The country house was my dream. I peopled it with my happy children, playing in the fields, with a benign horse or two looking on, manes gently lifted by the soft summer breeze. I never thought I'd actually live in my dream. Reality for me was Charlton, SE7, one of those areas of London that even most Londoners are a bit hazy about. "The Millennium Dome," I would say. "There." Charlton was scruffy, and gently eccentric. Our first house we bought from a couple who did pyschotherapy. "What are the neighbours like?" I asked. "Oh fine," came the answer. "We're the ones who are noisy. We do our therapy in the front bedroom, and people do need to scream." Any worries I had about us being welcomed by the neighbours vanished on the spot.
Our next Charlton house we bought from a chap who was, it turned out, in dire financial trouble. He'd bought a big Victorian house when it was bedsits, set about converting it and then run out of money. After we moved in, I spent weeks sending debt collectors and other, rather more shady, individuals, in the direction of his solicitor. The house was unfit for human habitation. It was damp, the roof leaked, there was no central heating or hot water (though there was, oddly, a new bathroom) and no working kitchen. Having been brought up in a house where outings were often interrupted when it rained, to fly back to the house and arrange buckets, I was sublimely unbothered by the house's general dereliction. Our eighteen month old adored the stairs. We loved the original features. We duly flew back to the house when it rained to arrange buckets, and a handy old door which caught some of the more minor leaks. We scraped together enough money to mend the roof, and six years, a lot of money and a lot of hard work later, had a lovely house, at which point we sold it to a friend, without any very clear idea of what we were going to do next.
Wrong, as it turned out. The house was inhabited. We found out that the family who lived there had very soon thought better of it, and had been trying to sell for nine years. The house was spectacularly, gloriously, filthy. The family appeared to have given up any attempt to tidy up, clean, or to finish any decorating job. They'd started stripping the wallpaper off the kitchen walls, got half way and stopped. There was a floorboard missing where the hall met the kitchen. Everywhere there was stuff; piles and mounds of stuff, covered in fluff and the dust of years. The loos were indescribable. The family huddled on a corner sofa in the sitting room while the father showed us round.
We fell in love with it, hook, line and sinker. Despite the filth, and the general atmosphere of decay, the house had enormous charm. The problems though, were obvious. There was a large hole in the porch roof, the guttering was dodgy, the boiler was vast and ancient, and outside was a disaster. The garden hadn't been touched for years and was a temple to The Nettle. The barns and stables were so bad even the estate agent described them as being in need of work. But there was a field, a whole actual field. Acres of grass. And stables: tatty and decaying, but stables. Space, and underneath the grime, charm. We could rescue this house, we thought. The family, before they gave up hope, had done the biggest thing, the roof.
And so we bought it. We had a lovely, carefully filled out spreadsheet, with the details of how we were going to renovate it. When we moved in, the children went to stay with my sister for a few days while we cleaned. We couldn't see out because the windows were black. None of the windows had been opened for years. It took us a day to take off all the secondary double glazing so we could get at the windows to clean them, and another day to clean. We found that all the trapped condensation had caused spectacular amounts of rot. The landing window, when we opened it, turned out to be attached only at the top of the frame. We swiftly closed it.
The second day we were there, it poured with rain. There was a loud rumble, and a large area of the garden wall at the back fell down. That wasn't in the spreadsheet. Still, we got on with re-leading the porch, replacing a lot of the wood, and replacing the guttering at the back of the house so that the whole of the rear of the house wasn't sheeted with water whenever it rained. I set about the nettles and found paths and flower beds. We cleaned endlessly, and found that underneath the grime, much of the house wasn't as bad as we'd thought. Outside though, was a different matter. In the heady excitement of acquiring so much space, after a tiny London garden and the smallest of garden sheds, it had not dawned on us quite how much we had to renovate.
|another wall fell down|
At this point, were I talking Grand Designs, or any of the many articles in the property supplements, we would have buckled down and learned how to point with lime; re-slate, and a myriad of other accomplishments, taken ourselves to the limit financially, and have ended up with a beautifully restored house we proudly showed off to the world and any property journalist short of a story. But the thing is, we did learn to re-slate, and point with lime, and I turned out to be a dab hand with putty and Jonathan with carpentry, and we did take ourselves to the limit financially. Time after time after time. The house ate money. It ate everything we threw at it. It ate all our time. It ate all our money, because although we learned to do stuff, an awful lot had to be done by professionals. It ate our energy. It was our hobby. It was our holidays. There were no horses of our own because we never had enough money. We never did anything at the weekends because we were always doing things with the house, the gardens, the grounds or the barns. It never stopped.
When people learned we were moving, I lost count of the people who said "How can you bear to? It's so beautiful." It is beautiful. It is a gorgeous, gorgeous house. I loved it, I love it still, but it is an odd sort of love when you are in thrall to something that is eating you alive. Because in the end, we were not enough for the house. For us it was a a siren, singing its song. Odysseus escaped before he got to the rocks; us it took a bit longer.
I cried when I shoved the spare keys through the front door when we moved on the 18th February because that was it. I would never open that front door again, never notice the way the locksmith had set the new lock a little too much to the left after I'd lost the keys running across the field and had to have all the locks replaced. Never look at the woodwork we'd had restored on the porch and notice where it needed rubbing down and painting (again), or the muddy marks on the door frame where the dog shook herself, or my son's walking boots, abandoned for months under the bench in the porch, or my daughter's wellies, loathed and worn only under protest, crumpled up next to them. Because I work from home, my entire existence took place in that house. Day in, day out, there I was. I breathed the house and it breathed me. I can't believe it's gone. Couldn't bear, until now, to look at photographs. To think about it.
But that is it. It's time to stop now. However much you love something, sometimes you are not the best thing for it or indeed it for you. Now I have time to wonder at the miracle of having a bank account with something in it; the amazing feeling of living in a house where, when something goes wrong, it is not my responsibility. No more looking back.
It's someone else's now. The day we moved was glorious; not the biting cold or grey drear of most of the winter, but warm and sunny spring. The people who bought the house were going to pick up the main keys from the estate agent after work, and I imagined them wandering round the empty, sunlit rooms, drinking in the charm, the beauty and the stillness and knowing it was theirs. I hope it is the house of their dreams.