A Mansion in a child’s eyes
‘The house shelters daydreaming, the house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace…the places in which we have experienced daydreaming reconstitute themselves in a new daydream, and it is because our memories of former dwelling-places are relived as daydreams that these dwelling-places of the past remain in us for all time’
Gaston Bachelard ‘The Poetics of Space’ (1958)
The roof has now partially caved in, the huge rafters savagely penetrating the first floor of the building, revealing the house’s frailty. This once glorious place of shelter protected from the elements large gatherings of family and neighbours only two or three decades prior, although I was never entirely sure of the meaning of the occasions for which we were all gathered. Anniversaries, marking a death usually, or other gatherings called ‘Stations’, their purpose bemusing to me, though I was cognizant they were vaguely religious in hue. It had a curious shape, the roof I mean- rectangle and flanked on all sides by mossy slate tiles, it had a small but substantial flat asphalt area at the centre and drainpipes carrying the persistent rain to small turrets that released their contents down the gables of the four corners of the house. I remember too that it was only accessible via a skylight window and an old splinter-ridden ladder permanently stationed at the western end of the long corridor on the upper floor. The covert delight of sneaking up that ladder and onto the roof was matched only by the pain of the splinter embedded in one of my throbbing fingers.
Interesting smells and blind alleys come to mind. There forever hung a pervasive damp but sweet miasma in the air, the aroma of which I have never encountered anywhere else. Outside two tunnels on the south and north facing sides of the house led darkly up to bricked up walls with a small space in the centre filled with what appeared to be prison bars. These tunnels had apparently been used in bygone years as service entrances, and reached into a large unilluminated coal and turf storage room dank with the odour of fossil fuels. A person’s perspective of the house was unusual as the landscaping of the grounds suggested to those viewing it from the surrounding fields to the east would think that it was a one-storey structure, when in fact once you entered up the driveway on the south it was revealed to be two-storey. The stone wall that ran along the driveway culminated in an extraordinarily vast ivy-covered double archway that led to the back entrance of the building. It was said that this construction origins from centuries before the house was built, and that in fact it may have been part of a Norman fortification that had long before occupied this site. Old worn at the edges photographs I found indoors revealed that there had once been an opulent greenhouse attached to the Western gable, accessible through a set of double doors positioned at the end of the corridor on the upper-floor. It then had faced onto the orchid; the location of much of our childhood fair weather pursuits, ripe with potentials for eating apples or pears, climbing, falling or pushing others out of the trees. Many people commented on the lone standing palm tree sat between the orchard and near where the greenhouse had stood. Where did it come from, who had planted it? Nobody knew. How it had survived what were surely one hundred harsh midlands winters an even greater mystery, but one that mirrored the many curiosities abound in this now disheveled building.
The downstairs rooms of the house were unspectacular but yet somehow possessed their own antiquated and bespoke charm. The bathroom on this floor seemed never to have been used- it was as if a place frozen in time, its objects, paraphernalia and cosmetics could not have been purchased contemporaneously. But it must have been used because it was home to the only functioning bath in the building. There were rooms at the back of the stairs that similarly appeared little used- one had a sink and white ceramic washboard, the other was full of rusting and odd looking tools that I and my young cohorts would ponder over their possible use and function once we had pried open the impossibly stiff door. A queer feature of the downstairs floor of the house were a series of bells attached to a wire-pulley system that a person could employ by heaving on a small oval shaped handle built into the wall beside the upstairs dining room and living room fireplaces. I was told that these had been used by previous owners to alert the servants to their pressing needs, and I believe this to be true although I am hazy as to why I trust this council.
The kitchen and downstairs living rooms were the only two spaces utilised on a daily basis, and therefore they were the only ones which were ever heated (with the notable exceptions of on those opaque gatherings I spoke of earlier). Strangely, and despite being those most frequented, these are the rooms that stick out least in my memory, with the exception of a few features. The kitchen had a series of long rectangle steel hooks perturbing from the ceiling, and the purpose of these I gathered was to hang either clothes to dry or meats to smoke over the room’s large cast-iron stove, however I never witnessed either process in action. The sitting room was homely in pre-modernised fashion, and contained a bookshelf with six shelves of books in the upper corner of the room adjacent to the window. The books were mostly pulp and Mills and Boon style romantic novels, their illustrated covers infinitely more captivating then their contents, and were accompanied by an extensive series of Readers Digest anthology books. I have never since discovered reference to the names of the authors of those obscure pieces of literature in any other text- John Milberry, Jasper Hawthorne, Estella Greenway et al.
