Living at Lark Rise Cottage by Judith Harvey (written in 2017)
The End House, Larkrise, Lark Rise Cottage – these are just three of the names our house has had over the years. We moved into a cabin in the garden in 2004 and lived there for four months whilst the old house was re-wired, re-plastered, re-plumbed … re-just about everything, but not ‘modernised’. The walls are 18 inches thick, we still have the original beams and staircase, and the upstairs bedroom still gets the warmth from the fire in the sitting-room. The house where Flora Thompson, author of LARK RISE TO CANDLEFORD, lived until she was 14, has been ours for 13 years.
There is still plenty of wildlife about; indeed it can seem too much when rabbits eat the lettuce seedlings, deer graze on the bark of young trees and the hares pull down the lower branches to get at the greenery. But when the larks are in full voice over the field which gave Flora Thompson’s trilogy its name, we can forgive a lot.
Yes, the Thompson Connection … when we were looking for houses in the area it appealed to me, having first read her work as a studious seven year old. My husband was less enchanted, having spent two years teaching it for ‘O’ Level Eng. Lit. to sixteen-year-old boys in a northern grammar school. Flora and the boys didn’t seem to have a lot in common. And yet, when we met one of his former pupils in London three years ago, he waxed lyrical about how much the book had meant to him.
Lark Rise Cottage, given the name ‘The End House’ in Thompson’s trilogy, was built about 1820 from soft chalk rubble, which is the local stone. It was originally thatched, but was roofed with Welsh slate at some point, and its stone was painted white. It has a viciously-twisting oak staircase up to what may have originally been two small bedrooms but is now one and an en-suite. The ground floor was originally one room (now a sitting-room) and a lean-to scullery. In the 1950s the owners added a downstairs bedroom, then later people put on a proper kitchen and dining-room and we added a conservatory. When the Timms family lived here what was basically a one-up, one-down cottage must have been full to bursting point, as Flora Thompson (née Timms) was one of ten children, of whom six survived. There must have been at least four children at home at any one time, and going to work at the post office in Fringford must have seemed a real release to the fourteen-year-old Flora. No wonder children in those days were ‘encouraged’ to spend the daylight hours out of doors.
In contrast to the cottage, the garden is just under an acre. When the common land was enclosed in 1856, three houses in the hamlet which could prove that they had legal rights and were not ‘squatter-built’ were given large pieces of land, and ours was one of them. The old plum tree against the house wall mentioned by Flora Thompson is long-gone, but we created an orchard, which contains five of them. Greengage trees like it here, and every year we get a good crop of a fruit which seems to have disappeared from commercial fruit farms. Damsons, pears, cherries, apples and mulberries are complemented by raspberries, black, red and white currants and gooseberries, with rhubarb from early February onwards. It all sounds idyllic, and people often ask if we are self-sufficient in fruit. Ha! The thin, stony soil dries out in the wink of an eye, and our first few years here were spent watering in all seasons. It was quite a culture change, having moved here from a damp, mild suburb on the Cheshire side of Manchester.
Old photos of the house show railings only six feet or so from the back door, and Micky Dunn, who was born in the cottage in 1926, assured us that the garden was no bigger than that. Perhaps some occupants of the house let other villagers have the use of the rest. We, however, like being able to fossick about in our own grounds like a low-budget version of landed gentry.
The hamlet of Juniper Hill which was the model for Thompson’s ‘Lark Rise’ contains 21 houses. In the 1880s, the period of her childhood memories, there seem to have been more. In some cases, houses have been allowed to fall down and may be signified by slight bumps in the ground or a scatter of larger stones. Some cottages were amalgamated to suit later tastes and pockets. They would seem impossibly grand to their first occupants. The first houses are lost to history, and it is possible that plague wiped out an earlier settlement in the 14th century. Two houses were built here in 1754, to house people from Cottisford (a ‘closed’ village under the control of Eton College). Their number was added to over the years, in many cases by ‘squatters’ who had no formal legal rights. They fiercely resisted the coming of Enclosure, suddenly finding that they had to start paying rent to the farmer or squire who owned the bit of land they had built on. Now we are part of a conservation area, which effectively stops further development and occasions many grumbles by would-be extenders of their property.
The pub, of course, has gone, sold as a private house when the last licensee and her husband retired. The only meeting-place, apart from our houses and the tiny church in Cottisford which has no water supply, is the playing-field, granted to the inhabitants, along with 8 acres of allotments, at the time of Enclosure. Every year we have Tea on the Field in June/July and a bonfire in November. The nearest shop is several miles away, and there is no public transport. The fact that everyone has at least one car mitigates against this, but means that older folk who no longer drive can be very isolated. Older ways of life can seem very attractive at times, if you are prepared to forget poverty, disease and poor education.
Would Juniper Hill’s most famous daughter, Flora Thompson, recognise the hamlet? Bits of it, no doubt. But she would be bemused to see coaches full of Floraphiles parked on the road through the village, famous actors soaking up the atmosphere in her garden and a copy on the bookshelf of LARK RISE TO CANDLEFORD translated into Japanese, a gift from an enraptured visitor. As an ‘incomer’ to Hampshire and Devon, where she lived as a married woman, she may not be so surprised by the fact that no-one now living in the hamlet was born here. She may, however, have been somewhat disconcerted to see the golf-ball shapes of Croughton airbase in the distance!