“There is a ‘spirit’, you might almost call it a ‘friendly ghost’, in this house.”
So wrote the Reverend William King, the Vicar of St. Stephen’s Church, Astley, after he brought his family back from India in 1947 to the Vicarage; what is now Astley Old Vicarage. Here he lived and regaled his parishioners with stories about his love for this old building and the “strange events” he experienced for the next sixteen years.
Like Bill King, we too felt “welcomed by the beams and bricks” when in 1991 Susan and I first climbed through the smashed kitchen window of what, by then, was a derelict house. It had been on the market for several years and, in all likelihood, was beyond our means to buy and live there with our children. Needless to say, we feel that friendly ghost has helped us over the years too.
We’ve been restoring the house and its gardens for over twenty-five years now. It’s also the place where I make sculptures. Whether I am creating a sculpture or a structure for the garden or the house, the sense of place and history is a privilege, as well as a major part of my inspiration.
400 years of living
People have lived here for over 400 years. In the 1851 census there were 21 people recorded as living at Astley Vicarage! There are many strange stories that can be told, and I will, but as Bill King once said in his Parish Notes:
“Let each man think what he will. But I must say this, that Astley Vicarage is a place to be treated with utmost respect and reverence.”
At the time, he was recounting the story of the four clocks that all stopped at precisely the same time during the night. He called it a “most extraordinary psychic event”. It occurred at exactly midnight on the eve of their proposed, and consequently aborted, relocation to a more modern residence.
A Brief History of Astley Old Vicarage
The house at Astley Old Vicarage was built in three stages, beginning in the Elizabethan period around 1590. Further additions were made in the early 18th and 19th century. In the 1960’s it was “listed” as Grade II*, “a particularly important building of more than special interest”.
It became home to the Curates of St Stephen’s Church in Astley after Adam Mort, a committed puritan, gifted the building together with land for the building of a Church. His intention? The betterment of the community of Astley as they were “remote from any church and [for] the most part…very rude and ignorant in good things.”
The building was known as ‘The Parsonage’ until 1867. Then Astley became a Parish and it became ‘The Vicarage’. The name changed one final time to “The Old Vicarage” when we bought it from the Church Commissioners in 1992.
We Can’t Afford It “but”…
Of course we couldn’t afford to buy The Vicarage. We drove past so many times fantasising and cursing our luck that it had come up for sale too soon for us. Susan appeared to agree “but” … “my Mum was May Queen here” … “they’ll never get planning permission for a nursing home” … “there’s a property crash, they’ll have to drop the price” … “yes, I do know that our house has gone down in value too” … “I know it’s unrealistic” … “but” … we could just take a look”.
So we did…
Madness is Optional
We had to climb through the kitchen window as the estate-agent had the wrong key for the padlocked back door. The house was dark, derelict, boarded-up and broken-down. Drugs paraphernalia, including the discarded Evo-Stick cans of glue-sniffers, were strewn in every room and there was charred evidence of small fires all over the place. The gardens were wild and overgrown and someone was living in a bivouac under one of the trees by the side of the stream. And yet…
Two speculative offers and one reckless plan later (supported by English Heritage. They’d threatened the Church Commissioners with a Repair Notice) and we’d bought it. Sort of…
We were in the middle of a housing price crash and had raised a second mortgage on our own house to cover half the cost of repairing the roof and chimneystacks. In return we got an option to buy the Vicarage at a fixed price for five years. Madness. A lawyer who takes his own advice is like a father taking driving lessons from his teenage son. What could possibly go wrong?
Our house sale fell through – I knew I should never have trusted the Medallion Man. The property market was well and truly crashing and it was almost fashionable to have negative equity. We had to drop the price of our house to have any chance of selling it quickly and we became “almost fashionable”.
Architectural thieves broke into the Vicarage and stole the four flight 18th Century oak staircase. One estimate to replace it came in at ten thousand pounds. Glue-sniffers, fire-starters, itinerant tramps and the odd ouija boardist became part of the bonkers fabric of our Old Vicarage lives.
The obvious solution, clearly, was to get a second hand caravan and, for me, to move into it together with our ninja cat, Mickey. We then became our very own two man or, more accurately, one fearful man and one fearless cat “Security”team.
The cat, full title Michelangelo (named by our son after the teenage ninja turtle, not the painter of the Sistine Chapel ) was hard as nails, unlike me. Susan was almost as tough as the cat but was only there with the children at weekends.There was one working toilet and a large Belfast sink for the kids to stand in and be washed down, under protest!
