Country houses for sale

Carla Carlisle: Why I’m swapping houses with my son and his wife

It's time for the younger generation to take on the Big House while they have the energy, imagination and finances to do it, says Carla Carlisle.

My ancestral home — white columns, a veranda that stretched the length of the front, a row of rocking chairs — was knocked down. The new owners built a bigger and better house. They didn’t put the new house in the exact same spot, but ‘sited’ it in the middle of the pecan orchard. By taking out four rows of pecan trees, they created an instant mature avenue that led right up to their new and grand veranda.

My sister and our cousin never got over it. When I said I thought the new house looked wonderful, they howled like wolverines. They would have stopped talking to me, but Southerners can never stop talking and that includes me. I reminded them that the house they loved was not like Tara in Gone with the Wind, that the veranda was so decrepit that you could only sit in the rocking chairs if you were blood kin and knew how to navigate safely the mosaic of rotten boards. I hinted that the columns weren’t Doric, no laurel leaves were carved in the pediments.

One symptom of the Homesick Blues is memory loss. I reckon they have forgotten that the house shook during tornados, was only heated downstairs and was cooled in sick-hot summers with an attic fan that was made for a cotton gin and sounded like a freight train rumbling through the night. After Uncle Ham built chicken houses on the back forty, we could never fill a bathtub deeper than 2in. Even when that entrepreneurial endeavour failed to prosper and the chickens departed, the water pressure never recovered.

Although Americans claim to be appalled by the English religion of primogenitor, my grandmother left the house and farm to her son. When his sister — my Mama — found out, she went wild. She, too, suffered from homesick memory lapse: her favourite line was Thomas Wolfe’s title You Can’t Go Home Again, which she turned into her theme song, belting it out in her bourbon-rich Ella Fitzgerald voice. ‘It’s not a case of attachment,’ she claimed when the will was revealed. ‘It’s just common decency.’

“I dream of my twilight years where ‘everything works’, is environmentally moral, warm in winter, cool in summer”

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Long before the will surfaced, the family had metastasised from ‘the home place’. Her son and heir — my Uncle Sidney — was a publisher living in Massachusetts, her daughter was living in Washington DC and her grand-daughters were spread out in California, Maryland and England. The last member of the family to live in the house was my Uncle Jimmy. When he died, Aunt Ruby moved across the road, sold my great-aunt Edna’s house (it was carried off on a flat-bed truck to a town 10 miles away) and built her own brand-new house. ‘Everything works,’ she says. ‘It doesn’t even shake when there’s a tornado, but I sleep in the bathtub to be safe.’

If you wonder why I’m telling you all this, it’s because we have a little ‘home drama’ going on in this family. It’s not the Carlisle ancestral home, but Vineyard Cottage, two ancient farmworkers’ cottages that were knocked into one 50 years ago. The cottage began life perched on the edge of a south-facing slope that burned every crop in a hot summer. Now it looks out over nine acres of grapevines that thrive in the heat. For the past five years, it has been home to our son and daughter-in-law. It’s now time to trade places.

In Downton Abbey, the Queen Anne dower house looks pretty swell, but, in real life, these largish houses created for the widows of the landowners have long since been sold off to pay Lloyds, been converted into vital rental properties or housing for the estate manager. Anything suitable for dowering at Wyken was sold off during lean times and, during the 100 years of Carlisle occupation, there’s been no need for one. Two widows (1945, 1963) stayed put in the hall and the third — my mother-in-law — much preferred her flat in Kensington.

More to the point, there’s been a sea change. We are all living longer. Now the husband and wife relocate together, allowing the young to take on the Big House when they have the energy, imagination — and jobs — needed to take on the big house and all that comes with it.

I know lots of good ‘trading places’. Friends in the next village knocked down a bungalow and built a dreamy house that we call Le Temple de la Gloire. In Scotland, we have friends who are moving into newly converted stables. A farmhouse in Cumbria converted by friends distils a lifetime of taste and creativity, plus the privacy that their stately home denied them.

Meanwhile, we are having a little tug-of-war over Vineyard Cottage. It’s charming. It also has no foundation, no insulation, cracked chimneys and ceilings that were suitable for under-nourished farm workers. Admittedly, it has benefitted from some excellent tenants in the past. The renowned and movemente American chef Robert Carrier made it a late-in-life posting, put in a beautiful kitchen, including a handsome Lacanche stove, and filmed 20 cooking episodes here. Then, after five years, aged 75, he returned to his great love: France. Another tenant put down stone floors and installed a claw-foot bath.

The poetic cottage is a stage set. Everything needs replacing: wiring, plumbing, roof. I study Homebuilding & Renovating magazine and say things like ‘consider the structural integrity of the building’, ‘rebuilding from scratch usually costs less’ and ‘no VAT on labour and building materials’.

I have the zeal of the pioneer, but I live in a world of nostalgie de la boue. My husband lived in the cottage for five years when he came back to run the farm. My son and daughter-in-law love its history — not so much the diminutive rooms, low ceilings and windows that whistle in the wind. I dream of my twilight years where ‘everything works’, is environmentally moral, warm in winter, cool in summer. Meanwhile, I’m keeping quiet about the veranda, as wide as six rows of vines, and the avenue of pecan trees that will lead the way to a new house among the vines.