One-way ticket, destination unknown

Updated: Oct 19, 2019

View down to Bely

Looking towards the village from the hilltop

The weather forecast suggests that this is the last day before the cold weather sweeps in. I’m sitting on a bench at the top terrace of the garden, with Fido beside me, his nose as restless as a class of ten year olds seconds before the bell on a Friday afternoon. The bench was constructed by Magda a few years ago, from curved roof timbers that once bedecked an eighteenth century Berkshire barn. We’d bought them for £80 from a reclaimed-wood shop near Oxford. Ironically, we removed a couple of dozen similar timbers from the house we now live in. For free.

The other dog, Saffy, is asleep; the kids are at school; and Magda is teaching a roomful of policemen how to speak English. She works in a building that straddles the Polish border, and has worked out that she teaches in the Czech Republic, but visits the loo in Poland.

All of which gives me and Fids a moment of quiet. The sights and sounds of autumn, sprawled across the hillsides, are wonderful. A wash of leaves, from lightest yellow to deepest brown, averaging a rich orange similar to Jan’s unkempt hair. Jays and fieldfares are calling over a mush of finches and sparrows. Black redstarts dart amongst the timber stack like suave robins. I hear the yelp of a buzzard, and the angry clatter of hooded crows and ravens. The fields we can see from up here are decorated today with a small flock of wild mouflon.

Fido’s nose fills in the sensory gaps, pointing in the same direction as my ears and eyes. All I can smell is the milky tea on the bench next to me, and the whiff of our open drain. It’s being sorted out next week, I assure the dog. I’ve been telling him that since the summer.

Fido's nose
Fido’s nose

Below us, like a grim reminder of winter, is the house. Its cracked and bashed whitewash and makeshift brick-and-filler window frames scowl from under the incongruously new roof. It looks as if it has come off worse in a brawl between the houses of the village. At its feet lies the debris of 18 months’ architectural abuse – stone blocks ranging in size from fists to monoliths, enough timber to construct a hillside of Swiss chalets, a mountain of sand pockmarked by dog poo, a pile of scrap metal suggesting the Iron Giant’s midden, and several heaps of bedraggled, assorted rubbish waiting for their turn in the succession of skips that decorate what use to be a front garden.

The heating is due to be wired in and switched on next week, so if the weather forecast is correct we should have just three days of huddling at minus three next to the wood-burning stove (which is how we spent most of last winter). There are lots of mice living with us, and it’s probably time to hire a gang of cats. The record so far is 12 tragically cute rodents caught in one day (eight of them in Jan’s bedroom).

Mice trapped
Three for the price of two, c/o Jan’s bedroom – the grim reality of pest control

In terms of living space, we have a temporary suite of dining room, bathroom and kitchen that feels like a holiday flat, along with three cosy bedroom upstairs. By the end of the year there should be the outlines of three more rooms upstairs, and the big living room-kitchen-diner that dominates half the ground floor of the building should at least have a floor and new windows and doors. At which point the piggy bank will have rattled its last crown into the bottomless pit of this project.

We’re still a long way from having a working hotel. And I mean long. In the same way as I’m a long way from being a rock star, or a male J.K. Rowling. A friend of ours, on first encountering our ambitious rebuild, commented dryly that she had been living in her own pet project – an old watermill – for 20 years, and was still nowhere near converting it into something more than a makeshift flat in a vast, damp, crumbling space. The implication for us was clear.

Perhaps all we can ever do is help these buildings stay upright for another generation. When we first moved in, we were spooked and moved in equal measure by an ancient print of a previous owner and his hotel staff standing in the doorway of the house. Maybe someone will unearth a snap of the Sullivans, 100 years along the way, and undergo a similar sensation. It’s a kind of sinking feeling; but it only takes a small shift in perspective to convert the feeling of the plummet into the sensation of flying.

So, Fido and I sit here today, eyes, ears and noses soaking in the palette of autumn, quietly reconciled to never finishing what we set out to accomplish. But there’s a lot of the journey left, and neither of us hanker after a return ticket.

But then Fido spoils the metaphor by pointing out that he was born here, so didn’t have a ticket in the first place…

2 Bely

We’re going for the post-apocalyptic look in the garden.

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