The house in Somerset is large, spread over two wings and three floors, with a workshop next door to it. It has seven bedrooms, three reception rooms, three bathrooms and a large front hall. The original farmhouse was built in the seventeenth century and its age shows: in the flagged stone floors downstairs and the long wooden corridor upstairs where the polished wooden floor is tilted and uneven with age. There is a green baize door between the front hall and what must have been the servants’ hall and before that, judging by the huge fireplace and flagged floor, the original farmhouse kitchen. At night you can hear the old boards creaking and relaxing all over the house as it settles down.
When I’m there on my own, or even when I’m on one of the floors on my own, it’s as though there’s a soft fluttering of memory in the house; a sound of footsteps just out of earshot, of voices which can’t quite be heard. Sometimes I turn round and look over my shoulder, not because I think there’s anyone there but because the back of my neck is prickling. It is not in any way a scary house; in fact it is a lovely house, warm and welcoming and gracious, but it is filled with the wordless presence of all of the people who have lived in it over more than three hundred years.
I mention this because of what happened to me on Friday night. I was at a friend’s fiftieth birthday, staying in a big barn conversion in the Peak District. There were about thirteen of us in the main building and four more in a cottage next door. On Friday I left everyone in the pub and went back to the house at 10 to go to bed. Based on my experiences in Cross Tree, I would have expected to be just as antsy on my own in that big barn with almost the same number of empty rooms, but….no. I walked over the house, getting myself a cup of tea and some water, heading down to my bedroom and into the bathroom, at any point expecting to feel that tug of awareness, that soundless susurration, the smallest tingle in the nerve ends, but not a sausage. There was nothing there.
I’ve written about this not because there’s some great conclusion, but just because I find it interesting in the light of my mother’s views that inanimate objects can take on a sort of patina of human presence. It’s as if Cross Tree has become slightly imbued with something from all the people who have lived in it, rather as an item exposed to radiation will become radioactive and give off radiation itself. The barn, on the other hand, not having been lived in, gives off no such emanation. I might liken it to tuning a radio. In Cross Tree, which has been a home for three and a half centuries, the speaker crackles with barely heard stations; in the barn, with no history of habitation, it was just dead air. I have no idea why, or whether it’s just my imagination, or what. But I do think it’s interesting.