Falling in love can be the work of a moment. Three autumns ago my eyes alighted on a property ad’ in Country Life: “A unique opportunity to acquire this former archdeacon’s house, just off the Cathedral close”. The photograph showed a hotch-potch of Georgian, medieval and Tudor rooms with a pretty walled garden and a cobbled stable yard, the carriage doors painted in the Reckitt’s Blue livery of the cathedral’s properties. All for a comparatively modest price.
Heart thumping, I approached the husband in his study. “You’ll never get it,” he said. “And I thought you never wanted to leave here.”
“Here” was ten miles from Hereford and that pretty walled garden. We had moved to the Old Mill in 2002 when I was pregnant with our third child. On our first morning at the Mill I’d watched a thrush’s legs picking over the dewy grass from my washing-up window, and announced that I would only leave this house in a box. But now I was in the grip of something that felt like adulterous love. I rang the agents. There had been much interest. Open-mornings were the only way to see it, followed by sealed bids.
That September open-morning another couple was looking at the house from the street. The man looked the practical type. He was fingering the cracks in the 1960s concrete render which had been slapped over the timber frame. He was wordlessly mortified. I wanted to say to him, “It’s alright, you mustn’t worry, I’m going to take that horrid render off. One of my first jobs, in fact. Because, you see… it’s mine.”
Somehow I roped the bank manager into what had now become a sleep-depriving obsession. Three months and a wobbly pile of debt later, I was the proud owner of one of the most enormous, ancient keys I’d seen. It opened the blue front door of the old archdeacon’s house.
Madness? Probably. But hear my plea of mitigation. Once a week, in non-Covid times, I sing alto in the cathedral’s choral society, and my husband loves choral evensong. Buying this wreck next to a cathedral was (I told myself) a wise precaution for our approaching retirement. Early deaths in our families had taught me not to count on an old age. If I were to go early, Quentin could potter to the cathedral and enjoy the sort of low-level social contact that suits men, maybe over a pint at the nearby Lichfield Vaults. If he went first, and I ended up decrepit, I could ride to the cathedral’s north door in a mobility scooter, a journey of little more than 100 level yards.
The Hereford diocese was established in the late seventh century and a cathedral built by 900 AD. This had long been holy ground. A Roman altar was found near our house in 1821. In the 13th century, a cult grew up around a former bishop, Thomas de Cantilupe. Pilgrims flocked to Hereford, lured by the healing powers of St Thomas’s bones. Hereford cathedral became rich, and a group of canons’ houses grew up around the close.
No 3 St John’s Street is, from the pavement, an unexceptional, low-slung affair, currently still blighted by that render. But viewed from the garden’s mulberry tree it could be a Tudor’s merchant’s house: oak beams, interesting angles and a medieval great-hall. Clergy lived here from at least the 1400s. It was home to a succession of archdeacons and served as a B&B for prebendaries who had ridden in from distant parishes. When we first saw its stable, strands of hay lingered in the manger.
We waited almost a year for the local authority to approve a few minor changes. I did not propose to kill the thing I loved. It was more a question of mending and restoring, removing a false ceiling, inserting a window and stripping layers of gloss. The black Victorian paint in the great hall revealed English oak that had begun as acorns at the time of the Crusades.
Lack of ready cash had been the house’s saving over recent decades, “problems” being tucked away behind plasterboard rather than being removed. Excavating, we found John Player fag packets and sports pages from 1960s newspapers. But the bones of the structure (you could almost call it another Cantilupe miracle) remained underneath. Unless you count the Georgian sash windows and the bathroom’s funny old 1920s Sanitor taps, there had been no jarring modernity.
A moment of revelation: one morning, we broke through to the 40ft-long upper floor of the stable block. Potential buyers had not been allowed to explore it owing to broken floorboards. The one surveyor who had clambered up there merely said I had a nasty case of deathwatch beetle. Nothing prepared me for how evocative these lost rooms were. We gained access through a blocked-off staircase using a crowbar, saw and the torch on a mobile telephone. The space was pretty well unaltered from the time the motor-car replaced the horse. Dust lay as thick as snow and the perfect quietness was only broken by the toll of the cathedral bell. Lathe and plaster hung perilously on horsehair threads, but otherwise it was as the stable boys would have known it when they huddled for warmth before a Victorian grate.
My 81-year-old mother, when she saw No 3, was horrified.“It will take you five years.” She may be right. I work there four days a week. I am the lowest of the pecking order. While Matthew and his colleague Dennis Higgins do clever things, I collect supplies from Screwfix, buy Cornish pasties and brew tea. I have been repairing the windows. I began by stripping paint with a heat gun but after breaking rather a lot of Crown glass I bought an infrared Speedheater Cobra. Every valuable pane is a struggle to save. There are 25 sash windows (300 panes) to restore, plus nine 17th-century oak mullion bedroom windows, and a few smaller ones in the stable block.
We hope to move in properly in a few years’ time but like all old houses, it will probably never be finished. Kenneth Clark, in Civilisation, says we can tell more about our forebears from buildings than from anything else. “Painting and literature depend largely on unpredictable individuals. But architecture is… a communal art.” This old house could probably only have survived in England. So close to the magnificence of the cathedral, would its architectural jumble have been tolerated in a more logical, authoritarian country?
And the Reckitt’s Blue livery? It’ll be staying. We may have bought Archdeacon’s House, but we do not own its soul. We are mere custodians of a house rooted in its cathedral past.