Germaine Greer begins a love-hate relationship with her Cambridgeshire house
I regret to admit that when I asked the assistant manager of my very grand bank if he would lend me the rest of the money needed to buy The Mills, I babbled on rather about the undoubted value of the property. ‘In the Mil corridor, you know. Only 25 minutes from the M25. The railway line has just been electrified. Stansted is only 25 minutes away and we are not in the flight path. The house isn’t worth much, but it does have three acres of land, which if released for development...
‘I don’t understand,’ said the assistant manager, patiently, slightly too patiently, I thought. ‘Do you want this property as a home or as an investment?’
‘Can’t it be both?’ I asked brightly. The assistant manager looked at me reflectively and smiled a wintry smile. ‘Perhaps,’ he said. So young and so wise.
What I hadn’t told him was that I did not really like the house. Its long flint wall ran flush with the verge of the kind of country road that commercial travellers and courier vans take at 90 miles an hour. The remains of smashed hares, pheasants, rabbits, pigeons, blackbirds and foxes, are left to rot there because there is no space between the speeding vehicles for the crows to do their work. The few remaining hedgerows are hung with fluttering magnetic tape, plastic bags and the wrappings from chocolate bars. In the lay-bys stand caravans where failed small businessmen and their wives cook up fast food for the drivers of the lorries pulled up higgledy-piggledy on the verges.
This is not at all a picturesque part of the world. Even if the Mill had not been flung over it and light stanchions and power lines did not disfigure it, Stump Cross would not be a picturesque place. Because it is always windy here and most of the soil is poor, free-draining or shallow, there are few noble trees and no great parks in sight. Instead we have the travellers’ camp and the sewage farm. The crossroads might have looked more handsome when King Charles II and his brother rode through on their way from Whitehall to Newmarket, but not much.
The fields were always open champlain; no great oaks were laid low here to create pasture or farmland. Here are no fells or dales or dells, just the steady roll of farmland and over it the booming sky. In the rubble and flint, so few trees grew to any size that the crossroads where the Newmarket road and the Cambridge road diverged was called, sufficiently, Stump Cross. And, I suppose, as often as not, the rotting body of a malefactor hanged from one of the Stump’s dead branches turned and turned in the wind, forcing the courtiers to lift their pouncet-boxes to their noses.
The house used to be a row of workmen’s houses, built without damp courses from the flints that children picked off the fields. My little lane used to run past two windmills, storehouses and stables, to another little cluster of hovels (one up, one down). The mills were disabled at the turn of the century, but the buildings were not demolished until after the war, when the owners of the estate simply bulldozed them. The rubble, the clay pipes, the lemonade bottles, the broken earthenware and blue-and-white china, the flooring pammets and the pantiles, the foundations and the cellars are all still there. The best soil is where the workers’ earth-closets and hen-houses were. The row of cottages nearest the road was left standing; a series of extensions built out of Cambridge white bricks turned it into something they called Mill Farm House, but the water bill is still addressed to The Mills and that, out of deference to the vanished owners of the pipes and the willow pattern china, is what I call it.
The hovels the house is made of were tiny. The fireplaces on the ground floor will hold a single coal. The staircases to the sleeping rooms above must have been no more than ladders. The washing of people, dishes and clothes was done in the cobbled yard, with rain water pumped up from underground tanks. Where the kitchen is now, there seems to have been a killing floor, so I guess the miller’s wife kept a pig or two.
Now the little houses have become a single house with not a single handsome room. Too many rooms open out of other rooms, with no connecting passages. The front door opens against the newel post of the stair, so visitors have to be herded like sheep through a dip to get in at all.
Before I bought it I visited the house at night. If the hideous orange light from the roundabout turned night into monochrome day, I absolutely did not want it. I drove quietly down the little lane. Too bad, the orange light was everywhere. No deal. The house agent rang me; I had come to the place three times. Wouldn’t I buy it? It was too expensive, I said. How much would I pay? I suggested a lower price. He upped it a bit. Having made the mistake of beginning to negotiate, I found myself agreeing. Ah well, I thought, when the right house comes along I can get rid of it again. Off I went to the bank.
There is a school of thought, to which many North London landlords adhere, that holds that the first rule of investment in property is to spend no money beyond the initial purchase price, even for routine maintenance. My new house had eight rotten windows, outhouses and a stable that would soon be roofless, and a ramshackle garage too small for my car. I resolved to ignore them all.
Though the garden was a mess, it would have to stay that way. I reckoned without the trees. I was responsible for six of the most important trees for miles, three full-grown beeches of great majesty, their crowns top-heavy, a half- dead cedar, a thirsty horse-chestnut and a soaring Robinia pseudacacia. There were as well 12 sycamores that had been pollarded and were now shapeless, six apple trees and a Victoria plum that had not been pruned in five years, and a seedling walnut tree with 11 trunks. As soon as their leaves fell, the tree surgeons came in, lopping dead branches, thinning crowns, removing dead wood. The spending had begun; the bridging loan began to expand with frightening speed.
In the meantime I had noticed the thing one never notices in London, the sky. My house, which stands on the summit of a long gradual swell of land, so that all around the skyline is slightly below the eyeline, can boast one of the biggest skies in England.Today, a wild west wind with a tang of harsh metal has sliced the scum off the goose pond and sucked the dimness out of the sky.
Above it the cloud wrack moves inexorably south, purple chased out by peach glow and powder blue crowded in their turn by gloomy fields of indigo. Where the sun finds a chink, spokes of white light wheel over the landscape until dark masses jostle them out only to bounce apart and let new shafts come stalking. I can see clear to the horizon across roll upon roll of amber fields stitched and scribbled by briar and hawthorn as dark as ink. Closer the plough still holds the warmth of suntan, except where it bleaches to chalk and where the winter wheat lies on it like a green veil. I cannot move from my workshop window, though there are dozens of letters to answer. I cannot bear to take my eyes away from the great sweep of the sky and the pigeons bodysurfing upon the tides of frigid air.
While I have been writing, the wind has dragged the great air force blue cloud blanket away to the south-west to reveal a lofty, sunlit firmament of baby- blue rippled with rows of fluffy tufts and ridges of frozen cirrus. The heron has swung in over the trees, dangling his anglepoise legs. The geese stand to attention while he inspects their half-frozen pond. The sunlight has turned faintly rose. A pallid moon like a broken plate is sidling up the sky behind the rags of thinning cloud. The night will be very, very cold. I am so full of joy that I am almost afraid to move in case I spill some. The young man in the bank was (of course) right. An investment you could never bear to impart with is no investment at all.