Category Archives: Buying an old house

The story of a ‘biggish’ house

Before I tell you this story I should introduce you to my family:  My name is Albert Forester – not a name that you would normally expect for the owner of a pile like this. It makes sense, though, when you go back over my family tree.

I was born in 1950; my father was born in 1910 and died quite recently; my grandfather was born in 1880 and died in 1943 in an air raid. His father, my great grandfather, was born around 1840 – the illegitimate son of Alice the wayward daughter of Sir William St John and Charles, the young man who looked after the woodlands of the estate – he was the Forester. Match the date with the husband of Queen Victoria and you get the baptismal name of my Great Grandfather – Albert Forester. That has been the given name of the first-born son ever since.

The male line of the St Johns got weaker over the years until the last of the line passed away 9 years ago. The powers that be finally established me as the most appropriate member of the bloodline to inherit the house. I got the house but I didn’t get the ‘Sir’ status. So …. Thornhill Hall is now the legal property of Albert Forester Esq. and his charming wife Samantha. Who will inherit when I pass on? That may be interesting as we have twin boys – Patrick and Robert – and none of us are quite sure which was born first. In fact, there are times when Sam and I can’t tell which is which even now!

Following the death of Sir William the Great House was more like a Great Shell. From the outside it was all there but inside the heart was missing. Don’t get me wrong – it wasn’t devoid of buildings, or of occupation. This was all there. Someone returning from 100, 200 or even 300 years ago would have recognised it – would know it. As I said, it was the heart that was missing – and it was now my aim, my job, to get that heart beating again.

What we should do with Thornhill Hall was our first decision to make. Sam’s suggestion was to demolish it and sell the stone.
‘No can do – it’s a Grade 2 listed building.’
Suggestion two was to sell it.

Another ‘no can do’. There’s a nasty clause, according to the solicitors, that says it cannot be sold while a male heir can be found!
There was nothing for it then; we had to make a go of it ourselves.
It was Sam who had the idea – ‘let’s open it to the public. There are lots of places that have done it.’
‘It’ll be hell’, I said but, as usual, I came second in the ‘discussion’.

The first year was exciting though. We visited many houses – mainly the smaller ones – that were open to the public. These gave us ideas – and some worries as well. Late in that summer we made contact with James and Helen who had gone through the process three years before. Their background was much the same as ours. When we arrived the first thing they did was to take us round their ‘public space’ as they called it. There were six rooms and they looked good. James and Helen were positive and descriptive about the things they were showing us – effectively giving us a guided tour as the said they did for their visitors.

We felt buoyant as we went into their private part of the house for coffee.
It was there that their ‘professional’ face slipped. A non-stop stream of negatives hit us. They complained about their volunteer helpers – unreliable and unhelpful. They complained about their visitors – noisy and forever complaining about their entrance fee; the quality of the coffee and how little there was to see. This diatribe continued for 10 minutes or more before Sam interrupted.

‘There must be some plusses’ she said.
‘Can’t think of any off-hand’ said James, almost as a question to Helen.
‘We have had some tax benefits’ she said to him.
Not much of that’ James said.

The conversation struggled on for another half an hour or so. That was enough for me. I twitched my eyebrows as I glanced at Sam and she turned her eyes toward the door – our pre-arranged sign. I glanced at my watch in a way James and Helen couldn’t miss; then looked up at them.

‘I’m terribly sorry. I’ve just noticed what the time is. We have another viewing this afternoon and I’m afraid we really must be on our way. Thank you so much for showing us around and sharing your experience with us. It has been a great help.’
We shook hands and left; waving to them as we headed off down their drive.

‘What a miserable pair of …’ I stopped Sam in mid-description.
‘Forget it. Forget them. Let’s get home.’
‘I thought you said we had somewhere else to go.’
‘I did. We have. We call it home.’

For the rest of the journey we were both quiet with our own thoughts.

 oooooOOOooooo

This all took place some five years ago. Now we are ready to open up our house, Thornhill Hall, to the public. The first time such a thing has happened. We have absolutely no idea what to expect. For this start we have three rooms of our living area open to view and three of the outbuildings. We have decided not to have a set entrance fee – in fact NO FEE.

