The beginning

 

The Boathouse, Dylan Thomas's last abode, in the tranquil setting of Laugharne, west Wales

The Boathouse, Dylan Thomas’s last abode, in the tranquil setting of
Laugharne, west Wales

‘To begin at the beginning: It is spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black, the cobblestreets silent and the hunched courters’ and rabbits’ wood limping invisible down to the sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboat-bobbing sea.’

 Is this one of the most well-known, most celebrated and best loved passages in the recorded English language? It must surely be one of them. At least, it’s my favourite.

Like all great literature, particularly poetry (although this is prose) you can enjoy the opening words followed by the rest of Under Milk Wood, Dylan Thomas’s wonderfully comic – and occasionally poignant – ‘play for voices’ (is there any other kind?) in two ways: by listening or by reading.

Take listening. It would be a travesty, really, for Under Milk Wood to be performed in voices other than Welsh, to fully appreciate the rhythms and cadences of the language of the country about which it was written. For the opening Voice imagine the mellifluous, sonorous tones of Richard Burton, the first (and therefore probably definitive) performer, who was better even than Thomas himself, who took the part for the first readings in New York in 1953. Or, twenty-five years later, on my countlessly-played CD, think of Jonathan Pryce. Or again, in a new BBC production, shown on May 5 to commemorate the anniversary of his birth, Michael Sheen.

That film has been part of a short season about Thomas, including another TV drama covering the poet’s final three years in New York, where his play went down a storm, before his untimely death at only thirty-nine. They are also showing a series set in Swansea, Thomas’s birthplace – his ‘ugly lovely town’ – wherein poet and admirer Benjamin Zephaniah attempts to inspire a community performance; a modern take on the play. (Michael Sheen did a similar project for his home town of Barry, South Wales, when he involved the townspeople in a community passion play.)

Many big Welsh names have sought to get involved with Thomas, such as Catherine Jenkins, who plays naughty promiscuous Polly Garter (because it’s a singing part), and Tom Jones who does Captain Cap, both in the BBC film. (Jones also played and sang the part of Sinbad Sailors on the CD). In fact, just about every Welsh celebrity you can think of has queued up to play parts, even small ones, in the latest production and others, at some time or other, just for the sheer privilege and honour of it.

Then consider reading. I’ve listened to that opening passage many, many times. My enjoyment of it has never waned. But sometimes you also have to see words in typeface or font to fully appreciate their impact and beauty. Let’s look at that opening passage. Take the first five words. I wonder if Thomas actually plagiarised them from Lewis Carol’s impatient answer by the King to the White Rabbit’s question at the trial in Alice In Wonderland:  ‘Begin at the beginning . . . and then go on till you come to the end: then stop.’? If so, fair enough. It would have been a fitting tribute to an earlier master wordsmith.

Thomas’s adjective use is wonderful. ‘Bible-black,’ he says, to suggest stern, absolute starlessness. It’s not ‘cobbled streets’ but, much more effectively cobblestreets, thereby inventing a new compound noun. He describes the titular Milk Wood on Llareggub Hill as hunched. Yes, that’s how trees on a hill look, do they not? You read (and I’ve always misconstrued this as ‘quarters’ when listening) hunched courters’ and rabbits’ wood. Again, perfectly selected, spot-on adjectives. And then the description of the sea, with clever alliteration of homophones: sloeblack, slow, black, each one exactly right, followed by the rhyming, rhythmical crowblack and ending perfectly: fishingboat-bobbing sea. It’s exquisite imagery.

The rest of the play continues in similar vein, with wonderfully comic (although occasionally poignant) images building a gorgeous and magical word picture, a kaleidoscope of splendid larger-than-life characters, with phrases such as ‘inspector of cruelty,’ or ‘if you let the sun in, make sure it wipes its feet,’ or (Polly Garter speaking) ‘nothing grows in my garden, only washing and babies.’ They’re so familiar, but I could listen to them and still chuckle a thousand times more.

I’m writing this before the TV broadcast this evening. So I’ll be there, 7pm sharp, boots blacked, anticipatory smile in place, ready to mouth the much-loved phrases in happy copycatting.

