Eve of destruction: a childhood home

by Roz Morris

Alderley Edge, Cheshire, UK

Roz, good to bump into you here on Facebook! Did you know your old house has been knocked down? So sad.

Many reunions on social media bring a surprise, but they are rarely so seismic.

I searched immediately for my old street on Google Earth.

Outside my window, it was a cold night in February 2017. On Google Earth, it was the previous summer.

The trees were lush. I hovered in over lawns cropped short, streaked with straw-coloured sunburn. And my old house, a mountain range of red roofs, was still whole.

Screenshot Google Earth

I hived off some screenshots and posted a brief note on Facebook, where other friends sympathised. I ran around the web, searching by the house’s name, trying to collect other glimpses before they were overwritten by updates. Or, simply, by time.

Which is odd because I left the house in 1983, aged 17, and went back as little as possible—a few times a year, and even that was too often.

My parents sold it in 1996, after the divorce. My mother wanted me to help her clear it up for sale but I wouldn’t be dragged back.

“All your things are still here,” she said, hoping I would help her do something with the accumulated junk of child years, and the teenage books, clothes and stuff. I preferred to abandon them. Even my teen diaries, which I have to hope no one could be bothered to read.

The divorce wasn’t a surprise. Harmony was a fragile commodity in that house, because of the way my parents’ personalities mixed. By my teen years, a raised voice would put me on edge in case it turned into rage. I learned not to create problems for them.

At the age of 14, I realised I was becoming short-sighted because I couldn’t see the blackboard at school, but I feared they would argue about who would take me to the optician so I tried to manage by my own resources. I arrived at every lesson in a state of panic in case I couldn’t grab a desk at the front, which caused bitter confrontations with my classmates, but I couldn’t explain the real reason in case it reached adult ears and my parents were told. I concealed my secret for a year until my vision was so blurred that I had to confess.

Then I went away to university in London, and every time I came back for the holidays the brittle atmosphere was worse.

But we grow up or move on; all personnel have been much happier since we went our separate ways.

There were good stories to tell about living there, of course. One particular incident became a fond part of family legend. I was barely a year old, so I have only my parents’ accounts, which are unreservedly amused and—what’s more—in agreement.

A builder’s lorry backed into a gatepost and knocked it over. On top was a stone ball, which rolled off and began to travel. Mother, father and the red-faced lorry driver gave chase. Did I mention the house was on a hill? It was. A long, twisty hill of about a mile, with steep areas where your bicycle brakes had to work hard.

The ball made a strong start and gathered speed. Nobody could catch it, and anyway it would have flattened them because it was as big as a Fitball and made of solid stone. There was nothing to do but wave to motorists and warn them to get out of the way. Despite the many curves and corners, the ball somehow stayed travelling down the road, bouncing off potholes and glancing off kerbs.

After a good 10-minute run, it reached the point where the road began its final descent to the village. At the bottom, the National Westminster Bank stood with an arched open door, exactly like a football goal. A score looked certain.

And then the ball disappeared. It had dropped into a manhole. Luckily, the man who should have been in the hole was sitting on a wall eating sandwiches. A crane was summoned and the ball was hoisted out and carried back home.

So: that house. It was called Edge Croft and was built in 1909, high up on the hills in Alderley Edge in Cheshire, a place now beloved of Premier League footballers. In the late 60s, about the time I was born, my parents ran a building company. They bought Edge Croft in a run-down state and did a major refit.

It had tantalising relics of former glory: a stable block with a cast-iron cupola like an ornate salt cellar; greenhouses with Edwardian heating pipes and vines that produced tiny grapes that we made into wine. The house originally had a grass tennis court, but that was sold off separately as building land. The garden path, though, still knew the old layout. It ran under the fence in the back garden and reappeared in the shrubbery on the front drive.

Inside, the house once had a system of bells for summoning servants. They were ripped out by the builders, but the bell-pushes still remained in the master rooms. With those scant details I became a house whisperer, on a mission to find all clues of things that had been removed.

My father happened to remark that there had been fireplaces in the upstairs rooms. I went around my bedroom, tapping the walls, until I found a spot that sounded hollow. With the end of a screwdriver I carved fireplace firmly and visibly into the wallpaper, so it would never again be lost, which I’m sure my parents were very grateful to me for.

