A Horse in the Bathroom: How An Old Stable Became Our Dream Village Home

A Horse in the Bathroom: How An Old Stable Became Our Dream Village Home

by Derek J. Taylor


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781849532402
Publisher: Summersdale
Publication date: 05/08/2012
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 8.00(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Derek J. Taylor is a television news journalist and has held senior positions at Associate Press Television News, ITN, and BBC Worldwide.

Read an Excerpt

A Horse in the Bathroom

How an Old Stable Became Our Dream Village Home

By Derek J. Taylor

Summersdale Publishers Ltd

Copyright © 2012 Derek J. Taylor
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-85765-697-1



My bare feet peel away from the flagstones like sticky-tape from a refrigerator door. I must have spilt some milk by the bed. But it's the same in the bathroom. So I unlatch the bedroom door and, trying not to wake Maggie, sticky-tape my way into the kitchen, then execute a leaden-footed slalom around packing cases and upturned chairs in the living room. It's like paint half an hour after you've put the brushes away. And it's everywhere.

Stow-on-the-Wold church clock strikes and I count. Three a.m. The numbness of sleep is wearing off and I feel the panic rising. It wasn't like this when we went to bed.

It's our first night in The Old Stables, and here it is, going wrong already! Just when we thought it was safe to say, 'Phew, thank God no more guerrilla warfare with the Planning Office, or night terrors brought on by collapsing walls, poison gas and dozy apprentices. No more snow-blocked, wind-torn, flood-sodden delay.' Just when we thought our over-worked bank account could have a bit of a lie-in.

I spy a plastic bowl on the sofa and fill it with warm water. The mop's on the sideboard. And I start to swab a test patch between the back of the TV and some boxes marked 'Precious'. My feet are getting warm, stuck on one spot.

Of course, that's it. We put the underfloor heating on to take the chill off before we turned in. We always thought these so-called scratchproof, non-stainable floor slabs were too good to be true. The heat must be sweating something nasty out of them. Gawd, don't tell me we've got to hack the whole lot up. And there below are the heating pipes, waiting to puncture at the merest tap from a pickaxe.

As the church clock tinkles out quarter past, I flop onto a packing case to watch the bit I've just swilled, willing it to behave itself. I calm myself with the thought that everything looks grim at 3.15 a.m. And I suppose we all get fretful and self-absorbed when a single project takes over our lives.

It could be me, of course. Maybe I've not got the right temperament for it – a bit late to decide that now. We must have been deranged to think of converting a beat-up old stable. Too many TV home makeover shows, that's what it is. How come we didn't just buy one, ready-made?

* * *

It had all begun hopefully enough, two years before.

After a career as a TV news reporter, I was working as a consultant and living with Maggie at her house on the outskirts of Stow-on-the-Wold in the Cotswolds. But we wanted to move to somewhere we could call 'ours' without me feeling like a squatter and she a landlady. Maggie came home one day – she has a women's fashion boutique in Stow – and mentioned that a friend of hers, optimistically named Sunny, had put her Grade II-listed cottage up for sale. She was moving to India. The cottage was right in the middle of Stow.

'She's splitting the property in two,' explains Maggie. 'The cottage is one lot, and then she's selling off the rest of the land separately for development. Apparently, it's got full planning permission to build a new Cotswold stone house. Architect's plans thrown in, Sunny says.'

'Well, her cottage is worth a once-over,' I reply. 'Did you know it's got the biggest inglenook chimney in the whole of Gloucestershire? And there's a little window in the kitchen that's supposed to date from the twelfth century.'

Maggie groans.

'No way.' She shakes her head. 'It's so dark. It's got minuscule holes for windows. We'd both go white and shrivel up if we lived in a pokey little place like that.'

This is the same argument we've been having for the past six years.

Maggie wants a house with lots of light.

I need one with character.

We've already rejected scores of 'gloomy' (quote Maggie) Cotswold cottages and 'soulless' (quote me) airy bungalows. It's not that Maggie hates character, nor that I loathe light. It's just that we have different priorities. And what we do have in common doesn't help either – we're both stubborn. So we need a place with both. They do exist of course. Peer into any Cotswolds estate agent and you'll see them, usually called 'Regency mansion with many original features'. They come with those big, square-paned windows that nearly reach the ground, and usually start at around £2.5 million – about £2.15 million more than we can drum up.

