Read in a property magazine, while in England. June 9, 2014:
A truly rare find! Set in one of the most sought after country and equestrian locations in the South East. This glorious property offers a chance to buy into a piece of Kent’s heritage, set in a secluded location half a mile along a private lane ….
My heart leaped as I read the property agent’s description of the farmhouse and accompanying stables and paddocks and other rural accoutrements of the good life. Soon someone rich enough to pony up the asking price of 1,350,000 pounds (no sign for British pounds on my American MacBook), will be calling that farmhouse home – or perhaps second home – having marveled at the centuries old beamed ceilings, the inglenook fireplaces and the fact that the house is smack bang next to what is now a national park filled with glorious trails through countless miles of woodland. Doubtless the new owner will think about residents in days gone by, imaging men in breeches smoking clay pipes, and women brushing an earthen floor, or perhaps turning the roast suckling pig over hot embers. I wonder if they will consider their home’s more recent history, for once it was a working farm of considerable acreage, with equally old tied cottages for farmworkers dotted across the landscape. The farm’s address is also the one on my birth certificate.
When my parents married in 1949, as a young couple in London they stood as much chance of getting a home of their own as flying to the moon. The neighborhoods where they grew up had been bombed and accommodation was hard to find, so they lived with my father’s parents. Not an easy option, for a young couple. Every evening they pounded the pavement looking for a place to live, clutching the newspaper marked up with possible flats and rooms to rent – accommodation taken by the time they arrived on the doorstep. The crunch came when an elderly man who had rooms in a house on a neighboring street had been taken into hospital. It was predicted he would soon breathe his last. Time was of the essence, so my mother – dressed in her best suit – went along to the landlord and, apologizing for seeming a little, well, heartless, asked if she could rent the rooms if the poor man left this mortal coil. The landlord laughed. “Sorry love,” he said. “You’re number 30 on the waiting list!” She came home and wept.
Around the same time, my parents saw an advertisement for an old gypsy caravan. So they bought it, having borrowed the money from my aunt. They had it towed some 80 miles away, to a farm where my father’s family had traveled every year for the hop-picking season, and they asked for work. To their families, they might as well have crossed an ocean.
My mother was a town girl, a young woman who liked her New Look outfits, and her high heels, and wasn’t one to get mud on her hem. Dad was a true Cockney lad whose heart, if not his feet, had always been in the country – so they had to fudge it when they arrived on the farm looking for work. They were given jobs on the land, and eventually my dad was made foreman in charge of the livestock, and my mother became responsible for the farm books – but that was “eventually,” some time on, after the farmer had discovered they weren’t afraid of hard work and that my mother was a qualified bookkeeper.
Their caravan home was 8ft by 5ft, and comprised a bed at one end, a pot-belly stove and a small table. My father had restored the caravan and my mother embroidered curtains, tablecloths and a counterpane to make their home a little cozy, and she collected china plates to adorn the walls. And of course, being farmworkers, they were eligible for a bigger food ration – not to be sniffed at, in those days. The only fly in the ointment was that they were Londoners, outsiders.
My parents did well for a while, then their first winter came, and the work dried up. One day there was a knock at the door - a Romany woman, matriarch of a small family of gypsies who’d set their caravans on the same farm, had come to speak to my mother. She said that they knew my parents hadn’t much money, so she would show mum how to make a few bob in the slow months – mainly hawking paper flowers the gypsy taught her to make and then sell door to door. They were chalk and cheese, the family and my parents, but the hand of friendship had been extended, and it was taken with more than a measure of relief. My parents traveled with the gypsies to other farms over the coming months, and soon the scars that proximity to war had wrought upon their young hearts began to fade – and in truth, that was the bonus of leaving London for the country.
They always came back to that same farm, and it was later, when my mother was expecting yours truly, that the farmer offered my parents a 13th century cottage which was “tied” to the land and the job – by that time my father had become the livestock manager, and my mother was the book-keeper for several farms under the same ownership. She had also become the go-to person for the gypsies when letters needed to be written or read out, and she taught many of the children to read and write.
That farm is now the luxurious country estate depicted in the advertisement on the table next to me as I write. But when I look at the photos, I realize something’s missing – the sheer color and life of the place when I was a child, with men and women working the fields, livestock being moved along the tracks and “Mackie” – the farmer – running the show.
I was four when Dad went back to his original job, so we moved away from the farm. Dad eventually set up his own business, and my mother (after working for that dentist I wrote about a couple of weeks ago) made her way up through senior management in the British Civil Service. But we returned often, walking along the railway tracks that ran alongside the land – they’re gone now – or taking the footpath through the farm – a path now blocked to locals.
I wonder if, sometimes, our former selves can become ghosts of a sort, so the element of our soul that cannot bear to leave a home lingers on, because the place was beloved and had such bearing on who we’ve become. If so, then the people who buy that farmhouse next to the forest – well, they will have to contend with the spirit of my family lingering there, for over the many years it’s been held tightly in our hearts.