Broken Tiles and Torn Wallpaper
At the age of ten, twelve, or even fourteen, whenever anyone asked me what I wanted to do with my life, I replied without any hesitation that I wanted to be a writer. I’d learned to read and write before starting school and books and words were my passion. I had no idea, then, that life can take a circuitous route.
I grew up in Warkworth, Northumberland; a village drenched in history and made famous by Shakespeare and JMW Turner. For a while I attended a local convent school where I was one of a few non-Catholic pupils. Teaching was low on the agenda, which suited me perfectly, allowing as it did for endless hours of doodling and daydreaming. Later, I attended a boarding school in the Lake District where the Brontë sisters had once been pupils. It was miles from anywhere, surrounded by hills and usually shrouded in mist, and it was easy to imagine the school in Charlotte's Jane Eyre, the landscape of Emily's Wuthering Heights. (Reader, I was there).
From the mist-shrouded hills to the bright lights of London, where I studied English and History of Art. And it was, I think, around this time that I stopped saying I wanted to be a writer. It seemed a clichéd and potentially tragic ambition, a lofty, pretentious-sounding career choice, something best kept quiet. And anyway, I still had no idea what shape or form my writing would take, what I was going to write about, and I needed to earn money. After a few false starts I went on to have a career in media, publishing and graduate recruitment, culminating in my appointment as managing director of Graduate Appointments, formerly part of Haymarket Publishing and at that time owned by the novelist Josephine Hart and her husband Maurice Saatchi. I was a founder and director of Saatchi's Megalomedia plc, nominated Woman of the Year, made a Fellow of the RSA, and by my early thirties I appeared to be one of those women having it all.
In reality, and like many other women supposed to be 'having it all', I was permanently exhausted, and guilt-ridden. You see, I forgot to mention, it was shortly after I found myself a single parent that I landed the Big Job. And though it's true to say the job turned my life around, because my own circuitous route had proved more of a circuitous roller-coaster, and I’d known enough bad times by then to appreciate my good fortune, my career was not one I'd planned, or anticipated. I'm sure anyone who’d known the younger me, whose early school reports inevitably concluded Judith could achieve more if she spent less time day-dreaming would have been surprised. I was. Added to this, I was never entirely comfortable in my role on a board with men decades older than me. There were still surprisingly few women at boardroom level at that time, particularly younger women, and I'd cut my hair short and habitually wore dark-coloured trouser suits in what I realise now was an unconscious bid to stamp out any hint of femininity, fit in and look the part. And those suits were, I suppose, a sort of disguise, not unlike armour. Beneath the suit, I carried a close-guarded, secret fear of exposure, and an ever-increasing hankering for a completely different life.
So, two years after I'd married, and the day before I gave birth to my daughter, I handed back the car, the salary and the generous benefits package. I hung away the Prada and Armani, and silently mourned table number six at The Ivy. My departure from that world was front page news in business sections of national broadsheets where it was reported, amongst other inaccuracies, that I’d just given birth to a second son. My seemingly glamorous life was over, but despite the clanking drop in income it was liberating to walk away and focus instead on my children, my husband, and me: that person I’d almost forgotten. It was the start of a new life and one in which I intended to be true to myself.
The thing about changing your life, once you make the decision and implement the first stage, is that the rest is easy. You realise, or maybe remember, that you are the architect – and always were. Very quickly I yearned for more change, for a greater sense of peace and space, an environment I thought would unlock my long dormant creativity. A stifling summer preceded the dawn of a new millennium and the countryside beckoned. It was the perfect time, I thought, to be brave and pioneering. My husband was immediately sold on the idea, but when I told friends of our plans to leave London and move to the country, they spoke about mud and loneliness, about rainy Tuesdays in February. But rainy Tuesdays in February were strangely appealing, and by the following spring my family and I had moved into an unusual Arts and Crafts style house in Hampshire.
I’d never been particularly interested in the history of houses, but the refurbishment of what was now our home - discovering solid slate window sills under decades of paint, tiled hearths, boarded over and long since abandoned as fireplaces, and varnished Victorian wallpaper beneath a century of differing fashions and tastes - triggered something in me. I became fascinated by this layering and overlaying of time upon the fabric of the house and collected every fragment - broken tiles, scraps of torn wallpaper - anything and everything - as though they might fit together and offer me a picture, not only of the house as it had once been but of those who had lived there. I wanted to know who had chosen that wallpaper? Who had once gazed at the firelight reflected on those tiles? I wanted to know everything.
It took me years to piece together the story of my house, because it was, as I discovered, bound up in the extraordinary life of one woman. From broken tiles and torn wallpaper, I was led back in time to Georgian England, and Suffolk; through the Victorian era, criss-crossing an evolving Europe via Paris and Rome, and into the Twentieth century, modern times and the First World War. This epic journey ended at my house in 1923. It was lost and forgotten, until I held its fragments a century later and wondered, Who?
This biography first appeared as a blog post and has been edited.
Judith's research into the history of her home inspired her novel, The Memory of Lost Senses.
Further reading - articles by Judith: