouraged to bring their children along. I thought the premise sounded great. I could remember all too well the endless interruptions – the impossibility of finishing a thought, a conversation, or a cup of tea – of being a new parent. This was an idea I could get behind. I thought of Joyce Carol Oates saying that interruption is the great enemy of writing, whether the interruption came from technology or the demands of family.
The room smells milky and sweet. Young mothers and a smattering of young fathers fill the rows of chairs, chatting to each other, nursing babies, feeding carrot sticks to tousle-haired toddlers scrambling for toys on the play mats. My heart thumps and my mouth grows dry as I think of the carefully printed poems in my satchel; quiet, contemplative, ringed with darkness and danger. I look around the room that resembles, and sounds like, a toddler group. What I am about to say is probably not what these sleep-deprived, overstretched people need to hear. They needed distracting, not focussing, on the abyss. Nope, this wasn’t going to go well.
A relative newcomer to sharing my work with an audience, and certainly new to the arts scene in a new city, I have been learning the lie of the land. A friend and I have set up a poetry/spoken word open mic night and I perform at open mics and readings around the region. I know what it takes to share your work – it’s like teetering, naked, at the edge of a cliff and letting yourself fall while shouting out your most intimate secrets to a sea of strangers. That’s what it’s like for me, anyway. You have to trust the audience to catch you – to become your people, even if only for that moment. I am mindful of this when I attend or host an evening – it costs nothing to be kind and, in my experience, makes all the difference to a reader.
Earlier, catching sight of the headline poet across the bar I’d gone over excitedly, stretching out my hand. ‘Hi, I’m Ysella’, I said, ‘I’m your support.’
‘Oh, hi,’ they said, and turned away.
All new situations and places take navigating. Poetryland, it turns out, is not all pastoral scenes and fluffy kittens. Just like life, it is a competition. I’m not keen on competitions.
Back in the studio the hosts tell the audience that tempers and tantrums are not things to be shy of – my kind of crowd – so I take a deep breath and tell myself I’ve got this. I chat with the audience as I wrangle to set up the mic and latecomers brush past, the volume rising in the room, children breaking free from their parent’s grasp. The mic doesn’t sound great, but I go on with my set, focussing, with all I’ve got, on remembering my words. It feels like trying to recite the alphabet backwards while somebody repeatedly taps my head and somebody else calls my name from another room.
The headliner bounces onto the stage after me, with a cheerful, ‘Shall I use the mic?’, and is answered with a resounding and emphatic ‘NO!’ by the audience. I feel crushed. Afterwards a poetry friend explains that the reverb on the mic had made me inaudible, or at the least, not pleasant to listen to. Why had nobody caught me? I was learning and learning fast – next time I would catch myself.
I sat and listened to the women share their work – it was moving and sometimes challenging – one young mother cradled her newborn in a sling, rocking in that instinctive motion that, once learned as a mother, is picked up again at the slightest provocation – and cries as she reads her poems about miscarriage and abortion. She is red-faced, tear-streaked, and troublingly vulnerable and I want desperately to go over and hug her. Another young mother has written and memorized an epic ode to tandem breastfeeding which she delivers – word perfect – whilst juggling a toddler at her breast who cries each time that he loses his latch.
I find it difficult to escape the sense of competition, even here. Perhaps there is no getting away from it. Perhaps, after all, it is what life is. The headliner closes with a rallying cry to keep going and to find a way to be creative, at any cost – ‘There’s always a way’, they say. As I get up to leave, I’m not sure that I agree.
Meanwhile, back at the house, progress has slowed as Glen has settled in to a new job, and we have wrestled with illness, family crises and January. The house feels perpetually grubby and, in truth, a bit smelly – the ancient brown sink smells, the overflow needs regular emptying of putrid water redolent of stink bombs in school corridors. No matter how much wiping down I do (and to be honest, I’ve pretty much given up) the surfaces remain lined with a layer of dirt that falls, I can only imagine, from between the holes in the ceilings.
It is a hard-work-house; everything is a long way away and awkward. Nothing fits, or works properly, or stays open, or shut. Buckets of water need emptying, logs and coal and shopping need barrowing uphill from the back of the car. The house is dark, cold and a bit gloomy. A sea of cables snakes around the kitchen and lounge, trying to compensate, mostly ineffectually, for the dearth in sockets. My enthusiasm is waning.
We are however, researching replacement windows (we are currently at quote number five) and starting to think about replacing the kitchen and bathroom. We have found someone to help us reduce the hedges – leylandii and laurel, to a manageable height, though what to do with the mountain of chippings or how to get the chipper up here now our neighbour’s wall has collapsed, spilling earth and stones across the footpath, I don’t know. Everywhere I go people seem to have stories about the houses they’ve been working on for years that never seem to get finished. My heart sinks with every telling. I want to air the house, throw open the windows, and spring clean like Moley. It feels like living in the ‘before’ version of a TV reality show.
But then there is a light in the gloom – a surprise email to tell me that a 6 years lost member of our animal family, a cat called Hicks, has been handed in to an RSPCA rescue centre back up in Surrey. I read and re-read it and, hand shaking, pick up the phone to call them. Could it really be her? It is – ‘Hicks is well’, Oreana tells me – when would you like to collect her?’
When I call Glen, who is standing on the platform at Exeter Central, he sobs. Since we have been together we have each experienced a diminishing of our families, so this feels like a gift, a return, a blessing.
Two days later and we are standing in the cattery at Chobham, holding Hicks. The unit is clean and bright. It is facilitated by a team of women, all powdered faces, latex gloves and comforting efficiency, busily loading washing machines and tumble driers, taking time to notice and fuss the animals. A kindly woman takes the carrier off me as I wrestle with the catch, carefully unfastening it to line with newspaper and fetching Hick’s blanket and toys to reassure her on her journey to her new, old life. ‘I’d thought to go back to her this morning,’ she says, ‘she came over to me when I went in and rubbed around me and I thought how lovely she was’. She seemed like the same Hicks to me – just bigger. She certainly hasn’t been underfed in her wanderings.
It was 2014 when we moved house and Hicks disappeared. Claud managed to stick with us through every house move but Hicks voted with her feet the very first time. As kittens they used to follow us on walks round the fields and woods in Abinger Common, their feet drumming as they careered after us, hurling themselves at tree trunks like the rubber men that as kids we threw at windows and stuck with a satisfying ‘splat’! On one occasion we met a boisterous dog on a walk and Claude took refuge in a tree while Hicks disappeared. I found her later that night, her yellow eyes illuminated in the torchlight, hiding and meowing, down a rabbit hole in the bank.
I think that when she left us in 2014 she must have found an older person to live with who cuddled her endlessly and fed her on a diet of sardines and double cream. I can only imagine that some kind of change of circumstance – perhaps the sardines and cream dried up – meant that she was back on the hoof again. And so, for 6 weeks or so a kind lady, back in Shere, the same village we’d lost her, had been feeding her when she’d appeared at her back door. Hicks had made a bed under a bush in her garden until the kindly lady’s concern, combined with her own cat’s disdain, meant that she had taken her to the RSPCA for rehoming. I am grateful for all the acts of kindness and the wonders of microchipping, that have led to us having her home with us again.
She has settled brilliantly, quickly making friends of both Cooper and the sofa. To begin with she wouldn’t venture further than the kitchen and lounge but in the last few days she has ventured further, finding the beds and starting to sit on windowsills to contemplate the outside world. Yesterday I got the sunny day I had longed for and left the back door open. Hicks followed, hackles up, rubbing and sniffing at things tentatively. She climbed the steps to explore the woodshed with its micey smells, climbing on up to the sunny lawn and then round the corner to the wooded bit. Cooper barked, suddenly, at his ball and she was a black flash, running back to the safety of the house.
For a few days there was a mini southwest media storm around her return. I found myself signing off press releases and negotiating a radio interview and photoshoot. People got in touch from Surrey and Devon to tell us that they had heard or read about Hick’s return. At work people stopped me in corridors or mentioned in the kitchen that they had heard about her. A photographer visited – the most stressful hour of my life – to wrangle some photos of me holding what was a very cross cat (see photo above) with a view to selling the story to the nationals – a Women’s mag was interested too. As the photographer left he said he wasn’t sure of our chances – they’d had another RSPCA story on the same day about a woman who had her cat returned to her after twelve years.
In the end our story didn’t run in the nationals or the Women’s mag and Emily tells me she saw the story of the twelve years cat on the TV. And so, as it turns out, it is all a competition, in the end. I think I’ll adopt the Hicks philosophy and take myself off quietly to be hugged and fed on a diet of sardines and cream.
Once the new year had turned we prised ourselves from the cave of our house and ventured north, like migrating swallows, following the sun along the rippling barrows and downs of the plains, towards Surrey. The roads grew busier and the drivers more impatient; the rubbish-strewn banks and flashy cars telling us that we were nearly there. We travelled along the wooded vale of the Hog’s Back, past the hotel where Mum had her 21st; youngsters looking like middle-aged movie stars, wearing gloves and stoles and smoking cigars.
Before we came to live in Devon we lived in Abinger Common, a village in the Surrey Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB). Surrey is England’s most wooded county, and 40% of the AONB’s land area is wooded (i), so the woodlands were important to us; woven into our heritage, memories and ideas of ourselves.
Glen grew up in a little hamlet in a wooded valley in the parish of Abinger called Friday Street. Named after the Roman God Freya, it consists of half a dozen or so houses spread along the greensand and muddy-bottomed, copper coloured dell, not so much crowding as ambling around the hammer pond at its centre. The lanes that lead there are rooted with oak and beech, its woodland ancient and purpled with bluebells, drifted with the pinks and whites of cow parsley and shepherd’s purse in the spring. It is dark a lot of the time, and damp. The hamlet once rang with the metal shiver of industry as water powered a huge hammer in the pond to beat iron from stone foraged in the surrounding hills.
Yew Tree Cottage, where Glen grew up and his parents still live, is the kind of house that people stop to look at. It has the character of a cottage from a childrens’ story; the garden, a stream babbling through it, wraps itself around the house, a family of scarecrows keeps watch over rows of vegetables eyed by mischievous rabbits; the cottage walls are scrambled with roses. Glen’s grandfather, Nelson came to live here as a child, his family trailing their possessions along the dusty cart tracks from neighbouring Gomshall to make it their home. His son, Jack, was born here and, in turn, his son, Glen. Yew Tree Cottage is the heart of the family, a place for parties where everybody does a turn and hats are the order of the day, a place where you can always hear the story of Jack balancing on a stool in the kitchen, returned home, wonky from the pub, to shoot at mice in the pantry with an air rifle.
My grandparents, Victor and Lorna came to live in a neighbouring part of the parish from Fulham, grown weary of sheltering in tube stations from nightly bombings, and our family grew around them. Grandma would take my brothers and me to pick snowdrops, primroses and bluebells in Abinger’s copses and woods; coaxing us up Dorking’s sister hills; Pitch Hill, Holmbury Hill, Leith Hill, Box Hill with a bar of Galaxy in her coat pocket.
At our first Devon home, on the Bere Peninsula, the woodland that remained clung in stubborn strips to the road and water sides, its ancient oaks and orchards dynamited long ago to make way for agriculture and market gardening. Clearing for cultivation has deprived Devon of much of its ancient woodland; since Roman times people have done away with the wildness of woods in order to produce food, power industry and to build. Dartmoor, today a largely treeless wilderness, was once covered by temperate rainforest. So when we arrive back in Abinger we head, in the bright January sunshine, straight for the wooded slopes of Leith Hill, where the air feels right. We climb together, Cooper wagging excitedly, stopping to greet each stranger like a long lost friend. We feel the echoes of all the little feet that have accompanied us over the years, my son Calum and dog Cassie, Glen’s daughters Rae and Eve and their dog Lola, tribes of friends and cousins. I think of mud-streaked children jumping from behind trees brandishing guns fashioned from sticks, balancing on slippery fallen tree trunks, bandanaed and dangerous; splashing in puddles, making camps, running up and down the sandy slopes; slurping hot chocolate and soup at the summit, looking for the sea winking in the Worthing gap to the south, Wembley’s arches, the towering structures of the city, blinking to the north.
That evening we gathered with Glen’s family to celebrate Jack’s 90th birthday. They still know how to party. I realise as I watch them how we are made by the stories we tell of ourselves and that this is especially true of families. After dinner Jack tells funny stories and the grandkids ask for repeated favourites from his courtship with Christine, from their childhoods – the roots of their own beginnings. Joey tells big, funny stories about the extended family’s – four generations – Christmas together; the grandmothers competing over the grandchildren and the cooking, over which family way was best, whose way should survive; each member’s role in the family reinforced by the telling.
While we were away I heard myself answer people’s polite enquiries about the house, about whether we were happy, with uncertain, ‘Oh, Glen loves it!’ and ‘Yes, it’s good, but it’s cold!’. From a distance I could think only of its awkwardness, of it’s daring us to love it. For the first day of our visit I ached to be back in the fold, living in Abinger and picking up the threads of our shared story. I longed to be able to walk, as we did on Saturday afternoon, in a big group of children, dogs, friends and family, tramping through familiar woods and ending up at the pub.
But by the second day the itch for our new life, our new story, began again. It was a good story, and it was unfolding. Who knew what would happen next? On Sunday we came home. Walking down from the car to the house on Rose and Crown Hill I noticed the quiet, the distant call of cows in the fields, the flap and caw of the rooks circling overhead, the occasional cross buzz of a passing car. The air felt right here too.
I smiled when I saw the house. Inside it was still Christmas and as I went about taking it down, feeling the usual childish sadness that it was over for another year, I could see and feel that we had been in a little bubble of Christmas and togetherness and that the house had held us.
I took the dog out, walking through the now familiar fields towards the farm to see if there were eggs in the Deliveroo bag at the end of the drive. It was empty so I walked up to Creedy Widger where I found eggs in a box at the gate, and Janice, the keeper of hens, with her neighbour and their collective swirl of dogs, talking in the road. I joined them in the failing light and when the neighbour moved off Janice said, ‘Would you like to see the girls?’.
