Liberating ideas

Dinner at Alan Garner’s House

John Mitchinson, Unbound’s co-founder and the publisher of both Strandloper and Thursbitch explains why a visit to the Garner home at Blackden is a must for any fan.

Dinner at Alan’s

Alan Garner’s family has lived and worked in and around Alderley Edge for at least five centuries. His father’s family were rural craftsmen and Alan has taken on the craftsman’s mantle, using his hands in a different medium but with the same painstaking attention to quality and use.

He has lived and worked in the same house since 1957. He discovered it as a twenty-two-year-old Classics scholar who’d given up on his Oxford degree in order to discover if he could write. To do so he needed a place to live. The cottage he had been sent to see was a soulless modern bungalow but as he was cycling back home to Alderley he noticed a battered sign advertising ‘17th Century Cottage For Sale’. Climbing the steep hill leading to the back gate the first thing he noticed was the long roofline. Once the whole structure was revealed, he saw what few others would have recognised. Through all the dilapidations and later accretions, the brick and the tin roof, he was staring at a timber-framed medieval hall. His destiny was set: he had to live there. He would write, much later: ‘If I have any real occupation it is to be here.’ Penniless, unemployed, it didn’t look hopeful but his father, quite uncharacteristically, yet sensing his son’s craftsmanly stubborness, found him the £510 to buy it. All Garner’s books have been written in what was once the buttery.

This sounds idyllic. The writer’s cosy rural nest; the ancient house inhabited by the collector of folktales; the very model of a childrens’ writer’s home. But Garner’s home isn’t much like that. It’s no more restful or benign than his work. Like his fiction, it is strong, complex, confusing, archetypal, unforgettable. It’s rattled every few minutes by the Manchester to Crewe main-line which forms the boundary to his back garden. Less than a mile away the giant eye of the Jodrell Bank telescope is open to the sky. In one of the neat synchronicities that trail in Garner’s wake, the year he moved in was also the year the world’s most powerful telescope of the time became operational, the only telescope able to track Sputnik 1, also launched that year.

Medicine House

The house was semi-derelict for a long time, made habitable slowly. In the early seventies Garner added a Tudor timber-framed apothecary’s house scheduled for demolition in a village twenty miles away. He masterminded the dismantling and reconstruction of its hundreds of beams, turning the whole project into a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle. It is built around a central chimney, open to the sky, and a fireplace where eight people can sit in a circle around the fire. It throbs with a strong, unsettling energy. The first spring after its re-construction the perimeter of the building was garlanded with opium poppies and other medicinal herbs and flowers that had sprouted from ancient seeds shaken from the beams.

So much for what you can see. The Garners (Alan is inseparable from his wife and soulmate Griselda) are probably unique in having saved and catalogued every significant piece of stone, metal, flint, every tiny potsherd that fifty years of gardening and digging have turned up. Alan knows each beam and flagstone in his house, not a detail has escaped his skeptical attention. Five years ago discrete excavations began. Combining what Alan already knew with speculative visits from the best archaeologists and historians in the country, a picture has emerged of ten thousand years of continuous habitation. The excavation have confirmed that Garner’s novels have been written in the middle of a ritual site. A sacred place.

This sense of places ‘meaning’ something is a common thread in human culture, as solidly attested as our need for food, sex and shelter. Perhaps it is an adaptive advantage hardwired within Homo sapiens sapiens, one which helped lead us out of the forest and into language. Because language is the tool that we have made places with, whatever drew us to them originally. We tell stories and the places around us change; they become richer and more significant as each generation adds its own inflections to the tale. But it is just possible that we are simply the conduits, the sounding boards, for the place to tell its own story.

No one understands, or relishes, that paradox more than Alan Garner. Visit him at home and you’ll see what I mean.

Pledge before midnight on July 31st and you can reserve a ticket at the special price of £200 for two for a storytelling supper in the Medicine House this Autumn. Alan himself will attend for pre-dinner drinks.

Pledge now