Cecily Sidgwick biography - Chapter 9 - 'Trewoofe Orchard' Days
As ‘Trewoofe Orchard’ was the setting for the second half of Cecily’s novel, Storms and Teacups (1931), which again features Alfred and herself as Thomas and Mary Clarendon, she tells us much about the house, its layout and its decor, the garden, through which the Lamorna stream ran, rather too freely on occasion, and the access driveway, which required visitors to negotiate a ford.
"When we first came to Cornwall, we lived in a very small cottage called None-Go-By....When we had it, a great many people came in and out. Too many for its size. So we built a small house about a mile from the sea, and when we had built the house, we bought the land; after which we arranged for access to the house. At least, this is the way our London solicitor described the procedure; but he is an old friend and considers us unpractical. He disapproved of our coming to Cornwall, and asked why we wanted to bury ourselves. But that buried feeling does not depend on where you live but on your own nature."
Most of the houses built in the valley in the years immediately before the War bear stylistic similarities, particularly as regards their windows, and are likely to have been erected by the same builder. Cecily makes reference to her discussions with the architect that they employed in her short story, The House Sensible, which was included in her 1913 collection, Mr Sheringham and Others. One of her principal concerns was the kitchen. In commenting upon the houses built by the previous generation, she exclaimed, "Look at their dark, damp basement kitchens; look at their wicked staircases; consider their attics! The wonder is that women can be found to toil in them. The wonder is that that those who do have any nerves and temper left." She was also equally dismissive of the newly built homes in suburbia, where "the jerry builder thinks any God-forsaken corner will do for serving wenches to spend sixteen hours a day in, and he puts them a window half a yard from a blank stucco wall." Her kitchen was to be light and airy and have a view. On presenting his plans, the architect made clear his priorities, stating, "Here are wall spaces for every bit of your furniture. Here are two-feet thick granite walls, so that neither heat nor cold can trouble you or sounds annoy; here is your kitchen as pleasant as your dining room; here are hot and cold taps - here - here - and there (no carrying of water in my houses); here are your cupboards, your tiled hearths and fenders, your tiled sinks, your wide, easy stairs, and your big casements windows that let in the sun." Cecily was rather disappointed that she could not have the roof of her dreams, with "drooping red eaves that hang like brows over the ground-floor rooms", and that there were no "quaint, pointed gables, with little windows high up in them like eyes", but these did not fit with ‘The House Sensible’.
‘Trewoofe Orchard’ was not that large, being, in effect, a thirty feet square box, albeit a gable frontage has been added to one side. There was no porch initially and, on entering the hall, which had a coat cupboard that ended under the stairs, Albert’s study, which was lined with books, was on the left. On the right was the dining room, which had a large window looking down the drive, whilst, at the back on that side, was the drawing room, with a window seat that overlooked a trout pond that Alfred created. The kitchen, with scullery and a coal house, was behind the study, and again had fine views over the pond and the back of the garden. There were four bedrooms in all, but Cecily and Alfred had separate ones, with a connecting door. These were above the main reception rooms. There was just the one bathroom.
Internally, none of the rooms had any particular features of distinction, albeit a large granite lintel was placed over the range. Cecily repeatedly indicated that Alfred and herself had no artistic sensibilities, and descriptions of their home tend to refer to it as being pleasant and simple. In the novel, it is the smallest of the four bedrooms that she describes in some detail, so as to give some indication of her taste. This had its own wash-basin and was a cosy little room, as it was warmed by the kitchen chimney and the study chimney.
"The walls...are a warm, pale yellow like the petals of a primrose, the curtains, carpet and silk eiderdown are all green...The only picture is a large photograph of the well-known little Carpaccio Angel with a lute. We had bought that from Venice last year. There were no ornaments anywhere except a grey and green pot with a lid that [the Rector’s wife] had brought me from Damascus; and there were four green candlesticks, two on the dressing table and two on the mantelpiece on either side of the Damascus jar."
During the Sidgwicks’ time, the house had no electricity. They relied solely on lamps and candles. Cecily commented, "When we come back in winter, it takes me at least a week to get used to that." However, whatever drawbacks the internal arrangements may have had, the views from the windows over the four acre garden, which was surrounded by trees and contained a number of water features, were superb.
Non-locals found the property difficult to locate, as it was not visible from the road and the access drive to it was through a small wood. The fact that a ford had to be traversed added to the sense of remoteness and seclusion. Indeed, the ford could become a raging torrent in winter, rendering the property inaccessible. Cecily commented,
"Although the ford was inconvenient, not to say dangerous, when in spate, it was beautiful, especially by moonlight. It flows across a road for which, after making it, we pay a small yearly rent, and there is a granite footbridge on one side of it with several steps down to the road at each end. We have had to put a hand-rail on the bridge, as on dark winter nights some people found it so unsafe that they lay down and wiggled over it on all fours. The water tears under it over a tumble of granite rocks, amongst which it has made a deep channel, so that if you fell from the bridge in the dark you might easily hurt or even kill yourself. If you fell in the ford, you might or might not come to grief, but you would be up to your middle in water after much rain."
