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The Watchtower, Talliston House and Gardens

My fictional homes from home

Essay | 10 minute read
From Manderley to Hemingford Grey: we've all imagined ourselves into the houses in our favourite books, says John Tarrow. But what happens when you imagine a novel into your house?

When somebody calls my home, telephones ring in Italy, New York and Japan.

It is a journalist, some magazine I have never heard of, asking to interview me about my fantasy house.

‘What fantasy house?’ I ask

‘Talliston House and Gardens.’

‘Oh, that’s no fantasy,’ I say. ‘I live there every day.’

And it is true. Being an author with no interior design or building experience, I approached the creation of what would become ‘Britain’s Most Extraordinary Home’ (The Sunday Times) in exactly the same way as I plot a novel. Each room or garden was a chapter, set in a different time and place; as particular as locations in a travelogue. Employing the full machinery of my imagination, I included scenes, characters and wild descriptions. I scoured my previous short stories, poetry and writings. Ultimately, I posed myself fanciful questions. The perfect place for Gospel brunch? 1954 New Orleans. The perfect place to sleep? A starry July night at The Alhambra palace in Spain. A hunting lodge for rich weirdos? A late Victorian tower in Snowdonia. And about those telephones? They are situated in a Medici mansion, a 1929 investigator’s office and a Japanese teahouse. All under the one, previously ordinary roof.

Because I was funding my follies with extra pennies left after every other bill was paid, its eventual construction took twenty-five years. Now, by walking from room to room, you can read the entire house like a novel. Each step in whatever direction sees you leaving the present and entering the past (and even at one point entering the future). So you can move from a Moorish bedchamber into a 1920s study just by crossing a landing. It’s as easy to trip between an Irish courtyard and a Canadian log cabin in the woods – all just by opening the house’s many doors and seeing what lies behind them. Yet the essence of Talliston is more than how it looks. It is also how it sounds, smells, tastes and feels. The striking thing – or at least one of them – is that all this has taken place in the UK’s most ordinary dwelling – a three-bedroom, semi-detached, ex-council house in Essex.

Like maps and charts to undiscovered islands, fictional houses – and their real, inspirational counterparts – have always been destinations of mystery and magic. Take the classics as good examples. Readers have escaped to the grand houses of literature for centuries. It is not for nothing that Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights are set in huge country estates. Without doubt the Brontë sisters knew that Thornfield Hall and Heathcliff’s Thrushcross Grange were aspirational locales for their dramas and brooding love interests. These novels take us on journeys to stay in places and live lives few ever attain. Who hasn’t longed for a few hours at Misselthwaite Manor where Frances Hodgson Burnett invents more than 100 unused rooms and a secret garden for children to mentally explore, in The Secret Garden (1911)? Or for that matter, Pippi Longstocking’s Villa Villekulla, home to horse, monkey and a tree laden with Sockerdricka soft drinks, in Pippi Långstrump by Astrid Lindgren (1945)?

Once I began saving for my own house, I was soon enough presented with that eternal quandary: the house I wanted to live in and the house I could afford were at near opposite ends of the property ladder. Still, I had an idea of how to bring those two together. So began my journey into the labyrinth of the house and gardens. Led by instincts alone, I soon realised that the only way to make each location at Talliston truly alive was to weave a story into each one. Like adding shadow to a flat illustration, I began a more conscious journey. Knowing of my trips to the US’s west coast, early visitors to the unfinished building site cited Disneyland as an inspiration; I didn’t correct them, even though I knew the sources went far deeper than Snow White and Cinderella.

Strawberry Hill House (Getty)

I am not sure when I first realised that I was on the trail of literary houses. Perhaps during a spring visit to Strawberry Hill House, the white Gothic castle of Otranto (Horace Walpole; The Castle of Otranto; 1764). Or perhaps standing in the attic at Hemingford Grey, the setting for the ‘sheer literary magic’ of the Green Knowe series by Lucy M. Boston (starting with The Children of Green Knowe in 1954).

The earliest I can trace encountering one such property was rambling through Hearst Castle in California. It was early 1986, when airfares were four times what they are today; the fly-drive only made possible by way of a messy redundancy two months before. Citizen Kane’s Xanadu is located in the ‘deserts of the Gulf Coast’ in Florida and built on an immense ‘private mountain’. Described as being the world’s largest private estate, it is a thinly disguised version of Randolph Hearst’s mansion, just as Kane is a thinly disguised Hearst. It was a film set made real to visit, as much a fantasy as my first visit to Disneyland’s Magic Kingdom the previous week.

The two greatest literary foundation stones for Talliston House & Gardens were Peter Straub’s Shadowland and Mark Z. Danielski’s House of Leaves. Not as well known or loved as Ghost Story, Shadowland is Straub’s The Magus. Like John Fowles’ dark psychological illusions perpetrated by the wealthy trickster Maurice Conchis, the web of Shadowland is centred by the spidery Coleman Collins. Collins is a stage magician and owner of the eponymous house where ‘everything… is a lie’. His nephew and friend arrive one summer to be taught magic – but their schooling soon takes a darker turn. In the house, previously locked rooms open to reveal ever more incredible tableaux. One doorway leads to war-torn trenches, the next a grandiose theatre. I fell in love with such delusional designs. Shadowland vies for pole position with Beast’s castle for my perfect home from home.

