Home is where the heart is…in your imagination


Joan Aiken’s childhood home

   We have just been saying goodbye to our old family home, which had belonged to my  Grandparents since the 1920’s,  the village house where my mother Joan Aiken spent most of her childhood before she went away to boarding-school at the age of twelve.  During her lifetime she had the good fortune to be able to go back there often and visit her family, as she still lived nearby.  Now, thanks to her writing, as in this piece from 1980 where she describes her happy memories of the house and village,  even though the family are all gone now, and we have had to say goodbye to the house,   I can still go there whenever I wish.

Joan wrote:

“When I was a child, I was lucky enough to live in a very beautiful place in Sussex, England. Our cottage, which was quite small, perched on top of a steep bank behind a gnarled laurel tree, and a quince tree which was covered with pink blossom in spring and quinces in fall. Once a woman came to the front door and wanted to buy the quince tree. Imagine wanting to buy some­body’s quince tree! I wrote a story about her.  Across the nar­row, deep lane was a farm, with an orchard, pigs, cows, poultry, and two huge horses called Prince and Blossom. Our cot­tage was called Farrs, after someone who had lived in it dur­ing its three hundred years. In its big garden were plenty of climb­ing-trees — a willow, a walnut. apple, plum and cherry trees, a tall copper-beech.

The village was very small — only forty houses. I can still remember the names of all the people who lived in them.  There was a shop, a pub, a cobbler, and a black­smith. All around lay green un­spoiled country: fields, woods, brooks, an encircling horseshoe of rolling chalky hills, the South Downs, which I described in my book The Cuckoo Tree.   The Cuckoo Tree was really there, and still is. We could walk for miles in any direction, looking for white violets, butterfly orchids, green-glass snails, blackberries. mushrooms, or wild strawberries. In winter if there was snow we tobogganed down the steep slopes of the Downs. When my elder brother and sister were at home I did these things with them. When they were away at boarding-school and college I missed them terribly, and counted the days till they would be back. That was partly why I took to writing, because I was lonely; until my younger brother grew old enough to be good company  – he was seven years younger.  I made up some of my first stories for him, telling them to him as we came home, limping and thirsty, from some long expedition over the Downs.

Now I am grown up, I am lucky in a different way. Because the cottage where I lived as a child, and the village, and the green country, are still there, almost exactly the same. My younger brother owns the house now, so I can visit it whenever I want to. Another walnut tree has grown where the old one used to be. The quince tree still grows in front and the copper beech at the back. It is now so huge that you can see it from the top of the Downs.

Many people aren’t able to go back to their childhood homes. The world changes so fast now: whole towns grow up like mus­tard, or are knocked down; whole landscapes are changed by bulldozers; wars force people to leave their countries and never return. So I know how lucky — how fantastically lucky —I am. Whenever I want, I can go back and take a look at my child­hood scene, and it is still there, like a tiny precious world inside a glass paperweight. I can go to the top of the stair, where a little bureau stood, which I shared with my sister; where I used to sit on the wooden chest that held the vacuum cleaner, and lick my pencil, and write “Once upon a time …”

And I appreciate this luck. I marvel at it more and more, be­cause now I lead a very movable life, half in England (where I have a house five miles from my brother’s); half in New York where my husband teaches painting. Last week I was in a mossy English lane, looking at icicles hanging from a sand-stone cliff. Now, from where I sit in a room in Manhattan I can see the Empire State Building, all lit up, red and blue. Next week I shall be in Australia, where I have never been. Sometimes all these changes seem too start­ling, too dreamlike. As I fly, faster than sound, from one place to another, the only thing that stays constant is the book I am writing, the place I have in my mind … just now it is an old, old stone city, the city of New Bath, thousands of feet up among a ring of volcanoes somewhere in the Andes, where Queen Guinevere is still waiting, as she has waited since the year 577, for King Arthur to come back …”

The book she was writing was The Stolen Lake, one of The Wolves Chronicles, telling of her heroine Dido Twite’s adventures in a Southern American country which she imagined had long ago been settled by the Romans, and where the ship that should have been bearing Dido and its English naval crew back to Old England has been summoned to find and return a stolen lake – the lake which may contain the sword Excalibur…

8 thoughts on “Home is where the heart is…in your imagination

  1. It’s both wonderful and strange to realise that a place you picture in your mind’s eye from the description in a work of fiction has a basis in reality. I well remember that quince tree and now will have to re-read those Armitage stories — they’re well overdue a review from me. Thanks for publishing this quote, Lizza.


    • A pleasure! The village was certainly the source and setting of the Armitage stories, as you realised, and some of them drew on real people and events…the rest came from her wonderful imagination – no Unicorns remain, sadly.


  2. Oh, how I enjoyed reading this! All the more because I have a led a very movable life myself. There are some wondrous things one can experience when dividing a life between two continents, but there’s a great deal to be said for having deep roots in a single place, too.


  3. I was so pleased to read this and to find out that the Cuckoo Tree is a real tree. This was the first Joan Aiken book I ever read – the copy I now own is the library copy which I read when I was young. I was lucky enough to buy the same copy at my local library’s stock sale. I love all of the ‘Wolves’ books but The Cuckoo Tree is still my favourite, with Black Hearts in Battersea a close second. I love the descriptions of the canal boat with the smugglers on board, and the elephant marching through the countryside and Dido running through the mist to the tree. All lovely! Thank you for this post – it has made me very nostalgic for my childhood reading!


  4. Thank you! I like The Cuckoo Tree especially too, as I grew up in Petworth, Sussex where some of it takes place, and know all those strange place names, like Tegleaze and Dog Kennel Cottages…! If you go to the website The Wonderful World of Joan Aiken there is a little film on the Fun Page which shows Joan climbing the tree, and sitting down to write the book. In fact I’m now tempted to put up a post about it!


Leave a Comment?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s