MANY years ago, when I was just a small girl, I would think about the sort of home I would have when I was a grown-up. I saw myself in a big kitchen, with an old scrubbed table. It would have squishy sofas and soft blankets, would be filled with friends, and children, and the sweet smells of onions gently caramelizing in butter, peach and apricot crisps melting in the oven, freshly-ground coffee swirling in a cafetiere.
My home-making gene is a strong one. I grew up in London in a series of old houses with sweeping gravel driveways and fires burning in cozy drawing rooms with Colefax and Fowler cushions and objects my parents had found, and collected, over the years.
Paintings lined the walls, and built-ins were groaning with books. Antique match-strikers sat on polished mahogany tables, and large walnut boxes opened themselves to a curious little girl, revealing an embossed leather writing slope, under which were a myriad of tiny, secret drawers.
I loved things. I particularly loved things that told a story. I liked the tiny Halcyon Day pill boxes next to my mother's bed, and the cooking file she had, scraps of recipes torn out from magazines next to her rough scribbles.
I became a cook, a wife, a mother, and a writer. I wrote first of single girls, then, as I grew through my thirties and forties, I wrote simply of life. From marriage, to motherhood, to friendships. From the pain of living with one bad decision, to losing friends, to finding the people who love you: a family of choice.
When I met my husband, I was newly-separated, and looking for nothing other than a beach cottage to rent for the summer. I found the beach cottage, and with it came Landlord, who has now become Husband. On the day I came to look at the beach cottage, he opened the front door for me and placed his hand on the small of my back to guide me through. It was an old-fashioned gesture, courtly, but I remember everything becoming still. I wasn't aware of attraction, only of suddenly knowing I was home.
Together we decided to build the house that we have jokingly come to call Figless Manor. We didn't want to build a house, nor did we want to live in a new house. I love old, charm, nooks and crannies. We both love buildings that have a history. But with six children combined, and a desire to live by the beach, our choices were limited, and we decided instead to build a new "old house".
We bought a piece of land by the water, with a beautiful mature fig tree, only to discover, on the day of closing, the fig tree had been removed that morning, hence Figless Manor. Happily, there is a fig tree once again, nestling in a corner, happily fruiting.
We drove around every weekend, parking outside houses we loved and taking furtive photographs. There was a theme that emerged - antique houses, pretty porches, wisteria-covered pergolas. Back home we'd sketch porches, cupolas, entire floor plans. The kitchen in the rental house we had lived in for years was the perfect layout, so we recreated it. My mother-in-law has a living room that leads into the dining room, which we have always loved. We copied it. I wanted French doors everywhere, bringing the outside in, and shelves to house our many books. After interviewing a few architects we settled on Brooke Girty, found after knocking on countless doors of houses we love and asking if they had an architect they could recommend.
The designing and decorating was done by us. I know my own taste, and have furniture, and paintings, and things that have come with me from house to house. The antique French console table may not be in fashion right now, but I could never not have it in my house. I also feel far more at home when it's cosy. I may walk into perfect, decorated rooms and gasp at their beauty, but I rarely want to kick off my shoes and curl up.
Perfect may be beautiful, but perfectly imperfect is warm, welcoming, cosy. Perfectly imperfect is the difference between a house, and a home.
And so in Figless Manor I layered natural textures – linens, seagrass, canvas, grasscloth, added our old furniture, the squishy cat-scratched sofas, my Frances Palmer vases and antique Chinese ginger jars. I had no idea how my designing and decorating would turn out, but today, as I stand cooking in the kitchen, or sit at the dining room table helping the kids with their homework, I know my choices were good ones, only because they have indeed made this house a home, and a home in which every inch of space is used.
For now, for those of you who were there at the beginning of the journey, here are, finally, some pictures of Figless Manor. It has, for now, its own page on facebook: www.facebook.com/figlessmanor, and we will shortly be setting up a website filled with ideas, the inspiration behind the house, and where to go to buy the things you see...
I have written thirteen novels that tell a story, create a picture with words, and each of them, while telling a different story, nevertheless share a strong theme: people like you and me, all looking, ultimately, for a place to call home. This house is my story, made real.
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