St. Andrews Street in the old village of Headington and the White Hart pub
AN EXTRACT FROM MY MEMOIR "OXFORD, A DECADE IN WONDERLAND
PIG IN A POKE”
Like a plump iced donut
precarious in its upper extremities, the first sight of our
house-to-be opposite St. Andrews Parish Church in the old village of
Headington, left me feeling alarmed.
Built in the 1700s and
once home to a family with eight children, the walls were at least
two feet thick and lumpy. The house was described in historical
records as being “a more humble home than its neighbours and built
of random rubble!”
The interior was hidden from the outside world
by teeny windows of mullioned glass. The front door opened
directly onto the two foot wide sidewalk. In some places the plaster
had fallen away and the upper third story leaned alarmingly.
down at us like a trio of curious dames, three dormer windows, all at
different angles - one leaning left, one leaning right and the other
leaning forward - looked as if a fast car whizzing by, or even a
drunken shout from the White Hart pub three doors down, would send the
whole structure crashing into the street.
At first I was adamant that
we’d been saddled with a pig in a poke by the Oxford letting
agency that had arranged our accommodations. When I'd been offered
(by mail) the choice of a modern bungalow or an historic house, I’d
opted for what I thought would be a Victorian house, not a place that
had been around for more than 300 years … and to top it off, built
of ‘random rubble’.
Anxious to avoid what she
saw as a mother-meltdown, Melissa, 16 years old with oodles of common
sense, took my arm and said “Come now Annie” - Melissa’s name
for me still, when she thinks I’m becoming overly dramatic. “It’s
not all that bad. Let’s knock and see if anyone’s home. Maybe
we could have a look inside.” We knocked, and the door was
promptly opened by a tall white-haired Anglican minister with what
appeared to be white paint splotches on his left cheek. He'd
probably been observing us from within, as we four out on the
sidewalk diligently went about our exterior home inspection.
“Anthony de Vere” said
our greeter. “Anne Gordon” said I. After explanations as to why
we had been giving his house the once-over, he invited us in and
explained that he and his wife Celia – our landlords - had been
doing last minute painting touch-ups before we, the new Canadian
tenants, arrived. Well, it took as little as tea, cake, a tour and a
companionable chat with the de Veres, and this mistress of quick
decisions and her three daughters eager for resolution, literally
fell in love with a house that was already past its prime long before
Queen Victoria was a twinkle in her father’s eyes.
Thinking back on it now, it
was the ten foot high stone wall alongside the patio in the back
garden that finally won me over! A gardener longing for an English
cottage garden, my imagination in overdrive, I could already see a
tumbling mass of cerise, pink, mauve, yellow and cream-coloured
sweetpea blossoms scrambling against its perfect climbing surface.
And even more tempting, my imagination extended to a delicate
sweetpea fragrance that wafted teasingly in front of my nose.
But we were soon to
discover that life is not all sweetness and light living in a house
more than 300 years old.
Upon returning from town
late one afternoon, I discovered a 3 foot x 3 foot chunk of ceiling
lying in the middle of my bed. Wisps of straw and spider webs
clogged with plaster hung from a gaping hole above, exposing dark
innards that had probably not seen the light of day for centuries.
Squeezing up the narrow winding stairway from my bedroom to the attic the following morning, I found my visiting South African sister-in-law huddled deep beneath her blankets in one of the three Lilliputian attic bedrooms.
“Time for breakfast you lazy woman.” I jerked the covers back, and there she was with the upper extremity of her tights pulled snugly down over her head and ears, leaving only nose and mouth exposed. “Why are you wearing tights on your head Barbara?” I asked, stifling my laughter. Snatching the blankets she pulled them back over her head. From the woolly depths I heard her muffled voice, “It was that humungous spider we found crouching in the straw on your bed yesterday…Ughh, I can't stand the thought of spiders in my ears.”
And yes, when clearing the debris from my bed the night before, we had come across a 'humungous' spider. When Barbara tried to remove the monster, it skipped nimbly aside each time she hit the bed with her weapon; a broom handle. After numerous unsuccessful wallops she finally managed to lure it onto the end of the pole, and watching carefully for possible attack, she walked gingerly to the window and dropped it ten feet into the back garden. Barbara was taking no chances.
Both she and I were used to modern bungalow-type houses where the warm weather was usually conducive to al fresco living for spiders in South Africa. Although South African spiders could be huge, their preferred habitat was in places of damp leafy undergrowth, crouching in bushy hedges, or reclining in the centre of gossamer webs awaiting a clumsy bug. Barbara's English experience was obviously unnerving her.
In Canada, spiders, if they do gain entry into the house, are mostly of the miniature variety. But here in England, come cooler weather, mice, spiders with massive mandibles, eight bulging eyes and long hairy legs and other creepy crawlies migrate to the dark nooks and crannies of century-old dwellings.
More to follow tomorrow...
Photo copyright Anne Gordon
Posted by Anne Gordon on Tuesday, 12th November, 2013.