Off Piste: Property magnet

Moving house is the perfect way to begin a new chapter of your life, says Mary Warnock, even if those around you think you're mad

November 6, 2008

In reviewing a recent book on the English house, Nina Power says: "Whether one is buying, remortgaging, redecorating, weeping over the impossibility of purchasing or cursing the inability to sell, the house is the repository of the best (and worst) of our aspirations."

She is right. The key word is "aspirations". Only human beings have the ability to aspire, to think, as Sartre puts it, of "what is not", or is not yet, but might be. Moving house is an act of imagination, an envisaging of a whole new way of life, an assertion of one's human power to look into the future.

It is a cliche that moving house is one of the most stressful human activities, second only to divorce. I have no direct experience of divorce, but indirect experience is bad enough, and I would not choose to undergo it. I do, however, choose to move house from time to time. I admit that there is stress along the way.

The worst part is the belief that no sane person will want to buy the house one currently owns; the next worst, whether one will be gazumped after an offer for the new house has been accepted. And then comes the fear that the builders will not have finished their work by moving day, and everything, including oneself, will have to go into storage at vast expense.

When my husband Geoffrey died in 1996, I decided to move house immediately, though everyone told me I should wait a year. I knew that I shouldn't. I was to start a new life, and I needed a new place to do it in. The house we lived in, new when we moved in, was very much Geoffrey's house. He had retired before I did, so he lived in it alone a lot, while I was still in Cambridge, and it had grown to fit him.

There were practical as well as sentimental reasons to move: the garden, whose soil was pure white chalk, was on an almost perpendicular slope, and as Geoffrey's ability to breathe grew worse, so did my ability to manage the garden. The drive was so steep that if it was icy I couldn't get the car up to the house.

So I bought a large house with a flat garden in a village close by, two minutes' walk from the railway station where direct trains could take me on my frequent trips to London.

The house was old, originally 17th century, with lots of additions. There was a great deal that needed to be done, so it became my new project.

It had recently been a butcher's shop, and this meant that the garden, besides being flat, was immensely fertile, the butcher having killed his cattle there and hung them in the vast ancient shed, which still had the butcher's hooks.

It was a lovely house, and I had great fun altering it, turning round the staircase, making one long room of the kitchen and dining room, and refurbishing one of the sheds to make a sort of conservatory. I held a 90th birthday party for my eldest sister there, which, though it was March, was entirely out of doors in the sheltered garden and the new outdoor sitting room. And at Christmas we could have at least 16 people for dinner.

But there were drawbacks. When I didn't have visitors, which was most of the time, I felt the presence of empty rooms all around me. The front door opened straight on to the pavement, and I got tired of old men propping themselves against my windows to tell each other the story of their lives, and of little boys ringing the front door bell and running off. The baker's shop was next door, and work started in the bakery at four o'clock every morning.

After six years I decided I needed another new life, and moved again.

This was the rashest and most imaginative ("brave", people said) of my moves. I saw a cottage down the road that had been advertised in the parish magazine. I had no agent and no thorough survey.

The cottage was owned by probably the dottiest people I had ever encountered, who had been heavily influenced by magazines and television programmes, so that the inside was decorated in a variety of swirling colours, the staircase being a brilliant mustard yellow. The entrance hall/dining room had been turned into a fake bistro, with half-marbles and mirror tiles let into the walls, and a menu chalked up over the old bread oven that formed the end of the room.

The garden, whose magnificent view over a huge field towards Savernake Forest could not be spoiled, was full of blue fences, blue-stained boulders and children's slides and swings. Apart from some blue decking, it had nothing else in it other than miniature conifers.

But the house was set back from the road and had a garden in the front as well as the back.

All my children, apart from one, thought I had taken leave of my senses. I was moving considerably farther from the station and into a claustrophobic hellhole. My youngest daughter, however, herself starting a new life with a new marriage and a baby on the way, was not only supportive but enthusiastic. The very first time she saw the house she recognised it as potentially perfect for me.

And so began a long and loving deconstruction of the nightmare cottage: walls knocked down, a ground-floor bathroom installed and the garage converted into a study, and the garden full of fruit, flowers and vegetables (apart from this year), with plenty of places to sit out with breakfast or preprandial drinks (apart from this year), looking at the sun setting over the forest, with garden birds, buzzards, kites and woodpeckers as occasional visitors.