'What I was thinking,' Maggie continues, 'was why don't we go for the bit of land, not the cottage? We could maybe build a home on it ourselves, something that's exactly what we're both looking for. I don't mean you and me actually laying the bricks and doing the plumbing. But get one built to our design.'

'Well it's hardly going to have much history to it, is it, if it's a new build?'

'Humour me. Let's look.'

So that's what we do the next day. Me dragging my heels and getting my nose ready for some turning-up.

Sunny leaves us to wander about on our own. The land is overgrown with privet hedges as wide as a bus, unpruned rhododendrons, the odd fruit tree, knee-high grass, and there's a weedy bit of gravel at the far end where Sunny keeps her VW.

On the far corner by the road is a bunch of old garages, a bit like the ones you see round the back of every 1950s block of south London council flats. Admittedly, Sunny's version doesn't have chipped blue paint on up-and-over doors sprayed with 'Kylie is a ... whatever'. Sunny's doors are old style, creosote daubed swing-openers. And Stow-on-the-Wold doesn't do graffiti, unless you count the mason's mark scratched on its church porch.

We have a poke around inside. Behind the end garage door there's a carpet, a couch and a little sink.

'Sunny works as a chiropractor,' Maggie explains. 'She must use this bit as her consulting room.'

The inside of the rest of the building though looks like a place that giant spiders and rats might call home. We can make out a back wall, 4 or 5 metres high, fashioned from irregular Cotswold stones. They're supposed to be honey-coloured but are as grubby as a Victorian factory chimney. With a bit of struggling over heaps of broken roof slates and shifting of rusty wheelbarrows, we also see behind the grime and cobwebs that the two end-walls are built the same way.

'They look solid enough,' says Maggie.

'Hmm,' I add. 'I tell you what, they look pretty old to me.' We stumble back out into the daylight. 'And what's more this bit of land is a burgage,' I say. Maggie's used to my pseudo-academic burblings, so she ignores me. 'Some burgages in the north Cotswolds,' I persist, 'go back over a thousand years. They had a cottage at one end – like Sunny's – then vegetables and a few chickens and pigs down here where we're standing.'

Leaving Maggie working out the direction of the rising sun, I start to stride through the undergrowth to pace out the length of the land, scraping my forehead on a damson tree almost before I've started.

The burgage is a classic length. It measures two perches wide by twelve long. That's a perch as in a 'rod, pole or perch' found in lists of antique units of measurement, a perch being the length from the back of the plough to the nose of the ox. To save you nipping out with a tape measure to check, that's about 5 metres (apparently medieval ploughs and oxen came in standard sizes). So Sunny's burgage is roughly 10 metres by 60.

I wade round the bindweed, duck under the damson, and go back and find Maggie.

'What I'm thinking,' she says, 'is what if – instead of knocking down this old building where the garages are now – we converted it? We'd get the morning sun. And we could have a courtyard here that would be warm and sheltered all day long.'

'OK, OK, I'm starting to see it,' I chip in. 'If we keep these old walls at the back and the side, we could get them cleaned up, and have the stones exposed in a big high-ceilinged main room – maybe with some oak beams. Then you could have six-foot-high windows all along the front.' There's a tinge of triumph oozing into my voice.

Maggie nods and 'Hmms' a bit. It's enough for me.

'You know, this is it,' I say. 'We just need a good builder, that's all. Let's go for it!'

So that's how it all started. My little eyes went wide. And all I could see was a vision of how it would end up, in a perfect home for both of us. Without the slightest thought for the two years of hand-wringing by day and sheet-twisting by night which was on the cards before that.

'Hang on, hang on,' says Maggie. 'There's loads of stuff we've got to find out about first.'

'Well, yes, I know that, of course,' I insist. 'But I'm just saying, can't you see it? A dazzling facade of glass for you and a tall, exposed wall of mellow stone for me. And there should be just about enough room to hold all our clothes and books as well!'

'I reckon it could be.' She's getting keen. I can hear it in her voice.

Now I don't want you to get me wrong. We don't go about drooling our way into adventures like fourteen-year-olds having a first crush and singing 'Love Will Find a Way'. No. We can be quite organised. And back home that night, we make a list of questions. They boil down to two big ones. 1) Can we afford it? And 2) Would we get planning permission?

'I can handle the money,' I say to Maggie. 'I'm good with numbers.'

She gives one of those smiles where her lips are clamped together. I'm affronted at her lack of enthusiasm for my suggestion. After all, I've got more financial credentials on my CV than just filling in expense claims as a reporter.

