Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Home is Where the Heart is. by Victoria Chatham

For many of us writers, creating homes for our characters is par for the course. Think Downton Abbey, Tara in Gone With the Wind and the family hacienda, Las Tres Marias in Isabel Allende’s debut novel The House of the Spirits.

Elements of places we have lived or visited and loved, often form the basis of our fictional homes. Writing a book often means wearing many hats – one of them being an architect. Designing a home for our characters means that we, and the readers, know where in a house the stairs that the character might use are, where the windows and doors are so that if we involve a line of sight in our story, we know there will be no obstructions. Where are the bedrooms and how many of them, if a contemporary book, have an en suite?

Because I write historical romance, I have incorporated aspects of many stately homes that I have visited into building a home for my characters. The essence of my fictional houses, however, stems from my experience of living for eleven years in a 300-year old house.

My first view of it was in early April. Sunshine bathed its long roof, comprised of approximately 5-tons of Cotswold stone tile, and tall chimneys. In the garden, a profusion of daffodils danced beneath a row of cordoned fruit trees. For the non-gardeners amongst you, a cordon is a method of training the side shoots of the trees (usually apples and pears) at a 45-degree angle to promote support and ultimately fruit production. The lady of the house sat at her spinning wheel on the lawn, white hair drawn into a bun at the back of her neck and long, gray skirts spread out around her. It was like a vignette of the past, and I instantly fell in love with Ivy Cottage.

A cottage can be many things to many people. My impression of a cottage was a two-up, two-down home with a thatched roof. In Canada, what people refer to as a cottage is, to me, a house and so was Ivy Cottage. Its five bedrooms sprawled over a hodge-podge of levels. Two sets of stairs, one in the middle of the house and the other at one end, had different depth risers and half-landings in odd places. The house itself had started life as a stone build, but the second storey was of locally produced red brick. The windows and doors all needed replacing as none of them was a good fit.

I moved in in August, a long hot month when, once the windows had been pried open, dried the house out to the extent that wallpaper started peeling off the walls. There was much work to be done, but I was determined that the living room with its inglenook fireplace, parquet floor, and oak beams would be ready for Christmas. By then we were blocking draughts with heavy cotton velvet drapes at the doors with the additional application of kitchen plastic wrap stuffed around the window frames.

My family and friends thought I was mad for exchanging a comfortable, modern, double-glazed and centrally heated home for this unheated, draughty rural pile. People came and went, shaking their heads at my supposed detraction from what was considered the norm. I didn't care. There was room for my kids to play and explore. There was room to grow vegetables. I left the far end of the garden wild, so we were visited by rabbits and hedgehogs, and a fox made a path in the long grass beneath the hedge. I never cut it, letting what flowers and wild plants grow where they would which in turn attracted bees and butterflies.

I had robins and wrens nesting in the hedge, along with noisy sparrows. The teasels, that self-seeded and came up in different parts of the garden every year, attracted goldfinches. I fought the bullfinches and chaffinches for the fruit blossoms and fixed bacon fat on the bushes for the blue and great tits to stop them from peeling off the foil tops on the milk bottles to get at the cream. Woodpeckers and thrushes, both song and mistle thrushes, the latter helping to keep the garden free of snails, were constant visitors. A one-legged black bird became bold enough to perch on my hand for breadcrumbs.

All good things come to an end, and the end for me was coming back one year from a late vacation in Spain to find the house empty and cold. By then my boarders, as had my two boys, moved on, leaving my daughter and I and our two remaining dogs. I thought of all the work that had gone into the house and what still needed doing. At that point, I had neither the heart or the funds for further renovations and with much reluctance but all practicality, put the house on the market.

It is still there. I drive by every time I go home to England, noting the changes, my heart bleeding for some of them, but understanding that it is no longer my home and hoping that the current occupiers are as happy there as I had been.