Catherine Simpson on her critically-acclaimed memoir: When I Had a Little Sister
PUBLISHED: 00:00 28 March 2019
Catherine Simpson’s new memoir has received rave reviews in the national media. Here, the author reveals the back story to her tragic tale.
The Simpson family have farmed at New House Farm, Winmarleigh, near Garstang, since David and Marjorie (my grandparents) moved there in 1925. My parents, Stuart and Margaret, bought the farm in 1973 – selling their herd of 80 pedigree cows to fund it, and then rebuilding the herd from scratch.
However, by 2005 my father was nearly eighty, my mother was dying of cancer and my younger sister, Tricia, who was helping run the farm was ill too. It was decided the milk cows must be sold and Tricia would convert the milking parlour into a DIY stables business. The 110 acres of land would be used for beef cattle and sheep, the Dutch barn would be kept for machinery and straw, and Tricia would continue to live in the farmhouse.
This left a gigantic stone barn, old stables, granary, calf pens, Edwardian cheese dairy and farm yard redundant. It was obvious that something must be done – they could not be left to rot. So planning permission was sought to convert these buildings into five luxury homes, and in 2007 they were sold to a developer.
It felt unbelievable that these buildings that had been part of our lives for so long would essentially cease to be part of our farm, and despite the sale going through, at first we still wandered around the buildings freely and parked in the yard as we always had.
Building work soon began though and the barn’s foundations were strengthened, interiors were gutted, slates were ripped off. The farmyard became a construction site. Then, in 2008, several months into the conversion, the financial crisis hit. Work faltered then stopped altogether. Plant left, the workmen disappeared, and the buildings were left stripped back to bare stone with forlorn bits of scaffolding attached – not barns anymore, but not yet housing.
The weeks rolled by, then the months, the weeds took hold, the years came and went, and eventually the weeds became waist high and claimed the barns back as their own. It was devastating to see these beautiful old buildings once full of cows, calves, pigs, horses, cats and dogs empty except for the swallows swooping up to the eaves.
The barns were in this sad state in 2013 when tragically Tricia, then aged 46, took her own life in the farmhouse, after years of mental ill health. Her diaries charting the history of her illness are the basis for my new book.
My 87-year-old father, by then living in a new bungalow up the lane, was still caring for the fields and so he took over Tricia’s stables, but it seemed like the end of an era for us. Shortly afterwards work resumed on the barns. We watched as new windows were fitted, conservatories attached, and gardens landscaped.
By June 2015 they had been transformed from dilapidated ruins into ‘stunning unique barn conversions’.
On the open day for the barn conversions my older sister, Elizabeth, Dad and I were invited to go and have a look. In the old calf pens, which used to have compacted earth and straw underfoot and where you couldn’t venture without wellies, it was now a cavernous palace of white walls and beige carpets. We were invited to pull on blue plastic overshoes to protect the interior from our feet, which seemed strangely topsy-turvy.
Potential buyers strolled from room to room, necks craning to take in the sheer scale of the buildings. Where the calves used to jostle to shove their heads through the only window in the great thick stone walls, there was now a wood-burning stove. The circular aperture in the eaves through which the swallows had swooped to nest in the soaring rafters was now a glazed window.
In what used to be the hayloft – with floorboards so rotten cats could fall right through and bounce on the bales below – there was now a bathroom with white walls and a grey slate floor; there were lit candles dotted about and scattered red rose petals.
We wandered around the other units goggling at the way our past had been so successfully removed. All the memories of the games we played and the adventures we had were only in our heads now; no evidence remained. The great stone barn where the rope swing hung from the rafters was now a luxury unit called ‘The Parlour’, the old granary where the hay was kept was now ‘Crofters Keep’ and my dad’s signature on the wall from when he was a boy was well and truly gone (in fact we couldn’t even work out whether that wall existed any more).
It was hard to believe we were standing on the same bit of the planet. Shortly after this I began work on a memoir telling the story of the Simpsons at New House Farm, called When I Had a Little Sister. The cover photograph, taken by my mother, shows me and Tricia, aged four and seven. I’m crying over a dead duckling I’ve found in the farmyard and in the background is the great stone barn, the beautiful barn, which back then to me and my two sisters had been the best playground in the world.
When I Had a Little Sister by Catherine Simpson is published by 4th Estate