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.