We have been dropping little posters in the areas around us. It’s been a bit tough at times but the rain hasn’t been too heavy and the general weather quite mild. The posters have said that we open on Saturday 5th March – with a little nudge that Sunday 6th March is Mother’s Day – and Helen and her friend Sue will be having tea, coffee, soft drinks and homemade biscuits available for children, mothers and grand-mothers. At the other end of this March we have Easter.

We have put together a nice little – free – booklet telling the history of the house and what we have been doing to it over the last 5 years. At the exits of the house and the outbuildings we have put theft-secure opportunities for visitor contributions.

Wish us well. We’ll let you know after April Fool’s Day how we got on!

The Cottage on the Corner

It was just what they had been looking for. It stood on a manageable plot on the edge of the village. Behind the cottage was uncultivated land of trees and shrubbery which, in the last war, had been home to a group of British soldiers. Behind that was an old, but still lived in, farm house.

A road out of the village turned sharp left at the cottage gate, carried on for half a mile or so before turning right and heading to the next village. During the war there had been a guard post on that corner – and behind that had been the American Air force.

The cottage, they were told, had been built in the early 1800s as two cottages for workers from the farm. At some time in the 20th century the two had become one and, during the war, had been ‘home’ for an Army officer – well, a number to be accurate, because they tended to be moved on every 12/18 months. After the war a returning soldier, his wife and young son had moved in.

With a brick built toilet in the front garden, a single cold water tap in the house, old thatched roofing and wattle and daub walls it was destined for demolition just as soon as the new council houses were complete. Those houses had been finished, the family of three that had lived in the cottage got one and moved out, but the cottage was not demolished. It had been purchased and modernised to early 1950s standards.

The outside walls had a brick cladding added and the roof was re-thatched. Inside a ‘Raeburn’ fire was installed with a hot water tank to provide room heating and 24 hour hot water. Electricity was also connected. Because of the housing shortage, and the new building programme, the cottage had been let to an ever-changing range of occupants. Young families were the most frequent – and they rarely stayed for more than a couple of years before moving into a new council house in one of the surrounding villages.

Forty years on the cottage was in need of an update and was up for sale again. Jim and Jackie had bought it at a surprisingly attractive price. They had plans for many changes but – once there – the cottage took a hold on them. There was something about the cottage that said ‘Don’t touch.’ So they hadn’t.

It was four years later, following a particularly cold winter, that they finally did ‘begin to touch’. Central heating was their first addition. The local installer came highly recommended and the job was soon complete. In the last cold snap of the winter it proved a god send – except in one part of the house, their bedroom. There the radiator got warm rather than hot.

During the summer they continued to make minor changes and improvements to the house. Nothing seemed to go quite right. When Jim was placing a large porcelain bowl they had just bought onto a side table it slipped through his hands and smashed on the floor. Jim just did not drop things.  But – the garden around the house was at last showing the results of Jackie’s careful work. By mid-summer the lawn, the flower beds and the colourful shrubs were being admired by passers-by. But as autumn arrived the garden changed.

The green lawn had brown patches appearing, and they refused to respond to Jackie’s various solutions. By late September the disaster that was the lawn was joined by the plants and shrubs along the south side of the garden. No matter what Jackie did they drooped, withered and died.

Indoors, a new radiator did not solve the problem in the bedroom – in fact it seemed to be worse than the previous one. As autumn set in it just didn’t work at all.

It was the first Saturday in October, and Jim and Jackie were having a drink in the Chestnut Tree pub in the village. They had noticed that the tree that gave the pub its name was looking rather bare compared to all the other trees in the village.

It was Jim that made comment about the tree; and about their plumbing, and their gardening problems.

The group went quiet. The regulars looked at each other. No one spoke.

‘So?’ asked Jackie, looking at each in turn. ‘So?’

It was Peter, a born and bred villager and in his late seventies, that finally answered the question.

‘It’s all building up to tomorrow week – Sunday 13th October – but you’ll have to wait until next Spring for your garden and heating to get back to normal.’

Jackie and Jim looked at each other, then at the group around them.

‘So?’ repeated Jackie.

‘Sunday 13th October 1793 was the day when Charles and William Brockhurst, cousins, were murdered in the house that stood on the place that your house is built on.

‘The story goes that they were found in bed together by other family members who had suspected that situation for some time. Charles was killed where he laid but William escaped. He ran down the stairs and out of the front door. More were waiting for him there. They set upon him but he fought back and killed one of them.

