New be­gin­nings

For best­selling au­thor Penny Vin­cenzi, sell­ing the fam­ily home was an emo­tional wrench but then a “For Sale” sign opened the door to a new life…

Woman & Home - - Editor's Letter -

Au­thor Penny Vin­cenzi on find­ing a new home

I’d left my big beau­ti­ful house in Wim­ble­don, after Paul, my hus­band, died, with much sad­ness. Any­one who’s ever packed up the fam­ily home, with all its mem­o­ries and ghosts, had to get rid of much-loved fur­ni­ture and pic­tures and sen­ti­men­tal trea­sures will know how truly heartwrench­ing it is, how ut­terly bereft

I felt. How could I be do­ing this, turn­ing my back on so huge a part of my life? But it had to be done, there was no op­tion, I de­cided, as I rat­tled around in it; and hav­ing fi­nally made the de­ci­sion (al­though I un­made it sev­eral times), a cer­tain sense of ex­cite­ment did be­gin to creep in, a prom­ise of new be­gin­nings, in mov­ing on…

i set­tled on an area about ten miles down the road, nearer to two daugh­ters and their fam­i­lies, and sev­eral friends, and rented a flat there while i looked for a house. the bleak­est mo­ment was shut­ting the front door of the house for the last time, driv­ing away, not look­ing back. After that, any­thing would have seemed easy.

i did the round of the es­tate agents, telling them what i wanted: a house, a pretty, un-smart, small-ish house, built around 150 years ago, with an un-smart, over­grown gar­den and, in a perfect world, a gravel drive, that i could love and cher­ish; i added that what i didn’t want was an al­ready mod­ernised and/or done-up house; and re­ceived promptly par­tic­u­lars of dozens of al­ready mod­ernised and/or done-up houses.

i tried again: i wouldn’t find any­thing, they said, there were no such houses left in the area. Friends told me the same thing.

i was driv­ing round dis­con­so­lately in the rain a few days later, and turned into one of my favourite roads. And half­way down was a house – a pretty, un-smart, late Vic­to­rian house, with an over­grown gar­den and a gravel drive and out­side it, buried in some bushes, was a sign. Clearly it couldn’t say For Sale; no es­tate agent could be that fool­ish… i climbed out of my car and into the wet bushes. An es­tate agent had been that fool­ish.

i gazed in awe at the trea­sure ly­ing be­fore me, walked round and looked into the front win­dows. the room was empty, fur­nished only with a fine mar­ble fire­place and a very dirty car­pet. i peered through the amaz­ingly pretty front door, with its lovely coloured glass, and saw piles of fly­ers for pizza com­pa­nies and clean­ing ser­vices ly­ing on the tiled floor.

i walked round the side, push­ing through un­der­growth, through a rusty iron gate and found my­self in a won­der­land of over­grown gar­den, thick with birdsong. i stood there, smil­ing at it, peered through some more win­dows, saw an­other fire­place and a lovely curv­ing stair­case, and called the rel­e­vant es­tate agent. why had he not told me >>

about this house? He said it needed a lot of work, which ap­par­ently i’d said i hadn’t wanted, and i said “i’ve changed my mind, i want to see it now.”

And he was there in 15 min­utes and i walked round and round pretty rooms, with at least some of the mould­ings still in­tact, and up the curv­ing stair­case, and into bed­rooms where the pa­per was hang­ing off the walls with damp, looked out of lovely cracked sash win­dows with bro­ken cords at the over­grown gar­den, and knew i’d found my new home.

“i’ll take it,” i said, hav­ing asked the price (i was that won­der­ful thing, a cash buyer), adding with great wit, i thought, “cash or cheque?” the es­tate agent looked quite fright­ened, and said it wasn’t that sim­ple. reader, i bought it. i gave it to my­self as a birth­day present, and went to see it the in­stant i had the key, let my­self in and, i am not ashamed to tell you, walked round it, pat­ting the damp walls and stroking the stair rail, say­ing, “Hello house”.

