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Three Houses, Many Lives By Gillian Tindall

A weaver of hidden histories finds a revealing pattern in her own past

Gillian Tindall is a tapestry maker. She finds patterns in history – woven from close research into people and places – that no one else would have the persistence and insight to pursue. Sometimes, her starting-point is a person, as in Célestine, evoking peasant life in deepest France. Sometimes, she starts from a place – as in her delightful history of the Bankside house which tour guides always say, inaccurately, Wren inhabited while he was designing St Paul's (The House by the Thames).

In Three Houses, Many Lives, Tindall delicately balances people and places. "Houses last much longer than human beings," she writes, "usually much longer". She quotes Bede's comparison of a human life to the flight of a bird in at a high window, across the lighted space within, and out again into the dark. Unlike bodies, houses can almost always be repaired. They are witnesses to change and to an engrossing succession of lives.

One of these lives is Tindall's own. In this unique and often joyful chronicle, she interweaves the stories of three houses which marked crucial stages in her own life. No. 1 is Manor House in Limpsfield, Surrey, which was a sparse, unloving boarding school when young Gillian was sent to it. Even now, her undying hatred leaps off the page. Later, she escaped to London to cram for A-levels. Here she came across house No.2, Stapleton Hall, at that time a local Conservative Party HQ in the shabby hinterland of Finsbury Park. She had acquired "an unsuitable boyfriend", with whom she rolled around the grass in Green Park. In her "billowing cotton skirt and flat shoes", she was exploring his East End neighbourhood.

She then made it to Oxford. House No. 3 is a former Cotswold vicarage, not far from picture-perfect Burford. Here, kindly cousins lived, who offered a happier Tindall a haven from undergraduate life. She would hitchhike from Oxford to see them. Three contrasting places; three archetypes: outer suburbia, inner London and the terrain, now, of second homes. From them, Tindall has magically created a moving picture – in both the cinema and emotional sense – of how the people in these houses lived, hoped and feared, from Tudor times to the 21st century.

All three houses have origins much older than you'd think. Tindall squirrels this out in her quest "to recover the traces of lost people". She also presents an astonishing cluster of voices which, together, portray the complications of being English.

She tracks, for example, the stages through which Anglican vicars gradually sank down the social scale from 18th-century envoys of the Protestant state into their present marginalised role. Or she takes a stethoscope to north-east London's destiny as soot-laden railway lines pushed the area into a "full declension from meadowland to slum". With the railways electrified, cleanliness brought a patchy return to respectability.

She cherishes the shreds of evidence the past has left. Sherlock Holmes and Miss Marple would recognise a fellow-sleuth. But she is no knee-jerk conservationist. Her hated boarding school was – to her delight, I think – largely demolished and replaced with flats. Revenge, as they say, is a dish best eaten cold.

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