This is the moving cover image for Michael Hawke’s new anthology Love from Dad: Poems of Love and War. Whilst his first collection, Vignettes was a very eclectic potpourri, this one is partially themed – hence the title.
So there are poignant, far-from-glorifying poems depicting the tragedy and pity of war. Look out for the deeply touching Letter from Borneo, the penultimate line from which seems to have inspired the title of the collection. In it, father/husband is away facing unimaginable horrors and the high probability of death whilst the family waits clinging to hope at home. The war in question is a different one from that shown on the book cover, although another poem, mentioned below, fits it equally well. In fact most of Michael’s poems are about more recent conflicts, reminding us that war always is, always was, tragic and the ultimate obscenity. Only the scale of it varies.
And then the other side of the double-faceted title. There are some exquisitely beautiful and tender poems here about love in many of its manifestations: of spouse, of partner, of children, of parents, of grandparents, of siblings. Of comrades-in-arms. Of friends. The poet seems to be romancing his wife sometimes, and again it’s very affecting. Lucky Mrs Hawke!
There are poems on many and varied other subjects too, written with Mr Hawke’s customary wisdom born of life experience. I particularly enjoyed the evocative High Country with its wonderful images such as:
The currawongs are calling
With their muted echoes falling
Through the creaking of tall timbers
To the valley floor below
and also the sad, haunting Love Letter To A Conscript with its poignant:
I can feel the baby moving;
We both miss you
And love you very much!
Your eyes, your smile…
It’s sure been a while!
How I miss your touch.
I thoroughly recommend this second anthology from a poet with something – indeed many things – to say.
Love from Dad will be published shortly by Autharium.com, available at discount on their website bit.ly/1m1kSoP or from major retailers.
In the blurb for his book, Michael dedicates it to his family. It’s quite a gift.
As for my family and me, I was born, blithely unaware of the surrounding horror, in the middle of the second great global conflict of the last century that cruelly claimed so many millions of lives. I knew nothing of my dad’s war service – like so many combatants he never spoke of it, although I believe his career was comparatively brief because he was invalided out with double pneumonia and never recalled to serve. My mum must have been very relieved about that.
I wish I knew more about it; how he felt about things, how such a huge and profound experience moulded his character, influenced his outlook, if it did. But as so often happens I did what most of us do. Inertia rules; we don’t get around to thinking about it, to talking, until our forebears have left us, at which point of course it’s too late.
Which brings me back again to my usual hobby horse: writing things down for posterity,be it a journal, an autobiography a book of poems, anything. The best legacy we can leave, to quote (again) Leonard Cohen, is to keep some kind of record.
And speaking of which, here is another chapter of Wishing for the Better
Wishing for the Better/14
I’m sitting here with my furniture and chattels heaped around me, feeling a bit foolish. Two hours ago I thought I’d have to begin my time here by tomorrow calling in an electrician. After bringing all my stuff inside, paying and bidding farewell to Rob and giving Bethan a quick walk, I’d begun to cook my meal. But switching on the cooker promptly cut the electricity supply. I located the meter cupboard and inspected the electrics. Nothing obviously seemed to be amiss.
Dusk was falling and I was very hungry. What to do now? I walked to the next cottage up the row and knocked its door, hoping I’d be able to throw myself on the inhabitants’ mercy. I’d met them on an earlier visit and introduced myself as their soon-to-be new neighbour, so it wasn’t an entirely cold call. I explained my problem. The lady, Di (as in Diana) was all sympathy. ‘Go and fetch your food’, she told me reassuringly, ‘and I’ll cook it for you. So I did, and she did, and I sat with them by their cosy wood stove eating my food, enjoying their kindness. They were terribly nice people, slightly older than me and retired, from further east in the south Wales valleys. I’d just reluctantly left lovely neighbours; now it looked as if I’d found new ones.
Eventually I tore myself away and thanked them, and clutching a borrowed torch returned to my already troublesome new home. I looked at the electrics again, more in hope than expectation. Finally, after a lengthy and dismal inspection, it dawned on me that there was a master circuit breaker. It was older and different in appearance from those at my previous houses and I simply hadn’t recognised it as one. I reset it and flicked a light switch. The house was immediately bathed in blessed light. I went into the kitchen and, cringing inwardly, tried switching the cooker on again. The lights stayed on, and so did the cooker. All was well. Perhaps there’d been moisture in the cooker – the house, having been empty for quite a while, certainly felt damp. The highly sensitive residual current device might have detected it and safely cut the power. Not a good start, I thought, but at least it was only embarrassing.
