The essence of a house

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Old houses are filled with stories.  We live in them knowing that others, long dead, have lived here before us.  We may never know exactly who they were, what their lives were like, how they lived and died.  But we know that their history has soaked into the walls, their voices have filled the rooms, their journeys have helped the house become what it is today.

I remember the autumn evening, ten years ago, when this house became our home.  We hadn’t yet moved in, so it was empty of furniture, but we lit the fire and sat on the floor in the sitting room.  The décor was dark and ugly, there was much to do to make it ours, but I remember the feeling of contentment at knowing this was our home.  When we moved in we set to with paint before we even settled, divesting the house of its last occupants.  But over time, our enthusiasm to complete the many jobs and overcome the many quirks of workmanship waned.  Over time I became disconnected from that initial contentment: the weight of unfinished jobs, nuisance neighbours and the routines of life made me forget the promise the house once held.  I dreamed of moving away, to a rural retreat by the sea.  But lately, I’ve begun to re-connect to this old house and its history.

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It was built in 1879, an old terrace, its footprint much the same now as it would have been then.  The kitchen and bathroom are recent additions and it’s difficult to see through the modern appearance to the house it once was.  But the ghost of a door blocked up in the sitting room, traces of old hearths in the bedrooms, parquet flooring in the hall and a disused chimney at the back of the house hint at the way it would have been originally.

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For many years, this was a street of craftspeople, business people and ‘gentlemen’.  In its first three decades my house was inhabited by a draper, a fitter, an accountant’s clerk and a ‘water boat’ owner.  But the residents that I feel most strongly connected to are two widows who lived here in the first half of the twentieth century.  Catherine Cowen Gray lived here from around 1917 until 1927.  Edith Wilberforce Culyer moved in after Catherine’s departure and stayed until 1939.  Edith’s husband was a butcher from Woolwich and he died in the year she moved here.  She had two daughters, Constance and Nancy and a son Henry, named after his father.  We know little more about Edith than that, but we have more of an insight into events in Catherine’s life.  She wasn’t a widow when she arrived.  Her husband Adam was a warrant engineer in the Royal Naval Reserve and they had three children: James, Margaret and Thomas.  Both Adam and James died in the local asylum as a result of World War One.  Adam’s injuries aren’t known, but we know James was discharged from the Scottish Rifles after a gas attack in France in 1917 and died aged 21 ‘after 12 months suffering from gas and shellshock’.

I think of Catherine and Edith often, these two women similar in age to me who cared for this house before me.  And although they’re long gone and neither of them died here, I like to think that something of their spirit remains.

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The houses we live in affect us, infusing our memories.  If we’re lucky, they’re the place above all others that is our sanctuary.  We can leave the world and its tribulations at the door.  They can stir our creativity or hinder it.  And we leave our mark on them, not only physically, but by the way we live, what we take with us and what we leave behind.

Home isn’t only a place of slate and stone, it’s the fiery centre inside us where our creative force lies.  Vesta is the guardian of this space.  She is the goddess of the hearth: the sacred fire that is the source of life.  Vesta was a powerful goddess, protecting not only the home, but also the ‘hearth’ of the city of Rome.

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I believe a house has its own essence, with a temperament that either welcomes us in or repels.  After ten years, my house and I are still getting acquainted, but when I’m alone and the house is silent I know that I was meant to call it home.

The wonderful La Sabrosona over at My Spanglish Familia nominated me for the Encouraging Thunder award.  Although I don’t ‘do’ awards, please take the time to visit her eclectic, entertaining and passionate blog.

141 thoughts on “The essence of a house

  1. I’m a fast and furious nester. I like to build my space around me. I’ve never lived anywhere with that kind of history. How cool! Your home looks and sounds amazing. I’m sure there’s frustrations but wow, what a place to call home. 🙂

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  2. Congrats on the award! Oh, I am so jealous! I have never lived for any length of time in an old house. Every house has either been new or lived in by one or two families. My WHOLE life. And yet I love old houses. Maybe the work involved seems daunting. Or maybe it’s that first my father and then my hubby have only wanted newer houses and I never wanted to argue the point because I wouldn’t be able to handle the upkeep myself. Hmmm. However, I did encounter a ghost at one house.

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    • Thanks Luanne, I do love old houses but I’m sure it must also be great to make your mark on a new house and be the first to ever live there 🙂 You’ll have to share your ghost story at some time, I’d love to hear it!

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  3. What a rich history, Andrea. I’m amazed you know as much as you do of it…and asylum?! Goodness, the things people went through in those days thanks to the Wars. There is much to be said about space and the energy it accepts from us. Which takes us to the house vs. home distinction. Beautiful reflections, Andrea. I imagine your resettling into your home (from the heart) is helping to ground you in your writing as well.

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  4. Very much enjoyed reading about your house, its history and your relationship with it. I do believe a house has essence but it seems to need a long time to develop. Our house is new-ish and if there is an essence developing it is not yet detectable. As to what happens to the essence or energy of a house when it is demolished…….. if the demolition is done with thought and care, a lot of the essence can be retained and recycled…http://www.stuff.co.nz/life-style/home-property/68831924/entire-christchurch-home-recycled-into-objects

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  5. This post is just so gorgeous. I have said goodbyes to each house that I spent more than 5+ years in. The one that I lived in for more than 16 years, in which I raised our kids, that house spoke back to me after I thanked it for its protection and love. Seriously.

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  6. A tale back in time. Your house has a rich history, Andrea. I absolutely love old houses, in particular the town houses from the 1800’s. So far, I’ve only lived in rather brand new built houses in exception of the one in France which was built in the 1950’s but nicely renovated. I agree with Gallivante (and will check the links to the different blogs) that if it’s well done – with respect, knowledge and insight in regard with the essence of the house – the old and new can work well together and only enriches its history, character and charm. I would love to grow old in a beautifully renovated ‘old’ mansion somewhere on the countryside with a huge willow tree in the backyard 🙂 There’s a saying that we don’t get to pick a location or house, but rather the house does. So who knows, maybe our mansion is waiting for us somewhere..some day 😉

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    • Thanks Karin, I am lucky to live in it and I can well believe it chose us to live there for part of its history. Who knows whether we’ll stay here forever or that other house will come calling 🙂

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  7. I just reread this, Andrea, and loved it every bit as much as I did the first time. You’ve so beautifully expressed the beating pulse of your home, the women who lived there and your own connection to it. Plus, your writing style always grabs me.

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