'You know, I did used to manage a company with a $150 million-a-year turnover,' I protest. This is what I went on to do after I stopped working in front of camera.

But Maggie knows that the American owners of the TV news company I found myself 'in charge of' insisted on putting in their own twenty-five person accounts department to track every dollar and cent of their investment. And they appointed their own finance director to ask me questions, such as, 'So, do you want to start a new service in Latin America, or would you rather fire a hundred people?' My job as chief executive was to guess, from the way he phrased the questions, what the right answer was.

'Well maybe we could do it together,' Maggie adds. She doesn't need to mention her hands-on ownership of a successful retail business for me to get the point.

'Sure,' I say. And I pull up an Excel spreadsheet on my laptop.

We look at the two sides of the equation. Sunny wants £125,000 for the burgage. And if we can get the asking price for Maggie's house, where we live now, after paying off the mortgage, we'd have about £170,000 for the building work. Sounds plenty when you consider the new house isn't going to be that big. Still, I put my name alongside an action point to find an architect who'll give us a rough costing. My other task is to phone the Cotswold District Council Planning Department in Cirencester.

Before I can get round to these jobs, I'm due in London the following day for a meeting with a client (I'm doing a bit of consultancy for a small media company), and I've arranged to have lunch afterwards with an old friend, Ralph.



'What you wanna do that for?' asks Ralph. I've just told him about our plans in Stow. He licks beer froth from the moustache that rounds off his pointy beard, then screws up the left side of his face. 'You looking to back out of life and sit in a hole waiting for a quiet death?'

Ralph lives in east London, not in one of the snappy flats around Canary Wharf, but in a mid-terrace house on one of the seedier back streets near West Ham Football Club. It's a source of pride to Ralph that you have to push through wheelie bins to travel the 8 feet from the front gate to his door.

'Well, it's where Maggie's got her business,' I reply, 'and we like it there.' As the flabby words slouch past my lips, I realise I'm showing him an ill-prepared defence against his inevitable attack.

He shakes his head. 'It's Lark-Rise- to-Candleford syndrome,' he pronounces.

'Careful Ralph,' I say, getting my thoughts in some sort of battle order, 'You read Russian at Cambridge, not English. You're wandering outside your comfort zone, and I've no idea what you're talking about.'

'Not literature. Sunday night television,' he corrects me.

'Sunday night telly!' I squeak. I've got him here. 'Let me get this right. Sunday nights, you slip into your dressing gown, microwave the cocoa and settle down in front of Lark Rise to Candleford.'

'Hardly, old son. My mother wanted a box set for Christmas, and she insisted I watch the first episode with her.'

'Hoh.' It's the sound of my sails as he steals their wind. 'But you're suggesting I watch it, are you?' I say, and taking another tack, add, 'I'm all for Jane Austen delivered to the living room of the masses, but endless nights of Dawn French and Julia Sawalha is ... is a bonnet too far.' I indulge him with a smile, and lean back to rest on my wit.

'You may not watch it, but that doesn't mean to say you're not a closet fellow-traveller. It's like homosexuality in the fifties,' Ralph presses on. 'You can't admit it to yourself, but just like all the other Lark Rise addicts, you harbour a burning desire for life in rural England where men doff their hats, "ladies" ... ' – he pauses long enough to raise both hands, each bobbing two apostrophising fingers up and down – '... curtsy, jolly red-faced cooks bake apple turnover like they don't make any more, and anyone who is nasty gets their fair dues and turns out to be nice after all just in time for the end credits.'

'You're trying to say that I'm moving to Stow-on-the-Wold out of a need to exist in some pastoral golden age?'

'There, see, doesn't it feel better now you've come out and said the words? You're a romantic, in fact the most sentimental sort of romantic.'

'Is this a defence of life in Whitechapel surrounded by drug-crazed muggers and ASBO-breaching kids?' I've been through this sort of sparring with Ralph before so I know it's best to give as good as you get.

'Hackney Marshes,' he corrects me again. 'Life in east London is what it is.'

'Very profound, Ralph.'

'It doesn't pretend to be something it isn't,' he insists. 'Living in a chocolate-box village like Stow-on-the Wold – all morris dancers and ye oldie tea shoppes – is a sugary lie. It's like setting up home in a theme park for old-aged pensioners. It's not the real world. It's an invention to feed the perverted desires of the middle classes.'

