You know the old adage about schooldays (and childhood in general) don’t you? They’re the best days of our lives.
That’s a silly, sweeping statement. Of course, thankfully, most children are fortunate enough to be born into happy and loving families, but sadly, not all. Some grow up in dysfunctional families with consequences that play out in their own later lives, with sometimes tragic repercussions for their own hapless offspring. And perhaps some unlucky people do have happy childhoods but later life is miserable for one reason or another, but that certainly doesn’t prove any sort of rule. Others again have dismal and deprived childhoods but later blossom.
You simply can’t generalise.
Even in the case of most normally happy childhoods though, it’s stretching it a bit to say that they’re the best days of our lives. That’s not so nowadays at any rate, when most of us live reasonably happy and mostly trouble-free adult lives free from either the domestic drudgery or back-breaking physical labour or premature death that was many peoples’ lot in times gone by. It would be sad in this day and age if in the years following childhood it were downhill all the way.
Literature does sometimes paint childhood in rose-tinted terms though; all soft focus with ruddy-cheeked children skipping through sunlit wild-flowered fields in carefree abandon, happy as the day is long. The visual arts do it too. Remember the Hovis ads? And think of the sentimental, bucolic mass-market depictions of a past-that-never-was of Thomas Kinkane.
But how we wish to perceive childhoods of the past depends on personal preference of course. Do we like to be angered by the grim reality of institutional child abuse portrayed in Christina McKenna’s otherwise richly comic The Misremembered Man or prefer the gentler golden images painted by Maeve Binchey in, say, Firefly Summer?
I know I’ve mentioned him before, because he’s one of my favourite authors, but one of the greatest chroniclers of times past and – along with others like Flora Thompson who gave us Larkrise to Candleford – one of the best loved, was Laurie Lee. Who can forget his wonderful evocation of childhood rural life after the First World War in Slad, Gloucestershire, in Cider With Rosie? It’s pure, nostalgic magic. It was first published in 1959, which in itself feels like a bygone era now, but it transports us back to that much earlier time nearly a century ago.
One of my favourite scenes, and I mention it time and again in my writing, is where little Laurie has his first day at school. At the end of the school day he trudges home to his mum and big sisters, very disgruntled. They ask what’s wrong. He tells them that he’s been asked to sit in a certain place ‘for the present.’ He grumbles that he’d sat there all day and ‘never got no present.’ Don’t you just love it?
I have some cherished family photos of my mum when she was a child, also growing up in a village, in her case in Rutland. She was born in 1910 and so is roughly contemporary with Laurie Lee, who was born in doom-laden 1914.
She was the youngest of eleven and looks about six years old in the picture below. The group is shot in the playground of the village school, the very one I would in my turn attend thirty-three years later.
The picture shows Mum (in the boots and droopy drawers) with some of her siblings at infant school, c. 1917.
Nostalgia is a wonderful, often selective thing of course, but in some ways my childhood reflected Laurie’s. For the most part I remember it being happy, at least when I wasn’t (frequently) bedridden with asthma or being bullied at school for being the sibling of my tearaway, somewhat delinquent older brother.
Like Laurie, I too had an early misunderstanding of a word. In the infants’ class, Friday afternoons were given over to general play activity, as a reward for having worked so hard at our alphabets and simple sums throughout the week, I suppose. This session was called, curiously, ‘optional,’ a strange word new to my little ears. It meant that we could choose from a selection of toys or games, and for years afterwards I thought that ‘optional’ meant just that: playtime!
I couldn’t resist using the Cider With Rosie school anecdote in my autobiography Wishing For The Better. If you’re new to this website, I’m publishing it free-to-read on here, usually appending a chapter to my posts as they’re published. If you’d like to start reading at the beginning, go to my post Keeping Some Kind of Record by clicking the blue book cover at the foot of the home page.
And I like that bit from Cider With Rosie so much that I worked it into fiction too. My book Forebears is a multi-generational family saga spanning nearly all of the twentieth century almost up to the present day. I write of the childhoods of family members from four generations: Jay; his mum Betty; his gran June; and his great-gran Lisbeth. Jay gets the anecdote, and it’s woven into his school days.
It’s sometimes said that the past is a foreign country. Perhaps so, and it’s not one we should wish to inhabit. It’s unhealthy to live too much in the past, imagining that any given period was some sort of Golden Age that never actually existed. Today, in spite of the economic tribulations of recent years we are better off materially and certainly, by and large, more liberal-minded and tolerant. So, although it’s a pity that some aspects of the past, like close community spirit and being able to leave your back door unlocked have dwindled, let’s not try to resurrect the past.
But it’s fascinating, all the same.
If you’d like to read the latest instalment of Wishing for the Better, here it is.
Wishing for the Better/11
I’m feeling a bit chilly, to say the least, sitting here my temporary living room. It’s the back bedroom, because the downstairs is just too grim to consider living in, even for me. The upstairs is marginally more civilised, although there’s mould on some of the bedroom walls. The back bedroom is slightly smaller, and slightly less mildewed, so it’s become my living quarters. It’s a good thing that the bedrooms have fireplaces, although they’re only small, token ones and don’t really count as proper heat sources. So I build as large a fire as possible in the grate and get it really blazing (so it’s nice psychologically anyway) and supplement it with an electric fan heater.
My bed is rigged up in one of the front bedrooms. A couple of hours before bedtime I light a fire in there too. Inexplicably, that grate has actually been reduced in size. The old lady, now deceased, who lived here must either have been very poor, very miserly or just didn’t hold with luxuries like a reasonably warm bedroom. Perhaps she thought it decadent. Whatever the reason, lighting the fire seems to have no impact at all – it probably raises the temperature by one degree. And I’m talking Fahrenheit. All it really does again is look cosy. It’s quite nice (and would be romantic if I still had a partner) lying in bed with the duvet pulled well up and flames dancing on the ceiling, but warm it isn’t.
I’m not even trying to use the kitchen, except as a source of water. I’ve got a two-ring electric hob in the back bedroom, and that does for cooking, although my cooking is restricted to things that can be boiled. Thank goodness for boil-in-the-bag. Abluting isn’t a lot of fun either. I simply boil a kettle for washing, but for baths it means lighting the Rayburn, waiting ages for it to heat the water in the cylinder then braving the bleak, pink, unheated bathroom. Then, afterwards, rising reluctantly from the comfortable warmth of the bath, feet into slippers to rush naked to the equally bleak, cold, mould-black kitchen and the Rayburn, to wrap myself in the towel left to warm there and hurriedly dry off.
