What makes a house a home? Is it the building itself, the possessions inside, the people that live there, the location or community?
It’s probably all of these to some degree, says Kate Humble, who delved into the topic for her new book, Where The Hearth Is – sparked by the TV presenter’s own quest to understand why a London Victorian terraced property she thought would be her ‘dream home’ never really felt like it, but the Welsh farmhouse she later moved to did.
“Before I moved to Wales, my husband and I had bought a derelict house in London. We spent 18 months sleeping on kind friends’ sofas, giving everything we earned to the builders to try and make it un-derelict and create what we thought was going to be our absolutely perfect house, with a lovely kitchen, all our bookshelves and pictures on the walls, and all the elements we believed would make it the perfect, happy home,” explains Humble, 54.
“And what was really odd and actually rather distressing was the day we moved in and unpacked, we thought that instantly it would be home. It wasn’t. And it never felt like home, and I couldn’t work out what we’d done wrong.”
She repainted walls, moved pictures, furniture and even walls in a bid to fix the issue: “I drove my husband completely mad. For the whole seven years we were there, I basically battled to try and make this house a home.”
She eventually realised the problem wasn’t so much the house, but the location. “The reason that poor house was never going to be home was that I wanted it to make me believe London was home, and it couldn’t do that.”
Humble’s TV career has always focused on the countryside and nature, with shows like Springwatch and Countryfile, and for a long time she’d harboured a desire to live in rural Wales.
“I was never a city girl, I was brought up in the countryside,” she explains. “I had for quite a long time wanted to be back in the country, but because of my job, doing things like Springwatch, lots of wildlife programmes and programmes that took me out into the countryside, I could manage coming back to London. But it just ceased to feel like home.
“I had this weird, inexplicable – and I still haven’t worked out why this was the case – longing to live in Wales, even though I have no family history in Wales or heritage, and I hadn’t even really been on holiday there. I didn’t really have a connection. But for some inexplicable reason, I really, really wanted to live in Wales.”
Then, “completely out of the blue” in 2007, Humble’s TV producer husband Ludo was offered a job in Cardiff. “It was like fate was intervening.”
The couple bought an old stone farmhouse with four acres of land in the Wye Valley. “As soon as I got there, I knew I had found my home,” she recalls. “There are many elements of that, but I think it was instant because I was back in the countryside, and those were my roots, even though it wasn’t geographically where I’d grown up, I had grown up in a rural area – and I was back in a rural area and suddenly I felt like I belonged again.”
Yet although Humble, her husband and their dogs have lived happily in the farmhouse in Wales for the last 16 years, running the Humble by Nature working farm and rural skills centre nearby, they may still not be in their ‘forever home’ – which is what sparked the idea for the book.
“For a long time, I’ve wanted to build a house of my own,” she reveals. “I’ve got the design in my head – I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of creating the place that I end up living.
“But the thing that worries me is, I might build this house one day that I think is perfect – but what will it be that turns it from a building I’ve imagined in my head, a physical thing, into the nebulous but nonetheless essential thing that makes it a home? What will shift it from simply being a building with furniture and a bed, into the place where you feel safe and secure and at home? What do I need to do to make sure that I don’t repeat the experience I had in London?”
Humble was so worried about this, she wrote long lists of the sort of people that might be able to give her insight into what makes a house a home. “I started off by thinking that would help me build a thesis, a kind of Humble theory of what makes a home, if you like.”
She spoke to many people, compiling stories for the book – ranging from brother and sister Willie and Ruby Brown, both in their late 70s, whose home (a 150-year-old family stone croft on the west coast of Shetland, where they’d been born and raised) was struck by lightning and destroyed, to a Syrian woman who lost not just her home in the war, “but her community, her culture, her language, everything she knew”, explains Humble.
“She had to start from scratch, trying to make a home in a country that wasn’t hers, and the thing she said made the UK feel like home was the kindness of people.
“What I learned was home doesn’t stop or start when you walk into the front door – it’s more than that,” Humble adds. “And for a lot of people – and I would include myself in this – community is really important, what’s around you, what do you look out at through your window?
“Of course, there’d be things that all of us, if they were lost through fire, flood or whatever, we’d probably mourn. But ultimately, possessions are ephemeral – one day they’ll fade, fall apart, or get lost. Whereas the people in your life are the fabric of your home. When I walk around my house and think what would I grab if the house was on fire, I think, well I’d grab my husband and my dogs,” Humble reflects.
“What I discovered is what makes a home is incredibly personal and individual to each person. But if you have a place you can genuinely call home, where you feel safe and secure and it’s your refuge, actually, you’re very lucky.
“Through talking to all these people and putting this book together, I realised how precious home is.”
Where The Hearth Is: Stories Of Home by Kate Humble is published by Aster, priced £22. Available now.