'Ah, ah, that's it,' I cry, wagging a triumphant finger towards the pub ceiling. 'I see now, these are the lunatic ramblings of a disillusioned Marxist.' I shake my head with a knowing twinkle. 'I see your evil plan, to turn me into a Cotswold cell of the Fourth Communist International.'

But Ralph's not to be bantered off course. 'It probably all stems from your childhood. Brought up in a Midlands mining village, you saw at first hand the oppression of the workers and now yearn for some utopian alternative.'

'Ralph, I admire your ingenuity. But mixing Freud with Trotsky is like ... like ... like dissecting a football with a scalpel.' It's hard work debating with Ralph. 'Anyway, by the time I was born, the coal mines were nationalised.'

'Only just. The legacy of exploitation was still there. People react in one of two ways to that kind of exposure to social injustice: they either fight it or flee it. You're doing the latter. Spurning your roots.'

'So now I'm a snob, as well!'

'Don't be too hard on yourself, Derek. I expect you'll be quite happy in Stow-on-the-Wold.' He pronounced the four words as though they're in an unfamiliar foreign language. 'We're all victims of society in our own way.'

'Well, that's a consolation.'

The haddock and chips arrive.

'I bet they don't sell many copies of The Guardian in Stow,' Ralph adds, biting the end off a ketchup sachet. And we declare a truce.

I usually enjoy the journey back on the train. The threatening grot of west London's trackside houses viewed from a pre-booked window seat gives way to the reassuring safety of fields with cows in. But today the graffiti speeding past outside, I'd swear, says 'Lark Rise addict' and 'morris dancer junkie'. And the cows, when they finally arrive, look like mock-ups on a low-budget film set.

So by the time I join Maggie on the sofa with my mug of Red Bush tea, my mind's not on our usual news exchange. Well, not on Maggie's turn anyway. I gather there was some sort of drama at the shop today, something about a male transvestite, or a Dior frock being shoplifted, or a woman from Leicestershire who was going to buy twenty-eight pairs of designer jeans and then changed her mind. Something like that, because throughout I'm staring at the eucalyptus through the French windows and then at the Cotswold stone fireplace we had put in two years ago without seeing them.

'So that was my day at the shop,' she finishes. 'It was pretty boring.' And when I just grunt, she goes on, 'Anyway, I'm starving. What are we having for supper? Are we going to do it together? You can tell me about your lunch with Ralph while we get on with it.' This is too many questions and propositions for my distracted brain to cope with, so I just follow her into the kitchen.


Excerpted from A Horse in the Bathroom by Derek J. Taylor. Copyright © 2012 Derek J. Taylor. Excerpted by permission of Summersdale Publishers Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Author's Note,
1 – The Squatter and the Landlady,
2 – Lark Rise to Marxism,
3 – The Nice Ham Syndrome,
4 – Cavaliers and Gasworks,
5 – Strange Encounters at the Burgage,
6 – Popping Out for a Tub of Olives and a Matisse,
7 – Hogsthorpe – Twinned with Paris,
8 – Nuclear Winter in Chipping Norton,
9 – The Crash of a Door ITL[Not]ITL Being Slammed,
10 – Hitler Love Child in Oxfordshire Village,
11 – A Bolivian Chinese Puzzle,
12 – Glibpert's Revenge,
13 – £*{],%@@, More or Less,
14 – The Wedding, a Two Act Drama,
15 – A Seventeenth-century Car Park,
16 – Fourth Apocalypse Horseman in Redundancy Shock!,
17 – The Golden Age Swindle,
18 – Tales of the Dead,
19 – Me and Bairt Lawrence – Part One,
20 – Me and Bairt Lawrence – Part Two,
21 – A Horse in the Bathroom,
22 – The Gypsy and the Jagman,
23 – Culturally Diverse Murders,
24 – OK, Ethel, Back off!,
25 – A Helping Hand from a Fairy,
26 – Of Walls and Wigmakers,
27 – Henge, Pound, Pump and Cross,
28 – A Stilt-walker's Guide to Hopscotch,
29 – Saving the Whale – or the Hedgehog, at Any Rate,
30 – King Penguins and Miniature Vampires,
31 – The End is Nigh ... Beware!,
32 – Lottery Winner Falls Off Yacht,
33 – First Night Nerves – Again,
34 – PC Jobs' Lopsided Heart,
35 – The Old Stables into the Sunset,
Then What?,
Before and After Plans,

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