Still, it’s all character building. A little hardship did no one any harm. As a certain political party sang in 1997 accompanied by a curious rhythm from Neil Kinnock: things can only get better.
In spite of the daunting renovation task ahead, it was a better environment than Hilton. The situation was as good as rural, but within easy walking distance of Broseley and the shops. And it was certainly quieter. I was now twenty-two miles from Stourbridge so it was a longer commute, but it was a pleasant one, through lovely Bridgnorth and then along a good fast road, past the turning to Kingsnordley and then my old house in Wollaston. Although Broseley was much less well known than its more illustrious (and I’m using that word properly this time) sister town, it was only a short walk to admire the bridge at Ironbridge. In fact the entire area echoed an important industrial past: this was where the Industrial Revolution began, with the ironmasters of the Ironbridge Gorge. Years before, Steph, the kids and I had discovered the fascinating Blist’s Hill open air museum. Now it was on my doorstep. And more prosaically, so were the shopping malls of Telford new town, not that I was really into retail therapy.
On my arrival I’d noticed one slight drawback from a car parking point of view. Although the house was detached, it didn’t have a garden all the way around it. There was an attached garage, with planked doors hideously painted black and white, with only a small area in front of it. And that would probably be reduced when the pavement was widened. The adjoining field on that side came right up to the garage wall. The garage was too useful to devote to something as unimportant as car housing, but parking out on the rather narrow road wasn’t ideal. It would be quite good, I thought, if I could acquire a strip of land from the field: then I’d have a car parking space and also be able to walk all around my property, like a country squire. One day I was standing by my garage when an elderly lady appeared in the field. She introduced herself and said she owned the field, which had very probably been part of the former Barratt’s Hill Farm. I tentatively posed the possibility of buying a bit of it, and she promptly said yes. The agent who’d sold to me came and measured the square yardage involved and did a calculation, and opined that its value was £900, plus the other party’s costs. The farm lady thought it was fair and we did the deal. It was only a small strip, but it made a big difference.
Now I got stuck into the project. At first glance it seemed to be entirely a renovation job. Certainly, being as big as it was it didn’t need extending. There wasn’t much alteration of the main body of the house needed either. Like Wollaston, it had a cellar (and also under the left-hand room) but this time I resisted the temptation to radically alter the room by inserting a staircase and bringing the basement into habitable use. I would make the cellar dry and leave it at that. However, like the other house the original cellar staircase ran underneath the main one, with little headroom where it turned at its base to enter the basement. I would solve the problem this time by removing just a small square portion of sitting room floor and building a raised box-like surface above it.
The only other thing I decided to change in the main rooms – apart from removing the 1950s fireplaces – was to make an opening through from the other front, dining, room into the pantry, which was behind it. That would contain modern kitchen appliances like the cooker, and would link through to the main kitchen, which wouldn’t have any, apart from the sink (or if it did, they’d be hidden behind gingham curtains) because it was too nice a room to be unnecessarily ‘modernised’. It could become a really splendid dining kitchen.
That left the other back rooms. I didn’t want to sacrifice one of the bedrooms for an upstairs bathroom, so the existing one (improved, obviously) would stay where it was. But what to do with the other back room, and what, for that matter, about the hayloft? Surely something interesting could be done with it? It had a window looking out onto the garden, and a nice interior with exposed oak rafters, so what if it became a garden room? It would need to be accessed from inside, so a staircase could go up out of the room below. The two back rooms would be rearranged; the bath and basin going in with the toilet, with internal access. This would involve moving the internal wall between it and the existing bathroom. The remaining space would be a separate laundry, with space for the foot of the new stairs. Upstairs there was the small inner room off the right-hand front bedroom to consider. It could have become a walk-in wardrobe, but the bedroom was plenty big enough to take free standing ones. As the bathroom was staying downstairs, I decided to make it into an en suite shower room and toilet, thus designating the bedroom as the master one.
So that was it: house designed.
The first thing was to replace the rotten sitting room floor. With the old boards and joists out I could easily get at the cellar walls and floor, which I made dry in the same manner as Bridgnorth Road. The worn and damp brick staircase was waterproofed and overlaid with a wooden one. The new floor went in – this time, having established what I wanted to do before I started, there was no re-doing of work. I made the box/surface to look like a piece of furniture, out of oak, as there was so much of it in the house in the staircase and the internal doors. It was really a better solution than at Wollaston; this time the floor area remained intact.
Then the 50s fireplaces came out, and all the rotten plaster from the walls and wainscoting from the kitchen. It was looking better already. I was getting down to the bare bones of the house, but anything that was original stayed in, like the nice built in cupboards by the fireplaces. The lovely oak timbers in the kitchen ceiling were still in their bare state, never having suffered from varnish or paint. They just needed cleaning up. The Belfast sink in the kitchen was removed for use in the new laundry, swapped with the shallow brown sink and pump, which would go in the kitchen. The sink would be an unusual ‘draining board’ next to a modern ceramic bowl – also brown – and the pump, cleaned and repainted, would be positioned over the old sink as an interesting feature.
Another of the windows I’d had made for the abortive Hilton project found a home, replacing a rotten one in the kitchen. Now that all the nastiness was stripped out, I could have a chemical damp course installed. With that in, it was time for re-plastering. A young man came for three weekends and did all of the main downstairs rooms. A time-served plasterer, he had left the trade to be a junior civil servant. But after marrying and acquiring a family and a mortgage he had found it difficult to make ends meet, and so had to fall back on his old occupation to earn part time extra cash. I became his labourer and mixed the plaster. It was the first time I’d actually watched a plasterer at work, and it was quite illuminating. I discovered that a lot of the skill lay in timing: putting the plaster on quickly and roughly and then smoothing it off at just the right point as it began to ‘go off’ (harden). For every project after that I tried plastering myself. My early efforts were awful, but gradually I developed a reasonable knack and was able to achieve a fair result (but never as good as a true professional’s) so long as I did it in small areas and wasn’t too ambitious.
