I clearly remember the smell when you walked in the wide front door, a combination of polish from the lightly worn parquet flooring and the pale, patterned, unchanging rug that covered it. As a child I would visit this house, my aunt’s, only a handful of times a year, but it was so different to the succession of pre-war three-bed semis I had grown up in that even today I can sketch out in my mind a floorplan.
Some of my earliest memories are of me tottering on a steep grass bank that ran alongside the small brook at the bottom of the grand sweep of garden. Unlike our narrow green rectangles that you could only look down, this was wide and you took it in from side to side. When I climbed down to the brook it was an adventure, something that my parents would never have let me do, but my then aunt and uncle in their then-childless state were more cavalier and daring and possibly less concerned with the risks.
The house was typical Arts and Crafts in styling. I didn’t know it then, only years of art education since have imbued me with that knowledge. But it’s the very Arts and Crafts nature of the house that has stayed me from childhood. Certain things remind me of if it – window seats, inglenook fireplaces, and a sense of being surrounded by greenery – just as the scent of just-cut grass wafting in through a metal-framed window, opened at the first sign of spring, takes me back to my seven-year-old self sitting meekly in my schoolroom.
Large picture windows graced the back of the house where the dining room was with its two wide bay windows. It was so light, so unlike our dark dining room, which was north facing and a stranger to verdant life apart from the green algae that clung to the bottom of the white render. But this room was arced by a deep-border of shrubs and flowers on one side and a brick veranda on the other, covered with clematis and looking out onto a lawn that made its scalloped-edged way down to the brook.
The lounge, also overlooking the garden, was large, its walls lined with shelf after shelf of books. We grew up in a fairly bookish house. My dad loved reading them, and ordering them, but they were confined to one small mahogany bookshelf, something to be revered, not necessarily touched. The idea of having the space to have so many on display, and available, seemed to me to betoken a different type of life to the one my family had. Academic. Aspirational. Cut glass not flat voweled. As well as the books was a curvaceous and mirror-polished grand piano. One that it was impossible not to sit in front of an attempt a one-fingered plunky tune. The piano laid with the elegant languorousness of a chaise longue beside the inglenook fireplace with its open fire and two cushioned seats either side and under the chimney canopy. A real, living breathing fire, not a sputtering gas one or the moisture-sapping heat of my grandparents’ clattering electric one.
I loved the idea of having little places to sit that weren’t the sofa or the floor. In this room I could sit in the chimney recess, or tuck my legs under me and sit in the bay window seat with its dark green and flowered cushions. I could feel just like a heroine from an Austen novel whimsically looking through the leaded glass windows with their curling and cast-metal window catches.
My own home is in its origins ideologically different from this Arts and Crafts house of my memory, a house that seemed to actively encourage whimsy and sighing next to windows. I live in a 1950s post-war semi, with its sharp angles and austere functionality. But, it does have two bay windows. One up, one down. Two years ago I had a window seat built into the one down bay window. I don’t look out on to a Gertrude Jekyll sweep of shrubbery, but our taffled north-facing front garden. A wonky variegated holly, which for reasons known only to its maker has always preferred a 45-degree lean to being upright sits alongside an increasingly wayward teenager in the form of a flowering currant, a cutting from my mother-in-law. I face a lilac so old that part of its trunk has rotted away and is now a tiny hotel for over-wintering snails, and a bay window box, where just now crocuses and daffodils are starting to nervously poke their heads above the parapet to see if they’ll get shot down by a sudden and ferocious hailstorm.
Sitting on my window seat this morning I try to chip off the dried Weetabix from the boy’s breakfast yesterday, while I cuddle my cup of tea and feel the distant chill from the window pane and I feel safe, content, enclosed by my garden, and a little bit whimsical.