Words and pictures: Malcolm Anderson.
Finding a house, any house at all, has proven to be far more difficult than I could possibly have imagined this time round. It has drained me physically and emotionally; living from a suitcase again has the well worn blanket of solitude slipping once more around my shoulders. Silence once again is my friend.
The estate cottage surrounded by beautiful beech woodland that I waited a month and a half for a decision on ended up being given to some polished turd from London in his red trousers and shiny Porsche. Turns out that he wanted somewhere as a weekend retreat so that he could more easily shoot pheasants.
The house on the banks of the river Avon close the hallowed Bull Hotel fell through on the day I was due to sign the paperwork when the landlord changed his mind and decided to sell instead.
The estate cottage near Breamore would have been condemned by environmental health if they’d seen it. I had to laugh when I asked the letting agent how long the refurbishment would take before the house was ready to let when she replied “No, it’s being let like this although if you wanted to install a new bathroom, kitchen, decorate or re-carpet the landlords would be fine with that”. For a peppercorn rent perhaps that would be a proposition worth taking but for £975 a month? Not bloody likely.
The entire rental market has gone berserk over the last 18 months. Speaking to one of my friendly letting agents it seems that that all the new affordability criteria on mortgage lending coupled with rapidly increasing property prices means that people just can’t buy. As a result people are resorting to putting down deposits and signing paperwork without even visiting the few rentals that do come on the market. This may be something that has been happening in London for some time, perhaps it’s the norm but out here in rural England this is something unpleasant and new; not only do we not earn city wages, there are significantly less houses to chase after.
I started the search with lofty ideals. I would find a real ‘home’ for Joe and I, a kind of Drove Cottage MKII. Slowly that has slipped to a point where almost anything with four walls and a roof would do.
Desperate for some sort of inspiration I’ve come back to Drove Cottage today. I’ve just shared a coffee with my old neighbours and I’m now sat in the car, quietly thinking, parked in the drove next to the old flint wall. The light rain is painting chalky tears down the windscreen, fracturing the view of the cottage that somehow became a part of me.
The cottage has been re-let to a nice Polish couple, but with no proper tenancy agreement and on a peppercorn rent. The plaster is bubbling off the walls where the landlord never dried it out properly before redecorating and trying (and failing) to sell after the flood. Damp seeps out of the stonework around the fireplaces and two of the chimney pots are lying on the grass in the front garden.
Let’s be honest, Drove Cottage was always a long way from being perfect, even on the day I moved in. If you were going to buy it you’d be doing so in the knowledge that what you really had was a building plot in an amazing location. The front roof timbers are rotten through; the chimneys are slowly peeling away from the rest of the house. The bathroom was like something from a 1930’s crofters cottage. The oil boiler would wake the dead as it fired up in the morning and every time I turned the heat on a polar bear karked it somewhere across the globe; I felt so guilty about the emissions that I just stayed cold much of the time instead. The bedrooms upstairs were so unevenly floored that no matter which way round you put the bed you would always end up with your feet higher than your head (I do miss the toads that used to hop around the front room floor on rainy evenings though).
So I sit here, with my breath slowly steaming up the inside of the windows and the cottage slowly disappears behind a grey film of exhaled Nitrogen, Oxygen, Carbon Dioxide and water vapour.
I wonder if in reality Drove Cottage ever existed. Not in a bricks and mortar kind of way, but in a spiritual sense. Was the cottage really nothing but a convenient four walls for me to journey from my old life to my new one? A red brick and Chilmark stone Chrysalis for my metamorphosis from ugly caterpillar?
The cottage slowly fades away and the lessons that I’ve learned in my months in Winchester come into focus and solidify in my mind. I went into the cottage with a hole in my heart, running from somewhere but not really knowing where I was going, aimlessly stumbling onwards. The cottage allowed me to pause, take stock and rest. It gave me somewhere to heal that hole, to fill it with misty mornings and the playful sounds of the wind tickling cornfields but I’m no longer convinced that I couldn’t have been fixed (assuming I was in some way broken) in suburbia in the same way that I was in the middle of nowhere. Yes, the cottage made it easier; a good dose of space, a dash of solitude and a pinch of protestant hardship, but it wasn’t a requirement.
I’d be lying if I said that in my heart I don’t desire to live in a house in the middle of nowhere; that my heart doesn’t crave a cottage with a pea green door, vegetables growing at the back, wood stacked neatly and a fire next to a sofa big enough for two. However, I know now that I can live in a house anywhere; I can make it a home. Being in a town doesn’t have to mean that I lose a part of myself; it doesn’t mean that I cannot be connected to the landscape, the seasons and the old world. That connection is a part of me now; it’s become the landscape of who I am, a chaotic tattoo of freckles, weathered skin and laughter lines.
The next step it seems, is very unlikely to be in that elusive rural idyll but wherever I end up – it’ll do. It’s just another step forward in becoming who I was meant to be.