Thursday, October 28, 2010

Houses with Character

My DH and I are in the process of doing up an old house and as we paint, plaster and wallpaper each room, I feel its true character is emerging and this is giving me ideas for stories. Halfway up a ladder I realised that’s happened to me a lot. Whenever I visit a house, it has some effect on me and more often than not it results in a novel. Sometimes it’s almost as if the buildings are a living, breathing entity, but although they may not play an actual part, they’re always there in the background, watching the events that unfold.

I’ve always been fascinated by old houses. Modern ones don’t do anything for me – it’s like they know they haven’t seen anything of life yet and have no stories to tell. Their walls are silent, uniform, boring, whereas old buildings seem to ooze history from every crooked wall and uneven floor board. If only they could talk, they’d be able to divulge any number of secrets. They’ve seen it all – love and laughter, misery and ecstasy, tears and grief. There are whispers and shadows in every corner.

When I say old houses, I don’t mean just castles and famous buildings (although I do love those), but also ordinary ones or those built for slightly less prominent members of society. Whenever I walk into a building like that, I feel each one has a different atmosphere. Some are welcoming and happy places, some brooding, and sometimes they even feel menacing, as if you’re trespassing and shouldn’t be there.

Take the Merchant’s House in Plymouth for example (see photo above). I found my way there a couple of years ago while doing research for a historical novel set during the English Civil War and as soon as I stepped inside, I immediately felt enveloped by the past. You enter through a dark stone-flagged passage and it’s like stepping back in time. It’s a house that has clearly experienced a lot and it proved the perfect setting for my story. Seeing that house gave me lots of new ideas, it's almost as if it was helping me out, giving me advice.

Another house that virtually cried out to be part of a story was a small Elizabethan manor house I used to visit regularly. For some reason it always made me uneasy. Although it was a beautiful building, I was terrified of being alone there. It didn’t help that the owners told me the house was haunted by a benign ghost, who loved to play pranks and delighted in wrecking anything modern or mechanical (he obviously didn’t think such things fit in there). It was clear to me the ghost didn’t want me in his house either, but it was the perfect setting for a story and I just had to write a novel about it (which I hope to sell one day). In it, I described the house like this:-

Approached through a pair of wrought iron gates, the old manor house nestled in a hollow, as if it had burrowed into the ground for comfort. Picture perfect, it was built of weathered timber and orange red bricks, with tiny leaded windows and tall chimney stacks. The colour gave an impression of warmth, reinforced by the sunlight reflected off the myriad of windowpanes. A short drive led to a yew hedge which surrounded a small flower garden immediately in front of the house. The hedge had been trimmed to velvety perfection and grew thick and deep. A profusion of snowdrops peeped out from underneath the bushes, looking as if they were wondering whether it was safe to come out yet ...

Which is your favourite house? And have you ever been so inspired by a building that you just had to write a story set there? If so, I’d love to read a description of it!

Please come back on Sunday when Liz will be posting.


  1. Ooh, lovely evocative post, Christina; I hope we get to read that novel. It's places more than particular houses that do it for me and I especially adore seaside towns, however I did start a novel inspired by a wonderful old house near where I used to live and I'm planning to revisit both the novel and the house.

  2. I always think you're so lucky to have so many interesting historical houses in England. I love it when I come over and can visit these fascinating places, they never fail to inspire my imagination.

  3. Can't wait to read that novel, Chris!

    Debs - I totally agree! It's one of the reasons I love living in England, there's a sense of history all around you and beautiful buildings everywhere. We're very lucky indeed.

  4. I love that about old houses and buildings. I like to envision what happened in the building, the people who lived there, the ins and outs of their daily lives. It's fun to imagine laying our own present over their past like a sheet of tracing paper and comparing the two images, picturing people moving around, or the placement of furniture.

    What passes for old here in North America is still, usually, pretty young compared to many places in Europe, but the homes can still evoke a moving sense of history. The house we rent was built beside the original homestead of the region, probably approaching 200 years old. It was well-built, in its time, and undoubtedly well cared for over the years to have lasted this long. But it hasn't been lived in for many years now, and it's slowly fallen into disrepair: the long wooden beams starting to bow in the centre; the wooden floor sagging in the middle with blooms of dry rot creeping from between the boards in the damp summer months; the windows dusty and partly overgrown with grapevines that have grown so large they clamber across the wall and drape lazily across the cedars planted at the corner; the chinking falling out from the gaps between the wall's pitted logs, the dust motes hanging in the still air dancing in the narrow sunbeams.

  5. I love those descriptions, Seabrooke! And it makes me feel like giving that house some TLC to bring it back to its former glory.

    I think 200 years is plenty of time for a house to be historical. (In fact, my favourite buildings are Victorian, which is only about 150 years back in time). And I saw some lovely old houses in New England when I visited there - I especially fell for one near the Maine coast. It was up on a hill and overlooked the sea in the distance and it was built completely of wood, with lots of ornate bits and little turrets. It reminded me of the Gothic house the Addams family lives in, but much brighter if you know what I mean, and it was painted a warm, welcoming yellow.

  6. Christina - all my books are about houses so far so I know exactly what you mean!


  7. Ah, Christina, what a brilliant post! I love the 'feel' you can get from houses.

    I remember when we were house hunting, a few people couldn't understand why we wanted something that had seen a little life - they kept telling us about new developments and brand-new builds.

    We ended up in one nearly 300 years old. I love the uneven steps and the huge hinges, the wide staircase and the curved corners. It's such a thrill to find the well under the flags in the back yard, or the strange-shaped stone in the cellar.

    I wouldn't swap it for straight walls and double glazing, although I wish we had a bit more DIY confidence, as our poor home needs a bit of TLC!

  8. I feel the same way about old houses too. Here in Western Canada our houses aren't very old, but I love my 70 year old cottage I liove in.

    When I was in England in 2006, I visited a mill house at Hoxne in East Anglia which my mom's family used to own. I'm using it for the setting of a novel I'm planning - the house and mill and all the land around it has so much atmosphere.