The following morning we hopped over to the old Jersey home – the home of our ancestors for over 200 years.
When we sold the house, it was a sad day, but the changes the new owners have made are very impressive. It was strange going back, having not been there for so many years. The place I remember filled with antiques and oriental carpets and stern portraits of our ancestors had been given a true facelift. And as much as one has a nostalgia for the past, one couldn’t deny they had done a superb job of bringing the house into the 21st century and giving it a new lease of life. Lots of work needed to be done when we left, including new plumbing, new electricity, new paintwork, roof repairs, and damp – the list was endless and circular. All those issues have been put right now, and the house looks very robust with a clean lick of paint on her walls and beautiful extensions.
Each of the rooms on the first floor now have their own stunningly appointed ensuite bathrooms, and the attics, which used to be a warren of tunnels in which friends and I would spend hours playing spooky games come Halloween, have now been opened up into a beautiful bedroom, all the original old beams revealed at last. In the dining room little has changed: the red walls are a different shade of red, the ornate silverware has vanished and so has my grandmother. My enduring memory of her is an assertive figure sitting at the table, rose pink lipstick matching her rose pink cardigan, during Sunday lunches. Afterwards, she could usually be found getting ready for her third dog walk of the day which, if raining, would include her donning a bin liner despite having many waterproof coats – just so they didn’t get dirty. This was her ever-pragmatic nature kicking in, a woman who remembered tough days during the war and the need for frugality. She lived to the impressive age of 91, while I never even met my grandfather who passed away before I was born. In the drawing room stunning original fireplaces of marble and granite that we’d never known to exist had been discovered hidden behind thick plaster. What was the kitchen is now a snug, with a library of books and cosy chairs. The old panel of servant bells remains intact on the wall for posterity. And the housekeepers’ quarters where Conceicao, my confidante growing up, is now a glorious kitchen, replete with gleaming granite surfaces and painted cupboards.
One sadness would be the missing tennis court – I remember many a happy game played with my various coaches through the years on that court and it was always a fond sight in the summer seeing friends battling away for a few hours while people milled on the lawn, indulging in a Pimms and my grandmother sat watching under the chestnut tree. Instead a magnificent plethora of flowers and topiary has usurped it though.
The gardener’s cottage remains the same… though there are more unsettling memories here. Although I recall one lovely gardener called Manuel who left when I was about eleven and who showed me how to grow vegetables for the first time, the gardeners who followed all brought their troubles with them. This included one who had a penchant for guns and threateningly stole our family gun from its safe one night. As a little girl, I remember a posse of police stationed round the house while they tried to track the man down – which they did in the end!
The kitchen gardens are still thriving, and the new owner herself takes special care of her homegrown organic produce. The artichokes that grew by the old German wall to the left of the driveway, built during the German occupation of Jersey, are gone however. Conceicao and I used to go and pick them to our hearts’ content before cooking them to nibble on as a snack with marie sauce. I adored cooking sessions with her – whipping up huge Sunday roasts and her very best upside-down toffee pudding, a wicked recipe of hers I’ll never forget.
Otherwise, the gardens remain little changed for the most part: the front lawn is almost as I recall it, save for the pond which has been enlarged and features a statue of a little girl gifted to the new owners by a client in Guernsey. Further on, the Hundred Acre Wood is still called the Hundred Acre Wood just as we used to call it courtesy of the much-loved Pooh Bear woods, and a name they’ve happily not forsaken. The cathedral tree, a stunning spectacle that stood sentry at the base of the driveway, sadly came down in a storm. Arcadia, one of the large fields surrounding the property, is now filled with a few indulged cows. The sunken garden, where I raised a batch of pheasants from eggs to fully fledged young pheasants in the old stables under the warmth of a simple light bulb, is much the same as it was save for the addition of a little outdoor wendy house. The greenhouse in which Conceicao and I would grow melons and passionfruit has been rebuilt but stands in the exact same spot.
Really though, it’s the field to the left of the drive which has seen the biggest change. Les Niemes no longer functions solely as a private home. It is much more. Now home to fourteen lucky horses, each with their own ensuite showers and riding paddocks where the owner keeps a riding school, it has become a fully fledged equine centre and is described as Les Niemes Equestrian, providing quality tuition, livery and competitive events.
The changes they have made were wonderful to see and the new owner was incredibly generous showing us round. It’s lovely to see the place being so thoroughly cared for and put to such good use by people who adore what they do.