Another incredible influence on my architectural fantasies was Danielewski’s labyrinthine debut. Using multiple narrators, endless footnotes and a central house that metamorphoses into a terrifying underworld, House of Leaves is a classic example of ergodic literature, a term referring to text presented in patterns and orientations that mimic the written passages they contain. For example, as rooms grow and shrink, so do the lines of text. When descending a seemingly endless spiral staircase, the words corkscrew too.

My fascination with the book centres upon the sections concerning an entirely fictitious documentary film called The Navidson Record. This plots the Navidson family, who move to a new home in Virginia and begin to discover bizarre changes in its layout and dimensions. Closets appear connecting rooms with long corridors. Interior measurements exceed external ones. Videotapes are made of the house’s apparently endless spaces and passages, eventually leading to various characters disappearing or quietly going insane in the ever-widening abyss. Actually, as a quick aside, this was mirrored in part at Talliston. After I altered so much of the internal room spaces, estate agents found that their plans showed the upstairs to be significantly larger than the downstairs.

Tourists queue outside the former home of the fictional Character Sherlock Holmes on Baker Street, London (Getty)

Within Talliston there are nods to other fictional locales: 221B Baker Street is touched upon in the 1929 office, while bookplates from Poe’s House of Usher hang on walls. Nods to Marvel’s The Avengers mansion are found in its bookcases, and visitors have mentioned Kazuo Ishiguro’s Darlington Hall and even Tolkien’s Bag End in their after-tour conversations.

Along with mundanities such as ‘How much did this cost?’ and ‘Who does all the dusting?’, one question that gets asked all the time is: ‘Why?’ As if there is a reason to art. As if you can ask why did Leonardo da Vinci paint the Mona Lisa. But art does have a message, and if the project says anything it is that the secret to do extraordinary things lies within every ordinary person. At its heart it is a project about time – not about living in the past, but of taking the best of all that has come before and creating a better now. Of stopping clocks. And starting living.

Scrape a little deeper and we get to far more interesting questions, such as how much are our houses extensions of ourselves? As Ian Karamarkovich writes in his article, ‘The Tallis House as an Extension of Emily Tallis in McEwan’s Atonement‘:

‘Homes speak volumes about their occupants. Individuals bleed their qualities into their homes through conscious or subliminal choices: architectural style and location.’

The same is true of fictional houses. Sharing syllables with my own castle in the air is the Tallis family home from Ian McEwan’s 2001 novel. Emily Tallis  is a mother of three, living in rural, World War II-era England, and her home is a ‘bright orange brick, squat, lead-paned baronial Gothic’ mansion, a place reflecting her transformations in the push and pull of human life – eventually being converted into a cavernous hotel. McEwan uses Emily’s relationship with the house to suggest how its inhabitants’ lives mirror the rooms within. Having lived at the completed Talliston for three years now, I am certain that the same process occurs in reverse; our homes, workplaces and environments rub off on us, just as deeply and indelibly. We are where we inhabit, it would seem.

Ferryside house, Bodinnick, Daphne du Maurier family home on the River Fowey, Cornwall (Getty)

And if houses in literature inspire their fictional characters, fictional houses also inspire their fair share of other fictional people and places. Manderley takes centre stage in Daphne du Maurier’s 1938 novel Rebecca. While Manderley is located in south-west England, both Milton Hall, Cambridgeshire, and du Maurier’s Cornish home near Fowey were both influential in the descriptions – but perhaps not the all-pervasive atmosphere of doom – in the novel’s setting. Despite the haunted aspects of the property, the name ‘Manderley’ is cited as being one of the most popular names for ordinary houses in the UK. Stephen King (in Bag of Bones), Lars von Trier and Alfred Hitchcock have all fallen under its spell. In New York last year, I encountered another incarnation of the fictional estate of Maxim de Winter: a themed jazz bar at the entryway to the Hitchcock-inspired, site-specific theatre installation Sleep No More, by the British theatre company Punchdrunk.

So, now that I have plotted a house as a novel, I am back to plotting novels about the house. Here Talliston really comes into its own: a place of inspiration, adventure and an underlining of how important our environments are to our feelings of creativity and well-being. I strongly believe that places we live in are the people we become – and that it is up to each of us to change our world, even if it is, like the houses from literature, only in our imaginations.



1. TASK: To take an ordinary house (three-bedroom, semi-detached, ex-council house in Essex) and transform it into an extraordinary labyrinth of locations from different times and places, so that not a single square centimetre of the original house remains, while:

-keeping the orientation and use of the original rooms

-only adding those elements that a typical council-bought house would contain (conservatory, kitchen extension, garden shed, etc.)

-utilising only those tradesmen and craftspeople required by law or necessity, with all other work accomplished by a core team and volunteers.

2. TIME: Exactly twenty-five years, starting at midday on 6 October 1990, and finishing at midday on 6 October 2015.

3. COST: To do so without any outside funding over and above the time and finances of ordinary people.

The Stranger’s Guide to Talliston by John Tarrow will be published this summer by Unbound