There was another slight hiccup the next day though, and that did involve getting an expert in. When I turned on a hot tap, the instantaneous-type water boiler didn’t obligingly roar into life. An engineer came and quickly sorted it out, and charged me over a hundred pounds. But now, with all life support systems working, I was ready to start.
It would be quite an interesting project, because of the unusual layout of the house. It had had a good-sized dining kitchen added some time in the mid-twentieth century, judging by the style of it. Because the garden initially rose steeply behind the house, this extension was sunk into it as a virtual basement, with wide but short windows high up inside but sitting down at the outside ground level. At the far end of the kitchen, now fully submerged, was a further, narrow utility room containing the boiler. It was also a fuel store for a very tatty Rayburn in the main room. The single-sloped roof of this extension, with its high part at the far end, ran parallel with the rising ground beside it back down forwards, to meet the rear of the original house.
There was a ground floor bathroom in a lean-to against the old part of the house, which now connected it with the newer part. The original cottage consisted simply of one large ground floor room, and a narrow steep staircase rose to just one bedroom. This was a nice room with some character: there were exposed original main A-fame roof timbers and the tiny bedroom window was virtually on the floor. An outside door opened onto the external staircase.
So: how to create two more bedrooms in a cottage that was quite generously proportioned on the ground floor but decidedly lacking in sleeping facilities? It would be possible to add one small bedroom roughly nine feet square onto the back of the current extension, but that would be the limit of any more rearward growth. After that there was no more available space, because there was a detached garage eating up the width of the garden. Anyway, adding one more room would increase the present depth of the house of more than forty feet to over fifty; so adding still more would be ridiculous. Apart from that, even if the garage were removed (which I didn’t want to do; it was useful storage space) to allow a second bedroom, the first one would have to be tiny because there’d have to be a passage through to the second. And I couldn’t make the bedroom extension two-storey; being some way uphill it would dwarf the original cottage and be unacceptable for neighbours. It would be unlikely – rightly – to get planning permission. Two more bedrooms seemed to be quite undoable.
But surely there must be a way? I looked at the sloping roof of the present kitchen extension. A new lean-to bedroom could be built against the end of the kitchen, so the two roof slopes together would become a conventional pitched roof. However the bedroom would have to be built at normal ground level – to sink it into the ground would be absurd. To form a pitch the apexes of the two roofs ideally had to be the same height, but the kitchen roof at its rear was currently lower. It would have to be tilted upwards. Doing that would create a viable amount of space for a small bedroom – in other words, a loft conversion.
Voile! I’d paid several hundred pounds to have plans drawn for the Henblas project but they were only plans and elevations, not technically specified, detailed ones, and I could easily have drawn them myself. So this time I did. As I had done with Penrorin, I really enjoyed doing it. Out of courtesy I showed them first to the neighbours. Tony and Di had no problems with my scheme at all. My immediate neighbour in the adjoining house was slightly uncertain at first; she thought that further adding to my back and raising the kitchen roof would over-tower her a bit and intimated that she might formally object. I asked the local planning officer to visit and opine as to whether my plan was reasonable. He looked at the house and I explained what I wanted to achieve. He thought it was indeed quite reasonable and that any objection would be thought spurious and not upheld. We had a tripartite meeting on my neighbour’s doorstep and the planning officer assured her that the proposal would not be detrimental, and gently hinted that an unwarranted objection would be ignored. She took his point. I was relieved. After the slight unpleasantness at Hilton, I really didn’t want bad neighbour relations. If things had become sour between us I would have done what I’d done then: just done up the place as it stood, forgotten about extending and moved on. I went out of my way to be pleasant whenever my neighbour and I met and when, months later, she saw the end result showing only a little over the top of the hedge that separated us, she was quite happy.
