Home is where the heart is

Seven years ago, my husband, baby son and I moved house. There were a number of sensible reasons for the move. 5 York Street had suited us very well as a working couple, but add a baby and all the associated paraphernalia, and we began to run out of space. I worried about our location (there were increasing numbers of students and our family lifestyle wasn’t compatible; drug dealers lived around the corner; parking was a nightmare, and we didn’t like our neighbour). Then my Father died, and we wanted to be closer to my Mother, so we put our home on the market. The house we now live in suits us much better.

But it is not my dream home.

In my dreams, I’m often back in 5 York Street, that little slice of a house where we made so many memories. I see the brass plate on the inside of the front door, where the shine had been worn away by the constant touch of hands shutting out the world. For me, shutting out the noise of cars, of drunk students, of delivery lorries. But long before me, others were shutting out the cattle from the fields that used to be just around the corner. Every day they’d make their way to the old dairy; now ASDA, Next, Marks and Spencer. I see the silvered hook on the bathroom door, carefully positioned and secured by my Father. We left it there. I feel the familiar smoothness of the door at the foot of the stairs as I grasp it gently and pull it open; see the marks where there once was a handle, long ago removed. I hear the door groan as it opens and I see the old paint we never had time to paint over, probably full of lead, and yellowed and peeling with age. I peer round the twist in the stairs and stop, halfway up, to turn and look through the round window, the porthole that inspired the colours I chose for the little house. Aquas, sky blues, pebble whites, the palest of sea greens.

Little is understating it. It was almost Liliputian. In the street nearest the railway line, and built for the poorest railway workers in the 1860’s, York Street contains some of the smallest Victorian terraced houses in Cambridge. The estate agent used a very wide-angle lens to photograph it as he told me how sought after it would be.

There was no front garden, straight off the street into the front parlour. But the back door led to a spacious and peaceful haven that belied its city centre location. All the gardens of the long narrow street were divided by low picket fences, so although our plot was a little ribbon, the view was vast. Mature trees, planted half a century ago, nodded sagely at the succession of students, yuppy commuters and old retainers who sat gratefully in their dappled shade. The soil was wonderful, it was possible to grow anything, and I was always turning up tiny shards of Victorian pottery, sometimes vicious in their sharpness as if dropped yesterday.

Two older gentlemen, neighbours of mine, were cousins who were born in their tiny homes. One used to like to look at maps on the hottest days, protected by an elderly sun hat as he sat quietly studying countries he’d never visited. He wasn’t the neighbour we didn’t like.

I spent a lot of time in our garden over the years. Fifteen years, the longest I’ve lived anywhere. Pastel coloured roses vied for space with English lavender. Old, mossy terracotta pots were filled with tumbling pansies, daisies and deep blue lobelia. There was a perverse peach tree which dropped its fragrant fruit into our neighbour’s garden, so eventually we cut it down and planted a small flowering cherry in its place. The last time I was in York Street, it was blossoming.

The day 5 York Street went on the market, the house and the garden were perfect. If I could, I would have imprisoned it, frozen it in time. We went out for the day and 23 sets of viewings were conducted by the estate agent. We’d given him instructions. We told him we wanted someone to buy it who would live in it, who wanted a home. 5 York Street had never suffered the indignity of being a buy-to-let like so many others in the street; a rundown hovel for students, a gutted monument to upvc windows. Inside its tiny rooms, behind its aged pine doors, as old as the house, families had spent their lives. Children had been born and raised. One young man who had lived in the house had died just after the First World War, and was buried in the local cemetery. We visited him sometimes.

Two days later, and the house was sold. My perfect little home. To a young woman we’d never met who’d bid a lot higher than the asking price and who, we were told, would be living there. We needed the money, we accepted the offer. And the soul of the house died, there and then. We failed it.

We moved out, and the next day a gaggle of Spanish students moved in, a bed was crammed into every room, bikes piled up outside the front door, curtains thrown up and left permanently closed. My husband called round to collect the mail. He asked for the owner and was told it was our neighbour. A property developer who had ruined the house next to ours by gutting it and putting in an extra floor to make more money from it. He had bribed the estate agent and we were too naive to realise. Stupid, stupid …

My heart broke.

