This bungalow was a good size – three bedrooms, a bathroom, a decent sized kitchen, a dining room and a living room which had been built on as a later addition. This room was cold because it was only single brick construction with French doors. However there was plenty of room for all our furniture. The back garden, laid to lawn, had no plants but looked out over fields where horses grazed. There was a garage and a shed which was very useful for storage and a good sized drive. We rented this bungalow for six months and continued to look for our ideal property in Cornwall.
There were no shops in Wicken only a small farm shop selling their own meat, eggs and vegetables; our nearest shops and supermarkets were in Ely. Wicken Fen, owned by the National Trust, was a short walk from our front door and we regularly made use of this. One particular walk took about forty-five minutes along reed-edged lodes and rivers; very enjoyable on a sunny day.
To help pay the rent and to stop us dipping into our savings, we both found part-time jobs: my husband with an estate agent, assisting clients to view properties in the area, and me with a cleaning agency which entailed cleaning private houses whilst the owners were at work. Both these jobs were out of our comfort zone. Every morning I had to take our daughter to Sutton to catch the school bus, which meant an early start, and I had to pick her up in the evening.
And so our lives were held in limbo, waiting for that special property to turn up.
More searching on the internet revealed five possible properties in south-east Cornwall; I was determined that if I was to live in Cornwall, miles from my family and everything I knew, I needed a house that I could fall in love with. We made appointments to view all of the properties over one weekend. At the last minute we noticed a refurbished four- bedroom bungalow that had just come on the market in a village called Rilla Mill in a part of south east Cornwall we didn’t know at all. I thought the name sounded romantic so we phoned the estate agent in Launceston to make an appointment to view.
May Bank Holiday weekend, we left our daughter with a friend and went to stay with one of my writer friends who had moved from Haddenham to Ivybridge in Devon the previous year. Anne was very excited at the prospect of us living closer and this proved an ideal base from which to explore. Every evening over supper, in her conservatory which looked out onto a pretty but steep garden, she asked for an update on our house-hunting.
Most of the houses were disappointing i.e. small bedrooms, not enough living space, old-fashioned kitchens etc. and I was becoming despondent. The last one we viewed was the refurbished bungalow in Rilla Mill which was approached down a narrow lane with views towards Bodmin Moor and I started to take an interest. Avalon was charming; opening the black and white lych-gate onto the front garden was like walking into a fairy tale. Carved into the wooden beams of this were the words – ‘For the Good Times’ – and the date, 1975. The facade of the bungalow was rendered white with new double-glazed windows and black windowsills. The garage had a pretty pointed window and a mock-Tudor gable. There were two well-established hydrangeas in the front garden, a tall skimmia hedge that blocked out the road, a large rhododendron and a very tall conifer. But the rest of the front garden had been covered in gravel including what had once been a pond which stood in the centre of the grass (you couldn’t call it a lawn).
The estate agent led us through the porch with a glazed front door and into the empty bungalow which was all new inside, light and airy with sand-coloured carpets throughout. The large kitchen/diner had cream up-to-the-minute built-in units housing integrated appliances, beech worktops and a wood-effect laminate floor. French doors led into the big square lounge with a fireplace and more French windows onto the decking. An interesting feature in the master bedroom was the French windows opening onto the patio and I imagined the doors flung open on a sunny morning and cups of tea in bed. This bedroom had a good sized en-suite with cream tiles but no window. There were three further bedrooms at the front of the bungalow, the smallest of which I hoped to make into my study with its view onto the front garden. A large bathroom and a separate WC completed the rooms. The bungalow felt welcoming, as if it had been waiting for us.
Apart from the recently-laid unimaginative square patio, the back garden had grass and even more gravel. The couple who had bought the bungalow to refurbish and sell on, obviously thought gravel was the way to go. The decking had been hastily erected but I could tell, with a bit of TLC, it could be a very attractive feature and, being elevated, it would allow views across the countryside if we lowered the boundary hedge. There were also some tall trees to one side of the garden casting long shadows across the garden, but I imagined we could resolve these problems if we bought the property. After a further viewing that weekend we put in an offer.
This was a little premature as our daughter had another year at Impington College, but it was too good an opportunity to miss. My husband decided to live in Avalon by himself while I lived with our daughter in Cambridgeshire until she finished her A-levels. (More of that later).
We started to make plans. We went to Multiyork to buy new covers for our sofas and armchair. We had bought this furniture in 1994 and the pale covers were showing signs of wear. I spotted some burgundy material and fell in love with it so we ordered the covers with the idea that we would put them on once the furniture was in Avalon.