Spring was blossoming into the summer of 1987. It was ten years now since my life had so abruptly changed track. Memories of being married, domesticated and (comparatively) conventional were fading. After a rather grim start at Barratt’s Hill, life was becoming more physically comfortable as I gradually brought the sad, neglected house back to life. It was mentally fairly comfortable too, as Sandra hadn’t entirely left the scene. She’d come back to join me for weekends. Looking back at it now, I think I was perhaps treating her unreasonably. It suited me quite nicely to have a part time partner, but I was having my cake and eating it too. The same could perhaps not be said for her. With me, there didn’t seem to be a very positive future for her.
But she seemed quite happy to continue with me on this less involved basis. She, and Simon, had come to the Lake District with me the previous year, where, physical coward that I am, I’d frightened myself to death climbing the steep face of Pavey Ark mountain (she and Simon were quite unbothered by it). We had another holiday, the best I ever had, in 1987, in the Outer Hebrides. Being so far away, it meant a two-day trip for each of the journeys there and back, overnighting in the Highlands each time. Taking so long to get there made it feel much more of an adventure, driving through the breathtaking, magnificent mountains that seemed to go on forever to Skye and then taking the ferry to the remote, wild, beautiful island of Harris, with its empty silver beaches, turquoise sea and single track roads threading over the windswept purple moors.
The journey to Skye, where we stayed over on the way in, had felt like travelling through a foreign land, with the never-ending mountains such a visual treat; but the Hebrides were something else again. They seemed utterly alien, not a part of Britain at all; more like I imagined somewhere like Iceland to be. The description of our holiday let had been rather misleading. ‘Stay in a lighthouse’, the brochure had enticed. Those definitely were the words. But when we got to north Harris and drove along its southern coast to park up and then take another small ferry across a narrow sound (these days there’s a bridge) to Scalpay island, and then humped our luggage a long way across a trackless moor to the lighthouse on its opposite side, there was a slight disappointment. The accommodation wasn’t in the lighthouse itself but in a block of granite houses that had been quarters for the lighthouse keepers when it used to be manned.
It was a case of misrepresentation, but all the same, the setting was wonderful and the lighthouse and houses, built in 1824 by Robert Stevenson, grandfather of Robert Louis, were splendid. It really was my sort of holiday: far more my cup of tea than burning to a supine cinder on the Costa Del Malignant Melanoma.
Sandra would come on holiday again with me the following year, walking again, in the Yorkshire Dales. It was very nice, but a slight anti-climax after the discovery of the Hebrides. And it would be our last holiday together.
Two years after the first bereavement there was a second. After my dad’s death, Mum had been re-housed in a pensioner’s bungalow. It was very nice for her: modern, big enough, no stairs to cope with and closer to the centre of Stamford and the shops than the council house had been. But this better situation wasn’t to last. She had had a blood disorder for some years, although it wasn’t seriously debilitating. In early 1987 it developed into myloid leukaemia. There were no real treatment options: the specialist told Derek that although chemotherapy might give her a little more life, the unpleasantness of the treatment made it a poor option. So it was decided that palliative care would be the best thing.
And so she lived out the final few months of her life. She was fortunate in having Derek living in the town. He called in every day to help, caring for her more and more as she became less and less able to care for herself. Sandra and I visited frequently, and as her decline became rapid we went every weekend. Apart from anything else, it gave Derek some respite. As she neared her end I took her for a drive around Rutland, visiting all the old haunts she wanted to see one last time. She was touchingly grateful for what Derek, Sandra and I did for her. When I dismissed it saying that she was our mum, for goodness’ sake, she replied, with heart-rending simplicity, ‘yes, but you didn’t ask to be born’, as if we could choose whether to love her or not.
She died that summer, at home in her own bed. Again, Derek didn’t contact me until after the event, so again there was no opportunity to be there at the last. I’ve never seen a person die. As I had done with my dad, I went to see her later in the undertaker’s chapel of rest, with Sandra to give support. It seemed a sort of duty, although more painful than comforting. I would never do that again. She looked peaceful, but now utterly beyond my reach. In no way wishing to detract from my dad’s memory, I was closer to her than him.
She had remained a devout churchgoer all her life, popular with her friends, and her funeral was well attended. At least, unlike my dad’s funeral, the vicar was speaking sincerely about someone he knew, and gave her a lovely eulogy. When he’d visited her in her fading days she’d chosen her funeral hymns. One of them was Oh love that wilt not let me go. If you are religious and are familiar with it, you’ll know how poignantly appropriate it was for an occasion like that. She had outlived my dad by just two years: they both died aged seventy-seven.
In 1988 Sandra left me for good. She found a new man, someone much nearer her own age, who could perhaps offer her a better future than me. I was very pleased for her: I felt she deserved better than me. Rather oddly – he didn’t seem the jealous type – she brought him to meet me. He looked a nice chap, and soon they were married. I was invited to the wedding, a simple registry office affair, and was supposed to be in charge of photographs. But in true Needham fashion I had trouble finding their flat and by the time I got there it was all over: they’d done the deed, had emergency photos taken by her mum, thinking I wasn’t coming, and returned for a simple reception. Typical!
They had a son, but sadly it proved not to be a good marriage. Poor Sandra. A few years ago they divorced. Also oddly, throughout her unhappy marriage Sandra stayed in touch, sending not only birthday and Christmas cards but presents as well. Strangely too, so did her mum, as if I was in some way a continuing family friend. I can’t think why, but I seem to have had quite an impact on that family. Last year her mum told me that Sandra has a new man. I really hope they’re happy.
I’d been back in conventional life for eleven years now. The commune adventure was a distant memory, but it didn’t mean that, having badly burnt my fingers then, I was now resigned to a life of orthodoxy. Yes, I suppose I should have Learned My Lesson, and perhaps I had in some ways, but the sly little tempting devil was still sitting on my shoulder. The thought of working out the rest of my career in a stressful (and it still was) job to whose purpose I still couldn’t reconcile myself was still distinctly unappealing. And there were still eighteen years to go to retirement.
