PROPERTY: Five centuries of the past to play with

It's not just aristocrats who stay put for aeons. Charlotte Moore on the haunting pleasures of returning to live in the old family home

Charlotte Moore
Saturday 13 May 1995 23:02

LATE 20th-century home owners are a restless lot. Until modern times, it would have been commonplace for many people to stay in the same house for a lifetime; now, it is rare. Most people can expect to move several times during their lives, leaving childhood associations far behind.

Now that property is no longer a certain financial investment, perhaps this process of deracination will slow down. Buyers are looking for other kinds of investment besides the purely financial. Those of us lucky enough not to have had our roots severed know that attachment to a house with a family history can be an enriching experience.

I live in the house where I grew up. It is an overgrown Tudor farmhouse with a Victorian lump stuck on one end, and it has been lived in by my family for a hundred years. Indeed, it has changed hands only twice in the past five centuries. And no one has ever thrown anything away.

This old family home is a twin-halled, timber-framed house, tile-hung in the Sussex vernacular. The garden walls, sadly tottering, are Tudor. There is a nut orchard, a paddock, and a brewhouse with a cavernous fireplace - not so long ago, every farm in this area would have brewed its own beer.

Inside the house, the impression is of dark wood, 17th-century oak panelling, solid staircases with carved poppyhead banisters, and beams and pillars cut from single massive tree trunks. There are attics and cellars and acres of junk. One stumbles over black-out curtains, hockey sticks, stone hot- water bottles, dusty piles of Punch and Picture Post, the flotsam and jetsom of several generations of family life.

The blankets and table linen given to my great grandparents for their wedding in 1896 are still in regular use. At the back of the larder lurk wartime tins of dried eggs and beef dripping imported from Australia. The place is fascinating, sometimes exasperating, but to me it is the very quintessence of home.

My grandfather left the house and farm equally to his four grandchildren. In the 1980s, when it no longer made sense for any of them to live there, sale seemed inevitable. My brothers, cousins and I held endless confabulations as to how this could be averted. In the end my husband, knowing the strength of my feelings, said: "We'll buy it". This was like agreeing to throw all the money we might ever have into the heart of a whirlpool. I am eternally grateful for his brave decision.

We sold our south London house and moved to Sussex in 1990. Our two small sons now lead much the same life as I once led. The older one goes to the same village primary school with the children of my former classmates. They sleep in our old nursery, watched over by the friendly dragons which my aunts once painted on the walls; they scamper along the same cracked green lino in the corridor, they ride the same rocking horse.

Meanwhile, I cook with the saucepans that arrived with the brand-new Aga in 1936, the same pans that cooked every meal of my childhood. Even the bread from the local bakery still tastes exactly the same.

But some peculiar decisions have had to be made: where should we sleep? My parents' former bedroom was the prettiest room in the house, but I baulked at the idea. In the end, though, I bowed to the inevitable.

But isn't this all somewhat regressive? Some of my friends think so. But I tell myself that I wouldn't have gone back to any old place. It is the deep charm of this house that makes it worth hanging on to.

Katherine Pethick and her husband Julian Money bought Katherine's old home in The Vineyard, Richmond, south-west London, but their reasons were more practical than sentimental. Katherine initially had strong reservations about following in her mother's footsteps - "but," she says, "my arm was twisted by my mother and brother".

Katherine's mother hated the idea of losing the house, and the Pethicks, who run their own graphic design company, could never have afforded the substantial 18th-century house with a swimming pool and a garden "the size of which often takes people by surprise", if Katherine's mother had not sold it direct to them. The Pethicks now feel that the advantages outweigh the problems. They both love Richmond and are delighted that Freddy, seven, and Tabitha, five, will be growing up there.

The house has been totally redecorated. "My mother and I don't have the same tastes," Katherine explains. "She likes green and brown, I'm more of a blue person. We got rid of a lot of chocolate-brown 70s Formica."

Katherine's desire to make her own mark on the family house was echoed by Megan Jones (not her real name). At her mother's suggestion, Megan, a journalist, bought her old home soon after leaving university. It is a comfortable three-storey Victorian house with a large garden in Stoke Newington, north London.

Megan changed things radically as soon as she moved in, setting up her own bedroom in the formerly forbidden zone of the drawing room. The only vestiges of childhood allowed to remain were her bedroom curtains, which she kept "for sentimental reasons". Friends raise questions about her decision but Megan has no real regrets: "I still occasionally wonder if it wasn't a retrogressive move," she says, "but I like what's familiar to me and I love Stoke Newington. I'm a Londoner through and through."

In cases like these, the hovering maternal presence presents problems unfamiliar to most home owners. Megan Jones says: "Mum is reticent about interfering, but when she comes round it's as if she's not sure of her role any more - she tends to fiddle about in the kitchen."

Katherine Pethick's mother lives a stone's throw away, and still feels very strongly about her old home. "She used to come in nearly every day," says Katherine.

Two years ago Will and Alice Sheepshanks bought Arthington Hall in Wharfedale, Yorkshire, from Will's mother Mary. The hall has belonged to the Sheepshanks family (formerly wool merchants, hence the name) since 1830. It was used as a convalescent home during the last war; Mary and her late husband moved there in the 1960s and lovingly restored it to something like its former glory, pouring their energies into getting rid of the "hospital colours" and reclaiming the garden.

Alice Sheepshanks is fortunate enough to get on "hugely" with her mother- in-law. She has on occasions felt daunted, however, by the weight of her husband's family history.

"When we first moved in, I longed to freak out and throw things around. I'd lived in 14 different houses as a child, and I couldn't understand that they'd never had to tidy things up. The sight of the dressing gown my sister-in-law had when she was 14 made me feel quite batey, actually."

Arthington is of central importance to the older Mrs Sheepshanks, whose first novel, A Price for Everything, deals with the dilemmas created by such a place. Mary has been sympathetic to Alice's need to make her mark. And Alice, despite coping with chilblains, a leaky roof and one-year-old Octavia, is beginning to feel calmer.

At one stage, overwhelmed by the responsibility, Will and Alice put Arthington on the market. They got only "derisory" offers, and decided Fate was telling them to keep it. Alice is glad they did. "I feel I've been accepted by the house," she says.

Arthington lies in an oasis of gently rounded countryside between Harrogate and Leeds. The River Wharfe runs past the house, which is Georgian with "revolting Victorian bits." The exterior is "not very pretty" but the views are wonderful and inside there is a unique flying staircase. The place is vast - "about 12 bedrooms, but it goes on a long way." Alice had been living in the house for two days when she came across a staircase she'd never seen before. Will and Alice hope to fill the place with children: "It needs people - whenever we've had a party, it's as if the house has perked up."

Arthington devours money. The Sheepshanks are giving themselves five years to make a go of it. But despite the stress and the unending work, it's a battle Alice is determined to win. "Oh yes," she says firmly, "we want to be here for ever." !

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