We went to look at the gathering of Plymouth Rocks and Sussex crosses and their rather pleased-with-himself cockerel, scratching about in the orchard, green and lush with December’s rainfall, at the bottom of her garden. ‘They should be gone’, says Janice, tutting slightly, ‘they’re 8; we’re farmers; going soft in our old age’. She talked about her farming life, and we laughed as she told me how the white-faced bullocks had broken out from the barn over the road, churning up the field in their delight.
As I returned home her neighbour, an older lady, dressed in home counties tweed, a fraying fluorescent sash flapping from her shoulder, a collie watching the ball in her hand as if its life depended upon it, called to me from the strip of woodland by the side of the stream,
‘It’s a long way to go for your eggs,’ she said, reproachfully, motioning to Creedy Widger at the top of the lane, ‘you should go to the farm!’
‘I did’, I said, ‘they’d run out! I don’t mind, I like the walk. That’s my favourite view,’ I say, pointing to the green slopes above the rain-soaked meadows, ‘I want to find the footpath that takes you over those hills and comes back down through Broxford Woods.’
‘I’m not sure it is a footpath anymore,’ she says.
‘Well, I thought I’d have a go and see if anyone tells me off,’ I say.
‘That’s the spirit!,’ she calls.
I love the people and I’m learning to love the house, but it is the garden that will bind me to this place. In the days between Christmas and new year we made a start on one of the sheds, dragging cobwebbed boxes down into the courtyard to turn out. They offered a lifetime of the previous owner, Mr Newton’s, gardening secrets; the ways to suppress, exterminate and scare off anything furred, feathered or fungal. There are mole and rat traps that resemble mediaeval torture instruments which I dispose of, with a shiver. There are packets of ancient beans and seeds and tags and I think of Mr Newton in the garden here with his Jack Russells, pottering about, planting and planning, staking the trees he has planted, sitting on the commemorative bench he has placed in the shade of the lime trees for his wife. I am always finding plastic bottles, buried up to their necks at the base of plants, which I heave out.
His son tells us that he moved to The Lynch to be near his sister, leaving behind 40 acres of carefully curated trees at their home in Gloucester. The first time that we let ourselves into the house we found a carefully drawn plan, in his hand, along with notes and a key to help us care for the trees he planted here. There are rare and unusual apples and cypress and the most beautiful witch hazel that is flowering now, bringing much needed colour to the garden.
Glen learns he has got a job and buoyed by this and the sunshine we set about clearing the small orchard, separating out the knitted boughs of the apples, medlar and mulberry. We cut back into the brambles and dog roses, with stems the size of bean poles, to find the boundary of the garden. My excitement grows. We have trees of our own, an orchard, enough space to plant a tiny scrap of woodland – things I have always wanted. I find the first snowdrops flowering by the wall and I think of my mother and my grandmother. On the bank lifting up from the road, pink and yellow primroses are beginning to open their faces to the sun.
There is wassailing in the village at the weekend; an ancient tradition that in Sandford begins with a torchlit procession. I’ve never been to a wassail so I will join them and drag Glen along too, making our way from the square, banging pots and pans, down to the apple trees at the Millenium Green, in a bid to banish dark spirits and encourage buds to form for next year’s cider harvest.
Next year we could hold our own wassail, I think, as we bonfire the bramble and branches in the light of January’s Wolf Moon. Banish the dark spirits, hope for a harvest.
With Christmas looming, and imagining the house, which resembled a building site, filled with visitors, we have had a busy couple of months. However, we (and when I say we, I mean mostly Glen) have made good progress.
Theo made the journey from Sussex with Megan to climb into and onto the roof to install a TV aerial – a task that has seen off lesser men. The floors in the three front bedrooms have been made firm and the front wall has been pinned to the replacement joists with more than 80, impressively long screws. The scaffolding has been and gone, leaving behind battle scars to wear until spring. The holes in the roof are fixed, the side wall shored up, the rotten bargeboard replaced, the wounded window lintel pinned. The woodworm is gone, the new floors are carpeted, and the bedrooms are decorated. Glen has put up new cornicing and made skirting to match the original double skirting. He has sanded and painted and papered.
On Christmas Eve we cleared away the tools and set about making the house feel more like a home.
We are all looking for home and never more so than at Christmas. We are compassed and comforted by the patterns and traditions that we wheel out each year – they guide us and tell us where we are. My mother’s mother, Lorna, was the mainstay, both of Christmas and of our family, and an enthusiastic beginner of traditions. Her friends, Froschel and Bear, held a celebratory family tea on the first Sunday of Advent each year, a tradition from their Austrian homeland. We were invited once, as small children, and I remember it as magical. Their house was perched at the top of a steep, sandy track on the wooded slopes of Pitch Hill. Long velveted curtains kept out the dark and the cold but let an unknowingness into its candlelit rooms. I remember a looming Christmas tree decorated with red bows, flaming white candles clipped, in brass holders, to its branches and the ceremonial lighting of the first candle on the advent ring.
Grandma adopted the tea for our family, so that uncles, aunts, cousins, brothers and sisters were all drawn, on the first Sunday of Advent, towards the beacon of her house. My brothers and I would pile noisily into the back of our Stepdad’s Granada to journey through brightly lit suburban roads, competing to count Christmas trees in windows, towards the cresting darkness of Trodds Lane and over Newlands Corner, singing Away in a Manger and Little Donkey, at the tops of our voices. Climbing the rabbit-warren lane we would look for the windows of Grandma’s house, lit with coloured fairy lights, like a gingerbread house sugared with sweets. We stood on the doorstep, hearts hammering excitedly as we sang We Wish You a Merry Christmas, waiting for Grandma and Grandpa to open the door and join in.
Inside, Carols were playing on a scratchy record, the tree twinkling in the alcove, its lights reflecting in the French doors. This was where Christmas began. There was Sherry for the grown ups and lemonade in green glasses for the children. We oohed and aahed at Grandma’s homemade decorations; the snowy Tyrolean cottages, a nativity scene set against an indigo sky lit by fairylight stars. In the dining room two tables were pushed together to hold a feast of dainty cakes and sandwiches in the orange and red glow. At their centre was an angel chime, the fat-cheeked cherubs blowing their horns as the heat from the candles sent them swimming and tinkling round. The air was warm and rich with the scent of warm wax, sugar and oranges.
As we ate and talked and laughed, we listened for the sound of Santa Claus, knowing that he would be leaving presents on the front doorstep. Several times we would climb from the table to race to the front door, sure we had heard his bell or the swoosh of his sleigh but find only cold air, sparkling grass and an empty doorstep. Until, at last, it was there, crinkly and heavy, stuffed with presents, and cold, sweet, tangerines, chilled from their ride through the starry night skies. After tea we gathered together by the fire to sing carols and listen to my mother read the story of The Good Little Christmas Tree. If Grandpa could be cajoled he would bewitch us with his rendition of The Coming of the Magi.
We were a multitude, a big, noisy, happy, throng.
But it has been a legacy that has been hard to live up to. The family has scattered and our grandparents have gone, our family traditions and gatherings going with them.