Apart from the interest and pleasure of the project (and most people stuck in hateful jobs didn’t even have that of course) I sought escape in holidays, combining staying in more Landmarks with walking. There were more beautiful buildings to experience, like a splendidly eccentric place with a flamboyantly exotic facade in Penzance called the Egyptian House. It was (and still is, thankfully) a rare survivor of a building fashion inspired by the Napoleonic campaign in Egypt in 1798. And the magnificent Music Room in Lancaster, with sumptuous baroque plasterwork inside, which was handy for visits to southern Lakeland. These were wonderful holidays, but they just served to make returning to the mundane job all the more miserable. I remember, with no pleasure at all, how I used to hate the Sunday evenings after returning from holiday and the grim anticipation of work the following day, with all the problems that would have piled up and be awaiting my return.
There had to be a better existence than this. One day at work, John mentioned a cousin of his who was doing a fairly similar thing to me. He was converting a chapel, in one of my favourite parts of Britain: north Wales. But he was doing it not as a sideline but full time, as a money-earning venture. It sounded a pretty good lifestyle to me, doing what amounted to your hobby; the thing you most liked doing, that which you would really choose to spend your life doing if you could.
I wondered about it . . .
To some extent I’d already fallen into it. I was doing up my third place in eleven years, not to mention the earlier Kingsnordley. Admittedly, I’d moved around so far mainly from force of circumstance. I’d had to settle for less than I really wanted when I first returned to Stourbridge, for financial and practical reasons. And then I’d moved from Hilton because that too was less than ideal. But there was no particular plan to this wandering around. If John’s cousin could earn a living at it, perhaps I could too. And it certainly was the thing I knew for certain that I would never tire of doing, the thing that gave me tremendous satisfaction. So why not?
Of course, there were disadvantages. Doing it primarily as a money-earning activity would entail frequent moving around, never settling in one place. But then I wasn’t like my brother: I was a nomad. I’d been travelling ever since I was twenty, anyway. So there’d be no change there. I recognised that I sometimes lacked commitment – I often rushed into things (including, perhaps, relationships) full of enthusiasm only to later become disillusioned. That had happened with the commune, and then with the Ecology (Green) party. Whilst I still supported its principles, I no longer wanted to devote time to being a party worker, a tiny voice crying futilely in the wilderness, when I had an all-consuming pastime to – perhaps selfishly – follow. So since leaving Wollaston my membership of the group had lapsed. I was a strange contradictory mixture of social idealist and individualist.
And I didn’t always follow through with my bright ideas. The Ascent of England book had fizzled out. But this thing, I felt sure, I could sustain. I wasn’t so silly as to think that I’d be able to grow rich doing it. Lacking ruthlessness, I was no entrepreneur. However I’d done well with the Bridgnorth Road project, and even with the truncated Hilton one, so as long as I didn’t expect to live a lavish lifestyle (which I didn’t) I thought it could be viable.
There was a positive flip-side to the disadvantage of not being able to settle down, and that was that – provided I could find places to do up – I could really go anywhere to do my thing. It wasn’t a case of living where a conventional job dictated but the opposite: working where I wanted to live. That meant the opportunity of which many of us dream: to live and work in really nice parts of Britain. Holiday areas in fact, so that the need for holidays as respite from mundane reality would disappear. How many times had I holidayed in a nice building in a wonderful part of Britain and wished, wistfully: if only I could live somewhere like this! If I did, I wouldn’t crave holidays. Quality of life would be so good that there’d be no need for them.
For years I’d been an avid reader of the escapist books, enticingly written by people finding ways of leaving the rat race, that were so popular in the 70s and 80s. They were to blame of course for our ill-fated dalliance with communal living. Although that had ended disastrously, I still devoured ‘opting out’ books greedily. There was one in particular that caught my imagination. Hovel in the Hills was the story of Elizabeth West and her husband Alan, who gave up their jobs in Bristol and bought a ruinous farmhouse in north Wales, to live the simple but good life. I found it tremendously inspiring. If people like the Wests could do it, why not me? At least I’d got a fairly firm idea of how I might earn a small living; I wasn’t being too airy-fairy.
It embarrasses me now to remember how much time I sat day dreaming at my drawing board at work, planning the rest of my life and the itinerary of my future travels. No wonder I made so many mistakes in my work, when my mind was often somewhere else entirely. I would move from Shropshire to Wales, possibly the west and then the north; then to the spine of England, say Derbyshire and then the Yorkshire Dales; then the Lake District; and finish up in my favourite place of all: Scotland.
It was all very well wishing for Nirvana like this, but I had to make it happen. I resolved to really get my head down and go for it: to finish Barratt’s Hill as soon as possible. No more distractions with women, at least not just yet. Just work, work and more work.
I set myself a severe work schedule. I would do four hours work every evening. That meant getting home at 6.20, grabbing a quick sandwich and cup of tea and getting stuck in by 6.30. At 10.30 I finished, and made my evening meal. By 11.15, when most people were going to bed, I finally sat down to relax and perhaps watch a little television or read. At the weekends, now even more eagerly awaited, I did nine hours each day. So altogether I worked thirty- eight hours, more actually than the day job. It was like my intensive weekend working to get a deposit together when I’d first returned to Stourbridge. I didn’t feel resentful that I was completely sacrificing any leisure or social life and not living as others do; it was my choice. I had a mission.
And so the renovation progressed, but at a quickened pace now. There was urgency and excitement. Now dry and re-plastered, the house looked considerably better. I could do the fun part. I fitted a cast iron fireplace that was redundant after I subdivided the bedroom at Bridgnorth Road, in the sitting room with an appropriately styled surround, like the ones I’d made before. The kitchen got one too; a taller version and I installed the old clay sink on a solid base with the renovated pump. Apart from an oak unit for the modern sink there were no others in the main kitchen. A tall cupboard had a simple gingham curtain to close it. All other modern units went on the walls in the pantry. I made matching oak drawers to go on the arched setlasses and topped them with a work surface.
Now that the dining room had been cleared of its tiled fireplace there was a large impressive opening. I didn’t want to make the mistake of putting in another open fireplace, so again I did what I’d done before and installed an efficient solid fuel stove, with a back boiler to do central heating. It was a mistake: although the stove itself looked very nice and was much better than an open fire would have been, the boiler was less successful. It was no better than the ones fitted to old Rayburns and didn’t work well with a modern automated heating system. It was all right when the stove was burning very hot, but when it ran cooler there was no heat in the central heating at all.