I can’t resist sharing the next part of the prologue:

The houses are blind as moles (though moles see fine tonight in the snouting, velvet dingles) or blind as Captain Cat there in the muffled middle by the pump and the town clock, the shops in mourning, the Welfare Hall in widows’ weeds. And all the people of the lulled and dumbfound town are sleeping now.

Nor can I resist mentioning the name of Thomas’s fictional ‘seatown,’ as he put it, Llareggub, which was probably largely inspired by the small town of Laugharne, where he spent his final years in Wales. It was Thomas’s little joke on the non-Welsh. To the uninitiated it looks as though it could be an authentic Welsh place name, with its double ll. But Welsh speakers would know that it isn’t; oh no. So what does it mean, if anything? Read it backwards to find out!

I wish I had as great a facility with words as Dylan Thomas had in his little finger. My own attempts to magick words are puny compared with his. So I’m embarrassed to mention them in the same breath, really, but here’s the next instalment of Wishing for The Better.

 

Wishing for the Better/10

It’s wonderful to be back in the country, back in my natural habitat. Bridgnorth Road was all right; it met a pressing need at the time and was an interesting project to do. And it proved quite lucrative: I sold it for five times what I bought it for, albeit by dint of a great deal of work on my part. I didn’t simply sit on it idly waiting for it to appreciate in value. But this, potentially, is a lot better. It’s a very pleasant ten-mile trip to work, mostly along quiet country roads avoiding the dreadful urban Black Country rush hours. I have to get used to commuting again, but it’s not an issue: after all, I used to do it before.

The move went all right. Sandra helped me. I’ll say this for her: she’s not afraid to muck in – and moving’s not the most pleasant of jobs. She’s not the type to worry about breaking her fingernails or anything like that. I used a proper removals firm, although we were spared the indignity of riding in the back with the furniture. It just wouldn’t have been the same without a budgie in a cage, anyway.

Like Bridgnorth Road, an old man lived here. He was clearly a keen gardener; the front garden, poignantly, is full of vegetables, left as a legacy after he died. It seems rather a fitting one. I feel slightly guilty about eating them, and hope I can be a fitting successor to him. The neighbours seem quite pleasant: a middle- aged couple without children. I’m sure we’ll get on. I’ve said that I’m thinking of extending in a similar way to their house, and they say it’s fine as far as they’re concerned.

One good thing about Hilton’s situation is that if you turn right leaving the cottage and go just four miles along the main road, you come to Bridgnorth. It’s a beautiful town with ancient houses, many in the typical west midlands ‘black and white’ half-timbered style. It’s built, quite spectacularly, on two levels on a red sandstone cliff and has the only inland funicular railway in Britain. So it’s a very nice place to have as my nearest town. Well actually Wolverhampton is just as near, and is bigger, but it’s nothing like as nice. That’s what I think, anyway.

So, all in all the future at Hilton looks rosy.

 

It was also a slightly more pleasant drive to meet Sandra, who was still living at home with her parents in Cannock, to the northeast of Wolverhampton. The ‘going out together’ situation continued for a few more weeks. I think she was feeling the same as me at her age though: the wanderlust to leave home seeking exciting pastures new. Soon she wanted to move in with me. I couldn’t believe my good fortune. After all my failures to find a relationship so far (and I’ve only written about the most noteworthy ones: there were many others that didn’t progress beyond two or three meetings) here at last was the promise of one that might last.

I suppose that, looking at it rationally with hindsight, I should have gently let her go. But need won over better judgment, as it so often does in relationships (mine, anyway) and she came. It was undeniably nice, having a – young – woman to come home to. I’d been a lone wolf for the last eight years, and the prospect of continuing like that for the rest of my life was not at all appealing. I rather glossed over the fact that in some ways I’d perhaps be unable to meet all her needs. For one thing, having had a vasectomy in 1976 (ironically, only months before the marriage failed) I would be unable to give her children. She said that she didn’t mind about that, but would she always feel that way? For another, we weren’t really terribly similar, and there was of course the big age gap. But these things were quietly ignored, perhaps on her part as well as mine.

