For most people, selling a much loved home would represent a sad parting, but the multi-million-selling British novelist Anne Perry comforts herself that she can return to her Scottish Highland idyll whenever she pleases – thanks to her imagination.
The writer, who has been dubbed the ‘queen of Victorian crime’ and has sold more than 25 million books worldwide, has moved to Hollywood in her quest to have more of her novels adapted for television.
‘I’ll miss the views and I’ll miss my gardens,’ says the 78-year-old, as she reminisces about Tyrn Vawr, her four-bedroom property on the outskirts of the peaceful Easter Ross fishing village of Portmahomack.
‘Fortunately, it’s all in my mind and in photographs, so I can go back any time I want.’
Perry moved into Tyrn Vawr a quarter of a century ago and has written most of her books there.
Her settled existence has been quite the antidote to her earlier life: she lived in various parts of the world and went by a completely different name.
But, most arrestingly, she spent five years in prison in New Zealand after being convicted as a 15-year-old of the murder of her friend’s mother, a story that was turned into a 1990s film starring Kate Winslet.
Perry was born Juliet Hulme in London in 1938, but her family moved to New Zealand and she attended Christchurch Girls’ High School, where she met local girl Pauline Parker.
The pair developed an obsessive relationship that was to have tragic consequences: when threatened with being torn apart, they murdered Pauline’s mother Honora.
In 1994, the story of the two girls was turned into the film Heavenly Creatures, directed by Peter Jackson and starring Kate Winslet as Juliet.
Perry has said of her part in the killing that she ‘made a profoundly wrong decision’. Having been told that she would be going to live in South Africa, and with Pauline’s mother standing in the way of the two teenagers both moving there, she feared Pauline would take her own life ‘and it would be my fault’.
The pair each served five years in prison, and Perry has said she spent the first three months in solitary.
‘I was guilty and it was the right place for me to be.’
Upon release, Juliet took various jobs and for a time lived in the United States, before settling in Portmahomack. She published her first book under the name Anne Perry in 1979.
It was The Cater Street Hangman, the first in her Inspector Pitt series, which two decades later was turned into an ITV television movie starring Keeley Hawes.
Perry, who has written more than 50 novels and who published the 32nd Inspector Pitt story last year, has done most of her work while living at the house, which she is particularly attached to because she built it herself – practically from scratch.
Originally, she explains, ‘it was a wreck next door to the house I was living in. I heard they had got planning permission to make it into a shop that would mend motorbikes and lawnmowers and I thought, “Not next to me you don’t!” So I bought it in self-defence and then I looked at the ruins and thought it would make a marvellous house’.
In the course of her writing career in Scotland, Anne spent most of her time at work in her special study, which has windows on three sides. The contemporary look of the property, on sale for offers over £440,000, belies the fact that it has been converted from the remains of an old barn.
Built in the shape of an H, the property has a spacious kitchen, library and sun room, and a conservatory that looks out on to a courtyard with a pond and water feature.
Upstairs, there are views of the Scottish Highlands. ‘You can see five counties,’ Perry explains: ‘Caithness, Sutherland, Ross, Inverness-shire, and Moray.’
The dining room is capable of seating 20 people and a pair of Italian chandeliers hang from the ceiling in the grand hall.
A keen lover of wildlife, Perry has sought to protect the beautiful surroundings she has enjoyed for future generations by buying up a neighbouring 17-acre field and creating a trust to ensure it isn’t built on.
The Mail on Sunday
It started out, 500 years ago, as a home for a successful man. And that is what it is right now. But in the intervening centuries it has served an array of purposes – not least as a cobbler’s store, a butcher’s shop, and even an abattoir.
Little clues throughout the house, which is in the village of Charlwood in Surrey, tell the story of the changes it has been through.
In what is now the music room there is a hook that was used to tether livestock and a strut from which slaughtered carcasses were hung, dating from the abattoir days.
And the four-bedroom home’s owner, Martin Cooper, says the floor in that room was originally slanted so all the blood, guts and urine ran down into the gardens where, he points out, ‘everything grows profusely as a result’.
In the Victorian era, the house was transformed into a butcher’s, and among Martin’s treasured possessions is a photograph showing the butcher standing proudly beside an impressive array of meat he was selling to customers at Christmas in 1900.
Then, in the 20th Century, it became a shoe-repair store after a cobbler was forced to move his business from the nearby village of Lowfield Heath when it was cleared to build Gatwick Airport.
Today, you can still see, to the right of the front entrance, an unusual door that leads to where the cobbler stored the lasts for his shoes.
But there is one aspect of the 1543 house that cannot be explained – its name. It is called Hunts, and Martin, even as a member of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, is at a loss as to why.
A centrepiece of the village of Charlwood, Hunts was first occupied by the local squire, and the smoke from the fires that would have burned in the building’s hall – now the main living area – still stains the attic rafters.
Thanks to its magnificent timber frame, impressive chimney stack and unique roof structure, Hunts, which is set in three-quarters of an acre of gardens, is Grade II listed.
For the past 18 years it has been lovingly tended by Martin, a 61-year-old builder. He fell in love with it when moving his family out of London in 1999.
