Monthly Archives: July 2016

The Close connection – part 7 – and mother came too

Not long after Ma died, my stepfather, Wilf, had a heart attack.  The doctor suggested that a smaller house, preferably a bungalow, would be easier on his heart (this was over thirty years ago, I suspect he’d be offered more active intervention now) and it seemed obvious to offer him and my mother the annexe to live in, which they accepted.  However, it wouldn’t do as it was then.  Two small double bedrooms and one large living room didn’t cut it – my mother’s big four-poster would barely fit in one of the rooms and she hated the deep pink bathroom suite (it was hideous, I couldn’t agree more), she didn’t care for my mother-in-law’s taste in carpets, curtains, kitchen – nothing, in fact.  So an extension was designed.  The new bedroom, bathroom and dressing room were arranged within the existing ‘footprint’ of the house, as there was a flat-roofed extension housing the boiler room (no longer needed as we had the Aga), the linen room and Hilda’s bathroom.  In addition, they wanted to put on a porch and a conservatory.

We’d had such difficulty getting a reasonably sized annexe granted, but the proposed alterations went through without a problem.  Oh, my mother didn’t like the roof tiles either, so Russell sweet-naturedly arranged for them to be changed.  However, before the work could be done, Wilf died suddenly from another heart attack.  It was so immensely sad, they had been married for nearly ten years and had been very happy.  My father had died when I was only sixteen, so he was my children’s grandad, they’d known no other on my side of the family.  My daughter gave her son the middle name Wilfred, after him, many years later.

The work was all done in due course and the next winter, my mother moved in, to live with us for the next fifteen years.

The next building work was the erection of the big workshop.  We already had a barn, the black cowshed (for many years used as a garage), four garages and two workshops, as well as various sheds and lean-tos, but Russell really wanted more.  He knew that there had, at one time, been a pigsty and the remains of some foundations were there, so we were able to use that as a reason for its ‘rebuilding’ – I suspect the new building is much larger.  In fact, he loved to have a project.  We had various plans for this building but they were changed when he was asked to take some very large woodworking machinery – planes, saws , lathes and so on – and I’ve only just managed to get all that lot cleared out in the last few weeks.  We had help from a builder with the construction, but did as much as we could – all the felt and battens, then the tiling, were done one sunny summer holiday.  It was then that I was able to get electricity laid on to the greenhouse.

Then, a couple of years later, our next plan came along, which was an extension to the house itself.

Mad?  Well, writing this all down, it seems clear that we were.

The Close connection – part 6 – Kenny and some of the greenhouses.

Pa and Ma had always had someone to help in the garden.  Hilda did some weeding and Ma liked gardening, I don’t think my father-in-law was particularly interested.  They had several chickens in a large run, but I never took a lot of notice of them at that time.  They were rehomed when the annexe was built.  Soon after Pa died, their gardener (this sounds more than it was, it was a retired man wanting a few hours’ work to augment his pension) decided to retire and it was then that Kenny came into our lives.

Kenny had recently retired from a factory where he cut plates of steel – I can’t remember for what purpose – anyway, he’d had a varied career.  When he left school he was the gardener’s boy on a nearby estate – a country estate with a large house, that is.  In the war, he joined the army and became a cook.  Later, he was a ‘ganger’ on the railways.  He was short and compact, strong and hard-working and loved a chat.  He especially liked it when one of us was out there working alongside him, he enjoyed company.  He always came in for a yarn and a cup of coffee, mid-morning, and usually told a few tales about his working days.  He’d got dozens and we heard all of them a fair few times over the years.

After Ma died, he agreed to stay on and keep the garden tidy and we were lucky that he liked us enough to carry on working.  He came every morning during the week, worked for an hour or so, had coffee, worked for another hour or so – I did a lot in the garden too, growing vegetables was my enthusiasm.

When we were planning to move here, I said I wanted two twelve-foot greenhouses.  I’d got one at our last house, plus a smaller one, and wanted a bit more space.  When we went to a garden centre to look at them, we found we could get three ten-footers for less than two of the larger ones – we put them end to end, including the dividing doors but not the central pane of glass, obviously.  I used to have to have heated propagators in the large porch until I had electricity put in there some years later, then I used soil-warming cables to heat the propagators.