In the rearmost part I demolished – with great difficulty – the hard partition wall between the bathroom and toilet rooms. Then the bathroom window that had been intended for Hilton replaced the external door. After a not very clever try at plastering (but a lot of it would be tiled, so it didn’t matter too much) the new bathroom was ready for fitting out. The old bath was cast iron, but not at all nice. It was very dilapidated and didn’t merit renovation, so out it went. I bought a new steel one as the next best thing, and made a hardwood panel for it. The old washbasin was quite old, attractive and in good condition, so I refitted it. The toilet bowl, also good enough to retain, simply stayed put and got a new seat.
After another go at plastering in the laundry area, I plumbed in the Belfast sink and made a pine work surface, and then treated myself to a washing machine. Things were becoming positively civilised. Now I made a staircase up to the hayloft, but before finishing (or rather, converting) that room I turned my attention to the upstairs. The bedrooms themselves needed no alteration, except that I fitted a built-in wardrobe in the rear one, for a reason that will become clear if you bear with me. Mostly they simply needed redecoration, particularly the fireplaces, which had the softwood surrounds stained dark brown and the grates painted gold, of all things. They were ghastly, but looked much better when the wood had been painted white and the metalwork black. The other nice feature of the floors (including the landing) and the doors was that they were oak, but it had all been covered with more of the dark drab stain. I spent many hours stripping doors and floors down to clean wood, and when they’d been clear varnished with non-yellowing satin acrylic they looked superb.
That left the room above the pantry, off the front right hand bedroom, to be converted into a shower room and toilet. There was just enough space to get the items in (although the shower had to have a curtain rather than a complete booth) plus a basin and also the hot water cylinder. That had previously occupied a crudely constructed airing cupboard – which spoiled the symmetry of the room – to one side of the fireplace in the rear bedroom because it was heated by the old Rayburn in the kitchen below. I had traded that tatty item in for a reconditioned one (which was much cheaper than a new one), and put a new cylinder in the en suite, fed from the dining room stove. It could only be got at via the rear bedroom, and that was the reason for the wardrobe, which had a false back to make access possible.
Because it was rather silly to have an airing cupboard in a bedroom, it went in the hayloft, with an open bottom, above a radiator. Now I finished converting that space into the garden room. Like the kitchen it had nice oak timbers, except that these were rafters, purlins and tie beams. I left all of them exposed, and they looked gorgeous. I wasn’t to know then that I would repeat this exercise but on a much grander scale. There had been a short, boarded door with an ugly fixed window above it. I put in a full door-height frame and made a four-paned window, separately hinged, creating in effect a stable door. I briefly considered making a raised deck outside the door with steps down to the garden but resisted the temptation. It would all mean more time spent on the project and I was impatient to begin my dream. Someone else who came after me could do that, if they wanted to.
There wasn’t a great deal to do externally. When I first arrived there was a very tatty picket fence at the front. I wasn’t too bothered about it because it wasn’t a priority, and besides it would have to come down at some time in the future when the footpath was widened. I ignored it and did most of the other work. Not long after coming I’d been approached by the council. They’d confirmed that they wanted to purchase a half-metre wide strip of land from me, and could they visit to discuss the matter. A young man had come to see me and been very fair, advising me that I could appoint a valuer to represent my interests. Normally they would have moved and then reinstated my fence, he’d said, but as mine was so rotten they’d give me a new one. I’d employed the local estate agent again. He’d told me that I’d get a good deal from the council: their policy was to make a generous first offer because that would be cheaper than having to compulsorily purchase if I cut up rough and didn’t want to sell. (Also, if they were seen to be generous in the first place, an arbitration panel would be more likely to find in their favour.) My valuer had suggested a figure of £1,500, the council had offered that and I had accepted, with alacrity. It had been a good deal: I’d lose less land, for more money, from my front than I’d gained, for less money, along my side. And I’d get a new fence as well. It couldn’t be bad.
But as the end of the project loomed, with no sign of anything happening on the footpath front, I began to realise that I’d have to do something. Left as it was, the tatty fence would severely detract from the house when it came to selling. So I spent many days tarting it up: replacing many palings that were too rotten to save and liberally applying wood filler to the rest. The matching gate was too far gone, so I made another one. Then I painted it all a nice bright white, in true American Deep South style. It looked quite good, as long as you didn’t prod it too fiercely.
Barely two weeks after I’d finished, I received a letter from the council saying that they intended to do the work in the next month. Sure enough, they came, immediately took a hammer to my renovated fence, cleared the wreckage away, widened the footpath and built me a new fence and gate, even painting it white again for me. What a waste of my time! But at least I got a brand new fence. The moral of this little tale is: if you find yourself having to deal with local authorities over land purchase, be nice to them. You’ll probably get a good deal.
There was little else to do externally. The tiled roof, with its tall chimneystacks topped with Victorian castle chimney pots, was good. The brickwork didn’t need re-pointing. I looked at the front windows and puzzled over the way the bedroom ones were different from those downstairs. I supposed that none were original, but they’d been replaced at different times with no thought to consistency. The ground floor ones, being small-paned sashes, looked more original but their tops seemed wrong: instead of a curved top to the frames beneath brick arches, these had been crudely in-filled with brick. To make them look more attractive, I made wooden in-fills and painted them white with the rest of the windows. As for the upper windows, they would just have to stay. I couldn’t afford to replace them. Perhaps someone coming after me would do so, hopefully with correctly-styled wooden ones.
The rest of the outside work consisted of painting: white for the windows and red for the doors (unusually, the front door had been ‘gentrified’ by applying panelling on the outside of a primitive boarded structure). I made window boxes for the front windows and planted them with bright annuals. I had been gradually taming the garden. It wasn’t large but now ran all around the house, and I created a lawn with flower borders and fruit trees. It was now considerably better than when I’d found it.
The renovated exterior.
And that was about it. I’d done less in the way of insulating than at Bridgnorth Road, apart from putting in double the then-required thickness of loft insulation, at the same time as preservative-treating the roof. I’d rewired (my first try at a doing a complete job myself) and done all the plumbing, with many fraught moments. Plumbing has never been my favourite occupation. But, in doing almost everything myself I’d brought the house back from a dismal near-ruin to a beautiful dwelling of great character at comparatively little cost. It was immensely satisfying: I was really pleased.
