I love visiting Erddig, near Wrexham. It’s a big old house with gardens, set in a green and rolling landscape. It’s also beautifully preserved, not only the formal rooms for the family, but also the bedrooms and sitting rooms under the eaves that were inhabited by the servants, and to be honest look a great deal cosier than the equistitly decorated and furnished bedrooms below, in which I’m quite sure I wouldn’t have dared to sneeze for fear of damaging some priceless wallpaper or ornament.
The servants’ rooms, although plain, give a sense of the less visible members of the household, the ones who made it actually function, making themselves comfortable with what little time they had free, of friendships, rivalries and the ebb and flow of a close-knit community.
It’s that sense of community, and the distance, yet proximity, of very opposite, separated, and intertwined lives that I love in ‘Gosford Park’ and ‘Downton Abbey’. And it’s what makes the big old house, seething with secrets and an unknown past that raises all kinds of possibilities.
Like my first book for Honno Press ‘Eden’s Garden’, ‘The White Camellia’, published this week, starts with a big old house, this time on the wild cliffs of North Cornwall. Tressillion House was once as grand as Erddig, but is now ruined, the family dead, or forced to leave in such haste their belongings are still scattered around, like ghosts of a past that had once been.
Into this ruin of lives comes the woman who, many years ago, set in motion the perfect revenge that has brought the family to its knees. Sybil has no intention of taking on the ruin she has created, let along falling in love with the dilapidated house and garden. But revenge is never that simple, and for every human being, life changes us. As Sybil stands among the remains of the past, and the lives that once lived there, a new story begins, one that can heal, or destroy, her.
That beginning of the story was one that sparked in my brain several years ago, when I first visited Erddig. It was strange going back, with the story completed, the book itself about to arrive from my publishers, and the publicity ready to begin. It reminded me too of just how much I loved watching ‘Downton Abbey’ and that sense of upstairs and downstairs lives intertwined. Like Miss Marple, it’s possible to see all life in a small village – including the tightly-bound village of a large old house and its inhabitants.
I can’t wait to visit my next old house and gardens …
PUBLICATION DAY THIS THURSDAY!