It will not have escaped your notice, if you are a persistent reader of this blog, that we moved to lovely Northumberland quite recently. Oh, the joys of selling and buying houses. Actually it isn’t all completely unalloyed misery and stress (although some measure of both is guaranteed in the whole process). Selling your house does at least mean that you experience what it is like to live in a clean and tidy home for once: and, if you are us, it even encourages you to start thinking long and hard about the possessions that seem to have accumulated like silt throughout your current resting-place. Why do we still have this packing case, unopened since the last move a decade ago, you might find yourself asking (in fact, if you have such packing-cases, I urge you to ask yourself that question. Right now. Stop reading and go and open it). Am I really ever going to wear/cook with/plant/learn to play that? Time, in fact, for a cull (see Week 10 for book culling). There are other joys to be squeezed out of the whole wretched business of letting total strangers wander round your house making rude remarks about the curtains, but it is strangely hard to remember them even after only a year or so: what lingers is the sensation of existential angst. So, when next you feel the need to up sticks, remember the NorthernReader Golden Rules for Selling Your House:
1) find a good estate agent. You do not want the terrifically up-market firm, established in 1066. They will send a young man called Tristan to value your house. He will not have the right shoes for your garden. He will make it clear that he was brought up in a castle and that your house, with its measly four acres, is frankly slumming it and a bit borderline for his firm but that he just might be able to shift it for you for about a third of what you suspect to be its value. On the other hand, you do not want the nationwide chain of agents who claim to flog properties in warehouse quantities. They will send a young man called Kyle who has never set foot in your village before – or indeed any village – and will be aghast at your chickens. No, what you want is a one-man band who sells houses in the villages around you. He will come round himself, get to know you and your house. He will sell your house because he has invested everything in his business, and if he doesn’t sell your house he might have to sell his.
2) under no circumstances show your house yourself. Insist that your agent pitches up before the viewers. Disappear. I don’t care if you go to Paris for the weekend or hover nervously in the deep undergrowth at the bottom of the field next to your house until the invaders have left, but do not put in an appearance. Think ‘uncast part in The Archers’. You do not want to get to know the people who buy your house. You want this to be strictly business. You know: like in The Godfather.
As for finding your perfect house to move to – well, you’re going to need some books, aren’t you? Try these.
If we are thinking large-scale, then Brideshead, Northanger Abbey and Totleigh Towers would all do. Thornfield sounds draughty and Manderley beset with a serious servant problem. On a more domestic scale, I thought Howard’s End sounded rather lovely even before Peppard Cottage played the part in the Merchant-Ivory film. Or there’s Talboys: Dorothy L Sayers sends Lord Peter Wimsey and his bride, Harriet Vane, there on their wedding night (Busman’s Honeymoon ) and briefly returned there in a subsequent short story (published in Striding Folly). Jill Paton Walsh has now picked up the baton and firmly established the Wimsey family at Talboys for the duration of the war in A Presumption of Death. Even in the midst of the ‘something nasty in the woodshed’ mystery, I heard my hardened property-loving heart whispering, ‘look at all those outhouses! Think of the potential!’ (But no, I do not yearn to be Flora Poste, finding someone to wash curtains at Cold Comfort Farm).
I have a rather splendid member of the Weekend Book tribe called The Countryman’s Weekend Book. Published just after the Second World War (and apparently oblivious to the existence of countrywomen), it has a gripping chapter on how to design and build – by which it is clear the author means ‘have some chappie build for you’ – the perfect country house. Eric Parker, who wrote many of the ‘Weekend’ books, was a naturalist and sportsman who, among much else, campaigned successfully for conservation legislation and wrote for The Field magazine. His thoughts on what makes a good country house are clearly based on experience and common sense. Much thought is given to aspect and to sufficient coal stores. Lutyens-influenced (and that’ll be the architect I’ll try to snap up when I win the lottery), his dream house looks practical and comfortable, with no worries about traipsing in with muddy boots and dogs.
Or perhaps we should get more radical in our approach to rural living. Should Robinson Crusoe be our role model? Having recently discovered that Defoe named his hero (if that is the word I’m looking for) after his friend, the radical preacher Thomas Cruso who was my heaven-knows-how-many greats grandfather (pause for moment of irrational smugness), I’m tempted to consider his stockade as a way of living. But no, Northumberland is not a desert island and the natives are friendly. Perhaps we should follow the example of the ultimate reductionist, Stig – he of The Dump fame – and live in a loose construction of what artists like to call found objects.
But no. Tempting though the tree-houses, castles, cottages and caves of literature undoubtedly are, for once I’ll say no to fiction and settle happily in the NorthernReader barn. A roof of my own, as Virginia Woolf might have said.
PS The next NorthernReader Walking Book Club meets on Wednesday 28th May at Simonburn. See the Walking Book Club page for details.