Near where the small vegetable garden had been, a tree had grown large enough to shadow it, so I wanted to relocate.  There was a patch of grass, roughly 50 foot by 70, opposite the barns.  So we put the greenhouses there and set out a veg garden the other side.  The planning of it was one of my better ideas, in fact.  There are six beds, each 4 foot wide and thirty-something feet long, with concrete paths in between.  The idea was that I didn’t have to weed or manure any area where I wasn’t growing anything.  A bonus was that sun warmed up the concrete, which helped to warm the soil, and rainwater ran off into the beds, a benefit in this dry area with my sandy soil.   The beds ran north to south with the greenhouse along the north end, which sheltered it.  To the western side, there was a bit more space where I grew Jerusalem artichokes and it also housed the Calor gas tank.  Then there was a hedge and then a wide verge to the drive.

If you’ve been here, the wall is more or less where the hedge used to be, except that it’s nearer the drive with just room for a flower bed.  But that’s a whole ‘nother story, and one that’s been told already.

A few years, three or four, later, my friend Bobbie’s parents were moving up from Sussex to Norfolk.  Her mother was a keen gardener too and they had a number of large greenhouses, some of which the new owners would rather were removed.  So I was offered one and Russell, with a few others, went off with a lorry to dismantle them and bring them back.  It was fabulous,  made of cedar, old but in good order, thirty foot long by twelve feet wide.  We took in a bit of the field the other side of the kitchen garden – the south side, that is, and re-erected it.  I grew so many vegetables there (nearly all of which were, technically, fruits, of course), cucumber, melons, okra, peppers both sweet and hot – the original aluminium one tended to be used for tomatoes, I think, and I also grew lots and lots of plants from seed, most of which I sold for local good causes.

The Close connection – part 5 – birth and death

The change in our situation was that we had decided to have another baby.  Ronan was born ten months after our decision to move and – if you’re wondering – the two decisions were linked.

We couldn’t move straight in, there were some necessary works to be done, in particular the replacement of the roof tiles.  The original tiles were still in place, though they’d been turned over at some time in the past.  It all had to come off and it was a major undertaking. Upstairs, there was a sloping bit between the ceiling and the wall, which was actually part of the roof.  So, once the tiles and battens were removed, the bedrooms were exposed to the outside, even though the ceiling itself wasn’t affected.  Russell researched hand-made peg tiles and found somewhere in Sussex, he ordered them and hired a lorry and took a mate to help and went to fetch them.  They are really lovely tiles and will last centuries.  We had the Tudor chimneys taken down and re-erected, because they’d become dangerously unstable.  The house was rewired and the Aga was installed and various other work was done, including new baths, stainless steel rather than cast iron, because Russell was concerned about the weight but didn’t want plastic. A bit bemusingly, his parents had had replacement metal-framed windows put in, back in the ’50s, which were ugly, not in keeping with the house, draughty and just plain horrid.  We had to get planning permission for all the work but it was all necessary, and we had hardwood window frames installed instead. We forgot one window which is still there in the attic, in fact.

Ma had moved into the annexe and, obviously, the work couldn’t start until she had moved out. Hilda agreed not to retire until we moved in.  In the spring of 1985, I had a cold which left me with a husky voice.  After a few months, it occurred to me that I still had a husky voice and went to the doctor who was a bit alarmed and sent me to hospital.  It was decided I should have an operation – this was well before the days of scans and they didn’t know quite what they’d find.  I still don’t know how worried they were,but I did get seen pretty quickly – in fact, it was simply an polyp on my vocal cords and nothing to worry about (I’d had such a fabulously husky voice, only time in my life I had men whimpering quietly at my feet when I spoke) – but while I was in hospital, my mother-in-law suddenly died; in bed though not actually in her sleep.  Hilda took her in some tea and, after an hour or so, thought it odd that she hadn’t got up.  She spoke to Kenny, the gardener, who obligingly went and rattled the dustbin lids a bit to wake anyone who might be asleep.  Then, he waited at the bedroom door while Hilda tapped and went in.  Ma had poured her tea, but then evidently lain back and died.  There was nothing to be done.

My mother came to tell me – I wasn’t allowed to speak because of the damage it would do to my vocal cords, it was all a very strange experience.  Russell was deeply shocked and upset, of course.  Her funeral was a very emotional affair, though I had the odd experience of feeling a non-person because I was still not allowed to speak.  This had a lasting effect on me, being the first time I got an inkling of what it’s like to be disabled.  I was ignored by almost everyone.  I had a notepad but no one was interested in what I was writing, they just talked above me.  In the end, I mostly tore up everything I’d written.  Just our nephew Simon came to have a conversation with me and sat patiently while I wrote responses to what he said.  I’ll never forget that kind sensitivity.