Now it just remained to bring in an estate agent for a valuation. It was now or ever. The mid-80s property boom had peaked, and I really ought to be on the market before it declined too far. An agent came, looked around and admired my work. He said that, as the market was dropping a bit, only about £128,500 would be realistic. Only that much! I’d been looking at prices of comparable properties at the height of the boom and found figures of as much as £150,000, but never in my wildest dreams (and I tend to be prone to wild ones) thought I’d achieve anything like that much. I’d be more than happy with his figure, thank you very much. This was 1990: it was still a lot of money then, and considering that I’d bought for only £29,000 four years earlier and had no mortgage to repay, at quadruple what I’d paid it seemed an astronomical rise.
So once more I joined the market. Feeling so pleased with what I’d done, I rather expected a deluge of enquiries, but there were few. The best response I got at first was from a young local Broseley couple. They looked, and were very complimentary about the house. They would like it, they said, but they had a problem. There was a money difficulty, as the lady had been previously married but the financial aspect of her divorce wasn’t yet sorted out and they couldn’t get a mortgage until it was. But they’d be in a position to in a few month’s time . . . They looked at me hopefully. If I could have foretold the future, I might have been prepared to wait for them. But of course I couldn’t, so I said that I was sorry: I’d have to keep the house on the market. They reminded me of myself in so many similar situations in the past, when I’d looked at places I really fancied, and even declared an interest, before I was in a position to make a serious offer. They looked a bit crestfallen, but said they quite understood. I did empathise with them though; I was looking around myself.
I forget now what first got me interested, but I found myself noticing more and more when I scanned the estate agents’ windows and the local papers the unusual properties like conversions – mill or barn conversions: that sort of thing. The ones already done sold for fortunes because of their great character and uniqueness, but at that time these buildings, with outline planning permission to convert, were frequently on the market at less than the cost of an old house. Apart from that, as I’d been finding over the last thirteen years, the supply of houses (Barratt’s Hill was an exception) in England had pretty much dried up, so sought after were they.
I also noticed that my local paper often carried adverts for such places from over the border in Wales. One stood out particularly. It was in northwest Powys, where the county rubbed shoulders with Snowdonia. I sent off for particulars, and then went to see it. It was a fine stone barn with a roof of Welsh slate. Obviously it would need a considerable amount of work, but its situation was glorious, with open views over green meadows to grey-green mountains on the horizon. The asking price was £35,000. I was captivated. The farmstead was nearby and, having carefully considered the proposition for thirty seconds, I knocked on the farmhouse door. The farmer was at home having his lunch. I told him I was very interested in the barn, and offered him the asking price. He looked very embarrassed and said that a local person was already interested in it, so he didn’t feel he could offer it to me. It was difficult to tell whether that was really it. If he was telling me the truth it was absolutely fair enough. I didn’t want to be the typical affluent incomer, elbowing my way in and pricing the locals out. Or it may have been that he simply didn’t want to sell to me.
Whatever the truth of it, he couldn’t be persuaded and I drove home disappointed and frustrated. Perhaps I should have dropped the barn idea then, but now I had the bug. My little devilish companion was whispering seductive thoughts. Back home, I contacted every Welsh estate agent I could find in the local paper for barn details. A lot came back. One agent even sent copies of plans already approved for a scheme, although I didn’t particularly the barn itself, its situation or the proposal. Most places were less an ideal – either not very nice buildings in themselves or standing in the middle of farmyards.
There was just one that seemed to have potential. It was outside a village, apparently in open country, near Newtown in Powys. The barn itself didn’t look all that attractive. It was part stone and part sheathed in peeling black-painted corrugated iron. The same lovely material covered much of the roof. But it sounded from the description to be spectacularly sited, with extensive views. Definitely worth a look, I thought. I rang the agent to arrange a viewing. On the Saturday morning I drove excitedly to Wales. Through Newtown I headed further west and soon came to Trefeglwys village. The sale particulars directed me along a narrow side road that began to climb steeply up, round a hairpin bend and up again. On the right the rolling Powys landscape opened out, unfolding below as if just for my delectation.
At a roadside corrugated iron shed I turned off onto a bumpy track, rounded a bend and skirted a copse. Past the trees the barn suddenly came into view, looking down at me from still higher ground. Rather disappointingly, it didn’t stand alone. To the right and close by there was a house. Worse, a modern barn peeped out from behind, to the left. Rounding another bend, I climbed a final slope to find the farmer waiting for me.
I pulled to a halt beside his Land Rover and got out. The view hit me full in the face, stretching back down to where I’d just come from and sweeping around to the right in a glorious 180- degree panorama. There were no mountains on this horizon, but the high level view was still breathtaking. I realised that the natural front of the barn faced the view, and the house and other barn were now invisible. They didn’t impinge at all. The farmer showed me around. The barn consisted of a main body (the corrugated iron part and clearly the original bit) that was open to its magnificent timbered roof. Attached to it was a later stone-built cart shed, with a loft. There were no openings at the rear – just narrow ventilation slits – other than the cart shed entrance, which looked onto a yard, the other barn and the house. A stone external staircase led up to the loft, which had small tatty dormer windows and a roof covered in a strange material: felt strips cut into the shape of Victorian round-edged tiles. Inside, the barn was still strewn with several feet of rotting hay.
The farmer told me than the barn, house and surrounding fields had originally been Penrorin farm, until his own farm had swallowed it. The house was already in other ownership and now he wanted to dispose of the barn, as it was surplus to requirements. We went outside. He’d fenced off a reasonably sized area of garden land from the field at the front but, rather illogically, left an awkward square piece at one end as still part of the field. Rather candidly, he confessed that the barn had been on the market some time, at £35,000, with little interest being shown. Perhaps people were being put off by the fact that it wasn’t completely solitary. He intimated that he’d now probably accept less. That would have brought a gleam to most people’s eyes, but in my case my lack of ruthlessness kicked in. I’d already decided, after not much thought again, that I wanted the place, so I offered him£33,000 if he’d include the extra bit of land.
He didn’t haggle at all, and shook my hand there and then. I was quite touched by the look of relief in his eyes. He told me that the selling agent happened to live in the village and we could go and see him immediately. But I was at least trying to keep my impulsiveness in check (honestly!) and said no, I’d like a few days as a cooling off period. He looked a little despondent as I took my leave and drove back home. But I knew I wouldn’t change my mind.
