The Hermitage, Petworth ~ Joan Aiken’s home ~
Joan Aiken died in the month of January. Listening for her voice I sometimes make surprising discoveries, in this case what appeared was a rough version of poem, never seen before and found in an old notebook.
This 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 where they lived.
It was supposed to be haunted, Joan had read a story about it in the local paper, when a couple walking their dog reported seeing a ghostly monk on the path below the house, and the newspaper took up the story with relish…!
The previous inhabitant, by then an old lady, had found sharing the house with the apparition too unsettling after the death of her husband, and so she herself became something of a local legend:
Sadly Joan Aiken never saw the ghost, although she bought the house partly because of its strange history – indeed it could be one of her own. A friend recalled her saying she liked to eat cheese for supper in the hope of having a good nightmare to provide story material; as readers of her ghost stories will know she had a rich and wicked imagination…
I like to think something of her own history now haunts the house, perhaps a friendly presence that belies its quiet exterior, and that was why this poem seemed so apt. Here is a fragment of the unfinished poem, written 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 life, or from newspaper articles, but it was always worth writing them down in a notebook because you never knew when they would find a home in a story.
Read more about Joan Aiken’s strange stories here
And see a recent collection of some of her most memorable ~ The People in the Castle
Painting by Vernon Gibberd