Many years ago, my family bravely took on the restoration of Gothic House, a once beautiful then derelict Victorian villa by the sea. The history of the house, dating from the 1830’s, and its list of occupants, was formidable. Included was the secret ‘love-nest’ of a London aristocrat; the complexities and ownership squabbles of sixteen relatives, each left a share in the property on the death of an eccentric uncle; an elderly Edwardian gentleman who drove an early Rolls Royce and who strangled his poor parrot, a constant companion, for embarrassing him one time too many at a society lady’s soirée. And it was even said that the artist J.M.W. Turner had stayed there to paint the sunsets, of which the area is famous. Though we lived in hope, we found no priceless canvases from that great man lurking in either attic or cellar or tucked away beneath the floorboards. During World War 11, the property was taken over by the American Army who stripped the oak panelling for firewood, dismantled the wrought iron balcony and porch and had a big gun mounted on the roof.
Up the narrow drive and round the back was the coach house, a matching addition in neglect and dereliction to the main building. Saplings of sycamore, forsythia and buddleia sprouted from broken guttering, ivy waved in curtains from the beams, rotten doors and frames creaked painfully in the sea breezes and shards of broken window glass lay everywhere.
Where well-groomed horses had munched their oats and chewed their hay and lay down thankfully to rest after a long day’s work, a large concrete block, ribbed with rusty iron bars, used to anchor a war-time electricity generator, had taken their place. Even after several decades, the rank odour of oil and diesel still hung in the air around the generator block and the concrete filled remains of an army vehicle inspection pit, dug deep into the cobbled floor.
It certainly took imagination to picture the horses and smart carriages, traps and pony carts that had been housed beneath that broken, leaky roof; but when you are young and with plenty of energy and imagination, anything is possible!
Restoring the house was a major task taking five years of slow hard slog, frustration and a dwindling purse, but it was while patching up the coach house to provide a garage, workshop and winter quarters for Peter Pan, my beloved pony, that I stumbled across a small a mystery.
The bricks of the back wall were in serious need of repair, many were loose, and some had almost crumbled away with the wet and damp from broken guttering and downpipes. One brick, right down near the floor, fell away in my hand and there, squeezed tightly at the back of the gap, was a small oval box. Tentatively reaching around a long legged spider with a disapproving stare, I took the box from its hiding place, wiped away the mildew and dirt of countless years and to my delight, found it was a gold embossed brown leather jewellery case. Fingers trembling with excitement, I prised open the rusted metal clasp, but as the rotten lid fell off, out into the light spilled the treasure from within.
Of the kind of jewellery Victorian ladies would have worn when in mourning for the death of a loved one, it was a silver marcasite cross set with fingers of black jet surrounding a freshwater pearl. There was a link at the top of the cross for a ribbon or chain, but of course any ribbon would have rotted years ago and there was no chain. Though we searched hard, we found no clues from local historical records, neighbourhood memories or gossip, as to the owner of the lovely ornament, but what a strange place to hide such a treasure. What were the circumstances that led its sad owner to hide it there, or did she? Maybe the cross was stolen, hidden and never retrieved… Perhaps one day, the Victorian mourning cross and its mystery owner might become the theme for a new story – it is certainly an interesting thought well worthy of consideration!