Sometimes you just know
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 wonder what it is about an ad for a property that pings the heart strings? For example, does my fixation on honey-coloured stone go back to the first time I read Laurie Lee’s “Cider with Rosie”? What is it about a particular place that can provoke an emotional response so strong it brings an unexpected storm of tears? I’ve seen it on shows like Escape to the Country and Location, Location, Location and scoffed but then I suffered a coup de foudre over bricks and mortar so strong that I took a property without ever setting foot in it.
I’d known for a while that I would need to move out of London. My “third age” career as a writer was beginning to gain traction and I needed peace that is seldom, if ever found in the Smoke. First thing every morning I’d sit down with a mug of coffee and surf the National Trust rental site which I suppose says something about what I was yearning for… isolation. The National Trust is to the property renter what a 100/4 is to the Austin Healey fanatic – pure, lustable (but mostly unattainable) habit-feeding property porn – and not infrequently halfway up a dale, moor or peak. There were one or two that came close but not quite close enough in terms of rightness. Of course I had criteria: within easy reach of London by train, nearer to my family, affordable on my pitiful writer’s salary but not so isolated that I couldn’t, if necessary, walk a couple of miles to a shop – and I needed a view to gaze at for inspiration. There was also Mr Pushkin Cat to consider… a cat much given to taking offence and ever mindful that cats were once worshipped as gods.
When I widened my search beyond the Trust, a single small photograph of a tiny stone cottage caught my eye – I couldn’t get away to view it but I knew I’d have to move quickly. I arranged for a trusted friend to view it for me and take some photos of the interior. The call from her later that evening was entirely matter-of-fact with no attempt to sway me one way or the other and then she emailed the photographs. The one that did for me was a view taken from the back door (the only door) and it was like being hit by a thunderbolt – a twinge of longing tugged with such force that in a second I was reduced to a snotty heap and there and then I knew, even though I had no idea quite how I was going to make it happen, that it would be my next home. It was my idea of perfect.
So Mr Pushkin Cat and I have been here for a while now. It was a traumatic move after so long in one place – there was a breakdown (the car first, then me and finally the cat who revealed unexpected strength of character in extremis) followed by a sympathetic rescue courtesy of the AA, family and friends; my books wouldn’t fit in the van and had to come up separately a couple of days later; there are still boxes to unpack and we had no furniture except bookcases; there are spiders the size of hubcaps… but from my new kitchen window there is a red kite coasting the thermals off the ridge; we have room to move and we have peace; at night I see a night sky full of stars instead of planes stacking over Heathrow. From the minute I stepped through the door and clocked the tangle of roses and jasmine falling around my bedroom window this house felt like home. I did this on a shoestring (my removal “white van” men were brilliant beyond words) and I did it all based on a gut reaction to a single photograph. Sometimes you just know.