We had been pressing on as quickly as we could, but now the pressure was off.  Ma died on 23rd October and it wasn’t until July the next year that we moved in.

The Close connection – part 4 – the decision

I know I’ve written about this before, as one of the momentous conversations in my life, but it’s part of this story.  I remember just where we were sitting and what we had ordered for lunch.  Russell had just come back from seeing his mother and she had decided that she didn’t feel that she could manage the house and garden on her own, so she was going to move out.  He just told me, he didn’t sound upset, but I knew he was.  “You love that house, you’ll hate to see it sold.  Do you want us to go and live there?” I hadn’t known I was going to say that, I heard myself as he heard me.  “But you love our house.” “I know, but I’ll move if you want to.”

I can’t analyse that, I just felt it was the right thing to say and I meant it.  Russell was thrilled and no more work was done that day, he went straight back to Ma to speak to her again.  A bit worried at the momentousness of my offer, I said, if she doesn’t like the idea, if Austin or June want to live there…but when he came back, he said she was thrilled too.  We went to see her together a day or two later and she said she wouldn’t have asked because she didn’t want me to be put under any pressure.  She was kind and considerate that way.

She started looking for a new home, wanting to stay in the village, but there was very little on offer and nothing that suited.  So, rather diffidently, she asked how we’d feel about her building in the garden.  We thought that the tennis court might be a suitable site.  Knowing that planning permission might be difficult, she investigated the possibility of a pre-fabricated wooden Colt house – but the planners said no, though we offered to accept a covenant on it, that it be pulled down when Ma died.  So we asked, what would they accept? We had ample space, it was simply that it was outside the building area of the village.  They said that an annexe could be built on, as long as it was of modest size and linked to the main house by a door.  So the bungalow was designed and built.

In the meantime, our domestic situation had changed too.

The Close connection – Part 3 – the next ten years

Russell’s parents were always hospitable and loved being grandparents too.  We regularly had Sunday lunch with my mother and stepfather and then came over here in the afternoon for tea.  Ma was a noted cake maker and home-made scones and cakes were always on the tea table.  Tea, served in a silver pot, was a loose-leaf mixture of English Breakfast and Earl Grey; Ma mixed  a caddyful at a time.

Weeza and Al came over to visit for days at a time, too.  Pa and Ma had a maid, Hilda, who had been Sprig’s nursemaid from the age of one and she just stayed on.  She had her own bed-sitting room and used the back stairs to get to it, and a downstairs bathroom was built beyond the kitchen for her.  When she reached retirement age, Russell bought her a cottage in Yagnub where she lived rent- and council tax- free for the rest of her life, though she still chose to carry on working here for years, right up until Pa and Ma died.  The children adored her and she led them astray as much as possible – I think Hilda deserves a post to herself sooner or later.  Anyway, my older two children spent a lot of time here when they were little and have very fond memories of this house and garden.

I was fond of it too, but I had reservations – I’ve always previously lived in light, airy houses with high ceilings and big windows.  Apart from my parents’ flat at the hotel they owned when I was born, I lived in Edwardian houses and this Tudor building, with relatively small windows and low ceilings felt claustrophobic after a couple of hours.  For several years after we were married, I wouldn’t have contemplated living here, but it gradually grew on me.  All the same, I loved the former Rectory where we lived and everyone knew that.

In the summer of 1983, Pa became ill with a respiratory problem.  It seemed to start with the flowering of the oilseed rape in the next field, which affected him badly.  It’s said that the pollen molecules are too large to cause hay fever but I know a lot of people who are sensitive to this pungent plant and he certainly was.  He was ill through the summer and died in the local cottage hospital in August.  I don’t know what the diagnosed cause of death was, though, I never thought to ask and it hardly matters for the story.

Weeza and Al were 9 and 7 at the time and we were about to go on holiday to Jersey – fortunately, not for a couple of weeks, though we felt bad about leaving Ma only a few days after the funeral.  When we came home again we visited frequently, Russell popping over a couple of times during the week and all of us coming at the weekend.  She coped bravely and I never saw her cry or heard her complain, though she became quite thin.