That was the basis of the scheme. It was a pleasingly unorthodox (I do hate blandness) enlargement. It looked like two conjoined pitch-roofed houses one behind the other, rather than one. In the kitchen I planned to remove the chimney stack (it would have to go anyway) and chimneybreast for the old Rayburn, which would be discarded. A wide opening through to the utility room would then be created, and I would move all the business parts of the kitchen there, leaving a generous dining room. A staircase would rise from it to the two new bedrooms. So the house would now have three staircases including the external one. It would be very safe; there’d be several escape routes in case of fire!
Work on the old part would be mainly aesthetic. I would remove the wood and stone 1970s fire surround in the living room and replace it with a simple painted traditional-styled one. I would remove the ghastly varnished pine wood panelling above it. The exposed ceiling ‘beams’, that were actually modern joists, had suffered the almost inevitable ‘antiquing’: edges of the wood had been deliberately chipped off. I would restore them and paint them white, as was traditionally done in the nineteenth century. I would make the staircase in the sitting room less steep (although I would have left it if it was original) and fit a door at the bottom (it rose directly into the bedroom) in the traditional manner. Because the bathroom was on the ground floor, I would give up a small part of the bedroom for a shower room/toilet, and for simple-doored wardrobes. And that, generally speaking, was the project.
The plans were submitted, and they would pass without any problem. Actually, they didn’t really count as full plans as the project was essentially adding a very small extension and altering part of the existing building, and so didn’t need detailed drawings. Meanwhile, I removed the windows from the front (they were beyond repair and exceedingly ugly) and replaced them with small-paned wooden (but double glazed) new ones that had to be made to measure. Illustrating the age of the cottage, the door was quaintly short and wide, but also nasty and wrong. It had to go. I had a new, more appropriately styled one made. Partially below ground level, the porch was a damp, rotten horror. I removed the mouldy dark matchboard panelling from the walls, installed vertical damp proofing and dry lined them with insulation behind plasterboard.
By now the plans were approved and I could get on with the main part of the project. The extension was quite straightforward, except that it had to be built somewhat asymmetrically. The space behind the kitchen, which hitherto had been a small patio, became narrower the further you went up the garden because of the presence of the garage and because the boundary hedge began to creep over to my side. So although it looked like a simple rectangle at first glance, it was actually tapered. Nothing I do is ever straightforward! But it wasn’t too much of a challenge.
Next came the more worrying bit: altering the kitchen roof. First I would have to remove the chimneystack and breast. On the roof with my lump hammer and cold chisel, the pot and bricks of the stack came off quite easily. But as I worked down through the roof each brick became progressively harder to loosen. By the time I’d gone below to continue inside the kitchen, it was very hard going indeed. The breast had been built as if to resist nuclear attack. (In fact it had probably been built during the Cold War). There was nothing for it but to hire a mechanical breaker. These come in various sizes, ranging from babies that are little bigger than drills (and are useless) to the huge ones you see digging up roads. The one I chose was small enough to hold comfortably, but when I’d used it for half an hour I wished I’d gone for a larger one. It was a slow, slow job. Usually mortar in brickwork is softer than the bricks themselves and if you attack that the bricks obligingly loosen and fall to the ground. But this was a solid unyielding mass, made more so because, being a chimneybreast, it was a double brick thickness. It had certainly been built with strength in mind: it was an absolute swine.
I struggled on, now trying a technique of alternate mechanical breaking and brute-force-and-desperation using a sledgehammer borrowed from Tony. Then, a couple of hours later, two knights in shining armour galloped up to my castle. Well, they didn’t so much rein in snorting white steeds as a rusty white pick-up truck. They were a couple of likely lads wearing very knowing expressions from Llanelli, touring the countryside in search of scrap. I had some bits and pieces to give them. They looked at what I was (trying) to do. I remarked what a bugger it was. They exchanged glances. ‘We could do that for you’, one of them offered.
‘Could you?’ I said, a bit too quickly. ‘How much would you charge?’
‘Tell you what’, the other one said, ‘we’re just nipping up the road for our dinner. ‘We’ll talk it over and come back to you’.
Half an hour later they were back.
‘We’ll do it for four hundred pounds’, the tallest of them said. ‘Just the demolition. Not the disposal. Cash.’
I thought about it. For a split second. It was a lot of money, but I was desperate. They had me over a psychological barrel, and they knew it.
‘Go on then’, I said, trying to sound reluctant.
