The thrill of the old

We lived in a brand new house once.

The purchase made sense at the time. The Silver Fox was working in Manchester, more than an hour away in peak-hour traffic, and had no time or energy to tackle another ‘project’. Jaded by the efforts that had gone into our first home, a turn-of-the-century terrace, with lath and plaster ceilings and worn walls that after our input were 70 per cent Polyfilla, we decided that new was the way to go.

So we picked our corner plot on a new housing estate, paid our deposit and entered the scary world of the home builder. Bathroom tiles and kitchen cabinets were chosen. Plans were laid to turn the patch of mud at the rear of the house – so compacted by the weight of construction vehicles driving over it that it might as well have been concrete –  into a garden.

Over the coming months we watched the house being built, brick by brick, plasterboard sheet by plasterboard sheet. And finally, we moved in, swapping character for convenience, cornice for comfort.

At first we loved the novelty of not feeling the breeze through floorboards, and having a proper fitted kitchen. But it wasn’t long before we realised it just didn’t feel like home.

We should have known. The warning signs had been there. When we’d viewed the show home, on another estate outside Wigan, we had found the patio doors that opened onto the back garden locked. After cajoling the sales representative into opening them for us, we discovered the reason: the rear of the house was a blank wall of red brick, featureless and perfunctory. In a house designed for practicality, what did it matter what the back of the house looked like?

On our first night in the house, we dropped a shelf as we were putting together our Ikea workstation. It went right through the plasterboard. As we utilised our hard-earned Polyfilla-ing skills on this new wound, I remember thinking that it would never have happened in our old house. There the walls might have been a bit rough, but they had stood for 100 years.

In the new place, all our neighbours were young families with young children. I spent many weekend days watching as tired-looking parents pushed their offspring past the house on those little cars with the handle out the back (devices that soon became known in our household as ‘kids on a stick’). Having long since decided against procreating, I realised that the new community being constructed around me would probably never be ‘my’ community.

And so we moved, to a sandstone villa built in the early 1900s. It had history. It also had signs of subsidence (fortunately long in the past) and a hand-built kitchen designed for people six inches taller than us, but it felt right. We knew then that wherever we lived, it would have to be in an old house.

We’d have managed it had we not gone to live in Perth. There houses of the vintage we required were rare and therefore costly. Beautiful Federation homes were demolished daily to make way for soulless white boxes that in certain lights could be mistaken for municipal squash courts. We wanted to buy somewhere, and ended up in a modern apartment. The floor-to-ceiling windows in the lounge provided a view of a park and the city skyline, and just enough character to keep us happy for a while.

But one of the big attractions of Melbourne was the opportunity to live somewhere old again, and in March we moved into our California bungalow in Brunswick. It has been modernised, but sympathetically; the ceilings still have their elaborate plaster roses and the hallway and lounge have high wainscoting. We can’t play squash in it, but it feels like home.






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