On darkness

by Barendina Smedley

The first thing to understand is that the Old Rectory is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a ‘light’ house.

In the beginning one might have blamed the darkness on the Old Rectory’s state of repair. When we first went to look at it, on that blustery spring morning, we were forced to borrow the estate agent’s wind-up torch to get as far as the first leaf-strewn kitchen corridor. The electricity had failed — years ago in the kitchen, perhaps decades before in some of the more far-flung rooms — whilst the water running down walls and standing in dank, black puddles on the floor suggested it might not be back any time soon. Here and there, damp wintry light found its way in through dirty leaded windows in an apologetic way, like a half-hearted tresspasser. It never got very far.

Later on, however, once we had installed all-new electric wiring, cleaned the glass and done much more besides, some of which will be described here, this line of argument was exposed as unsustainable.

True, there are rooms in our house where it is now possible to bathe in pools of pale gold sunshine, to admire the confidence with which the reflected colours of dawn or sunset stain whitewashed walls, to bask in the glow of lamps, lit candles and open fires.

But at the same time, even now, there are also rooms where it is possible to envelope oneself in darkness, like a warm soft blanket. Nor do I mean the normal, explicable darkness one finds in the warren of little service rooms to the west, or out-of-the-way places like the linen room wherein dark serves a practical purpose. No, what we are dealing with in particular here is the persistent, almost metaphysical darkness of the main hall.

In the hall, dark is as much a present thing as the walls, the ceiling or the irregular swell of the stone floor. The hall is, for better or worse, a ‘dark’ room. And as the oldest room in the house, its logical if not geographical centre, the accrued darkness of the hall is capable of radiating out into the other rooms, even the brightest ones.

This darkness is almost my favourite thing about the Old Rectory.

Our age distrusts darkness, to the extent that the real thing is now, in Britain at any rate, increasingly hard to find. In London, where one can find anything, it is possible to go for years without encountering actual darkness. Anyone who sees value in the dark has to purchase it, like any other commodity, by way of blackout blinds. Omnipresent artificial lighting obliterates the rhythms of night and day — and thus, by extension, obscures the cycle of the seasons. For a good third of the year in Britain, normal people doze through hours of early daylight, then stay awake for much of the night, faces lit by the unreal ambient glow of television screens, laptop computers, tablets and smartphones.

In airports, shopping malls, hospitals and office buildings — places in which the windows are sealed, the climate ‘controlled’, nature re-imagined through technology — the lights never go out at all. We want our houses to be like that, too. Estate agents, for their part, praise properties as ‘light’, whilst decorating magazines are packed with solutions for brightening up ‘dark’ areas.

And yet we were all made for a darker life than this one. Nor, even now, are the abilities necessary to embrace darkness very far from the surface.

Remember that when we first bought our house, it had no working electricity. Even when the builders eventually managed to rig up a temporary supply, complete with a few fluorescent strip-lights hung from the oak beams, this only extended lighting into something like three rooms of a thirty-something-room house.

As a result, we soon learned to find our way around the place in the dark — and as our house is in a part of Norfolk that is far from any town, I do mean proper, velvety, all-encompassing dark, not the relative faintness of illumination that passes for dark in London. Arriving at the house on winter evenings, I would carry bedding blindly over sagging and gappy floorboards, struggling to find things in boxes as the light failed. In time, I learned to find my way around parts of the house in absolute darkness. With hindsight, the physical intimacy of this experience, the strange sort of trust that emerged from it, was part of what made the place not simply any house, but my house.

And then there was an evening when we walked down to the pub in the next village, stayed slightly longer than intended and ended up walking back in the dark. We knew the way well enough in daylight. The route ran up a slightly meandering lane, between tall hedges, until eventually it flanked a big open field, at the top of which is a beech wood that signals the boundary of our own land. We had walked it dozens of times before.

On this night, however, it felt as if we were loosening our moorings and setting a course into an unknown sea, or suddenly, as in a dream, attempting flight. Which is to say, it was frightening at first. Which way did the road go? Did the pavement always dip away like that? Was that thing ahead a hedge, or something far worse?

So we made our hesitant way forward, cautious steps testing the ground underfoot, arms outstretched for the unexpected check of a wall or fellow traveller. But then, a hundred yards or so along, a strange thing happened. Old senses, under-utilised for so long, began to stir back into life. Draughts of air, like currents in seawater, took on directional significance. The warm tarmac of the road smelled different from the hedges and the fields. That rustling in the brambles meant something, just as did the pitch and timbre of the incidental breeze. Once one stopped looking to light for information, information of other sorts came flooding in from every other possible channel.

What I cannot really express is how completely enlivening this was — this sudden awareness of another story that had been going along, unnoticed by us, in parallel to the one that had preoccupied us on all those other, earlier walks. It was an exhilarating feeling, this consciousness of a previously undiscovered set of powers. Where had the darkness been all our lives?