My Security strategy was to appear more unhinged than the squatters and robbers. An act, I had a misplaced sense confidence in, as I believed I could pull it off with aplomb, armed only with a baseball bat and a golf club. I saw myself as Jim Bowie at The Alamo, but, without the knife and the dying. Thankfully, I was never required to wield an item of sports equipment in anger. Nor to shout and run which would have been my preferred response at the first sign of trouble.
Rock and Roll Builders
God, or the ghost, came to our rescue in the form of Barney the Builder and Frank (Zappa) the wood-turning mother of invention. I’d been to primary school, cubs and scouts with Barney. He had been a good friend to both Susan and I when we were kids and was about be again. A colourful (bright red-haired) character who neither started nor finished “trouble” but always seemed to be in it. Part joiner, part rock and roller (one single which did not chart), he conducted his ‘jack of all trades’ business from his unofficial office at The Three Crowns.
Our paths had crossed again at a Christmas Party at the Rendezvous Dinner Club in Astley. He would co-ordinate a “sophisticated operation” of local tradesmen, relatives and rascals. Together, they could sort out anything. Later we would also get George the Scouse plumber on board and Ed (The Preserver) door maker who wanted to tantalise everything that didn’t have a heartbeat as well as some things that did.
A Plan comes together
During that first winter and spring the house worked with us and our band of local eccentrics.
Barney’s brother in law, Tony, was a teacher of building and he rebuilt the chimneys and repointed all of the brickwork using lime mortar. Barney’s brother repaired the roof and Barney and Frank remade the staircase. They used the one surviving spindle as a template and a series of old interior photographs of the house as their plan. Each of the fifty chunky spindles was individually turned and Barney managed to save and reassemble most of the treads, risers and stringer boards which had been left by our thieves.
George had commandeered a truckload of cast iron radiators from a demolished school and connected us up to an old, but sturdy, boiler. The boiler was donated to us by the civil engineer who took pity on us after he completed all the underpinning and tying required to stop the walls from falling downwards and outwards. Frank (Zappa) sourced seriously thick planks of pitch-pine from, what had been, Bolton Co-op and made unique solid wood kitchen units from them. And the ghost? Well, both the electrician and the plasterer claimed to have been accompanied, on the top floor, by a mate whom they hadn’t put on the payroll.
A Texaco Birthday
By Sunday the 28th of March 1993 we were ready to move out of the Caravan and onto the first floor of the Vicarage. That morning I rose early and began assembling furniture to get started with a sense of relief and release. Susan eventually appeared and asked if I knew what day it was.
“Absolutely, it’s the day we finally move in! Why?” I was asked to try again. Very odd, as I’d thought she be even happier than I was.
When you’re in a hole the size of a forgotten birthday, it’s wise to stop digging. The fuchsias and the box of milk tray from the Texaco garage were never going to cut it. I should have budgeted for the consequences.
An Ongoing Labour of Love
We’ve been restoring, repairing and reconstructing the house for over twenty years now. I’d like to think that the Reverends, including Alfred Hewlett and Bill King, can still recognise it and are comfortable with what we’ve done. Our aim was to respect the continuity with the past whilst making it unconsciously comfortable with the present. The lived-in look is intentional, not socially aspirational, honest. Not least because I expect that there are critics past, present and future who may pass judgement.
I hope all the ghosts like it, including the carpenter who made the front door.
That door was smashed to pieces with six and nine inch nails when the house was boarded up. But we found his 18th century copper-plate signature and the date of its completion (in pencil) underneath one of the broken mouldings. It’s still there, hidden behind a new length of moulding and sealed in with multiple coats of protective black gloss.
The beams, floorboards and doors all creak and talk to each other in muted tones redolent of old conversations. Is it paranoid or reassuring to think they may be talking about us and what we’re doing to their house?
Gardens and Sculptures
And the garden….
Well we share the feelings of the mysterious visitor from the Adelphi Hotel. We’ve worked hard to interpret the garden in the context of the house. We’ve tried to use the old paths and layout, but also the cathedral spaces, created by the tall beech and ash trees. It’s a place to work in with enjoyment but also to indulge our urge to create, collect and curate our interest in sculpture, garden-making and estate-made artefacts.
And Another Thing…
But , maybe, later…