On April Fool’s Day this year, I got into the car — along with some dried flowers, a bentwood hatstand and various other things too fragile to entrust to the cheap removal company that was transporting the rest of my belongings — and left London, where I had lived for 63 years.
My son was at the wheel. He had offered to drive me 300 miles to the suburb of Newcastle that is now my home because he feared I was in such a volatile mental state I was not safe on the road.
Five hours later, we passed through stone gateposts, round a circular driveway and parked in front of a house in which 15 square-paned windows blazed with light in the dusk.
No way, said my son, taking in the scale of it. No way.
It might have been spring but the temperature outside was minus one and inside, despite the fire that my partner, who’d arrived the day before, had lit in the medieval fireplace, it was so cold my breath rose in a cloud towards the chandelier above my head.
Taken later that evening is a photo of me, standing in front of one of the full-length windows in the empty drawing room, still in my overcoat and holding a glass of prosecco. The look on my face is one of sheer triumph.
There have been many property love affairs in my life, but this is the wildest — and by far the most dangerous.
It started, as these things always do, with me, with property pornography. Modern House used to be my staple, and indeed the last place I fell for was a place in east London made of wood that I bought seven years ago through the site. But when, a couple of years ago, Modern House branched out into Inigo, with the same delectable aesthetic but substituting Georgian fireplaces for polished concrete, I branched out with it.
One day, when scrolling through its historic houses, I came across a picture that made me stop. I don’t know if was the bottle green damask wallpaper. Or the mighty fireplace, or the stone flags, or the white columns or the giant glass chandelier, or all of it together.
Further pictures were equally astonishing: a baroque staircase; scrolled wainscoting; a kitchen whose sole nod to modernity was a Habitat lampshade from the 1970s; and a garden with a stone balustrade over which towered the spire of a 13th-century church. It’s a scene from Trollope, said my sister, when I showed her the garden photo.
The text explained this was a former bishop’s palace built on a medieval core by Lord Crewe in the early 18th century. The story has it that he displeased Queen Anne so severely with the grandeur of his building plans that she scrapped the title prince bishop. His crest, with lion and mitre, sits above the front door with his motto, Non Nobis, and the date: 1709.
Apart from the above, the other thing to catch my eye was the price — you got all this for considerably less than the value of my home in Hackney, which is little more than a commodious garden shed.
Let’s go and have a look, I said to my partner. I am such a caricature Londoner I could barely tell you which was further north: Leicester or Hull. I had never been to Newcastle, though had admired the bridges over the Tyne from a train window en route to Edinburgh. Obviously, we weren’t actually going to buy it, but it would be an interesting day out.
The short cab ride from the station took us through a suburban sprawl of car showrooms, cement works and gyratory systems, which abruptly stopped — and there was a village green and gates.
Some 45 years earlier an architect, a therapist and their three children went through the same gates to view the place. It was empty and derelict and being sold off by the church for £17,000. They bought it, divided it in two, kept the larger half and set about restoring it on a grant but otherwise on a shoestring.
After nearly half a century of tinkering, living and working in the house, the owners died there last summer, and their adult children — one of whom was at the door to greet us — were selling it.
Inside, the place was more quirky, tattier and altogether more approachable than it seemed in the pictures. Although the staircase was built to be wide enough for the very portly Lord Crewe to be carried up on a sedan chair by two servants, its frayed grey carpet was sufficiently unintimidating to invite modern visitors to go up and down in the regular fashion. Everywhere was slightly broken antique furniture, books and large canvases painted by the owner. In its spartan charm it was a bit like the place where I grew up in London, only more original, more beautiful — and five times the size.
That first day we spent nearly three hours wandering, slack-jawed, from huge room to huge room. As we left I scooped up my pink leather gloves from the dresser in the hall — but when I looked in my bag a nearly identical pair were lurking at the bottom. It turned out the first pair had belonged to the departed lady of the house and had been left there awaiting a return that wasn’t going to happen.
I am not temperamentally inclined to believe in fate. But I couldn’t help but entertain the thought: was the place somehow choosing us?
Over the next couple of weeks, we wrote lists of pros and cons. At the top of the first was beauty — followed by restoration project. We’d spent much of lockdown cheerfully engaged in DIY: this was the project to end all projects. Then there was the adventure of it all. It would mean finding a school in Gateshead to teach in — which, at the very least, would be interesting — new people and new places. How thrilling, I thought, to ditch the metropolitan elite for a new set of Geordie friends. How equally exciting to walk the North Pennines, swim on the Northumberland coast and explore Newcastle itself.
And if this wasn’t enough inducement, there was the matter of five sumptuous if moth-eaten pairs of curtains. A friend had just taken possession of an apartment with 14ft ceilings and was throwing out interlined drapes in embroidered silk and toile de Jouy — all a bit ripped but not beyond repair. Would you like them, she asked. You bet I would, I said. I just need a palace to hang them in.
Against these significant advantages I’d written the following list of cons. 1. Won’t see children or friends. 2. Astronomical maintenance and heating costs (and this was last October, before Putin invaded Ukraine). 3. Impossible to resell as we seemed the only people interested in buying it. 4. Once a Londoner, always a Londoner.
Against each I’d added mitigating factors. 1. London was less than three hours by train and, if friends didn’t visit, lockdown had proved they remained friends even without frequent sightings. 2. The answer to cold is long johns, jumpers, wood fires and overcoats hung by doors to wear up to bed. 3. As for selling it, surely someone else would respond to its magic just as we had? The thing that gave me most pause was con number 4 — could I really leave London? But then I reasoned that lockdown had lessened my love for the place, and the only way of figuring out if a happy life were possible elsewhere was to give it a go.