Fortunes changed. The building company went bust.

The house’s upkeep became monstrously expensive. We turned off the heating in some of the rooms and they became bleak and chilly, as though they were being reclaimed by the outdoors. The cupola on top of the stable block rusted and fell off. The greenhouses lost their glass, pane by pane. I now own a house of much more modest size with my husband, Dave, and it creates some age-related headaches that are tricky to manage on the precarious earnings of an author. It makes me appreciate that Edge Croft must have been a crippling burden. Sometimes my parents talked about splitting it in two and selling one half, and I know I reacted with outrage, not knowing the first thing about the realities. It would possibly have eased their worries to move somewhere more manageable, but they never did.

In one of the grown-up rooms, I found pictures of the house in its original state. I was astonished to see it once had curved bays and glittering leaded lights. My parents had stripped them all off, even the gables, and replaced them with sliding windows and grim grey pebbledash. Edge Croft used to be a period house. Now it looked like a bus garage. I informed them, with the haughtiness that only an eight year old can muster, of my great disappointment.

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“Those gables and windows had all rotted,” they said. “And you couldn’t see the view.”

The view was one of the house’s defining features. An uninterrupted, south-facing vista over the Cheshire plain. Fields that sloped away and then became bands of hedges, hills, and blue distance. Right on the horizon was the radio telescope at Jodrell Bank, six miles away. Whatever my parents disagreed about, they agreed that the view was special.

Being a child, I had no idea why all that light and space would be good for the soul. But I found the telescope spellbinding. Whenever you looked at it, it presented a different shape. It might be sideways on, its struts and girders looking like a bicycle wheel, faded by the distance to navy blue. Sometimes it was a white eye, as the reflective dish pointed straight at you. I used to watch it through binoculars, trying to catch it move, knowing that it was tracking something at a vast distance in the heavens.

As home became increasingly strained, the telescope embodied qualities I hoped I would have in my life—curiosity and wonder. It looked at the sky. It believed in the future.

I went to college. I returned for holidays, reluctantly, and every time the battles had become more profound. The divorce was a relief, a split for us all. We could go our separate ways.

So I refused to help prepare the house for the sale. I didn’t want to sift through the artefacts of daily family functioning. The mugs and dishes and dinner plates, for instance. Our family culture of what was used when and what always stayed in the cupboard. These were rules we all knew and lived by, every single day. A set of traditions built over the years. A narrative understood only by us. To look at it again would be to rejoin the family. And perhaps I also didn’t want to see it dismantled.

Still, I often puzzled about the house. Those walls and rooms, the fields under that bright spread of sky, contained me in my earliest years. A family house is one of your guardians. As a quiet, imaginative child, I had spent as much time alone with it, on my inward paths, as I had with its people. I had a relationship with it in its own right.

I often dreamed I was back there. The scenarios were frustrated and fretful; I was usually stranded and trying to get back to my life in London. The dreams persisted for two decades. But I began to get a more settled feeling when, a few years ago, my father gave me some slides of the 1960s renovation works.

I’d never seen them before. My favourite is taken high up on the scaffolding as they stripped off the gable at the back, looking out over the great expanse of the Cheshire plain. The trees are a summer colour (again). The distant hills are baking in a blue haze. It looks still and serene. Full of promise and hope. This was the beginning of it becoming our house, with our view. It seems in itself like a dream, or a picture of a dream.

I’d sometimes search for Edge Croft on Google, just to see what came up. Usually nothing did.

One time, I came across a book about the houses of Alderley Edge. The author had spoken to Edge Croft’s next owner, the family who bought it from my mother. They were proud to explain that the house was a fine example of the Arts and Crafts style.

This thrilled me; it had an official pedigree, which I never knew. They reinstated the exterior features, including the curved bays and the striped gables. The latter must have been an extreme labour of love because gables can’t have made any difference to the experience of living there.

I called up the location on Google Earth, to see if I could snoop on what they’d done. I saw the many peaks of its red roof, the familiar outline of the garden and the stable-block outbuildings, but couldn’t see much detail.