They immediately leapt into action. One grabbed the breaker, his mate the sledgehammer. They very quickly discovered it wasn’t the piece of cake they’d assumed.
‘Christ, this difficult’, one said, shocked.
‘Yes’, I said, ‘I know’.
They stayed at it, grimacing through their cigarette smoke, and gradually the breast came down. After three hours, with the chimneybreast half demolished, they left, saying they be back the next day. I had the feeling that ‘just demolition’ meant exactly that, and cleared the rubble produced thus far out of the room. Early the next morning I rushed into Llandovery to get the cash and rushed back home again, anxious not to find them twiddling their thumbs on my doorstep. They weren’t; in fact they didn’t show until nearly midday, when they arrived with a child, a little boy about eight years old, in tow. One of them explained that he had to look after his son for the day. I was alarmed. This was breaking every health and safety rule in the book. It was one thing for the men themselves to be not wearing hard hats – they should have been intelligent enough to know the risks – but quite another to have a small boy present at a demolition. Although I kept trying to, the little lad couldn’t be persuaded to go outside and amuse himself: he wanted to be where the action was. Every now and then his irresponsible father would mildly tell him to keep out of the way. I kept well back in the doorway of the kitchen, trying to keep the child behind me, feeling anxious and annoyed. It was a good thing that no health and safety official happened to pay a visit; we would all have been for the high jump.
I breathed a sigh of relief when, three hours later, the breast was all down, reduced to a huge pile of rubble on the floor. The Rayburn had been taken outside, unceremoniously smashed and loaded onto the pickup. Most importantly, there’d been no accident. I gave the men their money, which they carefully counted, and they went happily (very happily, I suspected) on their way. As I surveyed the rubble waiting to be removed, I reflected that it had been a lot of money to pay. They’d each earned two hundred pounds tax-free for what amounted to barely a day’s work. But at least the chimneybreast was down. Now I could begin the fun part.
Well, that wasn’t quite true. There was the small matter of taking the kitchen roof off. I wasn’t worried about the job itself, but when it was removed the kitchen would be vulnerable; it would be exposed to the weather. It wouldn’t even be possible to sheet it over temporarily with a tarpaulin at one stage, because with everything removed there’d be no woodwork to drape it over. It would be like the time at Penrorin. Oh well, it had got to be done.
I needed a window of predicted dry weather for at least a week; long enough to take the roof off, install purlins and rafters in the new configuration and at least get roofing felt on. After that, as long as there wasn’t an absolute deluge, I could relax a bit. I looked anxiously at the forthcoming five-day weather forecast. It was the early summer of 2000, had been reasonably dry and was going to be so for the next few days, it said.
It was now or never, and I decided to go for it – although it wasn’t quite as straightforward as described in the last paragraph. It wasn’t simply a matter of reconfiguring the roof. The walls would also have to be raised, building them progressively higher towards the top of the slope to make the angle steeper. In an ideal world where you were never threatened by rain, that would be done after the old roof was taken off. But I wanted to be exposed to watery risk for as little time as possible, so I took off just the edges of roof first. Then, with their tops exposed, I built up the walls up. It all looked a bit backside-about-face and shambolic, but I was minimising the risk period.
Then I checked the weather forecast again. There was still no rain on the horizon. I continued stripping the slates. That had to be done fairly slowly and carefully, because I wanted to keep as many slates intact as possible for reuse. It went quite well. Many slates came off without breaking and after a day I was down to the battens and rafters. But now I was at the point of greatest vulnerability. When the woodwork was off too I wouldn’t be able to cover in case of rain. The battens could be torn off quickly because I wasn’t going to be reusing them, and with a bit of controlled brutality (or to put it another way bashing with my club hammer) it looked as if the rafters would come off easily too. It was relatively easy to free them from the purlins but slightly trickier at the bottom of the slope at the back of the old house; there they were attached to the kitchen ceiling joists. I wanted to leave the ceiling undisturbed – there was no point in causing unnecessary work – and I tried to disconnect rafters from joists as carefully as I could.
That didn’t always prove easy. At one point, hammering at a rafter rather too zealously, there was a loud cracking noise and I suddenly found myself contemplating the kitchen floor. A large section of ceiling plasterboard had given up all resistance and crashed dramatically down. That wasn’t what I wanted to happen at all, but never mind.
