The House that Time Built

In case anyone hasn’t noticed, I like houses. I like to treat them as characters in my books, sometimes even the central character. Just as dogs are supposed to resemble their owners – or is it the other way round? – houses reflect the people that live in them. It’s something that has long been understood by novelists. Where would Wuthering Heights be without Wuthering Heights or its antithesis, Thrushcross Grange? Where would Pride and Prejudice be without Pemberley – or Longbourn, Netherfield, Hunsford Parsonage, Rosings or Gracechurch Street? Each is a manifestation of its residents.

My second novel, Motherlove, doesn’t dwell on one particular house, but it features several – the patchouli-scented cottage on a Pembrokeshire small-holding, the former council house on a run-down estate, the Victorian terraced house turned into seedy squats, the tres des-res farmhouse in Dorset. They are not just settings for the characters that live in them but an extension of them.

In A Time For Silence, the cottage of Cwmderwen, based on a derelict cottage near me, is very much the focus of the book. For modern-day Sarah it’s a symbol of Paradise Lost, a physical symbol of mistakes and wrong turns that she is determined to put right. For her grandmother, Gwen Owen, back in the 1930s, it is the crushingly claustrophobic prison that she must embrace. The house has a hold on both of them, but it takes Sarah a long while to appreciate that its hold on her is stronger than her hold on it. “What had I been doing, trying to impose twenty-first century comfort and picture book appeal onto this place? Somewhere in this house, a suicidal girl gave birth, a grieving father was shot down – and I had built a conservatory.”

The same cottage, Cwmderwen, is also one of the central characters in my latest book, The Covenant, set 50 years earlier, and still it has a hold, for good or ill, on everyone who lives there. Leah Owen has it drummed into her, from birth, that it is a gift from God, to be held and defended obsessively at any cost. It begins as Leah’s home in every positive sense, her sanctuary. “It surely must be as old as time, Leah thought. This kitchen, where they gathered, cooked, ate, worked and prayed, was a fixed part of creation, permanent as the rock it stood on, with its nooks and crannies and creaking stairs, its cavernous fireplace and deep-set window and its pervading odour of smoke and broth, mutton fat and dried herbs. She couldn’t imagine it not being there. Not being theirs.” By the end of the book it had become a monstrous demon imprisoning the Owens in their futile hopes, demanding their blood and sucking them dry.

But all the time, it’s just a cottage. Both Leah and Sarah are conscious that it has roots in the past, that it might be older than it looks. That is something that fascinates me – houses as a physical emanation of history. My house, which I took to be a very modest Victorian farm cottage, turns out to be the site of a medieval manor. If a Welsh knight decided to build his noble residence here, was it because it was already a farmstead? There’s an iron-age fort within spitting distance. Are there iron-age postholes under the very heavy stone foundations of this house? So much human history is printed onto this one small piece of land, each generation marking it afresh.

I use that idea heavily in my twin books Shadows and Long Shadows, both set in the same Pembrokeshire property of Llysygarn, not a cottage, this time, but a mansion with serious pretensions. In Shadows, Kate Lawrence is cursed with an ability to sense the echoes of past horrors and dramatic ends that remain enshrined in stone and timber and dark corners, and she quickly tunes into the lurking mysteries of Llysygarn which seems, on the surface, to be nothing more than an innocent Victorian extravaganza.

When I first moved to Pembrokeshire, in the 1980s, the countryside was littered with such slowly decaying mansions, hidden from view, just off the road and lost in deep woods.

They conjure up a lost world of squires and county society with hunt balls and croquet on the lawn. A world where peasants doffed their caps and respected their betters. That’s a world long gone, and the grand houses are now either totally derelict or have been put to new uses as nursing homes, hotels or art centres. There were dozens of others around me – Coedmor, Rhosygilwen, Cilwendeg, Ffynone, Cilgwyn, Glandovan, Llwyngwair… Some were built by the new Victorian rich, prosperous sea captains or successful industrialists. Others had roots that stretched far back in time.

Even among more modest houses in the area, you still find relics of a distant past. A farmhouse still has a massive Tudor door. Another has Jacobean panelling and plasterwork. A youth centre has a barn that was once a Tudor gatehouse.

Many of them have lodge cottages, twee little follies more concerned with adding to the dignity of the big house than in providing comfort for the resident servant, but today, of course, such lodge cottages are highly desirable for their quaintness. And you can always extend.

I give it all to my fictional Llysygarn– the Victorian grandeur built on older foundations, an almost derelict Tudor great hall with Jacobean panelling (definitely panelling) and an undercroft that might, just might, once have been a dungeon, a lodge cottage (in need of rewiring), archaeological evidence of a bronze-age settlement and even standing stones from a Neolithic past. Kate doesn’t want to peel away the surface of the present day to discover the past under the wallpaper, but I do.

The historical transformations of Llysygarn are explored more precisely in Long Shadows, through the stories of three women who lived there in different centuries.

In The Good Servant it’s the mansion portrayed in Shadows, with its mock-Gothic stained glass, its pseudo Tudor staircase and its servants’ garrets, but it’s the house as it was in its heyday, when money was free-flowing, servants were cheap and weekend shooting parties gathered to butcher the wildlife, not as it is in Shadows, with dry rot, rising damp and general neglect. The Great Hall, half ruined in Shadows, is already relegated to hay store and workshop in The Good Servant.

In The Witch, there is no sign of the Victorian rebuild, nor even the Queen Anne remodelling that came before it and survived only as a damp-spotted watercolour.

In 1662 Llys y Garn is a rambling early Tudor edifice, with gatehouse and courtyards, grandly impressive in its time but already old-fashioned and crumbling by the restoration of Charles II.

It has embraced the Great Hall, panelled by earlier Jacobean owners, but little of it is used except, on rare occasions, the ancient solar, the upper room overlooking the walled garden. The Medieval tower is still there too, a memory of more difficult and bloody times, but how long it will stand is up to the whims of nature – or darker forces.

In The Dragon Slayer, even the Great Hall and the tower have not yet been built. Llys y Garn is a jealously guarded patrimony of hunting lands, unproductive fields, grazing for cattle, and a cluster of thatched timber halls and hovels for people and beasts, filled with smoke and delusions.

There is, alas, no story to accompany the 3000-year-old hints of roundhouses in the upper fields, but at least the builders, working of the restoration of the property in Shadows, do their best to remedy that failing by reconstructing one. Never miss the opportunity to include a house.

always remember to remove scaffolding before thatching.

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