Henry James was here

Wanted: a tenant for Lamb House, Henry James's former residence. By Anne Spackman
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The Independent Online
Unlike many houses that bear the names of vaguely remembered stars, Lamb House, the Sussex home of Henry James, is a legitimate shrine. As well as a famous former owner, the house has a visitors' book that resembles a Who's Who of early 20th-century writers - Joseph Conrad, H G Wells, Ford Maddox Ford, Rudyard Kipling. After Henry James died, the house was occupied by the novelist E F Benson.

For the past eight years, Ione and William Martin have been custodians of the house in Rye where the American writer completed some of his best known works, including The Ambassadors and The Wings of a Dove. As tenants of the National Trust, they have been experiencing life beyond the blue plaque and roped-off rooms.

Ione Martin sums up the experience this way: "I don't think I have any unpleasant memories of Lamb House. Living in a place where a famous writer created his masterpieces is something very special."

More than 6,000 people come to pay homage every year at the home where James lived from 1898 until 1914. He left the house to his nephew, whose widow passed it on to the National Trust "as an enduring symbol of the ties that unite the British and American people".

Many of the visitors are American, but Henry James draws fans from across the world. Ione Martin herself is Greek. She started reading James's work when she came to London after the war. Her husband, a naval architect, was also a fan. When they retired, they saw Lamb House as a way of living out their two hobbies of literature and gardening.

The Martins live chiefly on the first and second floors of Lamb House, while Henry James's memory has lived on downstairs. The dining room, the panelled drawing room and the study are filled with his belongings - books from his library, portraits, a bust by Derwent Wood.

But what is it like living in a house that only half belongs to you? Does it feel like a home or a museum? "It is very much our house," Ione Martin says, "but there are times when I go into the rooms to close the shutters at night and I see the photographs and the bust of Henry James and I remember he has been here too."

Along with the pleasures comes a list of responsibilities. The National Trust looks after the fabric of Lamb House and the public rooms, but the Martins are responsible for the rest of the interior and the gardens. They are also responsible for opening to the public two afternoons a week from April to October.

When the Martins applied to be tenants they had no need to swot up on their literature. "We'd been reading Henry James for 30 years," says Ione. Both were also keen gardeners. Now the National Trust is looking for someone to replace them as custodians of Lamb House. They will have eight private rooms, three bathrooms and a good view of the town in return for a rent of around pounds 550 a month, including their custodial duties.

Tenancies of the calibre of Lamb House are rare, but by coincidence the National Trust currently has three vacancies. One is at Monk's House in the nearby Sussex village of Rodmell, the country retreat of Virginia Woolf and her friends in the Bloomsbury Group. Virginia and Leonard Woolf bought the white clapboard cottage at auction for pounds 700 in 1919. Many of the furnishings and textiles are by Virginia's sister, Vanessa Bell.

The tenancy terms for Monk's House are similar to those for Lamb House, though, as the property is smaller, the rent is slightly cheaper, at around pounds 450 a month. The ground floor is open to the public, leaving the tenants a kitchen, a sitting room, four bedrooms, a bathroom and a study.

The third National Trust property seeking a guardian is Quebec House in Kent. It takes its name from the defining victory secured by General James Wolfe against the French army in Quebec.

He lived at Quebec House only until the age of 11 but it has been turned into a shrine to his memory. As well as pictures and furniture, it contains many of Wolfe's personal belongings, including his snuffbox and and dressing gown. The opening duties are not onerous - just one long afternoon per week. But the house does need some serious refurbishment, which is reflected in the rent of pounds 2,500 a year.

Vacant tenancies in National Trust properties are rare. When they do come up, they are advertised through estate agents. If you are interested in applying for these tenancies, contact Strutt & Parker in Lewes (01273 475411). The National Trust does not keep a list of potential tenants.

The ideal National Trust tenant is:

Financially secure: you have to pay the rent

Hugely enthusiastic: you need an interest in historic buildings and gardens, plus knowledge of the famous person involved Welcoming and friendly: the public isn't always easy

Flexible and patient: if someone has come all the way from New Zealand, you can't tell them to go away