Friday, July 25, 2014

A singing ringing tree and a country house

Friends have bought a country house which, at the moment, is in the hands of their decorator. The big reveal will take place around Labor Day and knowing them and their decorator as I do, I am sanguine there'll be none of that country twaddle – twiggy furniture, antlers, plaid throws, taxidermy, botanical prints, gingham doodads, reedy wreaths hung with berries and bows, colonial-style hope chests, doggy or horsey anything, patchwork quilts, iron chandeliers, duck decoys, baskets, pinecone candlesticks, rag dolls, doilies, hutches – in fact, none of the foolishness that afflicts some decorators and their clients when faced with living in what, in reality, are suburban subdivisions on mountainsides, in former horse country, or in just-graded, tree-free, erstwhile wilderness. Living in the country, be it ersatz or real, need not stupefy a sense of proportion and send one headlong towards the land of cute and dainty.

Not that the picture is any better on the other side of the pond. Looking at real-estate photos of interiors near my home town was horrifying – so many dark-stained big-box store fittings and fixtures, staircases and balustrades, "hand-adzed" beams and rafters, "medieval" smoke hoods above electric "living-flame effect" fireboxes. And the bathrooms, without exception megastore "contemporary," left me not knowing whether to swear or laugh, as also did some of the most ludicrous window mistreatments I've ever seen. I don't think my home town or the valley where it's located is a bastion of bad-taste, though, judging by what I saw, it could well be – I have never seen so many pub-like residential interiors in my life. There the pub has an influence on some demographics and here it's the country club.

I've always had a hankering after a country house but the Celt, having lived in at least one in his youth, is resolute about not wanting to leave the city. Having heard tales of his long walk home from the bus stop through woods and by fields to the family house, often in the dark and wet, I cannot blame him. Nowadays, of course, it is unimaginable that a boy would be allowed to hike a mile or two at any time of year without accompaniment. Those days – not that long ago, as I'm sure he'd remind me – were very different. 

At the time I left home, in my early twenties, I had never gone further than the woods and farms surrounding our house and the villages around my home town I knew by name only. Pendle Hill was visible from our garden, as were the valley sides, with their sheep-grazed fields and stone walls – but I had no real appreciation of it. I was too busy hiding to look outwards. 

The last few years, we have visited the area, but only in winter – which isn't the best season, given the short, grey and wet days, for being a tourist. On this trip, the long, warm summer days made true tourists of us, drawing us out onto the moors and into the smaller towns and villages. 

I realize now how much influence the architecture of my youth, however unappreciated then, has had on my aesthetic. The long, sooty rows of stone-built  houses, the Gothic Revival stone-built churches and the simpler non-concormist chapels, the churchyards with gravestones listing family histories well into the the 17th and 18th centuries and occasionally, if I wandered into church, the wonderful stained-glass windows. 

The reredos in my primary school's church has stayed in my memory as one of the most magical things I had ever seen, but of dark carved wood rather than the gilded and painted object it now is. The school building is long gone. I'm not really sure why "improvement" means pulling down perfectly good buildings or, for that matter, why Spanish patio-compatible terracotta tile replaces flagstone in a medieval church but ... who am I? I no longer live there. 

So, with rain threatening we walked through the lychgate – I noticed that the arriving funeral did not pause there as it once would have for the first part of the ceremony to take place – to take a few photographs of the church and its yard. Lych is old English for corpse; lychgate is not the romantic destination brides of today and their photographers find it to be. Beautiful, though, with its late 19th-century carved detailing and slate roof. 

I walked and walked, amazed with the beauty of it all – an historic beauty I was only just seeing for myself – snapping photograph after photograph until, as I've done before, I realized I was missing so much by putting the lens between me and the buildings I saw.

It rained eventually. Pendle Hill (see above) disappeared under clouds,  almost as we reached the Singing Ringing Tree. A man, just leaving as we and the rain arrived, remarked it was in fine fettle that day and so it was – humming, singing and sighing with the wind that passed over and through it. An intangible song of weather befitting a landscape of hills, moor, rock, running water and, if legends are to be believed, witches.

My brother-in-law and I were too cold and wet even to be amused at the spectacle of my 5' 10" husband sharing a small, packable umbrella with my sister who is 10 inches shorter. 

Photograph of St Andrew's reredos is from here

1 comment:

  1. This is a beautiful place still. Putting the camera between ourselves and life is a problem. Susan Sontag spoke well of that in "On Photography." It is precious to have the images afterwards however!