At the end of another day the roof was completely off. Now it was just a matter of rebuilding. Tony kindly helped me set the new purlins, which were much more substantial and building regulations-approved, in position. I knew that, because of the increased rake, the new rafters would have to be longer. I also knew that I couldn’t afford to waste money and throw perfectly good material away, so half of the new rafters were brand new and the remainder were pieced together using the old – sound – wood, with generous overlaps, at the bottom of the slope. After three more days the rafters were back on. They’d been a bit fiddly and time-consuming to do because of the splicing-together in some cases, and leaving an aperture for a Velux window for the loft bedroom, and the forming of a valley at the junction with the old house. Not the sort of slow work rate you want when you are constantly keeping a lookout for rain. Late that evening I had roofing felt on too, with enough slate battens to hold it in position. Just as I wearily, but with great relief, called it a day, it began to rain.
The rest of the job was straightforward. I re-slated, building in the Velux window, using the slates that had come off supplemented with other second hand ones. The one thing that defeated me was the Velux. I’d taken it apart separating the window from the frame to build the latter into the roof, and then (being a bear of little brain when it comes to mechanical things) found that I couldn’t figure out how to put it back together. Tony came round, looked at it for three seconds and clicked it into place. He used to be a mechanic.
That just left the kitchen ceiling to restore with new plasterboard and bits and pieces to complete in the bedroom additions. They were finished internally, incorporating insulation into the walls, and a staircase built in the dining room. My unusual project was coming together nicely. The final thing was bring in a builder to do something I couldn’t do myself (and have never wanted to, thank you very much): roughcast render the new extension and the raised bits of the kitchen walls to match the existing house. He did a good job, if you like that sort of thing, and charged me the going rate I suppose; but again, being used to doing things for myself (if not always as competently as a true professional), I was surprised at how much craftsmen charge. When a few years later I found myself working as an artisan for hire, I never felt able to command anything like the same sort of rates. But I suppose if I’d stayed in one line of work all my life and become really competent at it, rather than flit from one thing to the next, I too could have earned what most people would regard as an average income.
But I wasn’t complaining. I may have had a ridiculously low income, but I was enthusiastically doing what I wanted to do. Money just wasn’t important. Occasionally I would still get a writing job, or do one speculatively, usually for the dog magazine. Now that I had relocated to a different part of Wales there were areas I could cover that I hadn’t done before. Then the magazine changed its dog walks section and focused on a single area in each issue, so as the local contributor I was asked to provide two walks for each one. Being double the amount of work, and money, that was very nice, but it did make things more difficult logistically. Many contributors, I suspected, were amateurs who ‘wrote’ a walk that they’d already done for recreation, or perhaps on holiday, so a bit of money earning was no more than a pleasant bonus on top of an enjoyable day out.
But I was regarding it semi-professionally: I was going out specifically to do walks for money, and they couldn’t all be very local ones. In an attempt to gain more work (as I regarded it) I was spreading my net as wide as I could, but in order to be as time-effective as possible I crammed two walks into one day’s visit. That was reasonably achievable when I did two in the Brecon Beacons. And when I took in two just over the border in Herefordshire they were just about all right too, although Beth and I were pretty tired at the end of them. But when I went even further afield, to the Cotswolds, it got silly. It was a very long day indeed. This batch of double articles would be the last I would do for the magazine: the effort/reward ratio was just too low.
As for living in Ashfield Row, it was turning out to be as unpleasant as I thought it would be. The traffic noise, particularly at rush hours, was unbearable. Although there was a turning into Llangadog village at the end of the row, the road was a racetrack. One morning I heard a loud bang soon followed by a commotion of emergency sirens outside and went out to look. A car had spectacularly flipped right over onto its roof. Fortunately, it turned out, the driver was not badly injured. And it wasn’t the only accident during my fairly brief time there. I learned after I left that after much petitioning from the residents, a traffic-calming island had been installed at the village turning and it had slowed things down a lot. But even with that I wouldn’t have wanted to stay. I’d known when I came that living here that it would only be a means to an end, and I hadn’t changed my mind.