When he bought it, for £345,000, it was semi-derelict and had no proper kitchen or bathroom. But it stood out for him from all the other properties in ‘typical Surrey suburbia’.
Ever since, he has preserved Hunts’ original character while transforming it into a warm, family home ideal for entertaining.
The father of two – who married and divorced the same woman twice and who, as a builder, specialises in the restoration of churches – sees himself as a custodian, rather than simply the owner, of the property.
But he insists that living in a listed building ‘has to be an experience you are willing to have – you can’t just stick radiators in regardless, as the building will warp and crack’.
Martin, who currently has 38 radiators running off a new boiler, found this to his cost last year when the plaster fell off his bedroom ceiling in the middle of the night, bringing down centuries of dirt and breaking his nose.
The ceiling is now fixed, but other challenges remain in Hunts, such as ‘the presence’ felt by some in the downstairs utility room and the almost total lack of mobile phone reception, which Martin attributes to the thick timber frame. ‘It’s as hard as iron,’ he explains. ‘You can’t even get a drill through it.’
Martin sees his home as representing his life’s work – both as a builder and, thanks to his music room (which contains an organ and piano), as a church organist and music director of the Surrey parish of Redhill.
Although there is potential to convert Hunts’ loft and garage areas, subject to necessary consent, Martin is insistent that any buyer must be mindful of the responsibilities that come from owning a piece of our national heritage.
‘You have to be familiar with the limitations of what you can do – you can’t just transform a chocolate-box exterior into a place with immaculate floors and immaculate walls,’ he says. ‘What is special about Hunts is that it is a living, breathing piece of history.’
You reach it via a private road that sweeps through a verdant valley, over a sparkling lake and past an impressive mansion.
But while the unassuming four-bedroom house at the end of the lane may be overshadowed by its beautiful surroundings, its history is as colourful as anything else in the area.
What is now a family home was previously a squash court – and before that a pioneering 19th Century gasworks stood on the site.
‘In the kitchen you can see what was once the court’s front wall,’ says its owner, businesswoman Charlotte Haynes, 53, who is selling the house for £850,000. ‘It would once have been absolutely covered with black rubbery marks where it was hit thousands of times by balls.’
The Old Squash Court is one of more than 20 old buildings – including a carriage house, a fire station and a stables – on the Bayham Abbey estate, near Tunbridge Wells in Kent, that have been converted into homes.
The estate was acquired by the 1st Marquess of Camden in the 18th Century. He hired one of the top landscape designers of the day, Humphry Repton, who planned ‘a scene of Sylvan sublimity which can neither be described by words or painting’.
Decades later a gasworks was built on the site of what is now Charlotte’s house. In what was a forward-thinking example of energy production for the time, the gasworks powered all the lights in the Marquess’s stately home.
In 1910, the sporty 4th Marquess knocked down the gasworks to build a squash court to entertain his aristocratic guests.
In the mid-1970s the estate was divided up and sold off – and the squash court was later converted into the dwelling now called The Old Squash Court.
When Charlotte bought it 14 months ago, there were plenty of clues to its original purpose. The unusual layout, for example, is a pointer to its history. Take the door-sized window halfway up the central staircase.
‘There used to be outdoor stairs leading up to this opening, which was once a door,’ Charlotte, a mother of two, explains. ‘It led to a viewing platform where the ladies from the house could follow the game going on below.’
But the biggest clue to the building’s previous use as a squash court is the high-vaulted ceiling above the main living area – a feature that Charlotte says ‘presented a challenge’ when she tried to make the house more homely.
‘It was vast, airy and spacious but the space felt a little overwhelming,’ she explains.
Charlotte used her knowledge of feng shui, the Chinese system of harmony, to try to overcome this type of issue – which can often arise when a building’s original purpose is so different from providing a home.
‘Chi – or energy flow – follows the eye line so all the energy was draining towards the ceiling,’ recalls Charlotte of the house when she bought it.
‘To rectify this, I put up colourful blinds and a large, antique mirror in order to lower the sight line. Now the energy flows down, so, despite its size, this room feels very cosy and is great for entertaining.’
Charlotte, who runs Energise Your Home, a business that helps homeowners who are struggling to find a buyer for their home, says feng shui can play a vital role with the details that make a property attractive.
She adds: ‘It’s all about enhancing the energy flow and feel of the place – creating a sense of warmth. I am working with an instinctual part of the brain which makes people feel safe, and creates an emotional connection.’
Charlotte has also used feng shui to enhance the garden of The Old Squash Court, cutting the grass in a circular pattern ‘to ensure the energy doesn’t flow away from the house’.
‘I’ve worked on big old houses with long drives where the energy just flows off and never gets to the people at the end,’ she says. ‘Boundaries are very important, to concentrate energy around the home.’
She has erected a new fence and, to make the most of the view, constructed a viewing platform that overlooks the valley, so that she can watch the sun set with friends and a bottle of wine.
There is planning permission for an extension on the site, which could hugely increase the size of the house without impinging on the garden.
The property also boasts a writer’s cabin – with space for 6,000 books –and the outside space is equipped with a rope swing, glasshouse, vegetable garden, pond and hen coop.
In fact, the only thing The Old Squash Court appears to be missing is a squash racket.