After a few weeks with me Sandra got a job with the old peoples’ home, the detached house next to the cottage. So now she was self-supporting, which was good for her self-esteem. Also, a dog came into our lives. He was a Lhasa apso, a pretty, ridiculously long-haired, grey, comical-looking little mutt. If you are of an age whereby you remember the children’s TV The Magic Roundabout, he was the same sort as Dougal, except that with Benjy you couldn’t see his eyes at all. He was abandoned and had somehow fetched up at the care home. Sandra said we’d have him like a shot. He was a lazy little tyke, who hated going for walkies, dragging back on his lead and reluctant to walk. He wasn’t daft though, and recognised the phrase ‘nearly back’ (as in ‘nearly back home’). When those words were spoken he’d suddenly be galvanised into motion and nearly broke into a trot. So, even if we’d only just started out, he had to be spurred along by constant repetition of that magic mantra. He was a little character though, was Benjy Boy; another nice thing to come home to.

Around this time, disillusion with the job was setting in again. Apart from being a way of getting back on my financial feet (for which, admittedly, I was grateful) it was no more desirable the second time round than it had been the first. In fact, if anything it was worse, as I’d now experienced people living very different, much less materialistic lives, not driven by the necessity to earn large salaries to support debt in order to have lots of stuff. Once again, I was casting around for bright alternative money earning ideas. For the first – but not the last – time, I wondered if I might be able to write. After all, it had been a strong subject at school and I was already doing it sometimes in the form of copywriting as part of my job.

Inspired by the books I bought regularly from my book club, I planned (all right then: day dreamed) a book on the only subject I felt I knew anything about: country walking. It needed to be cleverly themed, not just yet another book about walking in one particular area. So, how about a hill walking book that did hikes gradating from very low level (in fact, zero feet above sea level, so somewhere, obviously, on the coast) in increments of about three hundred feet until finally reaching England’s highest mountain: Scafell Pike. It would be titled, cleverly I thought, The Ascent of England. I thought I wouldn’t be too ambitious, and restricted it to England. Then, if it proved to be a runaway success, there’d be the potential to do others, based on Scotland, Wales and perhaps even Ireland.

Poring over my road atlas and many walking books, I devised an itinerary that started in the flattest part of England: East Anglia, and progressed through Cambridgeshire, the Chiltern Hills, Wiltshire, the south west peninsula, and then up through Worcestershire, Shropshire, Derbyshire and Yorkshire to finish in the Lake District. Apart from the east of England, these were all my favourite areas anyway, so it would be a matter of planning holidays to do the walks, with the necessary photography and note taking.

Sandra happily acquiesced, and our first holiday together was spent in a converted windmill in Suffolk. It was strategically placed to research my first two chapters. For the first, I’d had the bright idea that it would be good to not only start from sea level but also do it at dawn. So one night, we stayed up until three in the morning and silently pushed the car away from the holiday-let complex so as not to disturb anyone, then drove to Dunwich, a coastal village that was once a sea port and capital of East Anglia 1500 years ago. Since then coastal erosion has erased most of the town, reducing it to a shadow of its former self. It seemed an interesting place to start.

We got there at 4a.m and sat and waited for the first orange glow of the rising sun from the faintly discernible horizon. I’d positioned myself behind a beached boat and got a nice creative shot of a backlit nautical silhouette. Just the ticket for an opening picture, I thought. Then we walked around the surrounding heath land in the dawning light and I jotted impressionistic notes. As the new day took on its full brilliance we left – there wasn’t a great deal to see now – and returned to base. Tired out, we went straight to bed.

A couple of days later we went to do my second feature, the biblically named Gog Magog Hills outside Cambridge. At 246ft, they were the next gradation up. Being so used to living in a very hilly part of Britain now, I’d regard them as unimpressive if I saw them today. But  by relatively  flat eastern  England  standards they were quite scenic, and besides they fitted my project. And they were interesting anyway, because they’ve yielded up many Bronze Age archaeological finds, including lots of skeletons, many of which were mutilated, giving credence to the legend that the area was the setting for an ancient, terrible battle.

Later in the year we did a second batch of visits. Staying in another nice holiday-let at Mapledurham House near Reading, we took in Butser Hill on the East Hampshire Downs, part of the Chiltern Hills, and Avebury on the ancient ridgeway on the edge of the North Wessex Downs. Because we were progressing to more serious walking now, and because he lived fairly locally as Steph and the children had moved to Buckinghamshire after the commune had finally expired, Simon joined us. The girls had decided that they’d rather keep well out of things. I hasten to add that the reluctant Benjy wasn’t involved in these expeditions either: they happened before he came on the scene.

