That Which We Do Not Understand

I spent my childhood in an old 17th century Welsh farmhouse. The house name translated as 'the little gap of the woods' and it was thick walled with big fat beamed ceilings, spindly sash windows and river-cool, night-sky-coloured slate floors.

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It was in the country and in the eighties. Weekends, after schools and holidays were spent with my friends fearlessly clambering over barbed wire fences and the country-code ends of gates roaming the rumpled patchwork quilt of fields that surrounded our home. We were free-range, mud splattered and feral. Our only boundaries being 'to be back for supper' and to avoid straying into bulls, vicious dogs or red-faced, shouting farmers. Since most of the farmers were friendly sheep farmers we were pretty boundless.

Our roaming territory expanded as we got older and we would come across long-abandoned houses. Wandering into their musty hallways we'd scare ourselves and any sheep that had wondered in to take shelter. Owls would clatter out of the roof-eaves in a big white heart-stopping flurry of fright.

I became fascinated by the flotsam that was left in these places. We'd find yellowing, oft-thumbed pictures of fifties lingerie models blocking the draughts in the ty bach (outhouse) of old bachelor farmer's houses and false teeth left on dressing tables. The undisturbed blanket of dust, ceiling rubble and mouse-bone filled owl scat breaking the momentary illusion that someone might still be living there. Garments on the backs of bedroom doors and lumpen unmade beds would hold the shape of the person who had worn them and had lain there.

Nature would be creeping in through the smashed windows and storm rampaged roofs but no matter how ransacked, long un-lived-in and unloved these places were, they never felt completely empty. Our high pitched, self conscious teenage voices would hush to a low, respectful murmur as we trod through the peeling apart rooms and climbed the stairs, careful to stand on the joists so as not to put a foot through a rotten stair tread.

Our parents had come to Wales in the seventies to live a Thoreau inspired idyllic life. They'd rent dank near-ruins that the local farmers had happily left for the practical, sensible comfort of ugly but warm modern housing. With dripping noses and rosy cheeks the hippy families would sweep chimneys and dig out the back of these crumbling old houses and little objects would be found - too cleverly hidden to be domestic detritus. These objects would be carefully left in place by the newcomers, somehow aware of their power and the stories and spirits of this place they were only just discovering. The enduring power of talismanic objects that protect the home.