English houses are an infuriating combination of the cosy and the absurd.
There are few pleasures comparable to walking home down a street lined with traditional-looking English houses. Diminutive in height, sloped roofs as observation decks for modulating blackbirds and rasping crows. Cats loitering by the front door. Bay windows that invite you to peek into the warmth inside. The houses may have been designed as identical, but each one has a touch of individuality. The stained glass window above the front door may have a different pattern, or the wooden door painted a different colour, with a unique knocker, and every hedge blooms with different flowers. Compare that with the impersonal high-rise blocks of flats in Italy, France, Germany and Spain. Here you can see the sunset splashing the rooftops. Here, there are no blinds on the windows – even on the ground floor, and many front doors have glass panels. We are not – yet – so worried about break-ins here, as people are on the Continent, and for that I am thankful.
English houses look adorable. On the outside.
Once you open the front door, you generally find yourself at the bottom of a steep, narrow staircase, each step not deep enough to support the full length of an adult shoe sole. You tackle the stairs with – more often than not – a part of your foot hanging in the air: your heel on the way up, and your toes on the way down.
The inside of English houses tends to be cosy – if cluttered – with a fine powdering of dust on the surfaces, perhaps to give the place a sense of the “lived in”. Here, there is no danger of slipping and breaking a limb on the over-polished parquet common in Italian homes. The carpets are warm, soft – and seldom washed. We live in the comfortable belief, that vacuuming once a week actually makes the carpet clean. What is wrong with easily washable rugs? Beneath the carpets, the floor boards are rough and with spider-friendly gaps. In fact, most English houses include accommodation for eight-legged creatures which, local belief has it, bring luck to the home and – another native superstition – do not sting.
English houses, because they are made with much wood, creak with the variation of temperature, season, time of day and moon phase. And so, alone in the house, you hear a number of suspect creaks, groans, squeaks and pops which, if you give your imagination free rein, become goblins, fairies and ghosts. The house sounds as though it has a personality of its own, and that is part of its charm.
A visitor from some Continental countries – especially ones that were influenced by the Greco-Roman love of cleanliness – will be shocked by the shortage of bathrooms in an English house. Unlike Italy, for instance, our architects consider it a waste of space putting an extra bathroom as soon as a third bedroom has been built (naturally, I am not referring to expensive modern constructions). It is not unusual for a two-storey, six-bedroom house, to have just one bathroom and, if you are lucky, a Lilliputian loo under the stairs, the use of which requires remarkable physical agility to avoid banging yourself against the toilet, the sink, the towel hook and the door knob. On the subject of bathrooms, the vast majority of homes still have separate taps for hot and cold water, forcing you to swing your hands from freezing to scalding. The reasons for this sadistic plumbing escape me. No doubt it stems from some deep psychological need to shun the pleasure of warm water on your hands. These taps are fitted so close to the back of the invariably minuscule sink, that it is impossible to keep your back straight while washing your hands. Again, the plumbing makes sure that you do not wallow in obviously immoral comfort.
There is something of the fairy magic in the atmosphere of a traditional English house and, as such, it is built to fit the stature of fairies, pixies and little people. The ceilings are low, the rooms tiny, the built-in wardrobes (a rare feature), sometimes not deep enough to accommodate wide coat hangers.
One of the most charming features of an English house, are the now slightly old-fashioned sash windows. Impossible to wash from the outside, without the help of a professional, these have the convenience of opening from the bottom or the top. Moreover, let us admit it, they are so pretty. More modern houses have – somewhat illogically – windows opening outwards. On the Continent, windows open inwards, hence allowing for fresh air even when it rains. Here, open your windows in nothing less than perfect weather, and you get your window panes rained on, and pooed on by birds. Again, impossible to wash on the outside, unless you hire a window cleaner.
England is a country of actors, of writers, of diplomats, of economists. Perhaps we should hire architects from abroad.