From time to time,Β  I really go back to 5 York Street. The door and windows haven’t been painted since we left, and the garden is almost gone. Only the flowering cherry remains, a glorious explosion of pink, frothing blossom amongst the rampant, dirty weeds. There isn’t even grass anymore.

Of course, most of my heart is where I live now, with my family. In a house with no soul and no history. A practical compromise.Β  Perhaps it’s better that way.

Most nights, I go back to 5 York Street in my dreams. As it was, perfect and frozen in time. I think perhaps I always will.


28 thoughts on “Home is where the heart is

  1. I feel your sadness and can sympathise. To an extent can also empathise but won’t go into that now. Hopefully your new home will mean more to you as your son grows up and creates memories there. I’m going to follow your Blog πŸ™‚

  2. I can understand you well. The many memories gild. I now live much better in a small resort and yet, I miss the life of the city, and the diversity of the people.

  3. Beautifully written.

    My mother was similarly devastated when she and my dad and my older siblings moved out of their first house, also a small Victorian terrace. They’d made a lovely garden with a little rockery and so on and coming from a London council flat, it was the first garden my mum had ever had and the first time she’d ever grown anything. Also, my grandad, who was my Dad’s dad but looked on her as his daughter, built her a little dry stone wall around it.

    Within a week of them moving out, the new owners had paved over the grass, demolished the wall and had a bonfire on the rockery. This was nearly 40 years ago and it still upsets her.

    • Thanks Joanne πŸ™‚ Your poor mother, I really feel for her. This was my first real home too, I’d always rented before. I invested so much in it, as did your Mum by the sounds of it. I think I’ll haunt that little house when I’m gone!

  4. Lovely and poignant post, Gill. Homes are an intrinsic part of us and much more than bricks and mortar. Thanks for sharing xx

  5. Well written. I hope that you preserve these thoughts and stories in a book for your son. I think that he will appreciate them when he’s older.

  6. So beautifully written, I can feel your sadness at leaving behind your small piece of heaven. We have moved house countless times and my current home is the one I have liked best. It is modern, soulless perhaps. But I have worked hard to put our stamp upon it, hanging art on the walls, mementoes on the shelves, and pouring our lives therein into every brick and sheet of plasterboard. I know our next move will be the “downsizing” of the empty nesters and I already weep for that day.
    Truly, I understand your grief but you give me hope to know that when we do move on we can create another home.

  7. What a beautiful post, the photos are gorgeous too. It’s only natural that after living somewhere for 15 years it would feel like your true home. I am so sorry that the estage agent went against your wishes.

    I have dreams of childhood holidays, regularly, so I can understand as well your dreams are possibly not helping as every time you wake up it’s a jolt again.

    It’s good to remember the happy times, but also I hope that you will feel the similarly about your current house one day.

  8. An incredibly beautiful and moving post. I identified with it so much. We also live in an old, tiny house that we bought before our two sproglets arrived. We bought it very much on the strength of the cottage garden . Now we are all huddled in to the old,tiny house together but we can’t bring ourselves to move. We will have to.We know that.

    A neighbour (who we also dislike) wanted to buy some of our garden so that he could build a house on some land that he owned at the back of our house. We needed the money but we said no.It would have felt like selling the soul of the house;in some way like selling our own souls too. He was really hacked off that we wouldn’t sell to him and we know that if we put the house onto the market, he would try to buy it,and we wouldn’t want him to have it. It matters so much to us that the integrity,the soul,of the house is kept.I can imagine how we would feel if an estate agent did that to us and our bull dozing neighbour got his hands on this place.

    So I totally got your post. I wrote about our little home on my blog last year but I am not going to put the link here,I will send it to you, as I don’t want to hijack your comments page.

