No Mod Cons
Helen Walmsley-JohnsonFollow author @TheVintageYear
Helen Walmsley-Johnson, writing as The Invisible Woman, is a freelance writer and author of the popular online fashion column The Vintage Years, which she writes for the Guardian. She also writes on matters concerning older women and has spoken out against ageism on Woman's Hour and BBC radio. A lover of culture and good things she has reviewed for the Square Meal Guide and magazine. Helen is working on her first book.
I am a lifelong renter. I missed the baby boomer property bonanza entirely by dint of a messy divorce in 1990, which stranded me with three young daughters and hardly any income: talk about from one extreme to the other – our lifestyles pre and post-divorce were two very different things. Our living arrangements became even more precarious when the family who owned the estate where we rented a mews cottage went bankrupt and the whole kit and caboodle went up for sale. I had to find us somewhere else and fast – and it had to be dead cheap. Rutland, where we were living (England’s smallest and most rarefied county) wasn’t exactly bursting with small affordable cottages and any that did appear were usually snapped up before they even reached the pages of the local paper (we’re talking pre-internet). There were a few evenings of black despair but experience has taught me that the only thing to be done in these situations is something. It doesn’t matter what it is, just do something. So I got in the car and started driving around the lanes until I came across a wreck and not just any wreck – the wreck of my dreams.
This house – let’s call it The Lodge – stood proud on top of a hill with an overgrown farmyard and pond to one side and it’s back tucked into the lee of a small paddock. Two fields away was a large Queen Anne house (where I discovered the owner lived). The Lodge was like Miss Havisham’s dining room – dust and decay, cobwebs and sills thick with dead flies. The garden, such as it was, was waist high in nettles and thistles but there was an orchard of old apple trees off to the side and a large lilac tree by the front door. It was love at first sight.
It takes some front to waltz up to a stranger’s front door and put a business proposal to them but I had more front than Selfridges thanks to desperation. The deal was done over a little haggling and an extravagant quantity of scotch – I liked my new landlady immediately – I would take The Lodge on a peppercorn rent and in return we would decorate, clean, tidy, garden and generally maintain the place. Like all the best twists of fate it was accomplished with barely a thought and in any case, if I had stopped to analyse it I would probably never have done it. My father, for instance, was convinced we would all die…
The Lodge had no mains drainage – only a Victorian brick-built septic tank in the orchard. The only mains water came into the outhouse, which meant filling water bottles for drinking water. The stopcock we eventually located in a small hole by a stand of docks in the paddock. The 3 feet thick walls in the oldest part of the house grew mushrooms while the roof when viewed from inside the attic space was a delicate tracery of holes, splintering lathes and broken tiles. The attic also contained two colonies of bats and an owl. We had the “six o’clock mouse”, appearing at the same time every evening, skidding around the corner on two wheels and a door handle, running up the kitchen curtains, weaving its way along the pelmet, leaping across the windowsill and disappearing into the wall behind the washing machine. You could set your watch by that mouse. The spiders were less amusing and came in two sizes: big and bloody enormous. We had no central heating just two log burners that more or less did the job although we did have ice on the inside of the windows in wintertime.
It sounds terrible but we loved it there. When we had to leave four years later we were heartbroken and nothing seemed to go right for a long time afterwards. But the memory of the Lodge and watching the sunrise over twinkling, web-netted meadow grass; the surprise of finding a hare in the garden; the smell of the air, never let me go. I’m going back there soon, to live on the other side of the valley from the Lodge. I couldn’t be happier.