Gone but not forgotten.
I was going to call this “Remembrance of things past”, but then I got over myself.
This obsession with the fallen ladies of architecture goes back a long way.
My childhood was spent mouldering away on the Isle of Wight. I know it’s become newly fashionable but at the time it was a difficult place to be. Or maybe I was a difficult child in a great place to be. Either way it was in-bred (five families in my street shared the same surname); parochial (if you traveled to the mainland by new fangled hovercraft you were deemed dangerously reckless); and closed (until you’d been there five generations you were considered ‘oberners’). The fact that the collective population was called ‘corkheads’ says a lot.
BUT. It did have Queen Victoria’s sea shack, Obsborne House, and because she loved it and spent a lot of time there, much of her court followed her over. Which meant that the funny little island became studded with stately Victorian piles. By the time I happened along many of them were abandoned, too vast/impractical/costly, or just too unfashionable to keep up. It was a sort of hazy transitional time between heyday and doom. The developers had not yet moved in with their bulldozers, and so they were left to gently crumble into themselves, hips and roofs sliding slowly towards decrepitude.
The best times of my childhood were spent playing in these abandoned houses, in the vast overgrown gardens and iron conservatories, by then as bare as toothless mouths. There were tessellated paths that suddenly appeared in the grass, and long sinuous snakes of old terracotta pots. Once I found a garden fork in the middle of a rhododendron bush, exactly where a gardener must have left it. There had been no vandals and no squatters – it was exactly as if everyone had simply wandered off one afternoon and never returned. Of course there was by then no furniture, but if you’d looked hard and bravely enough, you might have found Miss Haversham along one of those dusty corridors. So the treasures of my childhood were ghosts, and more tangibly, bits of old lists scribbled by cooks or the like, pieces of unidentifiable kitchen paraphernalia, scraps from lives that were long gone. When dusk came and I went home to my ordinary house, I lodged my dreams there, in the echoes of all those past lives suspended in the thick light. I think they’re still there, a bit like the fading smile of the Cheshire Cat.
When I got older I used to meet my first boyfriend in an abandoned house beside a main road. We used to use a code of red poppies and lollipops laid at the foot of the gate to make our dates. We had to climb through barbed wire and then a thick cordon of brambles to get inside, but once there we were folded into another world. All sounds of the twentieth century – the planes, the traffic, the sirens – were muffled into a velvety silence. We spent our afternoons after school on staircases that disappeared into piles of rubble, and pantries that still had old flour tins on worm eaten shelves. But then I two-timed him for a bad boy with curly hair and that was the end of that.
I fled that island as soon as I could but years later when I was pregnant I had an urgent, irrisistible need to go back and make my peace. Oddly enough I loved the island. Most of the houses were gone by then, marked only by a few lingering and vast horse chestnut trees straddling housing estates. But we did stumble across an old survivor in Ventnor which had been recently converted into flats. The developers, god luv ’em, had left intact the long archway through which you approached the house, and all the skulls of dead animals that had been originally embedded in the mortar remained. It was like walking through a gothic version of Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast. The old ballroom was still there too, with its huge black and white chequered floor and arched windows. It was good to see a survivor but it made me unaccountably sad. An abandoned house re-claimed is preserved, but something magical is always lost. I fear that for our house.
So it’s not so very surprising that my adult life has been threaded with a love of these old beauties. Never so grand as those of my childhood, but each with its own dignity needing to be restored to it. This new house is one in a long line, and the nearest to all the old lovelies that still rustle and sigh in my imagination. There are no gardener’s forks, no old flour tins. But there are echoes of other lives and I’m rather sad these will soon be disappearing under the smoothing and erasing influence of the renovation. The house was a boarding house for many years. People lived in one or two rooms, cramped and cheek by jowl. The architect’s wife tells me one old man had a room filled with old newspapers. But most of what they left behind was cancelled out, swept away by the government before they put the house up for auction. I took a few (bad) photos of what little remains.
My mother used to say “necessity is the mother of invention” and when space is limited, you do the best you can. We found a couple of things inside shutter cases. No doubt the government agents didn’t think to look inside. In one room, a past tenant had removed one shutter leaf and made shelves.
Someone else had made themselves a private gym.
Considering the window is floor to ceiling and in view of this, you wonder where the night’s entertainment was greatest. Exhibitionists R US?
but this is the view from the loo – I’ve spent hours in there watching the ferries and yachts and cruisers pottering past.