Sunday, 19 September 2021

Christmas time is when a cottage comes into its own

LIVING in a 17th century thatched cottage comes with a number of minor inconveniences, writes Lesley Potter. I speak from

LIVING in a 17th century thatched cottage comes with a number of minor inconveniences, writes Lesley Potter. I speak from experience, having lived in one at Goring Heath for 16 years.

Inconvenience number one has got to be the low-slung ceilings. The door to the master bedroom, tucked under the eaves of the thatch, was crooked and cute, but the shortest point of the building. Even I had to duck to get under it, and I’m only five foot four.

The beautiful solid oak beam holding up the dining room ceiling (it had a previous life as a ship’s timber) gave marginally more head-space, and husband (six foot one) and son (six foot two) always remembered to duck.

Unfortunately, father-in-law (five foot 11) never remembered and often went home after a weekend visit with an egg protruding from his forehead. It became a standing joke that we needed to buy a crash helmet that would be stored in the cupboard of the boot room for his visits.

As you can see, height suddenly becomes a fairly vital issue when living in a higgledy-piggledy, herring-boned abode that would suit someone of the stature of Bilbo Baggins.

Inconvenience number two is the draughts that rattle through every lead-glass window, down the voluminous chimneys and through the gaps between the beams — some of which looked like birch branches that had been literally lopped off and chucked on the roof — and the walls which consisted of oddly-shapen bits of plasterboard interspersed with chunks of flint, pebbles and wattle and daub.

There were other inconveniences too — the fact that electric wires often had to be pinned to the beams rather than buried in the walls, for example — but there we must stop, because otherwise this story runs the risk of sounding like a whinge.

In fact, these were only minor irritations, because living in our thatched cottage was a lot of fun. The rooms were cool in the summer and gorgeously cosy in the winter. Walking among the lupins and delphiniums in the cottage garden made you feel like Alice on a voyage of discovery in Wonderland.

Lying in bed at night opened our ears to a whole new world of English wildlife — the blood-curdling bark of foxes on the prowl, the “too-whit” call of a Tawny owl in the nearby woods, and the “too-woo” reply of its mate. Like Mrs Roberts of Priory Cottage, we felt enormously privileged to live in such a beautiful piece of English architectural history.

Spring was pretty, summer blissful and autumn mellow, but the time of year when the house really came into its own was Christmas.

The inglenook fireplace, in which we had installed a wood-burning stove, looked even prettier decked in swathes of holly and ivy from the garden. The tree with its glimmering fairy lights and red baubles just looked so... well... English tucked under the beams of the living room. And seated round the table in our snuggly dining room as the turkey was being carved, you could imagine yourself sitting alongside Charles Dickens raising a glass of claret to his reformed Ebenezer Scrooge.

We sold our cottage this year to another family (who love it as much as we did) but three years ago we had our last big family Christmas there and as if on cue, the heavens opened and it snowed. And snowed... and snowed.

The garden bench was buried under two feet of glorious white fluff. There were snowball fights in the woods, sledging trips to the hill behind the church in Woodcote and long afternoons sitting by the fire with tea and Christmas cake, gazing out at our own personal winter wonderland.

When our guests left after the festivities, one of them said, “How lucky are we? A white Christmas in a thatched cottage. This has been truly magical.”

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