Thursday, 22 October 2015


An extraordinary, unexpected fantasy house, hiding in plain sight in the suburbs of rural Essex

A couple of weeks ago I was amazed to read in the Observer  about a house in suburban Essex, quite near to where I live and work in Chelmsford, of whose existence I had not until then had the slightest inkling. Twenty five years ago, John Trevilian bought an ex-council house in Great Dunmow, and then proceeded to convert and remodel it into an amazing historical fantasy. The project was finally completed this year, and the house was open to the public. How could I resist?

The tickets for day visits were sold out so we ended up going for the final evening "private view" on Sunday night (I had the day off the following Monday). We arrived after dark and found ourselves at a house which from the outside looked not that different from its neighbours on a curving street around a large open green.

We were greeted at the font door, handed an information sheet detailing the various rooms, and given the run of the place. We were asked to shut the doors as we entered and left each room, as each one had its own scent and soundtrack.

From the small entrance hall we turned towards the door on our left which had a wheel on it, like the sort of thing you might see if there was a watertight compartment or airlock. Passing through, we found ourselves in an oriental-looking space, predominantly red and black. In the centre was a low Japanese table with cushions on the floor around it. There were plants along the side walls. This was the tearoom and vivarium, set within a starship in a sort of post-steampunk future where the dominant power is in the Far East. The effect was soothing and tranquil, with the gentle hum of the spaceship engines in the background.

Exiting via the other end of the room, we found ourselves in the garden, where we looked around a bit before heading for the kitchen, where a buffet supper was provided. The kitchen was set in New Orleans in the 1950s, and like every other room we were to visit, full of pictures and objects which together evoked and recreated a certain time and place.

Then it was back to the garden where there was a log cabin, set in 1940s Canada, the sort of thing that might have been used by a trapper, with snowshoes at the door, Clothing hanging off the ceiling, and a sleeping platform at one end, below which drinks were dispensed by a barman.

The grandest area was the living room and dining room, a mediaeval Welsh watchtower converted into a sort of Victorian gentleman's folly. In the course of the evening we spoke to the owner of Talliston, and to the others there, most of whom had been involved in the project for varying lengths of time. John, the owner, is a writer of fantasy fiction who wanted somewhere to write, and he had remodelled his office upstairs into a private detective's office, set in 1920s New York. He then got to work on the rest of the house, aided by a friends and volunteers who helped him execute his plan.

Everything in each room had been meticulously researched, and he had travelled all over the world to see the places which had inspired them. He had clearly absorbed the spirit of the places he had visited. In the watchtower room, the sofa was upholstered in a luxurious fabric from Venice which, because of its expense, had put the project on hold for a few months.

The room was partly faced with stone. To get some of the things in, they had been obliged to more or less remove one wall of the house, and then reinstall it on the same day.

This is the staircase, set in renaissance Faenza:

The office, a New York detective's premises in the 1920s.

This is the Room of Dreams, one of the two bedrooms, a guest room in the Alhambra in Grenada, in the 1970s.

The bathroom, coastal Norway, 1980s:

In the loft, accessible only via a rope ladder and through a trapdoor, a Cambodian treehouse of the 1960s.

Talliston is an extraordinary place, the creation of one man's vision and persistence. Many others were caught up with his enthusiasm, the volunteers and friends who contributed their labour and skills to the project and helped him build it. He has created a convincing and immersive environment in each room, with layers of meaning. Everything is beautifully and exquisitely executed.

I am not normally, by inclination, a reader of fantasy fiction but I find Talliston very compelling. It's hard to explain why. But while I was there, it really felt in each room as though I had travelled to a different time and place. From the outside the house is totally inconspicuous, and it would require some effort to tell it apart from its neighbours, unless you looked through the gate into the garden. Step through the front door and you enter a sort of alternative reality. Hiding in plain sight, as John said.

The project is now complete and it is not clear yet what will become of the house, although the plan is generally to make it accessible to people who are interested in it. They have held various events there like murder mysteries, supper clubs and so on, and I suspect something of the sort will continue.

If you think you might like to see the house, or are interested to learn more about it, visit Talliston's website, which has details of forthcoming events, and where you can also sign up for their mailing list:

Talliston House
51 Newton Green
Great Dunmow
Essex CM6 1 DU
+44 7760 171100

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