The natural and social pictorial history of a house in Whitley

In the autumn of 1973 David Turner was told by a friend that there was a derelict detached house on the Basingstoke Road that had been empty for a few years and was up for sale.

After spending a couple of lunchtimes searching for it, he finally found the place, called ‘Long Cottage’ looking sad, neglected and hidden from view by brambles, overgrown trees and shrubs. David told his wife (who was pregnant at the time) all about the cottage, which was built in 1900, and they both fell in love with it, feeling compelled to buy it for ten thousand pounds.

There was a huge amount of restoration work to be done before the house could be fully occupied, so with help from family and friends, David worked hard over evenings and weekends, replacing windows, doors and floors until they were ready to move in by January 1974. It took another year or so before life there was truly comfortable for the Turners, but there was great joy in March of that year when their daughter was born.

David had started taking photographs of the house and garden from the first day of viewing, and the before and after shot shows incredible progress.

The garden was as neglected as the house, and David dug the equivalent of two fence-panels-width a night for weeks to turn the earth over and clear the brambles and scrub. Paths were found and old walls were discovered along with numerous finds including Victorian tiles and bottles. All these items are now on display in David’s self-made shed and bar The Leaping Frog.

Part of the lawn went completely brown during the heat wave of 1976, and it became clear on attempting to dig this area that rubble had probably killed the grass along with the heat. There was, in fact, a very large old well, and directly under the turf was an old well pump. Over many years, David attempted to empty the well; he managed to clear a full ladder length before it became dangerous to work. The well is so large that you can easily lay in it and it is always full of water even through periods of drought.

David Turner finds himself in a bit of a hole.

One particular evening, David came across a load of industrial batteries and what looked like a grenade in the well. He rang the police for advice, who took the situation very seriously and told him to evacuate his house and garden and tell the neighbours likewise. Within minutes the police arrived and soon established it was in fact a mould to produce a grenade. The next day he awoke to find the neighbours had placed a fake plastic bomb on the well!

He began growing fruit and vegetables using organic methods and created ponds and areas for wildlife. A log cabin was added to the garden, then a bandstand, then a bird hide, a studio and an alpine house!

Over the years, there were numerous parties and many events were celebrated at Long Cottage including bonfire night, halloween, the royal jubilee, royal weddings, neighbourly BBQs, sporting occasions and even their very own beer festival with their very own beer, of course!

Overseas students were welcomed on MASD (‘management and analysis of statistical data’) evenings, the course at the University of Reading where David’s wife worked for many years as a statistician. Happy folk from all around the world attended these jolly get–togethers and joined in with the cooking, playing games, singing and dancing.

It can’t be a coincidence that David has had the same neighbours for decades now and remarkably few other families have moved away from the happy row of houses nearby. He set up his own home business making bespoke wooden toys in the 1980s, working out of his workshop at Long Cottage. He was building the sort of toys that endure and are hard to break, a world away from the garish plastic toy that you see so often dumped in lay-bys today. Selling these toys at boot sales and fares was a joyful time for David and a labour of love.

During the many years of restoration, David had started to supplement his photo-record with some research on the previous owners using maps and other history of the time when the cottage was being built. He went to Reading Central Library, who were enormously helpful in supplying maps and a directory, and he found that previous owners had shared his surname.

There was an even greater breakthrough when David managed to track down the grandson of the last occupant, who gave David an album of family photographs. These pictures taken between 1900 and perhaps 1950 are an incredible, charming record of social history. They depict family life with all the period clothes, the children, their toys and prams, even the tools, sheds and views of the house and garden.

Occupants of Long Cottage

David is fascinated by wildlife and even suggests that his love of the natural world has helped him recover from a recent serious illness. His twenty web cameras are set up in vantage points around his garden and the sheer variety of animal visitors through the seasons to his south Reading suburban garden would surprise many.

He has a beloved family of foxes and hedgehogs, some squirrels, various bats plus the odd rat and other mammals. The birdlife his garden attracts includes woodpeckers, thrushes, gold and green finches, herons, sparrowhawks, red kites and seasonal migrants, including our redbrick favourites, the swifts, showing their utter contempt for the ‘surly bonds of earth’ with their amazing acrobatic displays.

In 2015, the garden was used by the BBC2 programme Garden Watch as a base from which to record the wildlife over a period of three months; there were many wildlife visitors in this time and David’s moth-trap provided plenty of interest. The garden had been crafted over many years to encourage wildlife, and the many cameras and David’s blog and social media are not just for his own pleasure but set-up to share his love of wildlife and nature with anyone who cares to take an interest.

Inaccurate portrait of Gilbert White

There are echoes of the great naturalist Gilbert White of Selborne in David’s obsessive but joyful parochial wildlife recording. Although his bound volume of the history of the house and garden show a dedication to the natural world, it also shows a great love of life itself with his family and friends at the centre of everything. It is a lovely, very personal book and record of social history.

David welcomes all to enjoy his wildlife blog and various social media sites. He swears he will never move away!

Matthew Farrall, the author of this article, died on 20 April 2018.
We are grateful to his family for allowing us to continue to display his work online.


Links
  1. David Turner’s ‘Pumpkin’ blog and on Facebook and Twitter
  2. Gilbert White’s house
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