The purchase complete, in August 2007 we left our daughter with her friend in Cambridge and drove down to Cornwall. On a cloudy drizzly day we entered the estate agent’s in Launceston and were given the keys along with a red gerbera in a vase with a welcome card; a nice touch. When we entered the bungalow it looked even bigger than I remembered. After unpacking our bare essentials, we made a pot of tea and ate the cake we’d bought on the way. As we sat in the echoing space of the kitchen/diner we began to plan what sort of furniture to buy – a country pine dresser, table and chairs perhaps.
Closer inspection revealed the disappointing level of workmanship – all the doors needed rubbing down and repainting, some needed re-hanging. This was something we had overlooked at the time of viewing. The fireplace was a cheap imitation with a fan heater; the original fireplace having been boarded up. Through the window we could see the grass was a foot high and it was obvious the people who had refurbished the bungalow hadn’t been back for some time.
Our first meal was sausages and mash and a bottle of Pino Grigio to celebrate, whilst listening to Classic FM. We began to relax. It had been a tiring day, what with the six-hour journey and acquainting ourselves with the surrounding area in the drizzle.
We ‘camped’ for nine days with the minimum of comforts – an inflatable bed, a kettle, a tea pot and two cups, two plates, two canvas chairs and a radio. We were freezing!
The weather improved the next day. Our neighbours in the bungalow next door welcomed us with a cup of tea and ‘If you need to borrow the mower, just shout!’ They had two grown-up children still living at home. The mother worked at a local residential home for the elderly; the father for The British Red Cross. We asked who had lived in our bungalow before it was refurbished and they made us laugh with tales of Old Jim who had lived there with his brother and his wife, but when they had died Old Jim lived on his own. Apparently he had been quite a character; he used to get through the fence and sit in his pyjamas in their kitchen, waiting for his cup of tea! He had recently been moved to an old people’s home.
Next door the other side, our neighbours in the old farmhouse were very friendly. They had lived there for ten years and advised on the best places to go for shopping and walks, where to buy logs (for the log burner we planned to have installed) and general requisites.
The extremely rural village had only one narrow winding though road which had a very steep hill, no shops, one pub, a church and a social club. At the bottom of the hill was a bridge over the river Lynher where the road rose up sharply again towards Upton Cross. This village had a Post Office and general store and a school with a small public library. A short drive from Rilla Mill took us up to the village of Minions on the moor where sheep and ponies grazed on the short grass and furze. Looking down from here the view was amazing – little villages nestling amongst moorland, ancient stone circles, patchwork fields and hills as far as the horizon, history stretching back centuries. Ruined engine houses and mine shafts littered the moorland now bathed in tranquil peace; difficult to imagine the noise that must have been created by the mining industry of the nineteenth century. Everywhere was quiet; hardly any traffic, birds singing in the trees. It felt welcoming, intimate somehow and I looked forward to moving into Avalon permanently.
One of my husband’s concerns was the wet weather. Living on the edge of the moor meant the weather changed rapidly. One minute it would be bright sunshine, the next the clouds would gather and down would come the rain. Then just as quickly it would change to bright sunshine again. It was possible to watch the weather coming in from the west but I found this rather refreshing to what we’d had in the fens.
After nine days we returned to Wicken and made preparations for our final move.
THE CABIN, MEPAL, CAMBRIDGESHIRE
My daughter had a friend whose mother had had a new wood cabin erected in their front garden. This was originally intended for her grandfather but he died before he could take up residence. This left a redundant cabin piled up with his old furniture. My daughter was very close to these friends and often stayed for weekends with them. Mother and daughter lived continually in a muddle in the main three bedroom house with four cats. There was rarely anywhere to sit – every chair piled up with clothes or books. Housework was ignored and the sink was always piled high with dirty dishes but they were very kind, friendly people and regular church-goers.
The mother developed breast cancer and this eventually spread to her liver. She moved into the cabin to make it easier for the Macmillan Nurses to attend to her. This was a very distressing time: her stay was short and her only daughter orphaned. Before the cancer became too invasive and the mother was still able to communicate, we agreed for me and my daughter to come and live in the cabin and for me to look after both girls and take charge of running the two properties until my daughter finished her A-levels.
In the September we handed the keys back to the owners of North Street and I waved goodbye to my husband – he was off to Cornwall. All our furniture was on the removal lorry on its way to Avalon where he would be overseeing the move the next day.
When my daughter and I moved into the properties in Mepal we found the atmosphere morbid. I had to sleep in the bed in which the mother had died and I had none of my own possessions with me, only my clothes which I had to find room for in the second-hand furniture. I was cooking for the three of us, looking after the house and the cabin and feeding the cats. I was also still cleaning the three houses for the agency.