 

Back at home, thoughts had been turning to the renovation and extension project. Not yet having any plan drawing experience, I asked a friend of Cyril, who worked in an architect’s office, to do some for me. Rather naively, (or so I realise now, anyway) I said that I wanted my rear extension to join the neighbours, following the simple-minded logic that we were a pair of semis that had previously also been joined at the back via our lean-to kitchens. Steve drew the plans accordingly, and out of courtesy, before submitting them for planning approval, I showed them to the neighbours. They were horrified. No, they said, I absolutely could not attach my rear extension to theirs. Looking back at it now, I can well see that they felt justified. Apart from anything else, there would be the small matter of ownership. What had hitherto been their outer wall would become a party wall between us, so they would in effect be ceding half of its thickness to me.

It just wasn’t on, my neighbour said; the fact that the houses had been joined previously was neither here nor there. He didn’t mind how little a gap there was between us, but I couldn’t touch. To reinforce  his  point, I  then got a rather unpleasant  letter from his solicitor, threatening dire consequences if I so much as lightly brushed his wall and a law suit if I caused any damage. This served simply to put my back up. I now thought he was being totally unreasonable. Still clinging to my notion that there should be a party wall at the rear, I looked closely at my original back kitchen in relation to his modern extension. He might be very concerned about separation now, but his extension had been built right up against my kitchen, so that the inner wall of it must still be common with next door. And besides, if I built a separate conventional double-skinned wall with a gap between the buildings, I’d have to relinquish at least a foot of internal space from my extension. That would be quite a lot to lose from my not very large scheme. Also, a small gap between our two properties could cause damp problems, unless the top of it was bridged by joining the two roofs with a valley.

I climbed onto my kitchen roof and, as a matter of interest, removed a few slates along the boundary between it and the wall of the next-door extension where it continued up. With part of my roof uncovered, I could look down inside and see the top of the original wall between the old kitchens, with the new brickwork of the extension built directly on top of it. Instead of being built on the neighbouring half of the solid nine-inch wall, it was built on all of it, with its outer face aligning vertically with my side of the original wall. In other words, when my neighbour’s extension had been built his builder had done the obvious thing from a construction point of view, but he’d in effect stolen four and a half inches of my property. And here was my neighbour now, complaining about his rights being threatened!

Armed with this evidence, I tacked my neighbour again. To be fair to him, his extension had been built by his predecessor, so to some extent he couldn’t be held responsible for what had happened in the past. And when I tried to explain my discovery, he took refuge in ignorance. He just didn’t understand the technicalities of building, he said. It was still an impasse. He was standing on his rights; I felt that now, particularly, I had every right  to  join on,  provided that  I did no damage or compromised his structure in any way. There seemed to be nothing for it but to take legal advice myself. I went to see my solicitor, told him the problem and what I’d discovered about the other extension wall. He didn’t seem to really understand what I was talking about. He said that it was notoriously difficult to prove ownership between adjoining properties sometimes, and suggested that, rather than escalate matters, I’d be better trying to reach an amicable settlement off my own bat. I was disappointed, but I now know in the light of a later event, when I was badly advised, that he was right. So I went back to my neighbour yet again, to try and be conciliatory. By now he was getting very fed up with me. I told him what my solicitor had said about it being a knotty legal problem, and suggested I’d be willing to sign any legal document he required that protected his interests but give me, in the circumstances, the right to adjoin. I would pay his legal costs, I said.

After much humming and ahing he finally, begrudgingly came round. He agreed that I should pay his costs, but he also wanted £1000 for his trouble. Looking back at it now it seems fairly reasonable (after all, he wasn’t to blame for what had gone before) but at the time it just felt like blackmail. It was quite a lot of money for me find. Perhaps I didn’t really help my own case. I’d also said, innocently, that I’d probably be moving on after doing the project, so perhaps he saw me as some sort of wide-boy property developer, making a quick buck and ruthlessly exploiting anyone for my own ends. I made a counter proposal. What if I gave him the part of my garden that went behind his? I’d be prepared to lose it and his rather small one would become a reasonable size, at no cost to him. Not even his legal costs. But no, he wasn’t interested in that idea. So I just had to accept his demand for money.

