The Hermitage, Petworth ~ Joan Aiken’s last home
My mother Joan Aiken died in the month of January, in fact her favourite month, because she said it was the most hopeful time of all, with the whole new year lying ahead. Like her own mother, she had firm opinions and often voiced them, although when I am listening for that familiar voice I sometimes make surprising discoveries. It being January I was listening out, and in this case what appeared was a rough version of poem I had never seen before, that I found in an old notebook, and although it was clearly written many years earlier when she was young, it seems to describe the last house she came to live in..The Hermitage.
This little portrait of Joan’s last house was painted by the architect friend who helped her bring it back to life, when she and her painter husband discovered it lying ruined and abandoned on the edge of the little town of Petworth in Sussex where they lived. The house then went on to play a fairly haunting part in several of her historical novels about the Paget family, set in and around her home town of Petworth. It had plenty of history, lying between two churchyards, it was also supposed to have a secret tunnel leading from its garden gazebo up to the local estate of Petworth House.
The Hermitage was commonly believed to be haunted; Joan had read a story about it in the local paper, when a couple walking their dog on the path below the house, reported seeing a ghostly monk, and the newspaper took up the story with relish…diving back into earlier stories.
The previous inhabitant, by then an old lady, had found sharing the house with an over familiar apparition too unsettling when she was left alone after the death of her husband, and so in order to live with it, she herself became something of a local legend:
Joan Aiken was sad never to have seen the ghost herself, although she had bought the house partly because of its strange story – indeed it could almost have been one of her own. She had always been completely unafraid of mystery, and let her imagination have full play. A friend recalled Joan saying she liked to eat cheese for supper in the hope of having a good nightmare to provide future story material – as readers of her ghost stories will know she certainly did have a rich and wicked imagination…
I like to think that something of her own history now haunts the house, perhaps a friendly presence that belies its quiet exterior, and that was why this found poem seemed so apt. Here is a fragment of the unfinished poem, written in a school notebook many years earlier:
“Swan among trees, the yew in its dark plumage
Raises its points against the glittering sky
Dropping a pool of shadow across the house
Shuttered and soulless since you are away.
Perhaps behind your shuttered features also
There lives a friend? This front gives rise to doubt
No inmate waves a hand at the blank windows
No footprints tell of passage in or out.”
Joan Aiken was often asked where she got her ideas. Often, she would say, they came simply from the twists and turns of life, or from newspaper articles, which she clipped out and kept in a notebook, because, as she said, you never knew when they would find a home in a story; or when a story would make its home in a house.
Read more about Joan Aiken’s strange stories here
Read more about Joan Aiken’s three Paget Family novels,
set in her own house and the town of Petworth
The Smile of the Stranger, The Girl from Paris, and The Weeping Ash
(also known as The Young Lady from Paris and The Lightning Tree)
Painting of The Hermitage by Vernon Gibberd