I have made myself a ground-floor bedroom, so upstairs is mainly for visitors, two bedrooms and a huge shower room. Grandchildren, at a pinch, can sleep in the sitting room and the study, so I have not cast off my family.

The grand piano has been sold and a small modern piano installed in the study; the kitchen, dining room and entrance hall have been knocked into one big space; and the small sitting room has a huge stone-surrounded open fireplace, the only good feature of the house when I bought it, so that in winter it is cosy. I collect fir-cones as kindling from the neighbouring woods, a proper bag lady. One of my sons-in-law, converted at last, said it was like an extremely nice London flat, in the country.

But I know I shall move again. I have bought a flat in a downmarket part of South London, have done it up and let it. It was on the internet for two days at the beginning of the year before people started to apply.

Half the property is a house, with the other half occupied by my youngest daughter and youngest granddaughter, now five years old, and her Portuguese father, who is a remarkable gardener and handy man, and we have already run the two gardens belonging to the house into one. I can foresee another life before too long.

Moving, improving as I go along, has become my passion. Apart from growing and arranging flowers, it is my only creative activity. So far, I have not lost money, but that can't last.

I'm afraid my present rather eccentric cottage will prove hard to sell when the time comes.

Nothing can turn it into a correctly insulated, double-glazed, environmentally friendly house. The Government seems to believe that everyone wants, and indeed ought, to live in a brand-new house, and that what started as a 19th-century farm-worker's cottage ought to be demolished, not sold on.

I am, like my predecessors in this house, addicted to the "property porn" of television relocation programmes. I especially like those where the protagonists are trying to decide whether to move, say, to Hertfordshire or Spain, Dorset or Portugal.

They always seem to me to be amazingly cavalier about the problems of communication, if they go for abroad. Let them just try, as I try, to master the Portuguese language. I could tell them - it is impossible. I especially like it when these indecisive people fall for every house they are shown and instantly see themselves living in each, wildly different though they are from one another.

I am also intrigued by, though not attracted to, the people who reject the very idea of a house on the grounds that it is not exactly what they had in mind. This, after all, is the appeal of looking at houses. How could you change it? How could you turn it into a place you could happily own and within which you could live your new life?

I suppose they are like the people who go clothes shopping with one - and only one - image in their mind, and never buy or try something thinking, "If I wore this, my whole life would be different."

Looking back, I realise that my passion is not new. I have always been inquisitive about other people's houses and the way they live. As a child, I used to sneak off on my bicycle and spend time in the early evenings in half-completed building sites, imagining what the houses would be like when they were finished and deciding how I would use every space.

Geoffrey, too, was never averse to looking round a house, even though we had no intention of buying it, just to imagine living there. And he had an infallible eye for decoration and internal changes, from radical furniture-moving to knocking rooms together or partitioning them off.

Early in our marriage, when we had just had our second baby, I was enjoying the only maternity leave I had ever had - all four weeks of it. Our son was born on the first day of Hilary term, and I had to be back at half-term. Geoffrey had to do all my teaching unpaid - child-bearing fellows of colleges were not popular in the early 1950s. Suddenly, I decided that we must move house.

We lived too far from the centre of Oxford, I thought; our life was intolerable. We were cut off from the university, I seldom went farther into the city than St Hugh's College, where I worked, itself the farthest north of all the colleges. Geoffrey could hardly have been farther from Magdalene, and I had no difficulty in persuading him that we should move.

So, pushing my two-week-old baby in a huge old-fashioned pram with the 18-month-old perched on the end, I went to an estate agent. By the end of the day we were looking round a vast house near the university parks with lovely big, light rooms, at the time used as undergraduate digs and therefore deeply scruffy.

We bought it almost immediately, having no difficulty in selling our neat suburban property, which we both had come to see as symbolic of stifling domesticity and boredom. From that moment, our lives changed.

We became bohemian, we made friends, we wrote books, we neglected the housework, we gave dinner parties, we were part of the intellectual life of Oxford. Our proper life began. Such was, and is, the power of changing places.

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