The upper floor, the pride of the house, was used solely on special occasions, and was considerably more palatial than you would think to look at it today. Fur and Persian rugs decked out on the floors of the dining and living rooms, the dining room was home to an enormous mahogany table surely 15ft in length, huge marble fireplaces in both rooms, lavish couches stocked with smooth silk cushions, and two large bay windows in either room which overlooked a splendidly manicured garden. The corridor on the upper floor, perhaps 50 metres or so of it, draped in red, purple and black rug decorated with interweaving geometric petals and blooms that ran the length of the entire corridor, was a joy to gallop up and down at breakneck speed- much to the disdain of the local ‘volunteers’ hauling sandwiches, teas and cakes to guests languishing in the aforementioned princely rooms. Fascinating objects lined the corridors and filled the rooms: a fake gold-plated bust of a man whom I was told by my older first cousin was William Shakespeare, though I suspect he was lying as I imagine that was the only person he had heard of from ‘ye olden days’. Beautifully ornate cigar boxes, many of them actually, slick black and tanned boxes with chessboard style designs, wooden boxes decorated with bronze daggers, glowing silver boxes- disappointingly their contents long since togged away.
Many of the doors on this floor remained eternally under lock and key, with the exception of my aunt’s bedroom (that held little interest) and a room at the opposite end of the corridor to those used to host. This room was quite simply overwhelmed with books, odd books about Indian Coolies and books written by the likes of the Rev. William Devany of Cradlehurst on the subject of civilised male comportment, chivalry and the evils of insobriety. It had a chaise longue, or psychoanalyst style couch which always conjured up images of Sigmund Freud, but perhaps that is because he was the only person I could bring to mind in relation to the item. Alongside the mounds of bizarre literary works, there were a plethora of boxes of letters and photo albums. Many were sealed surreptitiously but this posed little problem for the prying and inquisitive adolescent eye. Here some distinct puzzles emerged. Photographs from an RAF airfield base in Egypt circa 1956, others from India and Rome peopled by unfamiliar faces, letters with dates such 5th April 1923 or the 21th of December 1947 addressed to names I had never heard of with reference to events that seemed both vague and slightly alarming. The handwriting alone proved a considerable challenge to decipher. Some of the letters had obscure crests and emblems stamped onto the upper corners of the pages, or ones that were faintly distinguishable over the main body of the text. There were coins of unusual and unrecognisable mint and origin. I heard tell that a number of guns were hidden somewhere on this floor, the relics of some civil war or other.
Perhaps they were stashed in the creepy permanently bolted room opposite that one. I remember that it was endless fixation of my brother and I – he was convinced that the guns were there as he had strenuously searched the rest of the house to no avail. One day we slyly gained entry to this room. No guns, but that room has forever forged an unsettling presence in my psyche. The wallpaper ripped violently in places or covered in thick black stains in other parts, pieces of plaster and broken glass littered the floor, a heavily oppressive atmosphere and a strong bitter moldy stench pervaded the air. The walls were unadorned with the exception of a portrait of Jesus where the eyes and features would follow you as you changed perspective and position in the room. A truly terrifying thing, a piece of Catholic iconography that haunts my waking reverie to this day- I presume that was its purpose. This remained the sole occasion of my admittance to this dark and menacing space within the house. It casts a foreboding shadow over my experience of, and later dreamy recollections of the place. I could never shake the impression that something terrible had occurred there. Secrets, locked away, sealed in boxes, once spoken of only in hushed tones. Secrets and mysteries now destined to crumble and decay along with the ivy covered bricks, devastated walls, hanging rafters, shattered bay windows, and long since faded photographs, letters and archaic objects of this forlorn edifice.