At that time, Russell and I used to meet for lunch at the Yacht Club a couple of times a week.  I’d walk the couple of miles down the seafront and he just had to walk across the road from his office at his saleroom – he was a full-time auctioneer and estate agent at that time.  And the week after we got home, Russell visited her in the morning, met me at lunchtime and had news for me.

The Close connection part 2 – before and after the War

Apart from the first year or so, Pa and Ma lived here all their married life.  Lives.  Hmm.  Anyway – June was born in 1932 and Russell, otherwise known as Sprig, was born in 1936.  June remembers the time before there was electricity, and the excitement of turning the lights on and off, which generally blew the fuses so was discouraged, to no avail at all.  My mother (to digress completely, but you know what I’m like) also remembered electricity being laid on at her grandparents’ house in Melksham, in the late 1920s.  Her abiding memory was how everyone was shocked at the cold that winter, once they didn’t have oil lamps any more.

Russell remembered the well, from which all the family’s water was obtained.  It’s still there but I can hardly imagine it supplying a family’s needs now.  Maybe the water table was higher in those days.  At one time, it was necessary to hand-pump a tankful of water, but eventually a mechanical pump (petrol or electric, I don’t know) was installed and the task was easier.

A few years ago, four or five, I suggested to Russell that I wrote down all his childhood reminiscences and he thought it a good idea, but he never got around to dealing with it – I wanted to make a blog of it for him, in his name, because he had so much to tell.  I think that may be a series in itself at some time, but it digresses too much from the story of this house for now.  What is relevant is the Anderson shelter in the front garden, where the small Sprig used to sleep, dressed in his siren suit, with a long piece of string attached to the front door knocker so that, if he were afraid in the night, he could pull the string and wake his parents.  Of course, if there were an air raid, they would come and join him.  I’ve no idea why he was required to sleep there alone.  At this time, his brother and sister were evacuated to Derbyshire and later the whole family, apart from Pa, went to Wales during the period of the worst of the air raids.

I’m not sure when the bathroom was installed, but it was in the present day downstairs cloakroom.  After June got married in 1960, her bedroom was turned into the present bathroom.  The suite was green and washbasins of various hues were installed into all the bedrooms, to the height of fashion.  At about the same time, the kitchen was remodelled in fashionable orange and stainless steel.  In addition, a room was built on, to give a much-needed guest bedroom, on brick pillars.  Later, the pillars were filled in with brickwork and Crittal windows to make the present porch  – which is actually a fairly sizeable room which my in-laws variously referred to as the sun lounge and the loggia.

All this was pretty much the house I knew when I first visited here in 1970.  I was 16 at the time and it wasn’t for another three years that Sprig and I saw each other with new eyes and got married.

The Close connection part 1 – farmworkers’ cottages

Russell’s parents bought this house the year after they were married, in 1928.  At the time, it was three cottages, let to farmworkers.  It’s very hard to know the original layout of the house because it had been changed a good deal over the centuries.  There are those who think it was the original Rectory and it seems likely there was a church connection at least.  However, at this time it was a part of the estate belonging to the local landowner and he sold some of his property.

Russell’s parents’ friends thought they were mad, apparently, to buy a very old house, split up into a lot of small rooms, with a great deal of work needing to be done, when there were plenty of lovely Georgian and Victorian houses available in the town, but Pa was an admirer of the Arts and Crafts movement and he saw the house’s potential.  There was no need for any sort of planning permission for internal remodelling – Listed Building status came along decades later – and they wanted to remodel the house for modern living, whilst keeping the character of a Tudor building.  It was skilfully done and (though some of the changes wouldn’t be allowed now), I’m not sure that it could be improved upon, for the time.

There were eight, I think, spiral ‘cupboard’ staircases in the house.  Three of them are still there; one from the kitchen, one from the drawing room and one from the bedroom above to the attic.  Russell’s mother, Ma, told me that they were so draughty and took up a lot of space that they got rid of the rest and, instead, installed a new staircase in what’s now the hall, and also moved the front door from what’s now a dining room into the new hall.   The rooms are large but then they were each divided in two, so the divisions were removed.  The main beam in the kitchen had dropped badly and there wasn’t even standing room at one end, so that had to be jacked up.  All the original main beams are still there, but most of the stud work was put in by Pa.  The downstairs floors were mostly earth, so they put in suspended wooden floors and air bricks to the outside.  The big square block of Tudor chimneys is original, but the other chimneys over the drawing room and bedroom aren’t.  A couple of other chimneys were taken down altogether, being unsafe.  Pa designed the banisters for the new staircase and he bought old oak floorboards and had them made into fine doors to each room – you’d not guess that was their origin.

