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…
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