‘There was no escape for him though and they hacked him to death – about where your garden problem is now.

‘By Christmas the house had been demolished and it was not until the 1830s that a pair of cottages was built there. Since then Sunday 13th October has always been a bad day for people living there – some much worse than others.’

Silence fell on the group.

Jim looked at Jackie, and he looked back at him. Without a word they joined hands and left the Chestnut Tree.

On Tuesday 8th October a van pulled up outside the cottage, loaded up with their furniture and other pieces and left.

Jackie and Jim drove away very soon after.

For your peace of mind – the next Sunday 13th October is in 2030.

The Tudor House

I had been unimpressed by the rambling Victorian pile of bricks Susie had taken me to see. I had no idea what had fired her enthusiasm about it but sometimes her ‘feeling’ about things had been right, and we were looking for something different, so I went along with her. The house was being auctioned on behalf of an estate with one heir who had no interest in it – and I think I could see why. The bidding started low and stayed slow, the bid price climbing in small increments. I followed the trend and was surprised when it was knocked down me at quite a few thousand pounds below our limit. Susie was jumping around in glee when the hammer fell.

As we completed the after-sale paperwork, two men, standing nearby, looked at us.  ‘You’re not from around here are you?’ the one said.

‘No’ I said, ‘we’re not.’

‘That would explain it then’ added the other as they walked away.

With the paperwork completed we drove out for a last look at our acquisition before heading home. Tudor House stood back from a narrow by-road threading its way across the countryside. Susie just stood and gazed at the house.  ‘All ours’ she breathed. ‘All ours and it feels so …….’ she paused ‘……. so special.’  That done we dropped into the nearby pub for a bite to eat. We were its only customers.

‘Don’t get too many here this early’, the barman said in answer to my silent query.

‘What’s the village like?’

‘It’s OK. You passing through?’

‘’Sort of – but we’ll be back. We’ve just bought Tudor House down the way there,’

Oh‘, he paused, ‘what made you do that?’

‘We liked it’ Susie chipped in. ‘It looks and feels different to other places we’ve looked at.’

‘Well you’re not wrong there’ he said, moving away to serve a couple who had just come in.

Autumn was well advanced when we finally moved in. We soon made it a routine to visit the pub a couple of evenings each week, avoiding weekends when ‘the townies’ invaded. Everyone was friendly and welcoming – to a point. Whenever the fact that we had bought Tudor House came up the conversation seemed to die and there would be a change of subject.  Eventually I reacted to this. There was just me, Josh the barman and Charlie, who claimed his family had lived in the village for a couple of centuries or more, in the bar.

‘So what is it about our house that causes people to clam up and change the subject?’

Josh and Charlie exchanged glances. It was Josh who began ‘Well,’ he paused, searching for the right words, ‘that place has a reputation; stories; strange things.’ He went quiet and Charlie took up the story. ‘Things happen around that house. People don’t stay there long. They leave without giving a reason – or telling the next folk why they are leaving.’

‘So?’

Before either could respond the door was flung open and the quietness vanished as half a dozen lads burst in, heading for the bar and calling their orders as they did so. Josh became busy and Charlie drifted away and soon was gone.  I drained my glass and left as well. As I walked back to Tudor House my mind was struggling with the implied meanings of their comments.

It was dark when I got back to the house. Its bulk in the darkness looked foreboding. A freshening east wind blew up from nowhere and made me shiver. The cobbled stable yard was a collecting place for fallen leaves and the wind caught them, swirling them upward creating a rustling sound that seemed to linger in the disused buildings around. I jumped as some leaves swirled past my face.

‘Bloody fool’, I muttered as I let myself into the house.

Susie was already in bed. As I went up I looked out of the window; the clouds were scudding across the sky, sometimes covering the moon, at others leaving it to light up the whole landscape. It clearly showed the road with a track-way, something like a coach path, turning away from the road and heading toward the house. I hadn’t noticed that before.

‘Quite Gothic’ I thought to myself.

Susie was spark out but I laid thinking about the conversation in the pub.  Outside the wind had freshened further and I could hear the leaves dancing with it in the yard. A couple of times I heard other, indistinct but different, noises before finally falling asleep.

I woke up with a start. There was a distinct smell of smoke. My bedside clock showed 2.30. I nudged Susie awake. She sniffed.