It was far from being as peaceful an environment as those of Henblas or Penrorin. It was a pity: the cottage with its pretty frontage and, I felt, sympathetic enlargement, would have been lovely in a nicer place. But that was wishful thinking. I’d grit my teeth and complete the project and, hopefully, find somewhere better next time. That didn’t stop me casually looking in the windows of the estate agents in Llandovery and Llandeilo, of course. I wanted to be aware of what was on the market and might still be so when I reached the happy position of being ready to move – again.
Meanwhile, I pressed on to complete the project. I fitted out the repositioned kitchen, reusing the units but upgrading the doors and giving them a paint job in an appropriate colour. They looked much nicer. I finished the sitting room, altering the fireplace, the ceiling joists and building in cupboards. I improved the old stairs, making them less steep, and fitted the stairs door. As the house had now become three bedroomed, the main bedroom would need privacy. I installed the shower room and bedroom wardrobes. That left the final job: decorating throughout, inside and out. The house might have been in the wrong place from my point of view, but it looked nice. After the part I really enjoy, hanging pictures, was finished, there was the usual deep sense of satisfaction.
Two years on from my slightly fraught arrival, in 2001, I was back in the office of the agent who’d sold it to me asking him to sell it again. He put it on the market at £59,000. That was an increase on my buying price of £27,000 – just under 46%. It wasn’t too bad. Now I could allow myself the luxury and pleasure of seriously looking for another place. I’d been finding though, from my casual looking, that it was the same situation as when I’d left Henblas. There weren’t very many ruins around awaiting my attention. I realised again that I’d have to cast my net wider, and took some exploratory tours of towns to the west, and in Ceredigion to the northwest. I looked at a cottage outside Llandysul, an attractive little town scenically situated in a deep valley of the River Teifi. The cottage itself didn’t appeal though: it lurked in a narrow gloomy lane oppressed by overhanging trees. A place with a view from it would be nicer.
Leaving Llandysul I worked my way north-westwards to the main coast road and then turned north. In an agent in pretty Aberaeron on the coast of Cardigan Bay I found two possibilities: another cottage and, still further north near spectacular Devil’s Bridge, a barn. I looked at the cottage first. It was quite nice. With extension it had potential, although the garden was rather small and there was limited parking. Then I went to see the barn, and was absolutely bowled over. It was gorgeous; a long, low stone building out in the wilds with tremendous far reaching views over emerald fields to distant mountains. It was even better than Penrorin and definitely a possibility. Back at the selling agent I expressed interest, and was given a copy of plans that had been drawn for its conversion. I took it home for avid study.
Meanwhile the house selling was going well. I nearly sold in the first week again, to the first person who came to view. Another single man, he had an almost cursory look round and said he’d buy it for the asking price there and then. It was too good to be true. And it would turn out to be just that. Hardly believing my luck, I made a formal offer for the barn. The asking price was only £38,000 and it seemed churlish to try and bargain down from that. It wouldn’t be an entirely straightforward project. It was nowhere near a mains water supply and would have to have a private one. Part of a wall was in a severe state of collapse. But there was no difficulty that was insurmountable. Or so I thought.
Back on the selling front, there was a problem. My potential buyer, a self-employed man, had boasted when we met that he kept dual accounts, one set showing actual earnings and another showing much more modest results for tax purposes. His dishonesty would prove to be a self-inflicted wound in his foot. When he applied for a mortgage, citing his ‘official’ figures, they were too low to secure a big enough loan. And he dare not admit his true earnings. He tried several different lenders, all with the same result. So eventually, after ten wasted days, he had to withdraw from the purchase. What an idiot! Fortunately I had had other people to look at the house: a middle-aged couple who were also keen to buy. Unfortunately, they could only stretch to £37,000, and when pressed £37,500. But at least they were honest people. I accepted their offer.
Now I found difficulties with the barn purchase. I had quite thought that I could solve the temporary accommodation problem in the same way that I had at Penrorin. Using a building that would become a shed had been a clever wheeze then; I’d do the same thing again. When I rang the planning officer for his blessing, he wouldn’t hear of it. I thought I was scuppered. I’d met the owner on a second visit and had established phone contact to keep things moving smoothly. Hearing about my difficulty, she and her husband offered me the renting of a cottage they had on their farm. Surely that would solve all my problems. But then, speaking to the council jobsworth again, I discovered that his real objection was to the notion of having an outbuilding per se. It was a very environmentally sensitive area, he said, and they couldn’t allow ‘uncontrolled development’, even a shed. I then understood why the plans included, rather mysteriously an internal storeroom.