The Lynch has qualities of my grandparents’ house, Knobfield. Sometimes I can walk into a room and think that it smells exactly like it; when I go out into the hall, away from the warmth of the fire, I am transported back there, by the nose-tingling drop in temperature, the climb up creaking stairs to the bathroom, clutching a hot water bottle for the bed (who knew that an old house would be so cold?!!). I suppose I thought that I would make our new home as Christmassy as Knobfield, it had all the nooks and crannies, the possibilities, it is a dark house and made for long winter nights. I thought I would decorate the windows facing onto the pavement to please the passing children, to make little scenes like Grandma had, to cook all the usuals, like Mince Pies and Sausage rolls; to invite people in. But I haven’t done any of those things; work and poetry events and the house have kept me busy. I have, however decorated a tree, because Christmas isn’t Christmas without a tree…
On Christmas Eve I went out to pick holly and ivy which I strung, with some lights, across the mantelpiece Glen had found online, travelling to Okehampton to strap it to his roof and drag it back like an offering. A big beast of an Edwardian Oak frame, it fit our fireplace dimensions perfectly and once we get round to sanding off its 100 years of grime, it will be splendid. I put some fairy lights in the front window and wrapped a couple of swift, late-purchased presents to put under the tree. Hiromi, a new friend from the village made us the most beautiful wreath for our door and a table centre to match. I was so grateful for this act of kindness as I would usually make both. Hers are exquisite.
As it turned out we would be just the two of us for Christmas, although, since we moved so far away from our friends, our Christmases have been growing steadily smaller. Mentally we changed gear to celebrate our solitude – as friends pointed out, it meant we we could go to the pub, eat and watch what we liked. And there would be other Christmases.
We went to the village pubs to see what Sandford was saying; The Lamb was swollen with youngsters home for the holidays, making their traditional Christmas Eve meet ups with old friends while at The Rose and Crown a convivial meeting of locals gathered around the bar teasing each other about their raffle wins – ‘Dave’s only won the Real Ale gift set – he only drinks lager!’.
And then Christmas day dawned, clear skied, blue and bright. The rain that had fallen for weeks, sending the sump into overdrive and belching tides of water across the courtyard making everything heavy and dark, had ceased. We set out with the dog, walking our usual path down through Lower Creedy, stopping on the little stone bridge to look at the swollen river burbling and churring fatly, at the newly formed lakes and ponds in the lower stretch of the grassy valley. We climbed the long sloping road, lined with oaks whose twisted black branches touched the blue sky, their stippled girths tendrilled with ivy and berries, up to Creedy Widger; calling hellos to the yearling bullocks who looked up with soft black eyes from the silage feeders in the barn. At the little Norman church at Upton Hellions we were halted by the quiet, the unfamiliar feel of sunshine warming our backs, the sound of birds singing in the bare branched hedgerow. Looking down the lane, past the church to the thatched roof of the cottage cosying up to its side, it could have been 1519 as easily as 2019. I recognised then how much we cling to, like the ivy on the walls and the tree trunks; traditions, customs, the old ways – change can be scary, but it’s inevitable. There is no need to be afraid.
In the high windows of the church we see trails of holly and ivy on the windowsills, the red pillar of candles burning at their centres. And then the sound of a voice, the shuffle of feet as people rise from pews in their Christmas best, eager for home, lunch and presents. There is the rumble of the organ and then the sound of voices, raised together as they sing, ‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing’.
It felt like a kind of peace and we had stumbled upon it.
Chritsmas shows you what is and exaggerates everything that isn’t. Like weddings and funerals,it has the ability to take you back to all the ones that came before. I always find it doubly charged because I have a Christmas birthday, but Calum came to see me, making everything right, and we celebrated with Scrabble and cake.
The following day we saw the sun again. It pulled us out from the sofa and the telly, the dark cave of the lounge with its twinkling lights and log fire. We walked west out of the village, climbing up nearly as far as the ridge to look across at Dartmoor, fuzzy on the horizon. When we got home we drank tea in the garden and Calum chopped logs. Glen came out from the kitchen where he was making a pie with the Christmas leftovers to show us the way his father had taught him to wield an axe, the ways and sayings his dad had passed on to him. I watched him become an old self, content and happy as he guided Calum to slice through the dense rounds of the Holm Oak that had stood where I sat. Here we were, together, working it out, loving each other.
In the garden spring flowers are starting to push up – banks of primroses with their frilly leaves and, here and there, the best-behavior blue and green spikes of daffodils, the exotic furls of Cuckoo Pint. The birds have feasted on the holly berries I left for them and on the wall the viburnum and ivy are flowering. In the shed at the top of the garden, where I keep the bird feed, the mouse has turned out her nest. I make sure to clumsily fill the bird feeders so that sunflower seeds spill on to the floor for her, each day. The ground is sodden and muddy, a rough path churned between the shed and the tree where I hang the feeders. The owl is back, calling in the night from his new perch. We are starting to look about, to research wildlife hedges and to plan where to dig the trenches to plant them; where to plant the Walnut and the Lilac that we gave each other for Christmas.
And so, as the song goes, another year is over. As I write this, south eastern Australia is experiencing devastating bushfires, with the loss of human and wild life. Here, on the other side of the world, it feels as though we are under water, metaphorically as well as literally. I send you love as we begin to navigate a new decade, daring to hope that things can be different.
Thank you for reading my blog in 2019, it’s been really lovely to have you along; your comments and interaction make it worthwhile. I hope that Christmas has been a happy one for you but that if, like many, you have found it hard, you have survived and can look forward to good things in the coming year. The days are drawing out – we are past the darkest day xxx
It is 11am on a sunny Sunday morning when Peter comes to see us. People have told us that we should talk to him because he knows many of The Lynch’s stories. Those people were right; although, as is the nature of stories, everyone creates their own tellings.
He comes fresh from the morning service up at St Swithuns, the church up in the village, where he has led the choir since 1977. The same year that he and his wife paid £6,000 for The Lynch at auction. He was 28 and together they were ready to breathe life back into the derelict house. Today he is a slight and sprightly 70 year old with wispy white hair and beard, the softest of voices that drifts mid sentence and sharp blue eyes. His wife, Rosemary, died two short years ago, a loss that you feel him carrying.
During their first, snow-filled winter at the Lynch the young couple found themselves snowed in for three days, the snow drifting so high that the only way to get out of the house was to climb out of its first floor windows. The vicar, deprived by the weather of an organist, had stumbled down to knock at their window, “I’ve heard you and your wife are musicians,” he called.
‘So we went up. My wife became the organist, and I said, “Right, I’ll start a choir then”. And that was 42 years ago.’
We are in the lounge, looking for the spring that he says rises under the floor when he mentions that a builder friend had once told him; ‘ “There are three reasons why I wouldn’t buy a house; very bad rising damp, walls out of true and dry rot. And you’ve got all three.” ’
‘It was a river in here,’ he says, looking around and offering a new explanation for why this room has the highest humidity and has taken the longest to dry out of any of them. We know about the sump behind the mystery door in the lounge that pumps the water filtering down through the red earth shouldering the house, out into the courtyard in a gush, but the spring is a new one on us. The solution to a lake in the lounge? Pour three inches of bitumen on to the earth. It has worked, after a fashion, but you can see that the carpet is damp and water stained at the edges, the paintwork mottled with black mould.
