Monday 21 December
My first view of Savernake House stopped me in my tracks.
Part Arts and Crafts, part Tolkien, part Gothic, this was architecture that could be classified under Eccentric’s Cheese Nightmare. In short, bonkers. Turrets, arches, cupolas, grotesques and spires crammed together, a disfigured face under a sky like wild hair. The dream house of a laudanum addict.
Grief was the impression Savernake House gave. The main grounds perched on a rise overlooking a windy sea of foliage; the house wore her bereavement of darkened fields as close as earthen petticoats. A distant guard of mountains framed by willow and silver birch completed the mourning ensemble.
The Rough Guide: Wales had a brief paragraph stating it had once been owned by one Ifo Aveni, ‘The Most Evil Man In Wales’. It was rumoured to be haunted, by whom the paragraph didn’t say. Out of shot of the view as featured on the brochure, a line of pegged-out sheets spoilt the romance.
And I was here because of my husband Mason, who for the last year, possibly longer, had made me a cuckquean. A predictable lover not only in bed, as I recall, but also in cheating on me with my best friend Hazel, the original champion of beige. After re-decorating her entire bungalow in Kelly Hoppen, she’d relieved me of Mason and his demands and moods; his smelly feet, too. So in the end, a good friend after all. There are far worse things in life than being a sixty-year-old near-divorcée, living alone, able to do just as I please.
Which meant swerving Christmas. I’d packed away the pudding basin and parchment paper, the fairy lights and my grandmother’s Charlotte Rhead gravy boat, the dullest piece of pottery ever made, outside Leachware. From the loft I’d retrieved hidden treasures: the Peter Pauper Press ‘Venice’ journal with the words ‘Commonplace Book of Eirlys Stephens’ written in green ink on the frontispiece (as far as I ever got) and my Kaweco fountain pen.
All these had been carefully stored in a tea chest four years ago, after Mason kicked off over my friendship with our gardener who, as well as an expert greensman, was a fine poet. Literary endeavours and other men were not welcome in our home. A fine, a very fine, irony, considering my husband’s extracurricular activities.
The Savernake brochure had claimed that ‘Anyone Can Learn to Write Fiction in Exquisite Surroundings with Best Selling Science Fiction Romance Author Aoife De’Ath (Whip-Happy Lesbian Monsters on the Moon, Dumb as a Bucket of Astro-Rocks). No Experience Necessary.’
Waiting for the other students to arrive, I coped with anxiety induced by unfamiliarity by inspecting my surroundings. White tiled floors, high plastered ceilings, wellies for guests, and a grand staircase soaring towards the dark mystery of upstairs.
The lounge was a woodpecker’s dream. Timber beams, antler chandelier, lamps carved from fire logs, and Grinling Gibbon-style bookshelves as far as the eye could see. They cheered me immensely, as did the case containing a stuffed herring gull the size of an American bulldog. The shabby corpse would have turned Mason, a green birdwatcher, purple with outrage.
Framed prints and canvases jostled on mustard and sage walls. Marked NFS (an acronym I know, Not For Sale, having co-owned an art gallery with Mason for three decades), an ornate gold frame supported a tiny Tunnicliffe, a gouache of a kingfisher, bright as a jewel.
What I found odd was there wasn’t a single work by the artist who’d owned this house. I had never seen Ifo Aveni’s work, or never heard of him before now. How evil could he have been to have lived in this strange yet beautiful dwelling?
On cue, the other guests arrived, quickly filling the lounge. Ten of us sat in mismatched chintz sofa and armchairs, pretending to read the health and safety brochure given us on registration, but in reality attempting to get the measure of each other without speaking. (First rule of week-long residential courses: spot at the get-go whom to avoid. High colour and/or fanatical viewpoints on Gardeners’ World or The Great British Bake Off can be clues.)
Studying the books, my hand touched a surface indented with tiny grooves. On closer inspection it was initials carved into a heart in the bookshelf. I + I. The heart had cross-hatching and detailed wings. It must have taken some doing, to cut those lines into such a hard wood as oak.
The lounge had one door, as did the dining room. It’s important I tell you this at the beginning. We had to go back out and through the kitchen to get to the dining room, a long space with a table for twenty-four and a standing fireplace large enough to roast a whole cow. Besides the smokers’ terrace this would become the most-used room in the house; again, there was only one door by which to enter or leave. (I did wonder how they got round fire hazard regulations.)
All of the rooms in Savernake House had one door, preventing through traffic. At one time the kitchen had had three: one to the dining room, one to the pantry, and the third to a corridor which held a tiny staircase leading up to servants quarters, now the offices of The Savernake Foundation, marked PRIVATE. The first two had been bricked up.
The old cellar where we later tried to have the séance could be entered by a wooden door with a red glass knob, off the foyer as you entered the house; but people didn’t. Guests were encouraged not to wander.
Shy tongues were soon loosened by glasses of complimentary wine. Around me, well-groomed middle-aged (discernible in these youth-worshipping days only by hands, and the tell-tale jaw pouches) women began to thaw. I hadn’t expected many men on a romantic fiction course, even cross genre romantic fiction; but it seemed lacking there were none.
I listened to conversations but did not join in. A pluviophile, I hoped up here on the side of a mountain we might at some point be gifted with snow, or at least a thunderstorm to watch from the dining room window that was the entire north-facing wall.
Our first night on the course we were served a tea prepared by staff, chilli with garlic bread. The rest of the week teams of students would provide the evening meal. Christmas Day was bagsied by Muriel, a mother of four who banged on about it as if no one else in the history of the human race had ever bred, or had fifteen grandchildren, not, I felt, something to crow over. But Muriel was a fortunate outcome, as part of the point of the week away, at least for me, was to avoid Christmas cooking.
A hat, one of the balaclavas stored at the house for work-parties, was passed round to see who would get the remaining days. I ended up in the Boxing Day team (lasagne with hand-cut chips; but who cuts chips with their feet?).
But Boxing Day would not occur in Savernake House.