If you could do anything that you wanted with your home, what would you do – and I don’t mean get an extension, knock down a wall or get brave with wallpaper? Anything that you want: throw the rulebook out of the window. Would you turn your attic into a Cambodian tree house and your bathroom into a Norwegian lighthouse? Let voodoo magic into your kitchen and ghosts into your spare bedroom?
Ghosts, magic, and a tree house are all things that you can find within the exceedingly ordinary walls of Talliston, a former semi-detached seventies council house, in a very ordinary street in a very ordinary Essex village.
Talliston – meaning “hidden place”, is the magnum opus of John Trevillian, a fifty-year-old author, who had a dream twenty-five years ago to turn the most ordinary house into the most extraordinary, using one normal-sized income.
The result, whatever you think about it, is indeed extraordinary. This is no mere themed makeover with MDF and murals; it’s a house-sized piece of art that took 35,000 hours of work by Trevillian and his partner, 138 volunteers, tradespeople and craftsfolk.
Within Talliston’s walls there are 1,821 objects sourced from twenty-seven countries, to conjure thirteen entirely different locations, from thirteen entirely different times.
The end result should be like Disneyland experienced with a bad hangover, but somehow it’s not. It works. Mostly down to the dedication of those on board the project, but partly because of the meticulous attention to detail – from the plugs and wiring to the door furniture, not a thing remains untouched or untransformed. Trevillian has even ditched the bog-standard boiler and installed a Victorian-style boiler room.
But for Trevillian, Talliston, with “an office that inspires novels, and a kitchen for the perfect Sunday morning breakfast” is a house of reality not fantasy.
Being fairly local myself, I heard about Talliston on the grapevine and booked my rather ambivalent husband and myself on the next house tour. Arriving late and flustered we were hoisted straight out of grey rainy Essex and into the entrance hall of an Italian palazzo, long since abandoned in Lombardy.
The idea of abandonment is suggested by a variety of stopped clocks. Ornate mirrors and a skylight give this tiny hallway (the most pointless of English spaces) a feeling of Italian light and renaissance.
Our tour guide directed us right, into a Victorian watchtower built by a Welsh prince in Snowdonia. This is Talliston’s lounge-diner: the lounge area dominated by huge sofas upholstered in bespoke Italian fabric, the dining room filled with a large table to host intimate dinner parties. All the architectural details are present here: wood-panelled walls, a serious fireplace and stone oriel windows. The room is stretched widthways by a huge beam, reclaimed from a ship and lifted into place by a crane.
The watchtower, with its muted colours, Victoriana and pagan undertones is a space to be enjoyed in the evenings, in the middle of the day it felt a little claustrophobic, which made the bright and airy kitchen a bit of a relief.
We were now in 1950’s Louisiana in a townhouse beside Bayou St. John (anything before the fifties and Trevillian would have had to chose between a fridge and the integrity of his project). This is a kitchen with all the necessary but adorned with vintage kitchenalia and yellowing cookbooks. Voodoo dolls peek out from behind teapots and early jazz fills the air (every room has its own sounds and smells.)
Passing through the kitchen, stopping briefly to admire a Norwegian lighthouse keeper’s cottage (the bathroom), we stepped outside to a 1930’s courtyard garden – normality can be glimpsed above the fences, reminding you that you are in Essex. But fortunately that’s not a realisation you have to hold onto for long. Squeezed into the corner of the courtyard is a Canadian log cabin complete with furs, whiskey and snowshoes. A cosy mezzanine level gives you safe place to sleep away from Essex bears.
We re-entered the main house through a side extension, which is actually the chill-out zone of a Japanese Moon Station from 2282. Shuffling past the low table laid out for a tea ceremony we exited via a suitably futuristic door to go upstairs.
So typical of seventies semis Talliston has two bedrooms and a third room designed to be of little use whatsoever. This small ‘box room’ is writer Trevillian’s New York office. It’s the 1920s, so a vintage typewriter sits ready for use on a heavy oak desk. Though I was told a computer lay hidden somewhere (the cheat!).
Of the two bedrooms, one is a guest room from an Alhambra Palace, a cosy dream space with a star-speckled ceiling, and the other a haunted Victorian chamber from a Scottish nightmare. This claustrophobic space, complete with spooky sounds and creaking floorboards “has remained untouched”, we are told, since the occupant, a young boy died.
Finally we negotiated a rope ladder to the attic, a Cambodian tree house. Probably my favourite space in Talliston, this ‘spirit’ house from Cambodia’s Tonlé Sap Lake almost demands calm and peace. Of all the rooms in Talliston this was the one in which I could almost believe I was where I was told I was; a tranquil space to enjoy a glass or three of wine, followed no doubt by a fall through the loft hatch.
Our tour over, we joined the other visitors and Trevillian in the voodoo kitchen for tea, cake and photo albums. Trevillian was keen to answer questions and show off before-and-after pictures of his masterpiece. He hinted at a novel based upon his home, and a second project: Talliston itself is going to be placed into a trust.
Reactions to Talliston have been largely positive – he certainly has a devoted group of volunteers, fans and followers. There are of course a few detractors, those that are uncomfortable outside of the ordinary.
Could you live here? Homes for most of us are fluid things, changed often according to need and whim. They are filled and then emptied daily with the detritus of modern life: schoolbags, mail, coats and shopping; things that would look incongruous lying around Talliston.
But we’re not supposed to live here; this is Trevillian’s stage. What Talliston does is remind us that there need not be rules when it comes to creating our homes – emphasis our; emphasis homes. That we needn’t in fact, grow up: Would it not be more fun to end your evening with friends in a tree house? Would taking your bath in a Norwegian lighthouse not help you escape humdrum reality? Whatever you see Talliston as, an art installation, a set, an act of obsession or even madness. It is first and foremost a home.
Visits to Talliston must be booked in advance. You can visit Talliston on an organised tour booked through www.invitationtoview.co.uk. Or for special events, or a private function visit www.talliston.com.
If you fancy an overnight trip you can choose to stay in the Canadian Cabin, the Room of Dreams or the Haunted bedroom. Book through www.airbnb.co.uk.