Our dream was to find a house with a large garden and well away from a road. We searched for many months – scanning the advertisements in the local papers – collecting information and finally finding the advertisement and details of Llanfoist House. Estate Agent jargon omitted the condition details, what captured our imagination was the drive lined with Scots Fir trees, the conservatory and that it was a large house. We could turn it into flats and let some of it to pay the mortgage, we could grow vegetables and live cheaply, we could have a goat and milk it – we would have safe magical space for our little girl – our cats would not be run over on the road. The price was way out of our budget and it was impossible in those days to get much of a mortgage and completely impossible to raise money on old buildings. So on a sunny day in late February the journey was made from Pontypool to find this hidden treasure.
We had made an appointment, but when we arrived there was no sign of anyone. Cautiously looking into a small back yard I found the Major fast asleep, sitting on a three legged milking stool with his pipe stuck in his trouser fly, a classic knotted handkerchief over his head shading his eyes from the afternoon sun. Flustered at being caught napping we were shown into a dark kitchen – dark because the decoration was dull and the room was poorly lit by a small window very dusty and cobwebby. A cream colour rayburn stood in front of what had been a fireplace, a small scullery to one side housed the kitchen sink – which was draped with cobwebs and grimy corners indicating the poor vision of the person who washed up. Against the wall directly opposite the back door was the most magnificent oak Welsh dresser – glowing with the patina of old age and centuries of wear and polish. Arranged on the shelves was a fabulous collection of apothecary jars – 26 in total and a pill plaque – Delft ware and hugely valuable.
The house continued to amaze us with its contrasts of decay and images of a past lifestyle. There were gas light fittings throughout the house, no longer in use – some of the wiring was the original lead covered. Rings of damp in several rooms showed that there were serious leaks in the roof which the Major tried to hide by removing the buckets, but not able to remove the rings of water that had splashed out of the varying sized bowls. Some beautiful antiques in odd corners indicated earlier riches and inheritance. Many pieces had gone, charmed by travelling con-men they had been persuaded to sell some of their treasures for a few hundred pounds – instead of the thousands that they were undoubtedly worth. But they had refused to part with the apothecary jars or the Welsh dresser which they later said that we should have as they were perfect for the house. We refused this generous offer and we told them that they were very valuable and they should give them to their children.
Our first experience of lapson souchon tea – the overlying flavour of smoke made us think that the tea was very old and that fumes from the antiquated rayburn had somehow been infused into the brew. This we had in the little used drawing room which was dominated by a large grand piano. The major had decided to take up the piano when an old man and sadly could not play because of the severity of his arthritis. Next to the drawing room, but only approachable from the outside, was the classic conservatory. Filled with a huge grape-vine, very tall geraniums and massive epiphilliums. The old couple were charming – the kind of people that you want to include in your everyday life. It took many months before we were able to buy the house because it was sold to someone else who backed out at the last minute.