This was absurd. Everyone needs a garden shed! I could see why they would object to an eyesore like a rusty corrugated iron shack or something, but surely not a tidy new shed? More than most people I simply had to have a good-sized outhouse. I tried very hard to fight my corner. There was a dip in the garden and I would put it there, planting a screen of trees around it. I would paint it green. It would be virtually invisible: certainly so from the road. I did a plan and sent it to him, suggesting a site visit to check the reasonableness of my proposal. But it was still no. He wouldn’t visit, and I couldn’t do it. Fearing that I might withdraw, the seller got big guns on the case. They had a councillor as a neighbour and asked him to intervene, but that failed too.
The officer went beyond obdurate now: he simply refused to speak to me. When I rang his office my call was fielded; he was always too busy or out. Finally I gave up. I couldn’t go on with this, and all because of a stupid garden shed. Reluctantly I made a very embarrassing phone call to the seller to pull out. Apart from my own disappointment, I felt guilty – although it wasn’t my fault. I knew I was letting them down.
So that was it: the end of a dream. I shouldn’t have got so emotionally involved with it. Shouldn’t have spent hours doing revised plans to suit my own requirements better and indeed do a more sensitive conversion. Shouldn’t have given it a name. Inspired by its colour: it was going to be called Ysgybor y Creyr. That’s Heron Barn. Just maybe, if I’d gone ahead and bought it I could have successfully challenged the prohibition, but I couldn’t have been sure. On the other hand, it was perhaps a blessing in disguise. In true Needham style I wasn’t being very realistic. I would have a lot less money available than I’d had when I took on Penrorin. It would barely have been affordable. Then again, if I’d known then that there was a way to earn a living for the rest of my working life, it might have been doable. But I didn’t know what it was then, and wouldn’t find out until I’d moved somewhere else and had a chance encounter, anyway.
But all this was academic. I’d got a buyer for Ashfield Row and had to find myself somewhere else to go, and quickly. I contacted the agent for the cottage I’d seen near Aberaeron. It was still on the market. I went back and offered the asking price, only to find out that there was another buyer in the background who was experiencing delays. The agent prodded that party, who said that they definitely still wanted the cottage and they’d be able to complete soon. So that was a goner, too. Then I looked at a chapel near New Quay. It could have been nice, and it had a separate little vestry building with services that could surely have been used as temporary accommodation. (But then I suppose some jobsworth would have told me I couldn’t). I made an offer for that one too; in fact I tried repeatedly to make offers, but for some reason the chapel elders wouldn’t accept them. So that was another failure.
I was getting desperate. My buyers were poised ready to exchange contracts. They were breathing down my neck. It was getting rather embarrassing: I must find another place. There was nothing available nearby, and I decided to have another look in the area of the River Teifi between Llandysul and Cardigan, in case I’d missed anything. I visited Llandysul again. There was nothing in the agents there. Then I went on to the next town along the river: Newcastle Emlyn. Again there was nothing particularly interesting. Almost past caring, I picked up details for a couple of places, both semis, one in a village and the other back in Llandysul, and took them back to my car to read. Neither looked very exciting, but the Llandysul one looked just marginally more so. According to the picture it seemed to be a rather drab, grey cement-rendered but unpainted house attached to one that was painted white. The description and the interior pictures made it seem a possibility though, so perhaps it was worth a look.
I returned to the agent and said I’d like to view. It was accompanied viewing (for some reason this particular agent offered that service with all the properties on his books, no matter how humble) and I followed him back to Llandysul. The little town is built on the banks of the River Teifi at a point where it meanders through a deep valley. It consists essentially of two parallel streets: a high one some way up the valley side and a lower one down by the river. Several steep lanes connect the two. The house, Haulfryn (Sunny Hill), was half way down one of these lanes. There was a parking area in front of the pair of houses, which sat behind a stone wall at right angles to the lane. When we got there I was surprised when the agent walked straight past the drab one nearest to the lane to the white house. It was actually that one! This was encouraging: it was the more attractive of the two and it was better positioned, being tucked away privately from the lane. It also appeared to have a lot more garden.