Sure enough, I was on the phone the following Monday morning to the selling agent, to confirm my offer. I’d spent the rest of the weekend in a dream. I kept remembering the wonderful view. I also kept thinking about the enormity of the undertaking: Barratt’s Hill had been a challenge and a half (and so for that matter had Kingsnordley much longer ago, when I’d had virtually no building experience) but this was something else, another quantum leap of doability. Could I really tackle it? Common sense said, ‘be careful, know your limitations’. It also cautioned, ‘remember what happened the last time you tried opting out’. But my little green friend, he with the horns and persuasive manner, countered, ‘no, go on, do it’.
Of course, there was the slight detail that I hadn’t actually sold the farmhouse yet. And logistical difficulties. The farmer had obtained outline planning permission in order to be able to market the barn, but not plans for a specific scheme. These would have to be done and submitted for the blessing of Powys County Council. Knowing from past experience how long these matters could take, it would be sensible to start the process as soon as possible. Then again, I couldn’t apply for permission until I was the actual property owner anyway . . .
It seemed that I would have to actually buy the barn now, regardless of whether I’d sold Barratt’s Hill. In fact, timing-wise it was probably a good thing I hadn’t yet sold. I needed a period of overlap between the two transactions in order to get the planning sorted: either that or sell first and rent – no; that sounded much too complicated. It was possibly a bit of a risk and rather open-ended (although, surely I’d sell the farmhouse fairly soon) but it seemed that a bridging loan was the answer. At least, it would be for a comparatively small amount, not the cost of a normal house. As long as it didn’t go on too long, it shouldn’t be inordinately expensive.
So I went along to my bank. Fortunately I had a good credit rating and wasn’t the sort of customer who regularly went into the red. I explained how much I’d like to borrow and what I wanted it for. Slightly to my surprise, the manager didn’t think my scheme was hair-brained and said yes, he could help. I would have to put up Barratt’s Hill as security, but on the other hand I could pay the comparatively small amount of interest on a monthly basis while I still had a normal income rather than let it accumulate in a nasty compound way to be settled when the loan ended.
Now came the fun part: doing the plans. That in itself (never mind the actual building) was a bit ambitious I suppose. After all, although I worked in a sort of drawing office, I was no architect and had only a limited knowledge of building technology. I was thankful that one of the other barn particulars had included detailed plans. I looked at them carefully, seeing how the plans and elevations were rendered. They were simply visual representations drawn to scale and were comparatively easy to do. The trickier part came in drawing the sections, which were technical and included annotations detailing every aspect of the materials to be used and their dimensions (such as timber sizes) and everything else, like insulation. Fortunately the plans I was cribbing were for a similar project to mine, so to quite a large extent I could apply the data for those to mine. It took ages to do the plans and then photocopy them at work. I was glad that I had at least some drawing knowledge myself, and the facilities at work; I certainly saved myself several hundred pounds in architect’s fees, and did exactly the sort of scheme I wanted.
It was fascinating, thinking out the best way (as I saw it) to convert the barn, retaining as much of its intrinsic character as possible. Essentially, I decided to keep the main body of the building as it was: open plan and open to the roof but ‘softly’ divided with draped fabric and partitions into sitting, dining and kitchen areas, with an open staircase rising grandly to a gallery and the cart shed loft. All the bedrooms would be located in that end. Externally, the front timber-framed wall (currently corrugated iron-clad) would be wooden planked, as it would have been originally and all other timber – windows and doors – painted red, in the local tradition. Windows would go in the front, to take in the view. The roof would of course be slated.
Rather going over the top in my anxiety to appear credible, I also did a ‘report’ explaining my rationale in proposing what I was, and then, taking things further still, did a full colour illustration of the converted barn. It looked pretty good, I thought. (I learned later from the farmer that the members of the parish council, who were consulted, were quite impressed by it: they’d never seen such a thing for something as relatively small scale as a building conversion. It was hardly grandiose, like a shopping development or something like that); I’ve no idea whether it made any difference in swaying the planning committee.
Meanwhile the purchase had been set in train. Obviously, it was made more complex because I was concurrently applying for planning permission and one was predicated on the other. Then the entire scheme was nearly blown apart, but for quite a different reason. A few weeks in, I got a letter from Powys County Council informing me that I couldn’t buy the barn. It seemed that they had a policy on who could, or couldn’t, settle in rural areas. They would only grant planning permission for ‘new’ housing (as opposed to an existing house) to people who were local, or who needed to move to the area for a pressing personal reason (not merely wanting to) or were moving in because of work. Strictly speaking, I didn’t meet any of those criteria. I supposed it could be said that I was going there to work, although not to take up a conventional job. I was not, though, going there to retire, which I gathered was the main reason for the restriction.
It was all very worrying; I really thought my plans were scuppered. I took the letter to show my solicitor, who’d never heard of such a thing but said he’d do what he could, and rang Mr Lloyd the farmer, who said he would too – he was as concerned as me: he didn’t want to lose his sale. As if by magic, a week later I received another letter from the council, this time from the chief planning officer himself: virtually God. He apologised for the ‘over-zealousness’ of his underling, and assured me that I could become the proud owner of Penrorin Barn after all. I don’t know whether the Friends in High Places network had operated or what, but all that mattered was that I could go ahead. I breathed a very big sigh of relief.
By now Christmas 1990 had been and gone. The New Year turned and there was no sign of a buyer. It was to be expected I supposed; there was usually little activity in the housing market in the winter months. January brought no enquiries. But then, in February, a young couple came. He worked in a bank, at something middle-managerial; she was a doctor. They had a good look round and said they loved the house. Two days later the agent rang to tell me they’d made an offer. The somewhat bad news was that it was only £115,000. I didn’t know whether to feel glad or disappointed. When I sounded just a little underwhelmed the agent said he’d try and raise them. A little while later he came back and said they’d increased to £117,000. They’d told him that that was as much as his bank was prepared to finance.
I had a dilemma. It was still rather less than I’d been expecting. But it was still a lot of money. On the other hand, I could perhaps wait it out for a better offer. Then again, I really needed to be setting sale proceedings in motion. The planning approval ought to be coming through soon. There’d been no further hiccups on that (apart from one or two details that needed clarification for Building Regulations), and the purchase had been completed. And although I could afford it, I didn’t much like having to pay my bridging loan interest. In a sense it was wasted money. I wanted to settle up and go as soon as possible. And the market was now falling. And I came back to the fact that I’d still done pretty well. (After all, perhaps my potential buyers’ bank had a better idea of the house’s worth than my agent, who obviously tried to talk it up as much as possible.) Subtracting the purchase price of the barn – or rather, what I’d have to repay the bank – from £117,000 less costs, I’d still have virtually £80,000 for the next project. That would surely make it doable.
