In the cellar…

Why don’t they build houses with cellars anymore ?

I long for the day when new house builders across the land make an advertising point of the fact that their new two-bed starter home on a brown field site with the evocative name of “Lark Ascending Fields” distracts you from recalling that the local bus depot used to stand on that land and larks will not have ascended from here, ever, except maybe as a joke, those two bed new build homes with 95% mortgages guaranteed by decree of parliament will have as their principle advertising tag line “Includes spacious subterranean cellar for all your nick-nacks”.

They don’t build houses with cellars any more, haven’t done for at least a couple of generations or more, why, what went so horribly wrong to stifle the supply of spacious subterranean storage capacity for all your nick-nacks ?

I have never lived in a house with a cellar.

Well that’s not strictly true, the house in Lumley Road had a cellar I’m sure but we moved out of there when I was two years old and so I never got to utilise it fully being that my short legs at the time were not capable of walking down the steep cellar steps and so my mother would always lock the cellar door, thus making the subterranean storage facility for all our nick-nacks even more mysterious, “What does she keep behind that locked door ?”

My brother lived in a house with a cellar in his adult life and my cousins lived in a house with a cellar in their childhood, but I have not had the advantage, my nick-nacks have had to be stored in garages or damp sheds rather than underneath my house, which is a pity for there is nothing frightening about your garage or damp shed, but negotiating the steep stairwell into your cellar is quite a different matter especially if the bulb pops just as you reach the bottom step.

Our Neds cellar was underneath his Victorian stone built back-to-back terraced house and to benefit from its wonderful underground storage facility and to place all you nick-nacks in it you had to gain access via the small kitchen, a kitchen so small it wasn’t called a kitchen but “a scullery”, a narrow galley affair with barely room for a sink at the window and a cooker and a strategic, but rather small, refrigerator crammed into the corner which, to open the door, usually meant that you had to move something else out of the way.

The door to his cellar was next to the refrigerator, an old handmade wooden affair with a thumb lath which opened inwards to the scullery meaning that you had to move something else again to gain access, heaven forfend that you’d ever want to open the cellar door AND the refrigerator at the same time for then you’d have to move so much stuff out of the way that you’d empty the scullery out onto the garden first.

Once open you would feel a breeze of cool musty air rising from below, not damp as such, but at the least slightly moist, air that had remained trapped underground since the last time you had decided to visit your nick-nacks in the cellar, you’d stand at the top of the cellar with the door open and wonder if that was a damp smell or just something slightly moist for the fear of every house holder who owns a property with a cellar is that it will one day start to let the moisture in from the surrounding ground, and then your nick-nacks are in peril.

Finding the light switch was the next task, it was just around the corner and leaning into the stairwell fumbling around on the wall always gave a shiver of fear at first, for what if there may be a spider hiding here, currently in the dark, just waiting for your hand to come a-fumbling for the switch where it had made a home ?

AT last illuminated you could then shove you way past the winter coats which were always hung out of sight behind the cellar door, attempt to negotiate the several pairs of wellington boots which were always stood out of sight on the top cellar step, turn ninety degrees sharp left and finally view the ever-so-steep descent into your underground nick-nack storage facility lit by an as-yet unseen bare 60 watt light bulb, it was scary, every time, even though it was your cellar for your nick-nacks, the cellar was the only room in YOUR house, the one bought with the mortgage in YOUR name, the house that was registered to YOU in the land registry in London no less, standing at the top of the cellar stairs always gave that feeling that this subterranean part of YOUR house never quite belonged to you, this was always the only room in the house that belonged to someone or many people in its past.

Our Neds cellar had a stone table in the middle of it, standing on two short brick walls with a huge slab of Yorkshire sandstone acting as a table top it was, he explained, used for butchering meat “in the olden days”, the olden days before refrigerators caused such a kerfuffle when you had to move things to open them upstairs in the kitchen, in the olden days people would keep perishable goods down here in the cooler cellar – that’s cool in the meaning of the phrase “a lower temperature than upstairs” rather than “this room is so cool man, its got a stone table and everything”.

His stone table was used to butcher things “in the olden days” and it had a row of old hooks screwed into the joists above to hang meat from, I have read tales of similar dwellings in other parts of the city where families always kept one solitary pig in their back yard every year, fattening it up on everything that would normally have gone in their bin and taking it to their local butcher in a wheelbarrow in the autumn for execution – the butcher would keep an agreed portion of the carcass for his handiwork in dispatching the unfortunate porcine and the family would wheel what was left back home in the barrow, carve it up on the cold stone table in the cellar and hang the joints from the ceiling hooks to last the whole winter through, all you had to do every morning in order to make up your lunchtime sandwiches was to scrape the mould off one of the hams and carve yourself another slice.

Healthy ?

Of course it was, a bit of mould never harmed anyone, in fact it was probably good for them and their life expectancy was well into their , ooooh, lets see, thirties at least.

So there it is, I’ve never had a house with a cellar, you just cant buy modern houses with cellars, more is the pity, and the nearest that I ever came to having a house with a cellar was the house in Kirkwood Way, the one built on a hillside where the space under the ground floor was almost big enough to stand up in although unfortunately we never really got to test or explore it too often as the house was also built on top of a stream and so would fill with water every winter, with one famous winter giving us all fright as the water rose to within two inches of the ground floor requiring me to buy a pump – but that’s another story…


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