‘That’s where the well was, he says, pointing towards the courtyard.’
‘Oh, so it is a well, not a brick oven!’, I say.
‘Of course it was a well, otherwise they couldn’t drink! It wasn’t so long ago that they blocked it off. A shame really, just before we got here, they threw junk down it.’
Silently Glen and I wonder where else the water will eventually find its way to rise.
Behind the mystery door lies a small, domed room measuring roughly 1 metre high and 2 metres across and deep. The roof is bricked in an appealing curve. It looks like a grotto, or a coal hole, a wine cellar or a witching hole. Everybody who opens the door offers a theory as to its purpose.
I seize the opportunity to ask Peter for his.
‘It’s a bread oven.’ he says. ‘This house was the bakery; there were about half a dozen in Sandford.’
‘But there isn’t a flue?’.
‘There isn’t ever a chimney on a bread oven, it didn’t burn anything, they cooked on embers – threw them in and cooked on top. Never been any flue.’
‘Like a pizza oven?’
‘Exactly – the smoke comes out of the front.’
I make a note to look for the bread paddles that he says were still in the house when they moved in, just in case they are lurking amongst the piles of old metal stashed down the side of the shed. Metal that he tells me came from the Britannia Ironworks at the bottom of the road in the space that Meadowside Garage now occupies.
‘What did you use it for?’ I ask.
‘It was the 70s’, he says, ‘we made it into a grotto with flashing lights.’
‘This wall was so incredibly damp,’ Peter says, moving to run his hand over the wall separating the kitchen from the lounge. ‘Somebody told us to put in a damp course which was quite wrong – it’s a stone wall. So I put on plaster, a metre high,’ he stretches up, ‘I was here from dawn to dusk doing this,’ he says, making a plastering motion with his hands, ‘then, at the end of the day it went’, he makes a swooshing noise and we watch the imaginary plaster sliding from the wall on to the floor. ‘I went down the Rose & Crown and there was this guy, turned out to be Taff. He was so good, he was a builder. He said – Peter attempts and then abandons a Welsh accent – “don’t worry, I’ll come and fix up your walls.”’
‘8am the next morning, he came round and, I must get this right,’ Peter pretends to run at the wall and hurl an invisible load of plaster at it, “FUCK ME! FUCK ME!” he shouts.
Glen and I laugh uproariously, the shock of this softly spoken man shouting cuss words at the top of his voice shaking any tension from our first meeting.
‘The truth is, you have to hit it really hard,’ he says.
He tells us how when they bought the house you could see the sky through the roof, about the cowboy builders who came to fix it, eschewing scaffolding to shimmy up ladders, throwing the broken tiles down between the felt and the new tiles they were fixing on to replacement timbers. He tells us, too, about the previous owner, an elderly lady who was living in one of the upstairs rooms alone, cooking and heating on a kerosene burner. A woman I am still thinking about. There were several women owners listed on the deeds when we bought the house, so I hope to be able to find out her story.
Peter goes back over to the wooden pillars holding up the sloping ceiling in the lounge, pillars that are no longer drifting woodworm dust, and tells us that they used to be cast iron stanchions. ‘We didn’t know what to do with them, so we painted them red, white and blue,’ he says. I think of the Union Jack that Dad painted above our door in 1977, the year of the silver jubilee, and wonder whether the whole country was gripped with jubilee fever. I think, for the first time in forever of the weight of the oversized silver jubilee coin in my five year old hand, a coin that each child carried home from school in its blue plastic sleeve feeling rich.
He laughs when he sees that the kitchen, a riot of honey pine, is unchanged. ‘I put that in,’ he says excitedly, ‘and that’, pointing at the cork floor which absorbs everything, for better or worse and which subsequently, the dog loves. The same happens in the dining room when he notices the parquet floor, ‘It was very popular in the 70s,’ he says. We discover that like Mr Newton, the previous owner, he had kept a piano in the dining room. I like to think of the room filled with music as the afternoon sun slipped round to the front of the house.
In the hall he stops to ask me whether I like the red and black tiles. I tell him I do, but that I wouldn’t have chosen them. This seems like the right answer. ‘There was a cat flap in the back door there,’ he says. ‘Grass snakes used to come in to doze under the radiator. They liked the heat.’
‘How lovely’, I say.
‘Then the cats would eat them,’ he says.
He sighs audibly as we begin to climb the stairs towards the arched window on the landing, saying, ‘This brings back such memories.’
We stop at the window and he says, ‘this’ll make you cry; when we bought the house it had the original glazing. But before we moved in some kids came along and broke them all.’
When I ask him what the sheds were built for, perhaps it was to house livestock, at first he agrees and then remembers that there had been a boiler in the biggest shed. It was the wash house and there had been a two seater privy, solid mahogany, in the shed halfway up the steep stone steps up into the garden. He tells us the sheds had once been home to bats and ‘the most beautiful owl’.
‘Oh it’s such a nice house and its got such a lot of character. I can really see why we bought it,’ he says with a sigh. I can see him with his family here, little feet gambolling up the stairs, padding down the tiled corridors; Peter coming home unsteady on his feet from the Rose & Crown at the bottom of the hill where his wife has threatened to have his post redirected, negotiating the sloping floor to his son’s room – the little one we now camp in at the back of the house.
‘Did you enjoy living here?’, I ask him.
‘I loved it. When we had our son, with shopping, kid under one arm, parking down there, it’s a bit of a nightmare isn’t it? That’s why we moved.’
When he swings the bathroom door wide and sees the avocado suite he installed in the 70s, he laughs loudly. ‘It’s still here! But why haven’t you changed it? The last time I saw this I was bathing my son.’
How old is he now?, I ask.
Glen explains the aroma of house fire as we move about upstairs; just this morning, while preparing for the floors to be replaced, he had set light to the floor boards with an angle grinder. Unable to jemmy the chipboard up or the skirting off he’d had to resort to angle grinding through the nails that fastened it to the joists. Peter chuckles.
‘Of all the things I did, the floors were the worst, I just used chipboard. I should have replaced the joists. I still think about it,’ he says.
We reassure him that this is exactly what we will be doing this week. Tell him that the carpenters are arriving in the morning to make them fast for the front wall to be pinned to.
Peter is sceptical about the idea of pinning the wall until we show him the cracks in the walls. ‘No, they weren’t there before,’ he says. ‘Perhaps it won’t hurt to get it done.’ He tells us that the council are entirely responsible for the perimeter wall, the boundary between our garden and the pavement which the council pinned with huge spikes and bosses, and any movement in our front wall. ‘They dug the road away’, he says. ‘While we were here they came on a regular basis and pumped concrete in. We didn’t pay a penny. They were working on that wall for weeks; they accept it was their responsibility. Even if they did it in the 19th century’.
