Hunter Davies: How do you sell the home bereavement forces you to?

How do you say goodbye to the idyllic home bereavement forces you to sell? In the last part of his memoirs, HUNTER DAVIES recalls the sadness of closing the door on a lifetime of memories

Thank goodness my wife died before me. I don’t mean that selfishly — that I stayed alive and she did not, that she went through awful pain and I have not (so far). What I mean is I wouldn’t have wished upon her all the financial and legal faffing and fiddling around that happens when someone dies.

In theory, and in practice, all financial and legal matters had been totally my domain throughout our 55-year marriage. I just used to tell Margaret to sign here, and she did, with no idea what she was agreeing to. I could well have been off to South America in the morning with all her money.

But what I had not bargained for after her death was the massive amount of paperwork and decisions, meetings and arrangements, digging and searching that death throws up, trying to think and remember back, trying to find stuff about the life we had led. I went to bed each night with my head throbbing. One of the hardest decisions I had to make involved our beloved home at Loweswater in the Lake District, not far from where we grew up.

Hunter Davies found himself at a loss with what to do with the house that his late wife, author Margaret Forster, adored

I had been several times since Margaret’s death to visit my old friends and old haunts after depositing half of her ashes in the village churchyard.

Her gravestone I will visit for ever, as long as I have the breath to cool my porridge, as my mother used to say. But what was the point of going up there to stay there on my own?

What should I do with a house that had been such a huge and emotional and beloved part of her life for so long?

For most of the past 30 years we had lived there half the year, roughly from May till October. We made a rule never to come to London when we were there, and vice versa. We broke it a few times, for family dramas, and of course they made visits, but it meant we only made that awful M1/M6 journey once a year. How perfect is that?

In each house, Loweswater and London, both by chance dating from the 1860s, our basic working life was exactly the same. We were at our desks each morning, moving words around. In Lakeland, my wife sat with her pen and ink, smiling quietly to herself when she heard me effing and blinding as the electricity went off, yet again, or the broadband was down.

In the afternoon, we walked. In London, walking down Kentish Town High Road, going for my regular swims, you have to try hard to breathe — not quite the same as rambling round beautiful Crummock Water.

A few years after we moved in I bought five fields, around 15 acres, which surround the house. I created an orchard, tree house and rebuilt the drystone walls.

I loved our little town of Cockermouth, an architectural gem, where I swam three times a week, poked around the antique shops, met local friends, had lunch. I did get upset when anyone asked, ‘Enjoying your holidays?’ ‘Do you mind?’ I’d say. ‘We live here.’

I liked to think I was part of the community all those years, entering for the Loweswater Show, taking part in events, getting to know everyone. It took time. Cumbrian farming folk winter you, they summer you, winter you again — then they say hello.

For most of the past 30 years we had lived there half the year, roughly from May till October. We made a rule never to come to London when we were there, and vice versa. We broke it a few times, for family dramas, and of course they made visits, but it meant we only made that awful M1/M6 journey once a year. How perfect is that?  

I did of course moan all those years about the expense of it all — paying two lots of council tax, double heating and water bills, having to have two of everything, including two TV licences. The free TV licence for the elderly only covers one home, not two. Bloomin’ cheek. But I always realised how lucky we were.

Friends in both places always asked us which we would choose, if forced. We hesitated and said London, but only when the time comes, so we stressed. London is, after all, where our children and grandchildren live.

Alas, with the death of Margaret, the time came to decide. What would happen if I was living there on my own? Aged 80, what would happen if I was ill, with my local GP seven miles away?

As for hospitals, God knows where they are now. In recent years, when locals have been seriously ill, they have had to go to hospital in Newcastle or Lancaster, miles away, in a different county.

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Some months after Margaret died, I spent six weeks on my own in Loweswater to see if I could stand it, if I could survive being on my own in a fairly large and remote house.

It was a strange feeling. In London I had grown used by now to the absence of Margaret. At first I’d think I could see her through the window, sitting reading on the downstairs couch when I came home through the back way, walking across the garden, but that soon faded. I was so busy in London, so active, so many social activities.

In Loweswater, though, during those weeks on my own, I imagined she was there, in the house with me, all the time.

Each day when I came back from my walk to the lake, or from Cockermouth, I opened the front door and I expected to find a note from her, written in her bold and impeccable handwriting.

The notes normally contained one of three messages:

Do not disturb. I am working. Answer your own bloody phone calls, it has gone non-stop.