I was pleased to see that it hadn’t suffered from plastic windows or door. The sash windows had an unusual configuration of panes: two in the lower half but three in the upper. It made me think that the house might be of Edwardian vintage. The painted front door was panelled with glass panes in the top. It opened directly into a small front room with the staircase rising out of it. There was a nice original cast iron fireplace with a white painted surround that the agent told me was actually slate. A window in the gable end of the house lit the open staircase and was very striking, because it was tall, like a chapel window. A door led through to a larger room at the rear. It was a large old fashioned-style kitchen with a Belfast sink, simple wooden units and another Rayburn. A further door, obviously originally the back one, opened into a back porch that served as a utility room.
Upstairs there were two bedrooms, front and rear, and a bathroom. The house was quite unmodernised but not tatty. It looked as if work of a more conservationist nature had been done to it. When I remarked on this the agent said yes, that was so. It had had been renovated by a lady builder who specialised in traditional techniques like lime plastering. That explained it! I was quite impressed.
The two houses (the builder had done up the other one too but hadn’t lime washed it) had very small back gardens. Haulfryn was better though because at some time in the past it had acquired a larger additional piece of land at the side. So, there was more garden area in total and the ability to perhaps extend too. All in all, it looked quite a good proposition. There were currently tenants there, but they were expecting to complete on the purchase of a house in the next few days so shouldn’t cause any delay. The asking price was £45,000, a reasonable drop in price from what I’d get for Ashfield Row. There’d be a little bit of cash to do things with, and no problems about logistics. The house was perfectly liveable-in.
I drove home and thought about it, briefly, then phoned the agent with my offer of the full price. My problems were solved! It wasn’t what I’d thought I’d be taking on a few weeks previously, but perhaps that had been an unrealistic dream, if truth be known. Now I was back in the real world; my feet had rediscovered the ground. Now I could re-instruct my solicitor and, thankfully, let my buyers know that all was now well. Things should go smoothly now. There was no buyer-chain with my buyers, and no potential problem of that sort with Haulfryn.
And everything was fine. Because she sounded like a kindred spirit, I contacted Gill, the renovator and owner of Haulfryn and had a fascinating phone conversation. I hadn’t met someone on the same wavelength as myself as far as old houses went since near-neighbour Peter at Barratt’s Hill. She told me interesting things about Haulfryn, such as the fact that it and its partner had been built as recently as 1933, to replace two ancient thatched cottages. The tenants soon moved into their new home so then, with it vacant, I could make trips to Llandysul to look at the house without snooping, and explore the town. It was good from Bethan’s point of view: there were nice farm animal-free walks in and around the town itself, and a beautiful ancient wood owned by the Woodland Trust just a short drive away. I hadn’t really envisioned moving back to a town, but it was a very small one (although big enough to have a vet) and it would certainly be considerably better than the dreaded Ashfield Row.
So the days counted down to moving. I couldn’t wait to go, not least because, notwithstanding my frugality, my funds had run right down to zero. I had to call in a favour I’d done brother Derek back in the Penrorin days when I’d been fairly affluent and given him a short-term loan; and ask him for one in return. The middle of December 2001 came and everything was signed and sealed. I’d asked Gill if she knew a man with a van in the town who could help me move. She did indeed; a man called Dave, who did earthmoving and general odd jobbing and had helped her with Haulfryn. Although he didn’t actually have the requisite white vehicle, he had a small pickup and a trailer. He could move all my building clobber. And I could hire a large box van like I’d done before for the furniture. So that was what we did, although Dave didn’t quite realise what he was letting himself in for. It took three thirty-mile trips with the heavily laden pickup and trailer, and he had to devise a route to Llandysul that avoided serious hills, otherwise his vehicle wouldn’t have made it.
Moving the building stuff in on the weekend before completion and stashing it in the garden under a tarpaulin, I was interrupted by a smiling elderly lady. She introduced herself as Shirley, from a house opposite out in the lane. Another English person, she said welcome; she hoped I’d be happy here. ‘I’ve done it again’, I thought, ‘I’ve acquired yet another nice neighbour’. She was more than simply nice. Two years in the future, Shirley would turn my life in an unpredictable new direction.