With the problem sorted (if not very advantageously to me) I could now submit the plans to Shropshire County Council. Expecting no further problems, I set about removing the lean-to outside toilet, in order to be ready to go ahead with the building as soon as I could. The plan was to build the shell of the extension around the old kitchen, and once its roof was on that could also be removed. Then there’d be a brief period of improvising with kitchen arrangements until the new one was fitted out. But the old toilet had to taken out of the way. We had to have some facilities meanwhile though, so I fixed up a temporary one. I made a concrete base well outside the area of the coming extension, sat the toilet bowl on it and connected it to the drainpipe to the cottage’s septic tank. Then I built a rather flimsy and moderately rain-proof booth around it, anchoring it down as well as I could. There was no point in taking a water supply to it: the cistern could be filled by hand before every visit. It just meant taking a container of water in with you. Similarly, it could manage without electric light: a torch would do. It had to be admitted that it was slightly perilous to use when the wind was blowing; there was always the uncomfortable feeling that you would suddenly find yourself catastrophically exposed. It reminded me a bit of childhood days  and our vile dark cell of a ‘toilet’ then. Still, at least this one was a flushing job. Sandra took it all in her stride.

 

In January 1985 I encountered my first family bereavement. My dad’s health had been declining for some time. His weak chest was finally letting him down. By the end of the previous year he was very poorly, with emphysema. We had gone to Stamford for that Christmas, and it had been pretty miserable for the poor old chap. In the New Year he was really in decline. We went again two weeks later and he was now fully bedridden. His world had contracted. I reflected sadly that I’d seen him here, in bed, so many times during his not very happy or healthy life.

Dutiful to the last and knowing his time was near, he had put his affairs in order, struggling to write things down to make it easy for Mum to carry on without him. He was in no way artistic, but he always wrote carefully and meticulously in quite an elegant copperplate hand. But now it was weak, spidery and barely decipherable. It was pitiful to see. The last time I saw him he’d virtually lost the power of speech too. He tried to speak to me, but all he could manage was a weak, rasping wheeze. I couldn’t understand what he was saying at all, and hadn’t the heart to put him through the agony of trying to repeat it, so I simply said yes, hoping it was the right response. Two days later Derek phoned me at work to tell me that he’d passed away. I knew it would be coming soon, but it was still a shock, combined with slight irrational anger that he hadn’t let me know a day earlier. Then I could – and as a matter of duty, should – have been there when he left us. But perhaps that was a selfish thought, more tied up with my feelings than Dad’s. By the time I’d got there he would probably have been too far gone to recognise any of us.

So we buried him, on a bitterly cold day in January 1985. I suppose that, because I didn’t live locally to my parents, the feeling of loss wasn’t great. His departure didn’t impact on my life. And we weren’t close, more’s the pity. What I felt most was guilt that I hadn’t been a better, more understanding son, more forgiving of his foibles. Or were such thoughts merely self-indulgent? At any rate, I told myself, I must now be more supportive of my mum, and telephone her more frequently. Be more appreciative of the important things in life.

 

Things were not going terribly well with the project. There seemed to be no sign of the planning permission coming through, until one day the council wrote to say that they were concerned about the joining-on-to-my-neighbour business. They would have to be fully assured, they said, that my neighbour was entirely happy with the proposal before they could grant permission. So could they please have a legally binding letter from him confirming his acceptance? Once again, I had to knock on the neighbours’ door and ask if they wouldn’t mind providing me with one. He looked at me with barely disguised exasperation and said that he’d do one, when he had a moment.

So I waited until he had one. And waited. And waited. Clearly, he wasn’t regarding it as a priority. Eventually I had to politely remind, and finally, rather ill temperedly, he gave me one. I had it photocopied and sent the original to the planning department. But still nothing happened. Several more weeks passed. By now things had been dragging on for over six months. Finally, at my wits’ end, I thought: to hell with it, I won’t bother. I would just renovate the house as it was, without extending if it was proving to be such a problem.