My daughter had her own room in the house while I lived in the cabin. I managed to make some improvements, tidying away some of the clutter. There was one L-shaped living area furnished with an old settee, a new pine dresser, table and chairs. But the rest of the space was taken up with old chests of drawers and cabinets and generally cramped. The only clear floor space was immediately in front of the settee where I laid a hearth rug taken from our house. I had a history of back problems and this was the only place I could use for my floor exercises every night before I went to bed.
The two bedrooms were cluttered with boxes and carrier bags full of stuff. The wet room, fitted out with a shower, basin and toilet for the disabled, was adequate. The kitchen was small but nicely fitted with a built-in electric cooker and a fridge, no washing machine – I had to use the rusty one in the lean-to adjoining the house. I would hang out the washing whilst trying to find a space amongst the tall weeds in the garden which hadn’t had much attention for years.
After a couple of months my daughter moved into the cabin with me as her friend often stayed at the vicar’s house for weeks on end, ( he was a friend of the family) and my daughter didn’t like sleeping in the house on her own. There was a very basic gas boiler in the cabin that provided the hot water and heating. I got to grips with how it all worked but sometimes the boiler wouldn’t ignite. One night we were woken up to an alarm going off. It was freezing cold; we had to get up and get dressed and wait for the fire brigade outside in case they couldn’t find us. We were told (on the phone) not to touch anything so we couldn’t even make a hot drink. At 2am the fire officers came and checked the cabin but thankfully found nothing untoward. They fitted more efficient smoke detectors that never needed their batteries changed and told us to be vigilant; keeping our mobile phones next to the bed during the night. On another occasion, I had been down to Cornwall and came back to a freezing cold cabin – 11 degrees C – the boiler had gone out.
The rambling front and back gardens were very overgrown and the services to the cabin hadn’t been installed properly. When it rained the drains blocked up and we couldn’t use the toilet in the cabin. This meant struggling over the debris on the stairs in the house to use the less than cheerful bathroom, or use the toilet in the lean-to which was little more than an outside privy with cobwebs and spiders. When my husband rang to tell me of the pretty walks he’d been on, I would complain bitterly about our living conditions, but of course, living three hundred miles away, there was very little he could do. He told me how difficult it had been for him to put the new covers on our sofas and armchair on his own but I had little sympathy!
My daughter and I went to stay with my husband in Avalon for the October half term. We took a flight from Stansted to Newquay and my husband picked us up from the airport. I thought it would be easier and quicker than driving but there was so much waiting around in the airports that, by the time we’d added it up it, would’ve been quicker and cheaper to drive but I wasn’t familiar with the route.
Avalon felt like a holiday home, as if it belonged to somebody else, and I found it difficult to settle. There were still a lot of jobs to do and things to buy, and not being familiar with the area it was all quite frustrating. None of the stores had what we wanted and I felt we hadn’t achieved a very much by the end of the week. But it was refreshing to have our own space and our own things around us and our sofas dressed in their new burgundy covers looked great. We enjoyed the coastline and the various country walks that week but having no friends in Cornwall our daughter felt out of place and couldn’t wait to get back to college.
I drove our daughter down to Cornwall for the Christmas holidays. It was a tiring five-and-a-half hour journey but at the end of it I had a feeling of accomplishment. We put the Christmas tree up in the lounge and hung the tapestry curtains, floor to ceiling along one wall, that we’d ordered at half term. I stood back to admire the cosy room – it was slowly becoming home.
Before we left the cabin to take up permanent residence in Cornwall, my daughter asked if we could take in a Spanish exchange student to stay for the February half term. I was reluctant at first – it wasn’t my property – but she pestered me until I gave in. My daughter slept back in the main house while he slept in the box room in the cabin. This room was very cramped but he never complained. His stay involved a lot of ferrying back and forth to Impington college as the Spanish students were taken to London and places of interest, returning at odd hours. I cooked for all of us but was surprised to find our Spanish student didn’t like tomatoes! Of course, he found our meals very different from back home and often asked what it was he was eating. We enjoyed having him; he slotted in and was no trouble. We encouraged him to speak English and in turn we learned a bit of Spanish. He enjoyed his stay and looked forward to my daughter’s return exchange. When it was time for him to leave, he asked me for my gravy recipe, gravy being something he’d never come across before! He bought a bumper pack of potato crisps to take back for his brother and stuffed them into his luggage; apparently Walker’s crisps were not available in Spain. But I don’t know what he must have thought to his accommodation! I had visions of him going home with many a story to tell.
Our daughter was averse to moving to Cornwall, miles away from her friends, and during the school holidays she stayed with one or other of them while I drove down to Cornwall to stay with my husband. He occasionally came up to stay with us in the cabin but couldn’t wait to get home. This arrangement lasted until our daughter passed her A-levels. I finally moved into Avalon permanently in June 2008 and left our daughter staying with a friend in Cambridge for the summer