Time and place: Stanley Johnson
The Sunday Times, 18th January 2015
In 1994, we were living on Polstead Road, in north Oxford. We’d moved there when I gave up my job as the European Commission’s director of energy policy in Brussels so the children could go to school in Britain. My wife, Jenny, had started a degree at Harris Manchester College, but I began to think it would be good to move back to London. I sensed the time was right, as the market was quite slow. Having lived in the capital before, I felt a pull to go back, too. So, one Sunday morning, I drove down to do some househunting.
I said to Jenny just before I left, "I bet you I have found a house by the time I get back." After looking around Notting Hill and St John's Wood, which were far too expensive, I had a look around Primrose Hill, where I had lived in the late 1960s and early 1970s. One house I had walked past many times was a distinctive pink villa called the Rocking Horse House, so named because it had a rocking horse sitting in a large window for all the world to see. It was quite a local landmark, so I was greatly heartened to see a "For sale" sign outside it.
I rang the doorbell, spoke to the owners, two doctors, Christopher and Christina Williams, agreed a price there and then, and drove back to Oxford to tell Jenny the news.
We moved in later that year. Jenny and our two children, Julia and Max, were pleased with the four-bedroom house, which had a good-sized garden and was decorated in a 1960s style. Lucas Heller, a film director, had done some interesting work in the house, which we enjoyed and didn't really change. Downstairs there was a huge lounge-cum-diner that opened onto the garden at the back. When we moved in, there was a sauna in the garden, but I converted that to a writing den.
Within a few days, people were knocking on the door, asking where the rocking horse had gone, as the previous owners had taken theirs with them. So tradition clearly dictated that we had to get our own. We found a rocking-horse manufacturer and drove down to Kent, where an employee of Stevenson Brothers took our photographs using an old Polaroid camera, with us holding a Times newspaper. That image and the paper were then placed inside the wooden animal when it was made.
Six months later, the oak rocking horse, which we named Tarquin, was delivered. On it was a bronze plaque, together with a quote from Virgil's Aeneid — "Quadrupedante putrem sonitu quatit ungula campum." Priced at the not inconsiderable sum of £3,627, it really did complete the house.
When we moved to London, I was a director of environmental resources management, but I took on other consultancy work during that time, plus writing. I wrote four books in my study on the first floor, which was over the lintel of the front door. I also travelled extensively for work.
Primrose Hill wasn't celebrity-filled back in those days, and had a lovely villagey feel. We often went to lunch at Lemonia, there was a nice grocery shop nearby, and Primrose Hill Books was a delight. We walked our dogs, Pixie and Harry, on Primrose Hill, enjoying the spectacular views at the top. I also enjoyed, and still do, cycling around the capital. At weekends and in summer holidays, we would all spend time at the family home in Exmoor.
In 2007, after many happy years there, and after the children had flown the nest, we decided that the house was too big for us. So we sold up and moved to another London home. We retired Tarquin, the rocking horse, to the country, so he is now out to grass.
When I look back at the house now, I think I probably will never live in as lovely a home, as prices have rocketed in the area. The house was well loved and distinctive. People used to put in notes through the door addressed to the rocking horse — there aren't many homes where that kind of thing happens.
Stanley, I Resume by Stanley Johnson is published by the Robson Press at £25. To buy it for £20, including p&p, call 0845 271 2135 or visit thesundaytimes.co.uk/bookshop
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