‘Smoke?’ she stated in a querying tone as we climbed out of bed.

A thorough search revealed nothing except that the smell seemed to be all over the house – not strong in any one place but noticeable everywhere. After half-an-hour or so we had either become used to the smell or it had gone. As we went back to bed, something caused me to look out of the window. The moon was spreading its light across the fields. Was there something moving on the track-way cutting across the field? Whatever it was, it vanished in the copse by the road.

The following night the smell of smoke again woke me. Susie remained fast asleep. The waning moon sent a subdued cold light into the room. I sniffed the air. It was smoke – but the smoke alarms we had fitted and tested that morning had given no warning. The clock showed 2.30. I climbed out of bed. All was silent. The smoke smell lingered. From somewhere I heard a sound – faint but distinct. It sounded like shod horse’s hooves on cobbles.  Susie, stirred, muttered ‘He’s here’, and slept on.

Then there was no sound, inside or out, except Susie’s even breathing. The smoke smell had gone. I gazed out of the window for a while. Nothing moved. I got back into bed but it seemed like ages before I fell asleep.  At breakfast Susie was her normal morning bright self, and I said nothing about my nocturnal experience.

A month passed with nothing upsetting the equilibrium of our life. Tudor House was now definitely home. The visits to the pub dropped off to once a week. Susie rarely came and the subject of the house and its history never entered conversation.

The moon was again on the wane when I was awoken by the sound of horse’s hooves on cobbles and the jingle and rattle of a harness. ‘Who the hell is that’, I thought as I turned and looked at the clock. It showed 2.30.  I nudged Susie; she grunted, muttered ‘He’s here,’ and slept on. I nudged her harder.

‘What?’

‘Can you hear anything?’

‘No, but there’s that smoky smell again.’

‘You said ‘he’s here’. Who’s he? Who’s here?’

‘Did I? I don’t remember’ she said as she climbed out of bed and went to the window. I joined her. Something moving along the track-way caught my eye. I looked closely. Was it there? Was it someone on horseback riding away into the darkness? At this time of the morning? I shook my head. I suddenly felt hot – as if I was standing in front of a blazing fire. Susie moved close to me.

‘It’s nothing. Let’s get back into bed. I’m freezing standing here like this.’  Then a smell of burning permeated the room. It was no longer smoky – it was strong – something, somewhere was on fire.  ‘Those damn smoke sensors are useless’ I snapped as we headed to the stairs and looked down. Nothing.

Down stairs the smell was as strong as it had been upstairs. We checked every room. All felt warmer than usual but there was no fire – just that damned smell of smoke. I looked through the kitchen window toward the old stables. Did something move there? The leaves swirled as a breeze caught them. I went outside. There was nothing – just the swirling leave but – the smoke smell seemed even stronger there. Somewhere in the distance I heard a horse whinny. The rest of the world slept.

Bemused and confused I went back in and locked the door. Sleep was now out of the question; and the smoke smell had all but gone – now overpowered by Susie’s brewing coffee.

Daylight showed everything as it should be.

That lunchtime we decided visit to the pub.  Charlie was there. We sat down beside him and told him of our strange night. I added the tale of my earlier disruptive night. I also added Susie’s ‘He’s here’ comments.

Charlie said nothing.

‘So?’ I said. ‘What do you know about this?’

Charlie shook his head. ‘Nothing; nothing really.’

‘Come on – spill it’, I could sense Charlie was backing away from something. ‘Tell us what you know.’

He sighed – ‘there is a story about that house. No-one seems to stay there long. Three or four of them have upped and left – usually about this time of the year. None have ever said anything – they’ve just left.’

He looked at us, and then came to a decision.  ‘It’s like this. There has been a house there for about 600 years. The first stood there until Victoria became Queen. That burned down. The one you’ve got was built about 1850. They named it ‘Tudor House.’

Charlie went quiet.

‘So?’ Susie challenged after what seemed like an age of silence.

‘They say the burning was done by a stable hand who had been sacked. It’s reckoned he rode down the old Coach Path in the middle of the night and set fire to the stables. The wind was in the east and the whole darned lot went up in flames. It was about this time of year when it happened, so they say.’

‘They said nothing about this on the prospectus.’ I sounded aggrieved.

Charlie looked at me closely.

‘Will you tell anyone when you come to sell?’