And so I did. Jumping the gun a bit (although it was separate from the extension proposal anyway) I’d already been doing up the original living room, taking out a ghastly tiled fireplace and replacing it with a traditionally styled wooden surround framing an alcove, into which I fitted a wood stove locally made in Shropshire, like the one at Woolaston. This one also had a boiler, and I installed a reduced central heating system serving just the sitting room and the upper floor.

The renovated living room

The renovated living room

Upstairs I fitted one of the nine windows I’d had made in the gable-end sidewall of the rear bedroom, as planned. (There could be no window at the rear because of the extension). The idea had been to partition a passage off this to create an access through to the new part. That wasn’t now happening, but I needed to bring the rudimentary toilet indoors. There wasn’t enough space for a complete bathroom, so I partitioned off just enough where the passage would have been (and where the original rear bedroom window was) for a toilet and hand basin. It wasn’t ideal, but it was adequate. Owners after us, if they got over the extension problem, could always take it out again. I made new, planked doors, like the old ones downstairs, and generally it looked quite good.

It meant that the bath would have to remain, rather unusually but again just about adequately, in the kitchen. This I gave a cosmetic facelift, retiling the walls and fitting nicer units and surfaces. The bath was hidden away beneath a better, hinged cover, which was tiled to match the walls and made a good work surface. When the entire house was redecorated in sympathetic colours the overall effect was pleasing. It remained to be seen, given the rather eccentric kitchen, whether a prospective buyer would also think so.

And then, predictably I suppose, after all that work the plans were passed. It was too late now though; I’d lost interest in the scheme.  But   at least I could sell the cottage with planning approval for extension. Years later, I spoke to someone who, after several more changes of ownership, bought the cottage. He told me that the extension was eventually built, with no problems from the neighbours. I’m glad that it worked out all right for someone in the end, but I wouldn’t have wanted to stay there anyway. The traffic noise would have driven me mad.

 

There were difficulties too with our relationship. I suppose I really was rather naïve, in my need for love, to think that it could really work out. Sandra was a really sweet, kind girl. She was the only one among the many women (far more than I would ever have imagined when I first tried to find a new companion) in my life with whom I maintained contact for years afterwards. We had some similarities: she was bright and intelligent, and in some ways mature beyond her years, and we both loved dogs and were instinctively vegetarians. But in other ways we were quite dissimilar. We were both working class, but our backgrounds and experiences were very different. And of course, being so much older, I’d simply had far more experience, not just in things like having been to college but fundamentals like marriage and fatherhood. As I’ve said before, having children wasn’t something she’d be able to experience with me.

But I really don’t want to get into a dissection of her different character, and why I came to my senses and realised that we couldn’t really be lifelong partners. I’ll simply say that after eighteen months together I did, and after a lot of soul searching had to tell her, sadly, that I felt we should part. To her very great credit, she took it very well (probably a lot better than I would have done, had the positions been reversed) and there were no tears, no histrionics. Just a sad acceptance. To save the awkwardness of physically returning her to Cannock, we agreed a departure day. Her sister would be able to pick her, and Benjy, up. I would go to work, and when I returned that evening she’d no longer be there. What I didn’t expect to find when I got home on the appointed day was that she’d cleaned the cottage from top to bottom. I’m sure she didn’t mean it that way, but it just fuelled my guilt further. It would not be the last I’d see of Sandra though.

 

So I was back on my own again. I hadn’t made much of a fist of living with someone, as I hadn’t of the marriage. Perhaps I was just too selfish.

Well, I mustn’t brood about it. There was the future – and a lot more of it, hopefully – to think about. The pressing need was to find another place. Nine months earlier, on a day out, I’d noticed a house that looked a very likely candidate. It was on the outskirts of Broseley, an attractive town of brown brick houses on the opposite bank of historic Ironbridge in Shropshire, home to the first iron bridge ever in the world. The house was late 18th century and a bit like Bridgnorth Road, but larger. It was double fronted, detached and totally un-modernised, with tall chimneys and sash windows on the ground floor but, curiously, side-opening ones to the bedrooms. Semi-rural, it stood beside a minor road (so no danger of major traffic noise nuisance there) behind a rotting picket fence and surrounded by open fields with an open view to the front. It looked pretty dilapidated, and seemed to be empty.