Have gone to the lake, down the Lonning, back the Scenic Way.

If it was the latter, and she had put the time she left, I would immediately turn round and go and meet her.

In Lakeland, it had always been just us, we two, at constant close quarters, in a remote rural situation. Little wonder I now sensed and saw her presence all the time.

In London, we had our three children living near by, and grandchildren, friends and neighbours we had known for 50 years, visitors for work and pleasure popping in. In London there were always distractions. In Lakeland, I was alone with my thoughts and memories. So I decided to sell.

It was a strange feeling. In London I had grown used by now to the absence of Margaret. In Loweswater, though, during those weeks on my own, I imagined she was there, in the house with me, all the time

The local estate agent I contacted to do the dirty deed — well, it seems dirty to me, awfully disloyal to Lakeland — boasted that they employed a drone and a fully qualified drone pilot. The idea was to hover in the air, about 400ft high, film and photograph our lovely house, and my lovely five fields, and show the three lovely lakes within walking distance. Isn’t modern technology grand?

I had decided to show all prospective buyers round the house myself, to talk to them, find out where they were from, what they were really looking for.

After all, I knew the house, knew the problems and pleasures — unlike the estate agents.

It was such an intimate experience, showing strangers your bedroom, watching them lift up carpets you would rather they did not, avoiding sinks for fear of catching the plague, or entering a room and making a face at your wallpaper.

In the end there were six who were seriously interested. Four were roughly local while two had come from farther afield. One was from London and the other from the West Country, both men who had left their wives at home. They each stayed overnight locally, returning the next morning for a second look.

I was amazed they were investing so much time. Then I remembered that when we bought the house I had come from London on the train for the day, on my own. It could well have been a total waste of time.

Blow me, next day both men made offers — at the asking price. I suppose I could have tried to get them higher, but I was so delighted by their enthusiasm for the area, which they already knew well, and their clear love for the house.

I had cross-examined each about their finances when I had taken them round, subtly of course. I am known in our family for being subtle and discreet — har har. The one from the West Country would be getting a mortgage on his existing house while the Londoner appeared to have the cash already, having sold some internet company. It could have been a lie of course, but I believed him.

He turned out to be a Tottenham Hotspur season-ticket holder, so clearly a man who was totally sensible and reliable. I don’t think I could have sold it to an Arsenal fan. So I accepted his offer.

He then wanted a full survey done, which was a bit of a worry. When I bought the house at auction, I never had a survey. I decided I loved it so much that I would accept any faults. Just like falling in love with my dear wife.

But the survey was OK and the Londoner hurried me into a quick sale, offering to exchange contracts and complete all on the same day. Usually there is a gap of about a month. It meant I had to clear up and empty the house much more quickly than I had planned.

In a way, the speed made the agony less. I was too busy to mope and mourn or have any second thoughts — which I had been having, thinking, Oh God, what have I done? It was not just that Margaret had died. I now felt part of me was dying as well.

I had to quickly get rid of all the furniture and my treasures — or what I call my treasures. The real rubbish I dumped, lesser rubbish went to charity shops, while some of the choicer items I gave away, such as an 1810 guidebook to Lakeland, written anonymously by Wordsworth, which I gave to his home, Dove Cottage.

The ordinary domestic stuff went into Mitchells auction house in Cockermouth in their ordinary domestic weekly sales. That was agony, seeing items of furniture we so loved, comfy fireside easy chairs we had spent a fortune re-covering, going for piddling sums.

I don’t know why people ever buy new stuff when you can get excellent second-hand furniture so reasonably.

Yet the price fetched for one tatty item, a stuffed red squirrel in a wooden case which was falling to pieces, amazed me. I had kept it in the fireplace in my office and looked at it every day as I sat down to work, thinking I really should repair it or at least dust it. It must have been harbouring appalling germs. It went for £60.

I didn’t go to any of the sales. I couldn’t bear to see any of my beloved objects being brutally dismissed, going for peanuts or, worst of all, ending up with that dreaded word beside them — unsold.

I SPENT the final two nights in an empty house, lying on a mattress on the wooden floor in an empty bedroom. All the contents, the domestic junk as well as the treasures, had gone.