Peter tells us to keep an eye on the pavement for cracks, which will be the first sign that the lynch (the raised pavement) is on the move again. I feel my pulse quicken. Glen talks soothingly about the uncertainty of knowing whether the movement of the front wall of the house is characteristic of a period house and its structure or of the movement of the lynch itself. He tells me again how the structural specialist said it looks typical of lack of lateral restraint and that fixing bars at first floor level will remedy the problem. He contacted the council who came straight out with their clipboards and high vis to explain that they keep a close eye on it and to reassure us that the house won’t move because it is sitting on a bedrock of red sandstone stretching out halfway across the pavement. We have the full reports and photos, so for now, I am reassured.
The most surprising discovery from Peter’s visit was that the house is 100 years younger than we had been led to believe. ‘It’s classic mid 19th century’ Peter says.
‘It’s Victorian?!’ I yelp, the pieces falling together. ‘But that makes so much more sense. The agent said it was Georgian.’
‘They wouldn’t have built in stone like that in the 18th century,’ says Peter, ‘it was when the quarries were open. This is a typical mid 19th century house. Victorian. If it was older it would have been cob. It was built as a bakery. I think there was an older part of the house, at the back, and the front part is 19th century. It’s very well to say its Georgian style, Exeter Georgian goes right on into the 20th century, they kept building in the Georgian style all the way through. It’s an aesthetic.’
Out in the garden he looks up at the house, ‘I always said I’d knock off the render; it’s 20th century.’ I tell him about Glen’s plans for an extension which would entail losing the sheds, part of the courtyard and window. He wrinkles his nose. ‘I’m a historian,’ he says, and we laugh conspiratorially.
‘History evolves,’ says Glen.
The garden is a series of different parcels, the first, walled, is a sunny south facing slope. Behind the wall is a little strip of orchard and up to the side is a bit of woodland that when we came to view the house in May was waist high in Cow Parsley. It turns out that these two extra sections were added when Peter and Rosemary purchased a bit of field that belonged to Park House, an impressive double fronted Country house at the back of The Lynch.
‘The Gorman family owned Park House and the day after Rosemary played the organ in church Mrs Gorman came round and said’, Peter adopts a strong west country accent, ‘ “I hear you want to buy the field?”. And there were 30! 30, Elm trees! If you ever chop down Elm trees, you have to chop them up immediately because they go hard very fast. Someone from the village came along and tried to cut them up and broke our axe, so we got an electric saw and chopped them up and the whole village thought it was their right to take the wood out of the garden. So the landlord of the Lamb, he saw me putting up a barbed wire fence and he said, “too late, ‘orse ‘as bolted!”’.
We show him the Holm Oak, destined to be cut down the following day. I show him the crack going up the middle, point out the way it leans down the bank towards the house, its canopy touching the roof.
‘We were thinking of getting rid of it when we had it, it was precarious then,’ he says.
The next morning Josh and James arrive. They work quietly and calmly once Glen has worked out how to manoeuvre the chipper that has been delivered in the middle of Monday rush hour on Rose & Crown Hill up the slim footpath down the side of the house (have I mentioned there is no vehicular access?!) and up the steep bank on to our garden. The carpenters also arrive, along with builders who are working at our neighbours so that the road is filled with vans and men, the early promise of the frosty morning turning to a dull grey.
The carpenters are both well over 6 foot and built like rugby players. They fill up the house. They both have stinking colds and huff and puff, sneeze and cough their way through the day. They take it in turns to show us photos on their phones, of their children, their side projects, their holiday homes.
Glen and I move between the activity in the house and the garden helping out, watching, offering endless cups of coffee. Josh becomes concerned about spending too much time in the tree when he realises the extent of its decay. I pass my phone up for him to take photos. When it eventually comes down, its own way, we gather to marvel at its rotten core and that it had waited for us to take it down. I feel emotional watching it come down; the ballet between the surgeons and the tree as they coerce it with pulleys and wedges, a cut here, some weight here, to bring it to the ground. It falls sideways with a crash and a shimmer and for a moment we cannot see Josh. We are relieved when he appears.
Light spills into the dark lounge. We can see the red, yellow and oranges of the beech tree. We have a hill of logs and an even bigger hill of chippings. There is more space and sky. I will plant a wildlife hedge, a walnut tree and a crab apple, plant woodland flowers under their canopies.
By the end of the week, with much problem solving and intervention from Glen we have new floors in the front bedrooms ready for pinning and the sloping corridor where Peter trod to say goodnight to his son is steady underfoot. The rooms smell of new wood instead of ancient musty carpet. The house is starting to look different, to feel firmer. The scaffolding is due any day now for the wall to be pinned. A builder is lined up to fix the hole in the roof to stop the water coming in while the scaffolding is up. Last weekend my son Calum came to stay and my friend Emily and her son Tom came to visit. This weekend my brother Theo and niece Megan are coming to see us, and Glen’s friend John. The house is firming up, filling with life again. We are getting there.
I’ve noticed, since we moved in to our new home, that we are not entirely alone. A host of creatures, that were here before us and will almost certainly be here long after we have gone, share it. Spiders the size of my hand scuttle from corners, woodworm dust falls in drifts from the pillars holding up the ceiling in the lounge, black beetles that look like oversized ladybirds, skitter across the kitchen floor, turning up on their backs, desiccated and lifeless, on the ageing lounge carpet days later.
In the early weeks, whenever I lifted my wellies from the tiled floor by the doll-sized back door, Silverfish the size of prawns wriggled frantically towards the nearest crevice. They reminded me of the Silverfish at my childhood home and the grey fungus that curled out of the back of the toilet cistern, setting my teeth on edge at bath time; I don’t like the damp, it makes my chest wheeze, but Silverfish and mould, do. The papers in my little office were growing limp, the cards people sent along with good luck wishes beginning to bend. With the boiler fixed and the dehumidifier working overtime, the house had started to dry out, but we needed to get some fires going, to breathe some air and heat into the house.
There are three chimneys staggering around the L-shaped roof of The Lynch, and two ‘working’ fireplaces. One is in the dark lounge at the back of the house and the other is in the raspberry coloured dining room, with the faded parquet floor, at the front. The survey had warned us that the chimneys needed repairing, a fact made evident by the rust stains on the firebox in the lounge where water has slaked down the chimney, but I’d hoped that we could just get away with having them swept to begin with. However the sweep, a chatty, animated man with a portfolio career as piano teacher, district councillor and military spy, declared them unfit for use and recommended Mike, a chimney specialist.
”What you buy this for then?” Mike, asks, as we walk around the house, and I struggle to remember. “The thing is, with old places like this, they need continuous work. And this is a big project. Gonna cost a lot.” But then he stops to admire the wonky ceilings and floors, the view from the arched window on the landing. “It’s got a lot of character”, he concedes, as he lies on the floor looking up the chimney and the dog gets down to sniff at his hair.
Dave the plumber, who has called round to fit replacement taps in the bathroom looks bemused when I tell him I don’t know where the stopcock is. But I’d played this game, some weeks before, with a slightly agitated South West water engineer who’d come to try to fit a meter. I’d shown him to what we had been told was the stopcock – a valve on a water tank situated in the funny loo, a windowless chamber right next to the bathroom, with an improbably sloping door.
