At home with novelist Catherine Alliott

Catherine Alliott took on a dilapidated house in the Chilterns and turned it from a wreck into a haven. She explains how she did it - and why she loves her rural renovation
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The Independent Online

I spent the first two years in this house living in my coat, running from fire to fire. None of the windows fitted and everything rattled; nothing that we needed actually worked. The children had to sleep on the landing for a long time. The whole place was barely habitable. We had builders come in and they lived in a caravan in the back garden for over a year – they became like family.

We’ve now been here almost 10 years to the day. Somebody told me there was a wreck for sale, and it certainly was that. The place had been used as a livery yard, and was neither owned nor loved. Despite this, the location was irresistible. I wouldn’t want to live on the top of a hill, or in a valley; we’re situated somewhere in between, looking out over the Chilterns, between Aylesbury and Tring. It’s a quiet location, which makes it rather a thoughtful place to be. I grew up in a semi-rural environment, with a field at the back of the house. It was less rambling than where I am now, with less wilderness, and felt more ordered than where we live now.

The outdoors area is rather beautiful, but when we arrived it was a jungle up to the front door. We had to go out with scythes just to create a pathway; there were bathtubs, tyres and old cars on jacks. Once we could see what was there, we started to landscape the garden ourselves.

Little by little we cut back from the house, and found that there were flower beds beneath the rubble, with roses and honeysuckle galore. It was like finding a secret garden. We only finished everything out there about two years ago.

It was an arduous process, at times I thought, “what have we done? We had a perfectly nice house and have thrown ourselves into this madness!”

At some point in its history, previous tenants had removed anything from the house that was architecturally attractive. All the fireplaces had been ripped out, but there were still eight chimneys, so we spent a lot of time at architectural salvage yards, finding replacements for these and for the cornices, doors and beams. I salivate when I get to these places. We found lots of lovely old mirrors, too, and moved on to junk shops and auctions to find extra pieces. It took five long years for things to come together inside. I have rather firm ideas about what I like, but hope to be pragmatic, too. That’s the good thing about staying in a house while you renovate, you get a feel of how you’ll use the space and what will work.

We started with the kitchen. I’d recently been to stay at a beautiful chateau in France and wanted to recreate that effect in our kitchen. We recreated the fireplace in the chateau, based on photos I’d taken, and raised the ceiling by 11 feet. Once we’d managed to pull the kitchen off, we moved to the children’s rooms.

They are now adamant I should have let them have a hand in the design, but they were only four, six and eight years old, respectively, so I think they might not have had much of a coherent idea. Our master bedroom is again rather French in influence. It’s elegant, in cool blue and white. I like to have an oasis in the bedroom. My study is where I write all my books. I have a large wood fire, and the whole effect is very cosy: red walls with rather tatty furniture, and filled with books and pictures.

I keep thinking it could do with an update, but it’s all so comfy. I like to sit in my old leather armchair by the window looking over the front of the house, and out over the hills beyond.

I was based in London for a while when I was younger, but found myself at an age when I wanted to open my back door, put my dogs on a lead and head off where my mood takes me.

There’s no way I’d ever want to move again. Not least because I simply haven’t the energy to replicate such a massive project!

Interview by Charlotte Philby

Catherine Alliott is the author of nine best-selling novels, the first of which she started writing under her desk while working as an advertising copywriter. Her books include ‘A Crowded Marriage’ and ‘Rosie Meadows Regrets’. She lives on the Herts/ Bucks border with her husband and three children, and her latest and tenth novel, ‘The Secret Life of Evie Hamilton’, is published by Penguin.