Getting down on the floor was relatively easy — you just flop, collapse — but getting up, oh my God, that was agony. I had to roll over and somehow prop myself up with my elbow. I had not realised how low a floor is, and how high a normal bed is. Or how old I was. So I flopped back on the mattress again. I felt like a squatter in someone else’s neglected, forgotten home.

I stared round at the bedroom walls. I could see the faded patches where our prized paintings had been. I stared out of the naked windows at Grasmoor, the looming fell after which our house is named.

All 14 windows in the house have stunning views, back and front, of the fells and fields, lakes and landscape. The curtains had gone as well, after the man from Mitchells pointed out they were Sandersons, in William Morris design, and would fetch some money. Good job Margaret never told me how much she had spent on them. I would have moaned.

Lying there, with my eyes closed, I could see the family and all the visitors to the house over the years. I could see John Prescott, whose autobiography I ghostwrote, and his lovely wife Pauline both sitting in our garden, with two heavies in a corner, keeping an eye on him, as he was deputy prime minister at the time.

I could hear my fellow Cumbrian Melvyn Bragg admiring my conservatory, asking how I had got planning permission. I could see all our three children and grandchildren at my wife’s 70th birthday party eight years earlier.

On my very last day in the house, our son Jake and his wife Rosa drove up to help me bring stuff back to London — the personal bits and pieces, photographs and mementos, nothing really valuable, just things I wanted to keep. We reminisced of course about their memories of the house and of Margaret in it, such as the time, on her 50th birthday, she had got up at five o’clock and climbed Red Pike.

The night before, when asked what she really wanted on her birthday, she said her special treat would be to climb Red Pike first thing in the morning with me. I said great, I’ll come. Alas, I slept in and never heard her getting up.

She brought me tea in bed at eight as usual and I remarked that her hair was wet.

‘Oh, is it?’ she said. ‘Probably because I got up at five and climbed Red Pike and had a swim in Crummock. I nearly woke you, but you were sound asleep . . .’

I love this story, even if it is at my expense. It has become a family legend — the image of her going off on her own, enjoying herself so much, then gently boasting about it.

Jake now does not quite believe it. He recently got out the map and thinks she could not have got as far as the top of Red Pike and back in three hours from our house. But she had obviously been somewhere, I said. Her hair was wet. She must have had a swim. He still does not believe it.

Margaret did tend to ‘improve’ stories, exaggerate, but then she was a proper novelist. I plan to believe that story for ever, that she did climb Red Pike and swim in the lake on her 50th birthday.

And that was the house sold, 30 years of our life cleared away, packed up, gone for ever. Only the memories remain.

AS you get older, many things mean less. Money for example. I can’t afford any more time or energy to think about making money. Time is too short.

My only worry now, as I write and as I lie awake in the middle of the night, is that something awful will happen to my back, or my hernia will explode. So far, so good.

I don’t really worry, or get depressed, or not for long — half an hour perhaps. It is usually to do with my stupid computer playing up, trying to buy or book something on the internet.

But if I become housebound or bedridden, in constant pain and agony, I don’t know how I would cope. My cheerful-chappie character might prove a mirage.

I would never willingly end my life, which Margaret always said she would, sending regular donations to Dignitas. In the end, she did not have the strength to leave the house and go to Switzerland.

I am staying here in this house, whatever happens. I plan to finish myself off with an enormous amount of Beaujolais.

I had a drink recently with an old friend and neighbour who used to be the chief economic advisor at the Treasury. He said that economic studies indicate people in their 70s underestimate how long they have to live — in other words, they fear they will pop off soon, so they start worrying about spending too much, saving hard in case they will be a burden and end up with a long and expensive and awful ailment.

In fact, most of the 70-year-olds today do reach their 80s, and then they overestimate — thinking, Hurrah, got this far, got ages to live yet. And, of course, they have got this wrong.

We folks entering our 80s have to realise we will be lucky to reach 84. In fact, only a quarter of people in their 80s end up suffering a long and expensive illness, which is why people who die in their 80s leave more than they intended to, luckily for the Treasury. I never really quite believe or understand these economic surveys, but I intend to take two morals from what I think my friend told me and intend to follow them from now on.

Live, live, live. Spend, spend, spend. Thank you.

You’ve been a lovely audience.

Adapted from Happy Old Me by Hunter Davies, published by Simon & Schuster on March 21 at £16.99. © Hunter Davies 2019. 

To order a copy for £13.59 (offer valid to 28/3/19; P&P free on orders over £15), visit or call 0844 571 0640. 

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