Growing up in a historic home makes for family stories. Francesca Emms tells us some of the highlights of that Featherston childhood.
My Mum likes to
tell the story of the first time she and Dad took us kids to see Longwood. It
was the summer that I was seven. Apparently I spun around singing, ‘I think I’m
gonna like it here!’ I don’t remember doing this. But I was an
attention-seeking middle child obsessed with Annie so I’m sure it’s true. Anyway, I was right.
That first visit
was spent racing around counting toilets (current count is 14), getting lost in
the trees, and picnicking on the lawn. We got to choose which of the eleven
bedrooms we wanted. I went for one with an archway over the door and a view of
the front lawn. My older sister Georgia took the Yellow Room which boasts a
fireplace and two entrances. Four-year-old Sammy was put in the Red Room,
probably because it was closest to the Blue Room, the master suite, where my
parents were. I felt like I could be any of the redheaded characters I loved –
Orphan Annie, Pippi playing in her rundown mansion, or Anne of Green Gables
letting her imagination go wild.
This dream house
came with some challenges – its sheer size to start with. A restoration project
becomes a marathon when the house covers 14,000 square feet and all the water
pipes are 100 years old. The current Longwood was built in 1906 (after the
original wooden one burnt down) and the oldest building on the site is the
1850s cottage where the builders of the original homestead lived while they
constructed it. My parents have spent a couple of decades carefully restoring
Longwood and the other historic buildings. I don’t remember the hard work – I
was too busy having a marvellous time.
My early memories
of living at Longwood include climbing up and down the fire escapes, exploring
the bush and playing epic games of hide and seek. My best hiding place was the
top shelf of the upstairs linen cupboard. I can’t tell you my second best spot
because I still use it. We climbed trees, built precarious forts and raced
around on a quad bike sans helmets. The best winter pastime was sliding down
the stairs in sleeping bags. Looking back at the adventures we had, it’s
incredible that I’ve never needed stitches or broken a bone. And apart from a mild concussion, sustained during a
particularly fast slide down the stairs, our friends were mostly ok too.
Longwood being haunted meant that friends on sleepovers frequently had to be driven
home in the middle of the night. I’m sure they weren’t true but Mum and Dad
weren’t taking any chances, inviting the local Catholic priest to perform an
exorcism – well, a blessing. I still find it a bit unnerving to walk down the
drive at night; the sound of the wind through the trees does nothing to calm an
The highlight of
any play date at Longwood was dressing up. The box room, tucked away in the
maid’s quarters, would have been where the trunks and suitcases were kept. With
a number of performers in the family, and a bit of a hoarding gene, we turned
it into a fully stocked dress-up
room. Shoes, wigs, masks, old costumes and op-shop finds all went in there and
it became the go-to not only for us kids but also for my parents and their
friends when they were going to costume
parties. When Georgia was given a camera, photo shoots became a regular
game. She would style Sammy and me and make us pose in character. The collection
has grown over the years and now includes wedding dresses, furs, opera gowns
and anything we thought might come in handy for a future show. We’ve had to
cull a bit, but we still have the two most popular items: the pink tutu, which
a nominated family member has to wear to hand out the presents at Christmas
time, and the Batman cape.
The Adam Drawing
Room, named for its Adamesque fireplaces and the wonderful plaster ceiling
detail, has been the stage for many concerts and theatre shows: amateur
productions our parents patiently sat through, as well as professional ones
that the public actually paid to see. This room is where the Easter Bunny hides
the eggs and where Father Christmas fills our pillow cases. It’s home to Mum’s
grand piano which accompanies the weekly rehearsal of the Featherston Gentlemen
Singers and our annual family carol-singing party.
Like our Mum, my sisters and I find it extremely difficult to part with books. There are literally thousands of them at Longwood. They’re all over the house – in piles on tables, spilling out of shelves or lost in our beds. I once tried to count just the cook books and gave up around 600. The library is my favourite room in the house. The shelves, which are completely full, are divided into fiction and non-fiction, and alphabetised. It’s the coziest room in the house with its thick curtains, deep leather couches and fireplace.
in the day, Longwood was freezing. I remember using toilets with bracingly cold
seats. We used open fires, hot water bottles and gas heaters to stay warm.
There’s a beautiful Aga in the kitchen which also heated the bedrooms directly
above. It was wonderful for slow cooking and the warming drawer was the perfect
temperature to put cold feet on. If the power went out Dad would do a cooked
breakfast just to prove we didn’t need electricity. The Aga had been run on
coke; Dad converted it to diesel, then gas, then wood, but it never ran
perfectly. One winter he tried charcoal and we’d leave the kitchen with
headaches and/or slightly high. Now there are radiators throughout the house,
though most of the open fireplaces remain. A borderline pyromaniac, I was
caught many times playing with matches before Dad taught me how to safely set,
light and maintain a fire. He instilled in me a deep respect for the art and
danger of firelighting.
Winter at Longwood is roast dinners and snuggling up by the fire. Spring is daffodils. Summer is swimming and Christmas-day-cricket. But Autumn is my favourite time of year. Do I need to tell you how beautiful Longwood’s deciduous trees are in Autumn? A couple of seasons ago we taught the next generation how to build up a pile of dry leaves and throw yourself into it. My two-year old nephew was a natural. My gatherer instinct is strong and I love to collect baskets of feijoas, trailer-loads of walnuts, and baskets of olives. I don’t want to toot my own horn but I’m the fastest at getting a sweet chestnut out of its spiky home and an excellent mushroomer. Four pretty South Suffolk sheep spent the summer cleaning up under the 40 olive trees Dad planted for Mum’s 40th, and this month we’ll be picking their fruit.
People always ask, ‘What’s it like to live here?’ Truth is, it’s just home. Magical, beautiful, historical, but just home.