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Real Life: How my house became a home

For novelist Penny Hancock, there was a silver lining to lockdown: finally falling in love with the Cambridgeshire cottage that’s long been her house, but only now feels like home

Penny Hancock's Fenland cottage - credit: Keith Heppell
Penny Hancock's Fenland cottage - credit: Keith Heppell

A few weeks into lockdown and a strange phenomenon occurs. A blackbird appears to be singing its little heart out in our tiny en-suite shower room. The full-throated song is so clear, for a second I wonder if someone’s left on the recording of a blackbird somewhere close, turned to full volume.

It takes me a while to understand two things. First, the traffic on the nearby A road that usually keeps up a background rumble has fallen silent, allowing the birds their own stage. Second, the skylight in the shower room under the eaves is open, acting as a microphone to bird on the roof, piping his song into the tiled wet room which in turn acts as an echo chamber.

This is one of the many characteristics of our house I was never aware of before lockdown.

In our previous lives we rushed in and out of our house, to cook and eat and fall into bed, to wake and wash and hurry out of the door. Although pre covid, I already worked from home part of the time, I always made it a rule to get out of the house every day to work in the library or a café or to meet friends rather than spend the whole day alone. I actively avoided my house in the day, with its thick, two-hundred-year-old walls made of a mud and straw combination known as clunch, that kept ‘the cold in in winter and the heat in in summer’. (As Laurie Lee said of his house in Cider with Rosie.) I found it dark, the ceilings too low, the location too provincial.

And our mid-terraced cottage was never meant to be a ‘forever’ home. It only had two bedrooms when we bought it, and just one door at the back of the house onto the garden, no door on the road side. A classic Cambridgeshire feature.

The path to the door was shared. It was in a part of the country neither of us come from, and we didn’t intend to stay. We thought of it as a stopgap when we needed a home for our young family and until recently, I was still always on the lookout for our next move.

But since the beginning of the Covid pandemic, when the house out of necessity became our refuge, it has revealed its personality to me, demurely, as if offering up its most intimate secrets. I have come to appreciate aspects of the house that irked me before. Some things, such as its ability to amplify the birdsong on the roof, it kept to itself until recently. Other peculiarities it was perhaps trying to show me, but I ignored, too busy going about my daily business to stop and notice them.

The shadow play on the walls, the sounds at different times (right now, I can hear the rapid beat of bird footsteps on the roof), the scent of elderflower or, later, rose, that drifts in through the open windows in the morning, the walls that are impregnated with the aroma of woodsmoke. All these things are making themselves apparent. In the early evening the kitchen that is sunken, and therefore always bugged me with its lack of light, takes on (I discover) an ethereal glow when the sun’s at a certain angle.

During lockdown many of us will have experienced our homes for the first time in all their guises, from early morning to late at night and sometimes, as our sleep patterns are disturbed, in the middle of the night, and more surprisingly perhaps, realise that we never knew our homes in the middle of the morning or midday or the early evening. Since we’ve been asked to work from home if we can, I’ve started to take a bath earlier in the day than I ever would have done pre-Covid. Basking in hot water in the late afternoon offers a change of pace to the long day indoors. And the house offers up another secret; the sun comes in from this side of the house in the afternoon through the muslin curtains, and casts a shadow of the bottles standing on the windowsill against the opposite wall. One of the bottles is blue glass and makes a transparent cobalt shadow against the white wall. I lie in the hot water, and appreciate this play of shape and silhouette. It looks like a painting, an animated Winifred Nicholson maybe.The house offers me my own bath-time exhibition, a trick of the light I’ve never been aware of before.

Until now, our paperwork, most of our conversation, family meals, and socializing only ever took place around the kitchen table. This was fine, since most of us were elsewhere in the day. Our front door also comes straight into the kitchen so we have always entered and left the house through the room we cook and eat in. In fact, we probably spent 80% of our time in the kitchen. But since I now share these long days with my husband, and my son returned from an interrupted year at university, we have to find separate places to work within the house that we ignored before.

We never usually inhabit the room off the kitchen that is the main thoroughfare from the front door to the stairs. This feels more like a passageway than our official ‘sitting room’. It’s true that in the winter months we might light the wood burner at night and draw chairs up around the sooty inglenook fireplace, with its odd-shaped bread oven that we store logs in, but the rest of the year we usually hurry through this room to the stairs or back toward the kitchen and the front door. It always felt like a redundant space.

