Jancis Robinson on the upsides of downsizing
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Downsizing. The word struck a chill in my heart, even though all three children raised in our four-floor Victorian house in Belsize Park had indubitably moved out. The idea of moving into a house nearby, like ours but smaller, seemed as defeatist as starting to buy clothes and shoes one size bigger.
Neither of us likes moves. We had been in our house for 33 years and wanted to find somewhere that would see us out while also energising us. Having watched both our mothers lose the ability to climb stairs, causing family dramas and my mother to sing “Eternal Father, Strong to Save” whenever, gingerly, using her stairlift, the answer seemed to be a flat.
I used to lie awake at night designing my ideal flat — a main room big enough for cooking, eating and sitting, plus two studies and two bedrooms — and just couldn’t see how it would fit easily into the sort of mansion blocks that proliferate in London. Then Nick came back from a meeting with Argent — the developers of King’s Cross, reputedly the largest city centre development in Europe — with a floor plan that exactly met our needs and would leave a bit of spare cash to boot.
I had never lived anywhere less than 100 years old but the idea of moving much closer to the centre of London, within a brisk walk of six Tube lines, two railway stations and the Eurostar terminal was extremely attractive. I had been following the transition of King’s Cross from the seediest quarter of London, home to desperate prostitutes and dodgy raves, into somewhere populated by rivetingly dressed fashion students, Googlers, toddlers in the fountains, and long lines of hopeful young diners outside the likes of Dishoom and Caravan. It is too bad that so few of the young people who make the area so vibrant can actually afford to live here.
Bolstered by the likely selling price of our north London house, we decided to go the whole hog and put down a deposit, way back in 2013, on a top floor flat in a building that did not yet exist. We can’t bring ourselves to use the word “penthouse” but doubtless would if we ever decided to sell the “apartment” (even our novelist friend has decreed that this is a more appropriate word than “flat”).
Selling it is unlikely since we are thoroughly thrilled by the move, undertaken at last in early December last year, when the sun would rise in a swirl of orange behind the City skyline to our east. We still, childishly, like to take visitors out on to our balconies and show them how we can see from the Emirates Stadium to the Wembley arch, taking in the Shard, London Eye, Big Ben and the beautiful Francis Crick Institute in between, not to mention Regent’s Canal, Regent’s Park and Primrose Hill.
The move might not have worked if we were keen gardeners; King’s Cross is not for Robin Lane Fox. But we have a communal garden that the developers were clever enough to plant long before anyone moved into the building (we were the fifth occupants, I believe), as well as a communal gym (as yet uninspected) and a communal entertaining space (unlikely to be of use to us).
A more pressing need, as far as I was concerned, was a home for our 2,000 bottles of wine that had previously been stored in two locations, including a flooded spiral cellar, in our previous locale. The floor plans seemed to include an unnecessarily large utility room, windowless and north-facing, so pretty ideal for wine storage once temperature control had been installed. Accordingly, a good third of this space has been converted into a “cellar”, paid for by the amount we saved by eschewing the dark wood initially specified for the corridors by the designer.
Buying off plan was a completely new adventure for us. We naively expected the original completion date to be met, for example. We are less than obsessive about domestic details so are lucky that most bits of equipment work as well as they do and that everything is pretty high quality. I am still locked in combat over a too-short bath that is absurdly positioned, but am in love with the generously proportioned walk-in dressing room. There is also much more storage than I had imagined.
Perhaps if we had studied the plans with more acuity, we would not have felt the need to spend every free weekend for more than a year throwing things out. I thought it was extremely fortuitous when the University of California, Davis, the most wine-minded of its campuses, contacted me out of the blue last year wanting to house my “archive” — 275 reporter notebooks started in the mid-1970s, boxes of tasting notes, and photographs and correspondence aplenty. I shipped it all off across the Atlantic with relief last November. In fact, I think I could have found space for it all; we haven’t even ventured into our little loft yet and still have many empty drawers and cupboards.
Moving gear from a Victorian house to a brand new flat has its challenges, of course. Most of our “brown furniture” was unsuitable and — thanks, Ikea — unsaleable. We’d had half of a maison de maître in the Languedoc since 1989. Our neighbour had been trying to sell us her half for years. So last year we gave in, chiefly, as a friend pointed out tartly, so we could use it as a furniture store.
As our very moveable London moving day approached, we felt under more and more pressure to rid ourselves of anything extraneous. Having dispatched spare clothes to Oxfam, various objets to Marie Curie and the piano to a friend, we called in the Green Man and Van, two notably polite young men, for a final sweep round the house so that any last excesses could be recycled if possible.
Because I’ve been writing about wine for so long, I have accumulated various medals and awards, all of which I kept on a high shelf. I thought I was being self-effacing when I suggested they clear the shelf, only to find myself tracked down when in New Zealand last January by James Rubin of Envirowaste, east London. He, quite rightly, considered I should recover some of these trophies. Tail between legs, I trekked out to Leyton and have sent most of them to Davis where perhaps they will be more treasured than by their ingrate recipient.
Now, please excuse me while I go and marvel once more at our views and the smoothness of our drawers.
We declined the offer of a space in the car park for £50,000, not least because a few years earlier our car had been stolen by some burglars who managed to lose their own car key in our house (and get a parking ticket) while pocketing every item of jewellery I’d inherited from my mother, grandmother, mother-in-law and godmother. We miss the gold but not the wheels.
I’d assumed our removals company, Matthew James, would put our four tonnes of wine upright in the usual wine cartons with dividers, but in fact the removers wrapped every bottle in several layers of paper and laid them horizontally, one on top of the other in their standard cardboard boxes. To my amazement, not a bottle was broken.
In signalling what was to go to King’s Cross and what to France, two sets of coloured dots were invaluable, though not 100 per cent effective. The Christmas cake Nick baked is somewhere in a barn in Languedoc.
Jancis Robinson is the FT’s wine writer and the author of ‘The 24-Hour Wine Expert’, and ‘Wine Grapes’
Photographs: Rick Pushinsky; John Sturrock; Knight Frank