You must understand, it was only the horror of renting which convinced us we must buy the stately house and garden. The price tag, £5 million, was somewhat aspirational given that we had neither part exchange, substantial deposit, large income, annuities, nor inheritance due save a rather nice reproduction Hogarth Chair from my wife’s side of the family that was only missing one leg, but we figured to use the government’s help-to-buy scheme and aspirational accounting to leverage ourselves onto the top rung of the property ladder.
We contacted the estate agent then drove out to view what we very much hoped would become our new home and hearth. Actually, 47 hearths, according to the birdlike Ms Heathcliff, “No relation!” as she chirped merrily from behind her clipboard upon meeting us at the end of a long and meandering driveway which we got lost on twice.
Our tour began in what appeared to be the Entrance Hall, which was large enough to echo but hung with ancient tapestries to muffle any yodeling. “They come with,” said Ms Heathcliff after consulting her clipboard. “Isn’t that nice?” Given that our last set of tapestries got caught in the hoovering and unravelled to the tune of a new beater bar for Henry, I rather thought not, but held my tongue in the interests of comity.
What we had taken to be the Entrance Hall was, in fact, the boot room; the cavernous space we were next led to was the Hall. “You could play a game of cricket in here,” I thought and indeed said. “Your house, your rules!” trilled the agent.
“What council tax band is this?” asked my wife, ever the Committee of Ways and Means. Ms Heathcliff consulted her notes. “It doesn’t say. However, a title is conferred with the property, along with the right to press gang locals to build follies, subject to planning permission of course.”
“Title?” my wife asked archly, entirely content with the honorific ‘Mrs’. As they chatted about correct forms of address, the agent quick to soothe any ruffled feathers in service to her commission, I wandered off to the games room. It took several minutes to walk around the aircraft carrier-sized snooker table, also apparently surplus to the owner’s requirements, to arrive at the windows and take in the garden. The topiary was splendid, though oddly, it consisted entirely of rabbits. Musing on the fecundity of the species, I headed back to find the ladies, though not before catching sight of a strange-looking fellow peering at me from between the ears of one of the gently rustling giants.“Oh, that’s the gardener,” explained the agent. A look of displeasure momentarily flickered across her face then was gone. “He comes with, too. Lives in the coach house.”
Our tour continued. At one point we crossed paths with a rambler. “There is a right-of-way down this corridor,” explained Ms Heathcliff airily, quickly ushering us past the mezzanine level to the map room, spare ballroom, “George III Room” (where the monarch was rumoured to have stayed during that anxious period when he still thought he was a badger), servant’s quarters long since converted to media rooms categorised by genre, an entire suite leased by covenant to the BBC for period adaptations of Jane Austin novels, bedrooms and boudoirs and more WCs than one could flush in a lifetime, and finally, a locked door.
“What’s behind that?” I asked, thinking it to be a British Library-sized library, or perhaps a branch line closed by Beeching.
“That’s just a closet,” said the agent, looking anxiously at her watch. “I’m terribly sorry, but I’ve got another appointment just now. You two are of course welcome to see yourselves out.” Then she was off with a smile and a wave and a darting glance at the locked door.
We had a bit more of a mosey then used the GPS on my wife’s phone to find our way out. As we were approaching the car I heard an urgent Psssssst! coming from the ha-ha. It was the gardener.
“Did she take you to the haunted wing?” he asked without preamble. “You mustn’t buy this house. Terrible things have happened in that wing. That’s why it’s kept locked.”
“What terrible things?” I asked, always game for a bit of intrigue. “And what wing?”
“The one she probably told you was a closet,” he said. “You don’t notice it until you’re outside and start counting wings.”
We counted. He was right! How odd. “What terrible things?” I asked again.
“Unspeakable Feng shui,” he said with a shudder. “Spirits wailing to be let out of the box room. Rocking horses rocking themselves to a frenzy in the nursery. Unearthly groans from the loft, moaning for better insulation. Broadband like treacle. Total eclipses in the solarium. Entire busloads of tourists lost in the maze, never to be seen again, umbrellas spit out like pips. Oranges mysteriously squeezed dry of their juice in the orangery. Easter egg hunts with shocking breakage…
“Ramblers and retired lollipop ladies are regularly devoured by these beasts,” he shivered, shrinking away from the topiary. “Bunnies too are creatures of the night.”
He then quickly jumped back into the ha-ha and flattened himself as if in the trenches of the Somme, refusing to speak further.
Much amused by the encounter, and little believing the fantastical tales from a man who had obviously been sampling too much product from the vineyard, we repaired home and made our bid: the full asking price.
Reader, our dreams were dashed, or so we thought at first. In the end we were gazumped by a developer who turned the property into affordable housing for Russian oligarchs made homeless by Hackney oligarchs. Later we read they were devoured by a herd of meerkats last spotted leaping into the ha-ha and headed for the coach house. It seems we made a lucky escape after all.