“That’s no good” he says, “it’s just a feed to the tank”. Didn’t we know where the stopcock was? I shake my head. Unsurprisingly, neither the agent nor the vendor are in any rush to help us – it turns out they had their fill of us during the negotiating process, so we are on our own with this one. Although we’re not, because now Dave is on the case. I follow him round as he looks in all the same places we have looked before – under the sink, in the larder, under the cabinets in the kitchen. “You’ve got mice”, he says, getting up from peering behind the cabinets with his torch, “old houses do”. I make a mental note to let Glen know that we might have found the source of the electrical problem in the kitchen. I find a trowel and watch as Dave gets down on his knees on the pavement and lifts the inspection plate at the front door, “it might be down here”, he says, eschewing the trowel and digging out 6 inches of soil with his hands. “Nope, there’s a pipe, but no stopcock,” he says, ” but not all old houses have one”. I feel exasperated, suddenly, by the bloody-mindedness of this house and think again of the TV aerial guy who came to try to fit an aerial. “Just moved in? I know exactly what it’ll be,” he’d declared confidently as he whisked in. He’d left a while later, exasperated after running up and down stairs and between rooms trying to work out how and where to fit a cable. He’d promised to come back, but he hasn’t yet.
In the end Dave doesn’t replace the taps, he fixes the faulty one by taking off the top and adding some vaseline to the fitting – it turns out it had just been turned off too tightly. “Old person live here? he asks, “they tend to turn things off too tight”. I listen while he talks about his marital problems and how if he were to start over he’d want a woman ten years younger than him because he’d noticed women tended to lose their looks at a certain age. So I feel no pity for him when I find him later, sniffing at a stain on the floor back in the odd loo as he hunts down the source of a leak, “Old fella, was it, live here before?” he asks, “only, they often miss.”
On the day that the burner to replace the firebox is delivered, I am working in my little room when there is a knock at the door. The driver has parked at the top of the road, up on the square, the closest he can get to the house, and will bring the burner down, on a sack trolley, but only to ‘kerbside’. We negotiate where to leave it and I go to look out some tarpaulin to cover it until Glen gets home, noticing how the skies are thickening with rain. I watch as he and another man, pulling up hurriedly in a car, rush to something happening at the top of the hill just out of sight. I go up to find a neighbour, white as a ghost, being supported by one of the men who I recognise from the overalled, car-bumping, Combine Harvester team on moving day. Pauline has tripped over the kerb and smashed her face. There is blood dripping from her nose and hands. The burly delivery driver takes charge of her Yorkshire Terriers, Tinkerbell and Barny, as Pauline lets me lead her down the road to the house. Philip, he of the boiler suit and car bumping, appears though the front door shortly after, “I’ll call your son, Pauline” he says, “let him know. I’ll take the dogs back to your house if you give me the key”.
I sit with Pauline while we wait for the ambulance and the colour returns, slowly, to her cheeks. “I haven’t been in this house for twenty years”, she says. “I like your brown tap – I’ve been looking for a brown tap everywhere, everything’s chrome these days”.
“It’s yours when we get round to replacing the kitchen,” I promise her.
People have been so friendly since we arrived, stopping to say hello or ring the bell to deliver something nice. Pamela stops one Saturday morning, climbing from her mobility scooter to gift us some honey. I open the door, apologetically, in my pyjamas. “I wouldn’t worry dear, I’ve just been round to see the vicar and he’s in his pyjamas too,” she reassures me.
Mr Lee rings on the doorbell while I am fighting with a mountain of boxes. He has come in his capacity as a parish councillor, “I’ve really just come to be nosy,” he says, stepping over the uneven front step and navigating the chaos of boxes in the hall, “but we’ve had a letter about some work you’re doing to some trees?” Mr Lee is charming and knows his way around a tree as he owns 40 acres and farms trees commercially. He also walks with the aid of two sticks, so I have an anxious time shepherding him up the dozen or more challengingly steep, uneven stone steps to reach the garden and the trees. But it turns out that they are made of stern stuff in these parts; the previous owner of The Lynch, a man in his 90s, only had the handrail put in out of concern for prospective buyers. I climb these steps myself like an aged person, thinking of Princess Diana and the stairs at Highgrove, but Mr Lee is unfazed. He passes me one of his sticks before starting to climb.
“Yes, better get on with it,” he says when he looks at the split running up the middle of the handsome Holm Oak from where the owl calls at night when I take Coop out for his last wee, but that also reaches over to touch the roof of the house, waving worryingly in the wind.
It has felt in recent days, that we are getting somewhere; the house is drying out, the boxes are largely unpacked, an oven has arrived and Mike is lined up to repair the chimneys and fit the new burner. Then Glen wanders in to my little office to casually stroke the crack running down the length of the wall and ask, “have you noticed that all the cracks are getting bigger?”. Not one known to miss an opportunity to catastrophise, I start to fret. Why had I been arranging china and cushions while all the time the front wall was falling away? Of course we had known that the house needed structural work, we’d negotiated on that basis, budgeted for it, expected it. But there was still something faintly alarming about the thought that the front wall of our house was moving. Were the deepening cracks a sign that our efforts to dry out the house were working, or were they almost definitely signs that the wall was about to crumble away in to the road? I lay in bed one morning in the dark (why is it so dark at 6am now – and how exactly are you meant to wake up?) and shush Glen so I can listen to a creaking noise. Is it the radiator creaking to life or the front wall falling away? “Just don’t walk too near the front of the house”, Glen teases me, “no sudden movements, OK?”.
Of course it’s just the heat. The structural specialist who visited this week told us what anyone with any sense has said since we even thought about buying the house – which is that the house has stood for 200 or more years and will probably outlast us. So, the wall can be pinned – just as soon as Glen has fixed the floors, we’ve sorted some scaffolding and found a builder to fix the roof while the scaffolding is up.
I feel exhausted, so much so that everything hurts, even, oddly, my teeth and my feet. I would like to curl up in a corner and sleep for a hundred years. I am happy, but also a teensy bit overwhelmed.
In the last few days we have learnt that Glen’s job has been made redundant, with immediate effect. Admittedly, it was a job that involved a daily round trip of more than 100 miles and that didn’t exactly set his heart alight, but it did pay the bills, and a big chunk of the mortgage. The demise of the company, with a history of 130 years of printing, will see people with families to support, and mortgages and rents to pay, Christmas to think of, people that have devoted their working lives to their trade, without a job or income. Glen hasn’t been there long enough to receive a redundancy payout and we don’t know whether he will be paid his last wage, so we are faced with a new challenge. Perhaps it will be another new beginning. Glen is resourceful and clever and creative and I know that he will make something out of this particular ending. It’s just that at the moment, we don’t know what.
A wise friend once told me that all permanence is an illusion. I think of the urn in the nook in the courtyard, keeping watch over all our efforts. I think of how somebody once chose it and placed it there, thinking and planning and hoping. How those plans must have flowered and flourished before fading and being left behind. How now it is filled with sticks and leaves. I think of the plans I have for it, how these too will flourish and pass. I decide not to feel overwhelmed. I will keep dusting off that urn, hoping and planning. I will shape things while I can, take a deep breath and be grateful; I will be here now.