Since that time, I have gone out of my way to walk across the lawn at night — sometimes on starry nights, sometimes moon-lit ones, sometimes in the sticky ominous dark of an impending storm — all the way to the field boundary, if only to experience, first, that enlivening surge of fear as I move from the grass into the cover of the trees, then the ancient wonder of that greater darkness perceptible to the south — and then, at last, the convivial civilised brightness of the house when I come inside again. Sensations, after all, are always most intense when experienced in counterpoint to opposing sensations. And this, surely, must be the greatest argument in favour of darkness. Without darkness — without at least the possibility of darkness — what is light?

There is a little more to say about the hall.

We know from timber dating that much of what gives the hall its present-day appearance — the ceiling of moulded oak beams, the oak screen — was put in place around the year 1518. Was the hall a Tudor new-build, or conversely, was this yet another renovation in the history of our much-renovated building? The sloping, three-foot-thick flint walls give little away.

The hall, at any rate, however much altered, has not forgotten the basic functional logic of the hall house it may once have been.

To the north, at the ‘low’ end of the hall, the screen opens onto a room that has changed its purpose several times over the years. Originally the larder and buttery, it spent centuries as a study occupied by successive rectors, before being remodelled c. 1900 as a dining room. The very low ceiling probably suited the first and most modest of these purposes best of all — although on a good night, lit only by beeswax candles and an open fire, and after a glass or three of claret, the polished oak and inconvenient proportions do slightly recall the poorer class of Oxbridge college senior parlour.

To the south, at the ‘high’ end of the hall, occupying what used to be a cross-wing, is the drawing room. This, at least, is a ‘light’ room. With lime-white walls and cream panelling up to dado height, it looks out through a large window across the south-facing lawn. The enormous, probably fifteenth-century bressumer beam across the fireplace speaks of an older room, in which those old rectors clutched their tankards of ale next to a roaring fire, drafting sermons, nurturing ambitions, suppressing inchoate regrets. But the rest of the room reminds me more of the 1930s, when the rectors had given way to private owners, and there were musical entertainments and good pictures on the walls.

As for the hall itself, it is papered in William Morris ‘Blackthorn’ and connects an eighteenth-century front door with the rest of the house. The main stairs, date unknown, rise from it to a skylit landing. None of this, however, achieves any traction against the ceiling, the screen, the narrow width of the room, so obviously predicated on the length of normal oak beam.

And then there is the darkness. I have stood at the front door, holding it open on an early summer morning. Sweet, lilac-scented sunlight throws a champagne-coloured beam across the york stone and catching the distempered highlights of the ‘Blackthorn’ — but the darkness is still there. It draws itself in, like a cat that makes itself small rather than moving even when it knows it is in the way.

Most sensible people would say that the problem is lighting. I should have made the windows larger, or put in more artificial lights. The ‘Blackthorn’ should go, with its saturated ground, to be replaced by nice, pale, neutral colours. That, at least, would chase away the dark.

But for me, there simply isn’t a problem. Our hall is dark — but what is wrong with that?

To me, at any rate, this darkness is more than a defect of lighting. It is, instead, a memory of a time in which the function of rooms was not so much to provide an alternative to the natural world, as to offer a little bit of shelter in the face of a natural world that was still wholly, unarguably, often alarmingly predominate. Which is to say — our hall dates from a point at which being inside, being out of the wind and the rain, was still a bit of a visceral thrill. As for light, wasn’t there plenty of that outside? If there was warmth, too, from an open fire or two, that was a welcome extra. In 1518, shelter still counted for more.

And that is what I love about our dark house.

It is resolutely a creature of its own time, not ours. Our house was not built to offer twenty-first century people optimum working conditions 24/7. It was built to look sturdy and opulent — those beams are evidence of that — but not immaculate, and certainly not ‘bright’.

It would be mad to deny that brightness has its place. Few, I think, would wish to dice a shallot, apply mascara or read the manual for a complex alarm system in a deep gloom. It is for that reason that a few of our rooms — notably the kitchen — have quite a lot of artificial lighting now. These, though, are the all the sorts of tasks appropriate to brightness. It is conventional to refer to bright white rooms as ‘calm’ and ‘restful’. This puzzles me. Surely brightness is, at best, stimulating, at worst anxiety-inducing?

Brightness is quick to enforce its scrutiny on all of us, seeking to look into the corners of mens’ souls and to criticise what it finds there. All-knowing, it calls for particular sorts of action, conducted with a methodical sort of urgency. Dark, on the other hand, is both more subtle and more merciful in its demands. It blurs edges, elides things. Dark is accepting and, once one learns to trust it, often generous. But dark requires us to be receptive, and sometimes also to look to older truths, not always the most obvious or rational ones. Dark is conservative, rewarding patience and habit over innovation. Brightness shows the limits of things, but here is always more to darkness than meets the eye.

These are the reasons why I love my dark house, and would not wish it otherwise.