Shadows in the Nursery

Maddie and Felix tidied their rooms last Sunday.

Felix’s friend was coming. Every nook and cranny was tidied, spit spot. The vacuum cleaner took no prisoners, the floor was washed, the shelves polished, the toys neatly filed in their respective boxes. A place for almost everything, and almost everything in its place.

In just seven days, it had all been undone. And though I spend time up there every evening, reading stories and tucking people in, somehow I missed the maelstrom which caused it. The gradual displacement had unaccountably become an avalanche.

I know this has come about because my children play industriously. They use their construction kits, and their dolls, and their cars and owls. I surveyed the clutter and resolved on a tidy session; but there was a companionable method to the things scattered about. Soldiers arrayed opposite spaceships and cuddlies, all part of some vast plan for nursery domination.

Less than a mile away is a place which was used as a nursery.

It is on the second floor of one of the grand old houses which skirt London, and these days the nursery wing is a studio theatre with black walls which swallow light. It is an uneasy place because once upon a time, when the toys were arrayed there, a tragedy happened. A fire.

And so those who work there now, more than a century later, still know it as The Nursery. And they often speak of a strange and oppressive feeling in that part of the building.

I have a foot in Cornwall, one planted many years ago, which stubbornly refuses to move. And when down there last, I visited a favourite old haunt, Lanhydrock, an old house surrounded by huge Lewis-Carroll clipped yews, with a history stretching back to an old priory, and a thoroughly modern Victorian wing built when fire ravaged part of the old house in 1881.

The new wing, of course, was built to house the children, far away from the grown-ups. This was a happy nursery, it is said: a place where the children were looked after by clever, imaginative nannies who would play those boisterous games the children loved, and indulge in tea-parties for whole rooms full of china dollies.

It is from this nursery that these pictures are taken. The rooms are as cluttered as my own children’s, with lovely, well-used toys. When life goes right in the nursery, as Sebastian Marchmain would vouchsafe, Β there is no more secure place in the world.

Which must be why the writers of the ghostly and the gothic love it as a device.

I cannot think of nurseries and music boxes without remembering The Woman In Black.

Susan Hill, a masterly ghost story teller, uses the nursery as the very epicentre of her masterly tale. An old house has unhappy history with tragic death at its centre. And those who died had lives which circulated about the nursery.

The rocking chair, which should hold a loving adult, becomes the restless focus of a tormented soul, a mother who seems to us simply wicked. The sound of the chair rocking, and the playful tinkle of a music box, become quite terrible when put against a backdrop, not of security, but of darkness and dread.

Sometimes, when I have listened to passages written by Hill, I pad upstairs. And I tuck the children in, and survey the chaos which declares this room a happy, if incredibly well-used, space.

Looking around the room, Β it seems the nursery reflects the wider life of the house and its people.

And here, so does a certain contentment.

Even if the rooms are a bit untidy.


48 thoughts on “Shadows in the Nursery

  1. Om my fascinating history but sad when children are affected!!! Bless your children and their happy playground nursery!!!! I know it’s a wonderful place!!!

  2. In the 70’s I photographed the kitchens at Llanhydrock for Terence Conran’s “Kitchen Book”. I remember it was on a hot summer’s morning and I had such a dreadful hangover. In a state of dehydration I hurriedly opened a, unbeknown to me, severely shaken can of fizzy lemonade which covered me in warm, sticky liquid that dried to a crisp sugar coating all over my, then, long hair and beard. It wasn’t a great day:)

  3. I haven’t read the book, but just saw the film, and I really do find the use of children’s toys when used in a dark setting, very scary. Your photos of the nursery however are reassuring and lovely.

    1. I refused to watch the film, Banno: Hammer Productions got hold of it and made it into a tacky horror. The book is entirely different, a masterpiece of suspense which has run and run in the West End as a drama. Have a read. I promise you won’t regret it.

  4. Whiissst – wordpress is not letting me like your blog today Kate 😦 and I do, very much! Apologies for my absent blog visiting of late but life has got very out of hand!

  5. I admit to having used the nursery as a place of fear ad unease in a short story… it’s irresistible!

    My Felix is an industrious player, too, and I’m not often inclined to force it all back into good behavior. My philosophy is something like Nana’s in The Velveteen Rabbit:

    “Sometimes she took no notice of the playthings lying about, and sometimes, for no reason whatever, she went swooping about like a great wind and hustled them away in cupboards. She called this “tidying up, …”

  6. Dear Kate, the dollhouse in one photograph would be any little girl’s play dream. Susan Hill sounds a little too scary for me. I like to stay closer to shore. Or perhaps I’ll say that I like a contented nursery! Albeit a messy one would be a style. Peace.

  7. I haven’t read Susan Hill, but you’ve referenced The Woman in Black before, and I wonder if I could handle it! πŸ™‚ You may have tempted me this time! My children’s rooms were always a mess. I tried, but they, too, enjoyed their plaything imaginatively and I didn’t have what it took to be too strict about tidiness. We still laugh and tease with my son about the elaborate Star Wars scenes he would recreate all over his room. They even hung from the lights until he discovered a few storm troopers had melted and stuck to the light bulbs. You’ve brought back some pleasant memories for me, Kate. But now I’m thinking I may want to check out the spookier tales! πŸ™‚

  8. Thanks to you and to Penny, I DID read The Woman in Black . . . an eerie tale, indeed. I love getting goosebumps, but the nursery in that tale was also a very sad place. That pictured here seems friendlier and happier, much as I imagine the children’s rooms in your own home. πŸ™‚

  9. Your writing gave me shivers up my spine.. it all started innocently in a nursery with toys scattered about.. and then came that rocking chair! Well written.. you’ve used the device yourself here, and very successfully I might add!!

      1. I just realized I never replied to your comment–I actually have seen the stage production, I was lucky enough to see it in the West End about 20 years ago, and it was fantastic! To my knowledge, they haven’t done the stage play here, just the movie.

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