In the past five years or so, we have had six addresses, so you’ll understand when I say that we’re pretty adept at moving, but that we also hope this will be the last time. Catapulted by a tumultuous couple of years, we made the move from our lifelong homes in sunny, sandy Surrey, to the wet and wild Bere peninsula in West Devon in 2016. And from there back up to Exeter and a 1970s house with clean lines, gas central heating, a drive, a garage, an outlook over fields where young steers, Black Dexters, released out into the fields like a gang of marauding, wide-eyed toddlers coughed and huffed as they settled to sleep each night under our bedroom window. Life was good, but all my plants were still in pots, itching to sink their roots into the soil. I calculated that I needed 20 summers to see a garden grow to fruition and I might be cutting it a bit fine.
And then we found The Lynch, or rather, it found us. In a hotel room in northern Spain, on a holiday we’d booked not anticipating another move, we listened to news of home on the radio like the exiled de Winters and made plans for the house that wasn’t yet ours. We had dwelt in it in our heads so much that it felt as if we already lived there.
Once the house really was ours Mum travelled from Somerset, donning marigolds, along with our friend Danl, to help us clean. From the other room where she worked I heard Danl apologising, in her cheerful, sing-song voice, to each spider that she dislodged.
The house hadn’t been lived in since February and mould blackened the windows and walls, the garden knocking to be let in. Under the carpet in the back room, at the place where the floor falls away, I found a desiccated sparrow. Danl took it from me, casting it upwards to the shelter of the Holm Oak, with a blessing.
Moving day came in the middle of a week of Indian summer. “I remember you”, Mark said, climbing down from the lorry he’d backed nonchalantly from the tight bend of the cul de sac on to our drive, “we moved you in here. I remember your husband’s speakers”. Speakers that are 4’2 and filled with concrete, but that Glen won’t part with, because he made them with love.
The house is at the top of a steep road, on a raised pavement with no vehicular access. If you’re lucky you can park opposite on the road, but this still necessitates a climb, up or down the hill, to reach the house. Mark, Kevin and Dave hadn’t been warned. By good fortune and the kindness of our neighbours they managed to park on the road, working solidly in the heat to shuttle our belongings from the back of the lorry.
Midway through, a combine harvester appeared on the bend, a team of men in overalls and work boots going on ahead to clear the way, including our lorries. The driver of the combine stopped his careful journey between the parked cars and the high stone wall of the lynch to welcome us, cheerily, to the village, while his team clambered over the machine to adjust its mirrors, bouncing a parked car out of his way.
It was after 6pm by the time the lorry was empty and the men could set off back to Plymouth, still smiling.
And then it was ours. We breathed a huge sigh of relief; it was done. We were alone with the house at last.
Earlier I had arrived from the last, thoroughly cleaned house, leaving behind the landlady and her inventory, through the fields at the top of the village. I was holding a bunch of sunflowers that Emily, my oldest and dearest friend, had brought on her visit the previous weekend. I felt so happy, like a new mother, exhausted but excited at the beginning of so much that was unknown but that felt as familiar as breathing.
And that has been what it has been like in the few days since we moved in. Like a coming home. Our furniture fits. All the odd things I have collected over a lifetime of scavenging car boots, jumble sales, junk shops and recycling centres, fit. I have felt like Miss Avery, scuttling about at Howards End, finding that everything seems right in this quirky house. I asked for a house that had nooks and crannies; this house has little else.
It has wrapped its arms around us and welcomed us in, echoes of childhood homes making us feel safe, even though it is, in truth, very slightly falling apart.
The first night I took Coop up into the garden, climbing the steep stone steps gingerly in the dark and wondering how this was really going to work. At the top I found a sky buttoned with a box full of stars, the long grass hymning with crickets. I know there are going to be plenty of challenges ahead of us and sometimes I am going to cry and wring my hands and wonder what the hell we were thinking of, but I also know that it is going to be like welcoming a new life into our own, something that we are ready for, have longed for. It is a new beginning and I’m hoping very much for twenty summers to watch it grow.
It’s been a funny old week, so this isn’t going to be the lyrical essay I imagined, rather a hastily scratched update before I head over to the house to start the big clean with my Mum, who’s arriving like the cavalry from Somerset with her dogs and steam cleaner in tow. With two weeks between picking up the keys and moving in we thought we’d given ourselves time to start to get things straight, but although the list on the fridge is slowly accumulating ticks I’m beginning to realise that straight is not going to be our friend again for a very long time.
I’d like to tell you all about the neighbours who have stopped to chat as we’ve cleared the way to the front door, telling us that the shrubs overwhelming the pavement and the door are winter flowering Box that perfume the lynch in December, that the house wasn’t the village bakery, it was the brick works, that the well in the courtyard isn’t a well, but a brick oven, that they didn’t realise the elderly gentleman that lived here before was a composer, but that it’s nice to see people about the house again and goodness, haven’t we got a lot of work to do? I’d like to tell you about the boiler not working, the woodworm dust, the way the house is cold and damp and smells like a church each time you open the door. I’d like to tell you about the leaking loo, the electrics in the kitchen shorting every time you flick a switch, the price hike in chimney sweeping since we were last in charge of a chimney, but instead I’ll show you some before and afters of the work we’ve done to clear the way for the removers next week and promise to be back with some stories (and photos of inside) next time…
Lynch: Mine, a hill, but especially a balk or boundary, a sense still preserved in modern provincial English linch’ (Skeat, v. link). ‘Linch, a balk of land (Kent).
Coming from the southeast we baulked at the first mention of the name of the house, conjuring images of twisted bodies swinging from trees in the dark. The estate agent’s particulars set us straight, telling us that the name derived from Old English for ‘hillside’ and local dialect for ‘raised footpath’. It was certainly steep. The long rabbit burrow lane, lined and rooted with beech and oak, wound up from Crediton, reminding us of the Surrey lanes we’d left behind. It crowned on the bend and there, where the pavement stretched to its highest point, was The Lynch, a house straight out of a Jane Austen novel, cutting into a bank of Exeter redsand and built from local sandstone. We’d lost our hearts before we were through the front door.
Months of indecision and wrangling with ourselves, builders, estate agents, vendors, surveyors and solicitors followed, until yesterday, it became ours. Though it isn’t really. We are its custodians and it it will be ours. As we went around the rooms looking with wide eyes at the bowing ceilings, crumbling plaster, cracked walls, sloping and creaking floors, we realised again the immensity of the task before us. But we will take our time, return her to herself. We will uncover her secrets and I will put them down here for you to read – she won’t mind, she wants her stories to be told.
In the overgrown garden I picked an apple from one of the trees in the little orchard, and eat it in the late September sun reaching over the roof. The grass, grown long, sun-bleached and feathery left seed heads on my jeans. It was still, calm. I lay down and listened to Glen moving about in the house, imagining the sounds of our new life. A neighbour called her dog, children played in a garden somewhere close by. Cooper turned on his back and wriggled, yipping at me to play. We were home.