Now that I no longer have the kitchen table to myself in the day, however - and now we actually eat lunch at it! - I have started to sit in this other room to write. I discover the sun comes in on this side of the house in the morning (the opposite side to the bathroom) warming the leather sofa, and providing a golden haze that is lovely to work in. The wide windowsill also provides the perfect place for me to store the obligatory lockdown jar of sourdough starter, which in itself gives off that yeasty scent I’ll always associate with this strange time. I also do my morning yoga with Adriene in here and have discovered that in an upside down position, I get an uninterrupted view up the whitewashed stairwell to the skylight in the roof - the house looks bigger and brighter from this angle than I’ve ever recognized before.

Off this room, there’s the downstairs to one of the bedroom extensions, a rather awkwardly shaped space that we only ever used to watch TV in. This has now become my son’s social centre, his house-party pub and virtual games and Fifa room where he Zoom-meets his friends and drinks beer and I hear the chatter and laughter as if there were a bar downstairs, well into the night.

I now feel guilty that I kept part of myself detached from our house so that when we came to sell it, as I always thought we would, I would have no sentimentality about the fact we brought up our children here at least in their early years. It’s as if I failed to value the generosity with which it embraced us all.

Years on and perhaps, after all, I was more attached than I thought. Its low ceilings might be guilty of delivering bumps to the head of taller visitors to the house, but they feel all the more familiar and protective as the outside world feels less familiar and more precarious.

This evening I’ve moved outside to write and, as if my home is convincing me further that it is lovable, there’s a deep amber reflection cast by the sunset behind me in one of the bedroom windows, another detail that might have passed me by before.

For many, our way of life has become more akin to how it was before the days when everyone feared they were missing out if they didn’t belt around the world on cheap flights, or attend every exhibition, concert, production or festival on offer, if they weren’t commuting to work and spending evenings crammed into crowded bars. Many of us have adopted the kind of activities our parents or grandparents used to do, sewing, knitting, gardening, cooking. It’s meant finding corners of the house to do these things, a chair we never used to sit in to knit. A corner to set up the sewing machine. Places in the garden to grow vegetables.

In addition to the connection I have made with it, are the memories our house has brought up over these weeks, things that would be irreplaceable if we were to move elsewhere. This is the first property we owned after having our first two children, and it was here I brought my third child home when he was born, where he slept with us in one of the original two bedrooms where you can still see bits of straw in the walls, with its wide floorboards that always seems to retain a feeling of serenity. The two older children shared the other room for many years, in bunk beds until we had a third bedroom built, then a fourth. The house has played host to children’s birthdays, sleepovers and teenage parties. It has given shelter to two cats who curled to sleep on the wooden stairs and now lie buried beneath the Ceanothus bush in the garden. It has provided a place for pre-drinks and preparations for parties and proms and travel and the starting of schools and university. It has welcomed grandparents and offered them somewhere to stay after bereavements. It has widened its walls to make way for special occasions such as big birthdays and my mother’s funeral. It has seen the coming and going, in addition to the two cats, of three rabbits and three chickens; the garden plays host to hedgehogs, frogs, newts, mice, rats, shrews, foxes, grey squirrels and a black one, myriads of insects and countless birds.

Maybe as some suggest, my newfound fondness for our house is simply because we’ve had this sun-filled spring and temperate summer, which has made the lockdown easier to tolerate. But I don’t think it’s just the weather. I think it’s that being with it so much means I have bonded with my house at last. And I also believe that accepting there is no choice about where to spend our days provides a sense of satisfaction. If contentment had become an underrated condition pre-Covid, it’s something many of us are rediscovering now.

I’m digging on the roadside of our cottages when a neighbour I’ve barely spoken to - since our work routines meant our paths rarely crossed before - comes past. She says she’s been researching the history of these cottages and will send me the information she’s gleaned. Her email arrives the next day revealing that 200 years ago, our house was a mill cottage for the workers at a long-gone steam cornmill (corn meaning wheat) on the site of her house over the road. It also housed Italian prisoners of war working on the land after the war. It has many a story to tell, and I’m at last willing to listen. I’m now on a quest to research more of its history.

But for the time being, it’s enough to know this house has far more to it than I ever gave it credit for and I have, at last, while spending so much time in it rather belatedly, fallen in love with it.

I Thought I Knew You, by Penny Hancock (39274764)
I Thought I Knew You, by Penny Hancock (39274764)

Winner of best fiction title in 2019’s East Anglian Book Awards, Penny Hancock’s latest novel I Thought I Knew You is set in Cambridgeshire’s Fens. It’s out now in paperback, available in most good bookshops and on Amazon and Hive. Visit pennyhancock.com for more.

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