And then the hard work be­gan. it was in a con­ser­va­tion area and i wanted to ex­tend as well as re­store it, so i needed plan­ning per­mis­sion; it was a huge task. And i was ab­so­lutely awed by the whole project; for the first time i would be do­ing a house just for me, the way i wanted it.

it was scary as well as ex­cit­ing; Paul was ab­so­lutely con­fi­dent in his taste and i had gone along with it, usu­ally (but not al­ways) agree­ing with him. i am dith­ery by nature, in­de­ci­sive about clothes buy­ing even: this of­fered much more scope for ex­pen­sive mis­takes. the daugh­ters were en­cour­ag­ing, told me i couldn’t go wrong: i looked at them doubt­fully, know­ing i could. i didn’t con­sult any of them; i felt, stub­bornly, that i had to find my own way.

i was lucky to find a vi­sion­ary ar­chi­tect: treena Boon, who loved old houses but ap­pre­ci­ated my ideas for a highly nec­es­sary ex­ten­sion as well. i was also rec­om­mended an amaz­ing builder, se­bas­tian, who i came to ab­so­lutely trust to fix bro­ken mould­ings as beau­ti­fully as he plas­tered new walls and fixed a new slate roof. we put in plans: and then the wait be­gan. the gar­den, with the sum­mer growth spurt, be­came a jun­gle; a fox took up res­i­dence. Fi­nally, after some wran­gling and many months, the plans went though. to­gether with my daugh­ters i toasted the house in Cham­pagne.

then things went swiftly down­hill; the house was as­saulted ruth­lessly. it rained in­ces­santly, the gravel drive be­com­ing a sea of mud, fur­nished with Por­taloos. At least the fox had fled. saintly neigh­bours as­sured me it was fine, but it must have been hell for them. i felt con­fi­dent one day, pet­ri­fied the next. i wres­tled with choices, grow­ing more dith­ery ev­ery day, over taps and loos, work sur­faces, car­pets, and tiles; blinds, cur­tains or shut­ters, un­der­floor heat­ing or ra­di­a­tors. i chose, i was sure, wrongly through­out. i stuck loy­ally to Paul’s cream for the walls through­out, and then sud­denly in a burst of orig­i­nal­ity had the bed­rooms painted pale blue. And then wor­ried for days they would look cold. it was all ter­ri­fy­ing; i walked over planks cov­er­ing the mud and thence onto bare boards, naked plaster with wires pok­ing through, gap­ing holes in the floor, and stood there trans­fixed by how my house seemed to be lost to me. i felt mis­er­able, pan­icky, de­spite treena’s smil­ing, calm re­as­sur­ance, and very alone. why had i thought i could do this? sev­eral times i went back to the flat and cried, and con­sid­ered buy­ing that in­stead.

then one day, treena called: would i like to view the al­most-fin­ished, dec­o­rated ver­sion. i’d been ill (hos­pi­talised with pneu­mo­nia) and hadn’t vis­ited the house for weeks. i drove there, lit­er­ally shak­ing.

i walked in through the front door and it was an OMg mo­ment. the sun had come out for the oc­ca­sion, and shone through the re­stored sash win­dows, flood­ing the huge kitchen (floored in lime­stone, one of the most dif­fi­cult de­ci­sions) with light. the small con­ser­va­tory on the side of the house, golden warm, lead­ing out of what would be my study, made the house at one with the gar­den. the blue bed­rooms were un­be­liev­ably pretty, not brash, not cold. the Vic­to­rian tiles i had found for the fireplaces were even pret­tier than the bro­ken ones they had re­placed.

it looked truly amaz­ing: the house of my dreams and my imag­i­na­tion. Here fam­ily would visit, chil­dren would play, books would be writ­ten, par­ties would be held. i stepped out through the

French doors and stood there in the still-over­grown gar­den, con­tem­plat­ing my new fu­ture in this happy, lovely place, and burst into tears of sheer joy.

there is in­deed hap­pi­ness after un­hap­pi­ness, a fu­ture after the most fi­nal end­ing; and to­gether with my house i seemed to have found it. w&h A Ques­tion of Trust

(head­line) by Penny Vin­cenzi is pub­lished on 5 oc­to­ber.

Penny’s grand de­signs for her new home were by turns daunt­ing and ex­cit­ing

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