But that was then: surely it wouldn’t still be available? I drove over to have a look. To my surprise, it was. It was being sold by the sole estate agent in Broseley, and I was in like a shot for particulars and a request to view. I was lent the keys, and clutching them tightly I sped back to the house. Inside it was even grimmer. One reception room, clearly the sitting room, had a rotten wooden floor with dire warnings about entering at your own risk. If the floor collapsed under you, you would crash down to the damp, dank cellar below. It had the usual nasty 1950s tiled fireplace but nice old original cupboards beside the chimneybreast. The other front room was better: it had a huge, old, very Regency-looking oak fireplace surround but it also had an awful tiled fireplace addition.

An oak staircase rose out of a generously proportioned central hall. At its far end was a wonderful back room that was clearly a kitchen. It had a magnificent timbered ceiling, with a massive oak main cross beam supporting smaller joists, also of oak. The fireplace opening contained an ancient Rayburn cooker, and to one side a doorway led into a smaller room with brick-arched surfaces. Presumably it was a pantry. At the rear of the kitchen there were two further rooms. One had become a bleak twentieth century bathroom, damp and with walls of peeling pink gloss paint. The other, accessed from outside, contained a toilet and a rather nice old brown clay sink, fed by a cast-iron pump. Upstairs there were three double bedrooms: two at the front and one at the rear, over the kitchen. They all had original cast iron fireplaces. One front one had an inner small room, over the pantry.

And still there was more. Over the bathroom and only apparent when you went outside was a further second storey room with a high-level external door. What was that all about? The answer lay in the house’s name. It was called Barratt’s Hill Farmhouse, after the name of the hill that rose from this ‘suburb’, called Benthall, up to Broseley itself. The room was possibly a small hayloft, from the days when this was indeed a farmhouse.

It was all absolutely brilliant. I couldn’t get over it. The asking price was only £28,000. If it would just stay on the market for a bit longer, until I’d sold Hilton . . .

 

The finished exterior - it had little more than a coat of paint

The finished exterior – it had little more than a coat of paint

I was ready to go on the market, and approached a Bridgnorth estate agent with some trepidation. I’d no idea how I’d get on, the house being what it was: a little eccentric, to say the least. The agent came out to give me a valuation. He seemed quite impressed with what I’d done; that I’d tried to renovate sensitively rather than brashly modernise. And he looked at the extension plans and thought they’d be a good selling point. Then, inwardly cringing, I showed him the kitchen. He seemed rather taken with the space-saver bath, and remarked that such an ingenious solution might be considered quite recherché (his word). I thought he was going a bit over the top there, but said nothing.

Rather to my amazement, he suggested we try for £35,000, and with that price tag I again hit the market. The first couple of viewers were unimpressed, particularly about the bath, and then there was rather a hiatus. Three weeks went by with no further enquiries and I began to fear that either the cottage was overpriced or it was simply undesirable. I began to curse myself for my impatience in not waiting for the planning to complete its glacial progress and abandoning the extension. But then a young, single man came along who wasn’t bothered about extending, and wasn’t fazed about the bath either. He offered £32,000; we haggled a bit and settled on £33,000. I gratefully accepted it. It was less than I would have got had I done the extension of course, but more than I’d hoped for selling the house as it was. It would be enough to buy the farmhouse and have a little bit left to go towards doing it up. So I’d achieved an increase of £13,000 (gross) simply by doing the reduced project. That wasn’t bad, I thought.

Crossing fingers and everything else, I checked whether the farmhouse was still available. Thankfully, it was. Having seen its internal condition, it was hardly surprising. It wouldn’t have been everyone’s cup of tea, and for most people there’d be a considerable renovation cost. And they certainly wouldn’t contemplate living in it in its present state. But then, when did I ever worry about details like that?

There were no problems with the sale, or the purchase of Barratt’s Hill. I was made aware that it was affected by a proposed footpath widening scheme in front of the house whereby I would have to dispose of a sliver of front garden to the county council at some point in the future, but that wasn’t a big issue. So, just as Christmas 1986 approached, I moved again.

 

 

 

 

 

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About wordsfromjohn

Once a printer, graphic designer, house renovator and landscape gardener, I'm now retired and a writer of books with a passion.
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