In my head I went to and fro, waking every morning at 5am in a turmoil of uncertainty. Eventually, to end the dithering, I put in an offer and wrote a letter to the sellers explaining how much we loved the house and how we would like to buy it complete with contents. I knew the melancholy business of sifting through parents’ stuff after their death. No need, I told them. Our own furniture would barely fill a single supersized room and so we’d be grateful for everything. We’d even eat the groceries in the cupboards. They thought about it for a week and then they said yes.
The process took four months, during which time my feet got very cold, both metaphorically and literally. One grey afternoon in January we went up for the day so that my partner, who is also an architect and understands these things, could spend an afternoon in the attic with a torch investigating the progress of the deathwatch beetle.
Meanwhile, I trudged from one large room to another shivering. The house, whose rudimentary heating had been turned off, leaving it cold as a church, was dark too. All the main rooms face east and by 2pm were gloomy and forbidding. What decadence, I thought. What folly. What would two sixtysomethings, who should be downsizing, want with 5,000 square feet of space so many miles from home?
Instead of pulling out, I drugged myself with curtain mending and long sessions on Instagram. I followed every interior designer of old properties that I could find. I saved folders of pictures of kitchens with ancient Agas and stone floors, of pantries lined with jam jars and green wellies.
I now look back on that virtual decorating with amusement. I have not used a single idea from my obsessive scrolling. In a note we found written by the previous owner: “You can’t live here like in a normal house. You have to let the house dictate.”
That is exactly what is happening. There is a cellar that runs the length of the house piled floor to ceiling with the junk of 45 years — possibly of 300. Lord Crewe was said to own a few Canalettos and so I’m rather hoping to find one hiding under miscellaneous boxes of cooker switches and rusted jars containing 2003 runner bean chutney. But in the absence of masterpieces, the cellar is yielding up all sorts of booty — serving as an anarchic and thoroughly idiosyncratic alternative to B&Q.
Need to improve the bathroom? Here’s a large Victorian wash basin lurking under a pile of plastic piping. Want to fix a clapped-out chest of drawers? Here’s a box of tarnished brass handles in a rusty tin. Paint? Take your pick. Who needs Farrow & Ball when you have a couple of hundred cans of paint through the ages to choose from?
Equally, who needs wallpaper, when you come upon some decent charcoal life drawings as well as a large collection of art posters from the 1970s? It took me about five minutes to decide what to do with all this. Before you could say knife, I was up a ladder with some ancient wallpaper glue found in the cellar and was pasting Toulouse Lautrec posters to the walls of our new project’s rooms.
It often occurs to me that although I now own a bishop’s palace, I live the life of a scullery maid/navvy, forever on my knees or up a ladder, sweeping grates, painting, sanding, digging and weeding. Some of the work we are buying in — repairing the lead guttering is beyond us — but mostly we are doing it ourselves.
At some point before he died, the architect said to his sons: don’t let whoever buys this house fuck it up. His wife felt the same — her nightmare was a marble island in her lovely kitchen.
Our aim, then, is clear. It is to do zero fucking up. We have taken on one of the last houses in the nation not to have been ruined by money and modernisers. We are going to continue to hold the line.
As I write, I’m interrupted by a dull thud. My partner has discovered medieval ceiling beams in the bathroom above a more recent suspended ceiling. Oops, another section of plaster must have come crashing down — but the sound is muffled as the walls are so thick. Indeed, my sister’s housewarming gift of a school playground bell to summon people to dinner has been almost entirely useless — in this house you can’t hear a thing.
Despite the joy of the project so far, it is far too early to declare the move a success. DIY is all very well, but we don’t want to be forever property tourists up north, we need to transplant ourselves in this far-off land. So far that hasn’t happened — partly because until the end of July I was commuting to my school in London to see my students through to the end of the school year.
Next week I start a new job teaching in a comprehensive in a neighbouring suburb and from that moment will live here properly. I hope I will make local teaching friends and, through my students, will start to understand better the place where I live. To get me in the mood my younger son has bought me a Newcastle United football shirt, which I plan to wear over my painting overalls when my new team is playing.
Meanwhile I’m setting out to make new friends in a shameless, brazen way as it seems to me I have little to lose. The other day we went to visit a garden that was open to the public and I took a fancy both to the beautiful plants and their owner, who I decided to issue with an open invitation to visit our ¾ acre of ground elder.
She smiled and took down my number. For the next 24 hours I checked my phone repeatedly but nothing doing. I am a little dashed, but not excessively so.
She might not want to be my friend but, in time, I’ll find people who do.
Last night, after I had washed the building dust out of my hair and extracted some soil from under my fingernails, I looked back at the list of pros and cons. All seemed reasonable, but at the same time missed the point. What matters is that we have made a commitment to the place — to look after it as we try to build a life here. How long do you think you’ll stay, a friend asked when she visited last month. I have no idea, I said. Somewhere between two years and forever.
Lucy Kellaway is an FT contributing editor and co-founder of Now Teach
FTWeekend Festival, London
At the FTWeekend Festival, taking place on September 3rd at Kenwood House in London, Lucy Kellaway debates with committed Londoner Janine Gibson and House & Home editor Nathan Brooker: is there life after London? Book your pass at ft.com/ftwf