One idle day in 2016, I typed ‘Edge Croft’ into Google. To my surprise, I found estate agent details. After 20 years, the new owners (they would always be new) were selling.

There were pictures. Some rooms were hard to recognise with another family’s furniture, carpets and fittings. I identified the lounge by the stained-glass windows that flanked the fireplace. That was one of the rooms we’d had to abandon to the cold. The hall still had its oak panelling; the art nouveau fireplace with poppies in beaten copper; the newel post at the bottom of the stairs swathed in metal leaves like a church ornament, with the blue glass lampshade that was original to the house.

Some of my parents’ interior alterations had been undone and I liked that. The new owners took down a partition and restored the master bathroom to its full length. And at last I could see what the rooms were like with the windows it was intended to have—a picture I had tried so hard to imagine those decades ago. Here, I had to side with my parents. From outside the frames were handsome; from inside, they blocked the view.

My favourite pictures were of the views from the balcony over the fields. A mesmerising oasis of green, quite unchanged. Jodrell Bank, white as a bleached shell on the rim of the horizon.

I visited the house frequently on its web page. I saw when it had sold.

Then the message arrived on Facebook from Michelle. The house had gone.

Husband Dave said, “Aren’t you going to write to your father and tell him?” I said I’d better not because it might upset him.

I posted a brief note of surprise on my Facebook feed. Wise Uncle Google delivered to me an architect’s website with plans for the new house. They had the effrontery to keep its name, Edge Croft. And the effrontery to make it one word, which I refuse to do here. The replacement house will be a boggling four-storey footballer’s pad with underground parking for eight cars. The front of it will look like Lidl.

My Facebook crowd commiserated. My cousin, who I often chat to on Facebook late on a Sunday, logged on and joined the lament. He remembered visiting the house and being enthralled by Jodrell Bank.

Then my brother noticed.

Yes, I have a brother. Did I not say my family is good at estrangement and the divorce was a split for us all? My brother and I have not seen each other since about 1990. We last exchanged words, as in speech-meets-ears, in 1992.

We were acquainted on Facebook, but in only a distant way. Occasionally we’d make a run-by comment on a post; safe remarks on pictures of our pets.

Now, though, he said: “I visited Edge Croft in 1999 and the new owners showed me round.” This was considerably more than small talk.

His wife joined in. “It was an amazing house. Dread to think what they’ll put there instead.”

Brother went googling and came back with a YouTube video of Alderley Edge. Dave jumped on too. It got late. Past midnight. Most of the commenters drifted off to other conversations, or probably to bed. Just a few people remained, like the last survivors at a party. All of them were family. Me, Dave, my brother, his wife, my cousin.

This was the longest, most meaningful conversation I had had with my closest relative in more than two decades.

Some of us have never even met.

I have never met my sister-in-law. Dave has never met her or my brother, or spoken to either of them—not even through the casual channels of Facebook.

My cousin, as he talked to us all, may not have realised how unprecedented this was.

I found Edge Croft on Google Street View. The last time I’d looked, I’d seen that the new owner had changed the gates. I went looking for that image, but the Street View car had done a new pass. Now the wire demolition fences were up. The stable block had gone. The garden on the other side was scalped. The house stood alone on a mound of bare, scarred earth. The eve of destruction.

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We carried on, posting our memories, running away into the internet, bringing back scraps from where Edge Croft still existed.

It’s said that funerals and memorials are times when you might meet old faces and renew old acquaintances. And that night, this seemed to be happening, over the digital ghost of a house.

Images courtesy of Roz Morris unless otherwise specified.

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Roz Morris is an author, editor, writing tutor and book doctor. She has worked in publishing for more than 20 years in various capacities, ghostwritten bestselling novels, and written fiction as herself. She has a no-nonsense blog for writers and self-publishers, Nail Your Novel, and a series of writing books by the same name. Follow her on Twitter as @Roz_Morris.

Author: Libby O'Loghlin

Novelist and poet, social entrepreneur and content coach. Co-Founder + Co-Creative Director of The Woolf Quarterly; Co-Founder of WriteCon and The Powerhouse Zurich.

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