    My instincts tell me that this may not be your last move and that there is another home out there for you all,another 5 York St that is just waiting for you to rescue it from yet another ruthless developer…

    • Thank you so much for your kind comment. I would love to read your post about your home. Funnily enough, our old neighbour is planning to build at the foot of our old garden, which is why he wanted our home. It’s a very densely populated area so I pray he never gets planning permission. I think you’re quite right: one day, we will move again, to an older house and make it a home. πŸ™‚

  9. I do understand your feelings. One hates to admit how true that old saying, “You can’t go home again” is. Your old house was lovely, and I’m so sorry to hear what happened to it after you moved out. I know how it is to wish that you had more control over who got hold of it and what they did with it. Not many other people will see the value in things that you do. That to me is one of the saddest things in life.

    I think sometimes sadly about my parents’ old house in California, where I spent a good half of my life. It wasn’t the most beautiful or fanciest house, but it had some wonderful features, and I miss it a lot. I had to sell it after my mom died in 2000, and it really broke my heart to think I’d never live there again. But at the same time, my partner and I have made a wonderful home here in Vermont, and we’re very happy here. I have a few things that were my family’s and they are enough to remind me of the old days.

    • Thanks Bess πŸ™‚ I think if we had sold to someone who made the house their own home, then I would have been happy to pass it on, but that didn’t happen. I’m sorry about your parents’ house, selling it must have been a very difficult task.

  10. I currently live in a tiny cottage built in the early 1800s and I adore it so I read this post moist-eyed. We too must move, probably this year, but I will only do so for my dream home, which will probably be another older house.

    They are not perfect, these monuments to our past. Doors stick, walls lean, rooms are oddly-shaped and stairs are like ladders, but they have so much soul to share.

    I am new to your writing but I can already tell that you are the kind of person who will bring heart and soul to anywhere that you live. Thank you for this lovely post.

    • Thank you so much for your kind words. This blog is a new project for me, and I’m really glad to have such encouraging words. The home we have now was built in the 1970’s, but is in a lovely spot overlooking woods, fields and a river, so what we lost in character we made up for in location. I hope one day to have both! I wish you all the best with finding your dream home.

  11. Truly beautiful Gill. Like Deb said, a book for Henry sounds a wonderful idea. I think many others would get great enjoyment to read it too. I was totally transported. The photos made it extra special too. Hope to see you soon. Keep writing! πŸ™‚ x

  12. Very lovely, Gil. Yes, I too believe it takes a little while for a house to feel like a ‘home’. My apartment finally feels like home after two years. I missed my old peaceful neighborhood for quite some time after I moved. I live right in the heart of the city now, but have become used the noise of the ambulance sirens (I live near three hospitals), and the noisy college students (there are six universities nearby)!

  13. You will move on.
    I know the pain of leaving behind a beloved home only to see it wrecked. When we left our Norfolk rectory, I left a lovely rambling cottage garden planted up with old fashioned flowers and rows of mature lavenders I’d grown from cuttings. The people who took the house as a year let, grubbed it all up, cut down trees and generally turned it into a carbon copy of every boring suburban garden. I do not understand why they did it when they were only having the house for a year.
    But I went back, in a trance state, and gathered up the displaced spirits of plants and the soul of the garden and found them a new place.
    Leaving the last house was even harder; I walked at night through this much smaller house and tried to conjure a door to the bigger house I sensed beyond the narrow walls. I failed.
    A house that is a home, has a soul. Call that soul into a rock or an artefact and bring it with you and let it meld with the new home. Go back in a dream and find that lost house soul and bring it home again.

    • I knew you would understand, Viv. A home does indeed have a soul and that was what made wounding our lovely home so hard. I think it really did die. Furniture bought specially for our old home looks stranded and uncomfortable here. But, after writing this piece, my husband and I have realised we need to nurture this new home (although it will never hold the same space in my heart). I’m sorry for your Norfolk Rectory, and for your last home. But it sounds like you have found some ways of coming to terms with it. I hope I will too. xxx

  14. A soul cannot truly die, Gill. But it can flee. Human souls can also fragment and the pieces be lost. Soul retrieval can bring them home.
    I am feeling that sometime in the next few years we will move again. I hate it and yet, change is essential.

    • That comforts me a lot. I will work on how to retieve what was the soul of our home.
      You’re right, I’m always berating myself for not initiating enough change, and know I need more. I hope it will be a positive move for you when the time comes. x

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