I once went to a house the National Trust had only just acquired and hadn’t yet opened. Walking through the rooms was one of the creepiest feelings of my life. My imagination couldn’t shake a sense of trespass; an instrusion I was not easy at making. Walking through that building was sad, but not because of what it said of the distant past. The last of the family had only recently moved out but their patina remained on the house. Above the toilet in one of the bathrooms, a snapshot of a dog was sellotaped to the ceiling. Flourescent ‘Fat Willy’s surf shack’ stickers had been half-scraped from the back of a door. A few of the rooms were equipped with the handles and bannisters I recognise from my elderly relatives’ homes. Years later I visited Merchant’s House Museum in New York and I read a caption that brought the National Trust house to mind. It said the MHM’s last inhabitants had ‘outlived the family fortune’.
Although I pride myself in my continued support of a good scone, I wonder if this kind of vivid visit can happen at houses that serve cream teas or charge an admission fee. Sites like the Dennis Severs house try to invoke this feeling, but it’s not really there the same way. The feeling of exploring rather than visiting seemed more like (a very tame version of) Brad’s research into urban exploration. I went to Sutton House a couple of months ago, and really enjoyed their representation of the different people who had used the house, up to and including the squatters who had lived there in the 1980s. The feeling of intrusion was absent this time, but it was much livelier with traces of so many inhabitants.
My feelings at that newly-acquired house were imagined. My reactions were speculative, and were really nothing more than autobiographical. There was little left in the building, and without knowing much about the place or its history, I instinctively inferred a narrative onto the place. It was bewitching. When the NT have finished interpreting the house and opened it up to visitors I’ll go back, and learn as well as react. I’ll probably buy a cream tea. I wonder what I’ll make of my second visit.
– This post started out last year as a response to Stewart Lee’s article in the Observer, then resurfaced in a reply to Maria’s blog, Preservation and Place. Then I decided I might as well finish writing it up and here we are.