So, after consulting my little friend, who was all for it, I accepted.
There were no great difficulties with the sale. A nerve-wracking survey was done on my buyers’ behalf and for an anxious few days there was a hiatus while a second survey was done following discovery of a slight amount of penetrating damp during the first one. But it was deemed trivial, and things continued. They should have seen it when I first moved in, I reflected wryly.
The planning approval came through, so now I was almost there. Then the couple who’d seen Barratt’s Hill the previous year but couldn’t go for it then, reappeared, saying that now they could. I had to tell them that, sorry, I now had a buyer. If I’d been really ruthless (and perhaps some people would) I might have invited them to make an offer significantly better than £117,000, but that would have been very unfair to the others as they were now so far down the road of purchase. Gazumping is a horrible practice. Torturing themselves, the couple asked to have another look around then left, saying sadly that if for any reason the other peoples’ purchase fell through, would I contact them? I felt terribly sorry for them.
But there was no collapse, and suddenly legal matters accelerated to contract exchange. Completion was just days away. I had to start thinking about practical things. Most pressingly, I would have to live somewhere temporarily. The first, obvious thought was renting somewhere. That was fine, but (a) it would eat up funds better spent on the project and (b) it would need to be somewhere very close by. I dismissed the idea. Thought number two was to do what many people in that situation did: have a caravan on site. I wasn’t keen on that either. I could image what would happen; apart from the cost of buying one, when the barn was habitable enough the caravan would simply be abandoned to rot away, an eyesore for evermore.
My third idea was more unusual. Why not buy a camper van? It could also serve as a useful transport vehicle, and when no longer needed, provided I’d kept it tidy, be sold on. My advisors at work disabused me of that notion. As they pointed out, such a vehicle (one decent enough to have some resale value anyway) would also devour capital, and be expensive to run. Then I had a brainwave. It was a triumph of lateral thinking. What if I bought a large, garage-sized shed? It could be made sufficiently liveable-in for the first part of the project, until at least part of the barn was made habitable. Then afterwards it would continue as a useful storage building. It would have to be bought of course (but would cost less than a van), but as it would have a permanent life the money wouldn’t be wasted. Brilliant!
I thought I’d better just check with the council that this would be all right. After I’d explained my cunning plan, and after the planning officer had stopped sounding incredulous, he said that, yes, it would be all right. But it would have to have planning permission. Planning permission? Now I was incredulous. Yes, the official explained patiently, it would have to be a time-limited permission to guard against me erecting an illegal habitation. As if that would prevent me, if I were so exploitatively minded, from putting up a large shed on the quiet and letting a family of ten live in it! So I had to go through the farce of filling in an application form, paying a fee and providing a plan showing the location of the shed. At least I wasn’t required to show plans and elevations, but it must have been the most legally approved shed in Britain. Isn’t bureaucracy wonderful? I had horrible visions of another long-winded legal process, but it seemed it didn’t have to go before the planning committee. It was nodded through by my helpful civil servant, and the permission came a few days later. I’d now had to get three separate permissions: for the building, the septic tank (because that was a water authority matter, apparently, and nothing to do with the barn) and my shed. Years later I would encounter another absurdity regarding a shed, but that’s a story still to come.
But it did mean that my temporary quarters would have to be up and ready for when I arrived. Enter the ever-helpful Rob. On one of my many visits to Penrorin, just to check that it was still there, I’d introduced myself to my neighbours-to-be in Penrorin House. They were a nice couple, from Gloucestershire. They told me they’d had a porch built by a young local builder. Actually he was a time-served bricklayer who was now trying his hand at self-employment. I would need a certain amount of help with the project, and he sounded just the chap. He could also put in a concrete base and erect a shed that I could buy locally, ready for my arrival. I paid yet another visit, met Rob and it was all arranged.
He said he could also help me move if I hired a large box van in Newtown. He’d pick it up on moving day and drive it over, which would make great logistical sense. To cushion the shock of moving from a now comfortable house to no house at all, and to give me some breathing space in which to sort out necessary life-support requirements for the shed, I would book a week in a holiday let starting from the Saturday of moving day.
So everything was set up, ready to go. Superstitiously afraid that if I said anything too soon it might put the kibosh on my Grand Scheme, I’d put off telling Cyril as long as I could. But I had to be fair and give him reasonable notice, and when I judged I was about four weeks from P-day I told him. He didn’t seem all that surprised; perhaps he’d heard whispers, because I’d told everyone else of course, shown them the plans and generally bored them rigid. Cyril just sighed, patiently. He didn’t bemoan my leaving as he’d done the first time. Perhaps he was secretly pleased as, now close to retirement age, he was gradually winding his firm down.
Completion – and leaving – day was almost upon me. On the Friday there was the Last Day at Work, evoking another one fourteen years earlier. We had a midday drink in the pub, which Cyril attended. He wished me well. Then in the afternoon there was the usual, again repeated, embarrassing leaving present receiving. Later there was a night on the razzle. I tried to stay sensible, knowing I had a big day coming. True to form to the last, I misunderstood the pub meeting arrangements and spent an hour sitting in the wrong one wondering why everyone else was late, until Simon discovered me and led me, red-faced, to the correct place and my waiting friends.
Later, back home, I contemplated what I was embarking on again, this time alone. Anyone else would have thought me quite mad. My dad certainly would have. I was leaving a lovely home (which would be worth a great deal of money today) for an uncertain future. But if I stayed, there could be no Grand Scheme. I couldn’t have it both ways. I’d been working towards this situation for years – perhaps, really, all my adult life. Tomorrow I’d be starting the rest of it, doing what I really wanted to do, and doing it in a beautiful country.
I was on another cusp. When I’d visited Penrorin over the last few months, usually on the slenderest of pretexts, caught in the magical pull of the hills, I’d driven around in a dream, absolutely bowled over by the landscape, hugging myself with delight. It seemed too good to be true, but this was no transient rainbow, no ephemeral dream. This would be my reality.