They tried using the big inglenook fire in the dining room but found it was impractical as they needed a huge fire and to leave the doors open so that it didn’t smoke.  So, though it was left intact, it wasn’t used.  The drawing room inglenook was covered over by a modern grate and a rather unattractive brick fireplace was built – it’s still there but I’ve never liked it.  Actively hideous was the fireplace they put in what was then a bedroom and is now the bathroom – Russell hid it with a built-in cupboard years ago.

They had been living in a flat above the family business, which is the solicitor that is still in Yagnub – Pa and his elder brother were in partnership.  They moved in as soon as the house was more or less habitable.  Russell’s brother Austin was born here in 1930.

30 years on…

Today is the thirtieth anniversary of my moving to this house.  It was the day before Ro’s second birthday, which is the reason it’s easy to remember – I’m not big on anniversaries, usually.

I want to reminisce about the events leading up to us coming here to live, but I should have started a week ago, to finish with the anniversary itself.  But maybe I’ll do that, go back a couple of years, in the next few days.  I’ll just remember the first evening.

We had had a lot of work done to the house, including complete rewiring, and we had bought new beds, sofa and chairs and we’d told everyone concerned that this was the moving day.  And our builders didn’t believe us.  They thought we could postpone by a few days.  When we finally convinced them, they started to work really hard but they couldn’t catch up.  Nor could we get the beds delivered until the next day.  So an electric extension lead was run through from the annexe and we had a lamp on the end of it.  The Aga was on, so we could cook and have hot water.  We had candles, otherwise – but it was summer, so it was light for much of the evening.

I wish I could remember what I cooked for dinner.  Surely it wouldn’t have been a complicated meal, but I do remember standing there at the Aga, learning to use it.  I had sickle-shaped scars on my arms for years from the Aga-burns – the oven goes back a long way and it took ages not to catch my arm at the door.  When I’d arrived in the late afternoon, because I’d supervised the final packing up at our old house while Russell organised things here as the van arrived, I discovered that the house was almost empty.  He’d had much of the furniture put in the garages.  I was bewildered.  “I didn’t want anything put in the wrong room,” he explained.  Um, like the dining table and chairs in the dining room, for instance?  I had no idea.  We had to haul in furniture before we could do anything at all.

What we had discussed was the sleeping arrangements.  We’d kept Ro in his cot until then, as we were getting him a new bed and there didn’t seem much point in moving it.  Weeza already had a quite new bed, and we were giving our old double bed to Al.  As the new ones for us and Ro were arriving the next day, it was agreed – I’m pretty sure I just said, actually – that Ro had better have Weeza’s bed rather than sleep on the floor, we’d have the double bed and the two older children could have camp beds.  So at least they were in the right places.

I had always lived near the water, all my life.  First on a clifftop in Weymouth, then by Oulton Broad, then near the sea in Lowestoft.  Although there’s a stream running through the garden here and the river isn’t far away, it’s not the same at all and I thought I’d really miss the seaside. But I felt so much at home here straight away that I never did.  I do now though, or rather the riverside, which is the reason I planned to buy a riverside house when I sold this house.  But plans have changed as you know, and we’re not moving for the time being, anyway.  Two years ago, I didn’t think I’d see out thirty years here.  But I’m glad I have.

When it’s not all about me. Comfort in, dump out.

A friend linked to this on Facebook and it’s so good that, having shared it there, I’m linking to it here too.  It’s simply what not to say to whom, around someone who’s having a difficult time.

Click here.

I’m quite sure that everyone has stories about the well-meaning, or possibly not, person, who’s put their foot in it.  I had plenty of people, after Russell died, who felt compelled to tell me their story of bereavement, or else who were so upset that they expected me to comfort them.  I took it patiently, certainly there’s been no thought of upsetting me – I took it that it was good, at least, that they came to speak to me and didn’t avoid me.  There was one bloke who was awful and a few others who were out of order, but mostly I received warmth and love, occasional clumsiness but it was kindly meant.

The advice in the link is good, not prescriptive and worth taking on board.  Comfort in, dump out.