They placed stepping stones on either side of the bridge and "there are a great many of them, because when there is a flood, the water comes a long way beyond the usual confines of the ford and covers the road".
Describing the scene under moonlight, she commented, "I stood on the bridge for a time watching the water swirling under it. It was the colour of peat and was breaking in foamy waves on the rocks, but it would be still deeper and wilder [if there was more rain]. It came through a thicket of bramble thorn and furze, and the moon shone on the brown leaves left here and there on the bare branches, on the spikes of the furze and on the rich colours of dead bracken."
The Sidgwicks employed two servants - a cook and a housemaid - but, after the War, found it almost impossible to find anyone trustworthy, who was willing and able to do such chores for very long. Youngsters now looked for less taxing work and used the new jargon that called domestic servants "wage-slaves". Indeed, one of the principal themes of the novel, as indicated in the title, is the difficulties experienced with a range of domestic helpers, including Emma from ‘None-Go-By’ days, who was now married, during the trying peak holiday season, when numerous guests, including a number who were uninvited and not welcome, lay claim to the Clarendon’s hospitality at all hours of the day, even attempting to take over their kitchen.
Aiming to save costs and overcome some of the difficulties of getting supplies to such a remote spot, the Sidgwicks kept poultry. However, in the novel, the Clarendons returned home to find that all thirty of their hens had been killed by a fox, as their servants had failed to round them up one evening and had not tried to intervene when they heard the slaughter start. When challenged, the sullen maid had said, "He came in the night. You could hardly expect us to do without sleep and sit up with the chickens. We may be working people, but we’re ‘uman beans". This maid gave her notice in, as the view from the kitchen window did not please her. Mary Clarendon commented, "She could only see a bit of lawn, the bird table with an everlasting flutter of wings about it, the sky, a stream garden, a great bank of heaths, and trees. What she wanted was motor traffic, gas lamps and ‘uman beans."
Creating a garden out of a granite strewn wooded ravine was not a simple task, Furthermore, in addition to the main stream flowing through the lowest level of the garden, there was also a mill leat, which ran through the woods above the house, and this was partially diverted to add additional water features, such as the trout pond. It also overflowed through the property in times of heavy rain, and so this needed to be managed as well. After a few years, the atmospheric space that Cecily created was widely lauded, and the novel features a family who have been brought to the property purely to view the garden. However, they were used to formal lawns, flower borders, with geraniums and colourful bedding plants, and dedicated rose beds, and did not appreciate that the terrain made such standard features impossible, or that rhodedendrons and azaleas did flower, but only in the spring. Cecily commented, "Our ‘lawns’ were any shape, nearly as rough as a field and divided by a stream garden in which we grew irises, Osmunda, Caltha, Saxifraga Peltata and hundreds of primulas, the kinds that spread and prosper in a wet place." There was also a patch crammed with Colchicum, and rows of sweet peas. However, they did discover and promote some rare plants - Dactylorhiza maculata subsp. ericetorum was registered in the joint names of Alfred and Dick Ullmann with the Botanical Soceity of the British Isles in June 1912, whilst Dick Ullmann registered Viola riviniana as having been found at Trewoofe in April 1913. In addition, on a small terrace, which enjoyed the sun, they created a vegetable patch, but did not attempt to obscure this from sight. She added,
"[We] never ask people to look at our garden. We know it is not as well kept as it would be if we could spend more on it or work harder in it ourselves. But in our eyes, it is one of the most beautiful gardens we know, because it is made in a wooded ravine and intersected by a deep rushing stream that tumbles over granite rocks, widens near the house into Thomas’ trout pond and then hurries to the sea again, foamy and gurgling."
However, in a bad storm, the close presence of woods and stream that gave the garden such character in the summer could become problematic. In the novel, an ash tree falls across the drive, nearly killing them, whilst the trout pool was transformed from a tranquil pond. "It had overflowed its banks in every direction and was tearing over the dam in torrents. All the little streams crossing our garden were swollen too and the main one had spread over the lawns on both sides and was pouring down a bank to the two small ponds given up to plants that flourish in damp places."
The idea of Alfred having his own trout pond most probably came from John Lamorna Birch, who had created one near his studio by the river lower down the valley. Alfred refused to allow ducks on his pond and whiled away many a happy hour fishing, with his trusty pipe in his mouth. Indeed, when the holidaymakers had gone home and when the servants were in order, it was a beautiful, tranquil spot, and Cecily had a hut constructed on a terrace in the sloping section of the garden at the front of the house where she could do her writing, inspired by the scenery and away from domestic hassles.