SPECIAL FEATURE Living inside a fantasy adventure novel

Meet SCBWI author John Tarrow who built the fantasy world of his novel inside the UK’s most ordinary house.

White Witches notwithstanding, what child does not want to go to Narnia? Still, C S Lewis’ fantastical realm exists within an imaginary wardrobe, but the fantasy labyrinth between worlds of The Stranger’s Guide To Talliston exists in a very real street. Author John Tarrow takes us on a visit to the setting of his new novel.

The Old Rectory garden
Hiding in plain sight on an ordinary street, step inside the labyrinth garden to find a Gothic Revival cottage and vegetable garden.

When somebody calls my home, telephones ring in Italy, New York and Japan.
It is a journalist, some magazine I have never heard of, asking to interview me about my fantasy house.
“What fantasy house?” I ask.
“Tallliston House & Gardens.”
“Oh, that’s no fantasy,” I say. “I live there every day.”

And it is true. Being an author with no interior design or building experience, I approached the creation of what would become ‘Britain’s Most Extraordinary Home’ (The Sunday Times) in exactly the same way as I plot a novel. Each room or garden was a chapter, set in a different time and place; as particular as locations in a travelogue. Employing the full machinery of my imagination, I included scenes, characters and wild descriptions. I scoured my previous short stories, poetry and writings. Ultimately, I posed myself fanciful questions. The perfect place for Sunday morning breakfast? 1954 New Orleans. The perfect place to sleep? A starry July night at The Alhambra palace in Spain. A hunting lodge for rich weirdos? A late Victorian tower in Snowdonia. And about those telephones? They are situated in a Medici mansion, a 1929 investigator’s office and a Japanese teahouse. All under the one, previously-ordinary roof.

1929s investigator's office in New York City
The box-room was conceived as the author's perfect place to write and the first room transformed in the project. 


Because I was funding my follies with extra pennies left after every other bill was paid, Talliston’s eventual construction took twenty-five years. The transformation of the house and gardens showcased just how important our environment really is, and how you can indeed create extraordinary locations inside the most ordinary of places. Using objects sourced worldwide, these spaces tell incredibly powerful and timeless stories – and so once the project was finished, I went back to doing what I love best, and captured everything in one young adult novel.

The Stranger's Guide front cover, credit: Patrick Knowles

Being such an experiential place, trying to explain the house and gardens in words is tricky. That by walking from room to room, you step into self-contained chapters of a very disparate novel. Each step in whatever direction, sees you leaving the present and entering the past (and even at one point entering the future). So you can move from a Moorish bedchamber into a 1920s study just by crossing the upstairs landing. It’s as easy to trip between an Irish courtyard and a Canadian log cabin in the woods – all just by opening the house’s many doors and seeing what lies behind them. Yet the essence of Talliston is more than how it looks. It is also how it sounds, smells, tastes and feels. The striking thing – or at least one of them – is that all this has taken place in the UK’s most ordinary dwelling – a three-bedroomed, semi-detached, ex-council house in Essex.

The Treehouse Sanctuary
The attic is now a bamboo spirit house from Cambodia.


I was born to East End parents in a two-up two-down and spent my childhood with a Smith-Corona Calypso typewriter (a thrown-out device saved from the scrap by my mother) and a wild imagination, both of which I still own. Now a novelist, poet, storyteller and award-winning writer, my fascination with folk and faerie tales has taken me around the world, gathering threads of story and legend to weave into my own mythologies. My extensive studies in Lakota Sioux and Druidic traditions offer readers stories resonant with magic, folklore and the wonders of the natural world. These travels also brought almost 2,000 objects back to live inside my Essex home.

Wisakedjak Lodge
From garden shed to Canadian cabin in the woods.


So, now that I have plotted a house as a novel, I am back to plotting novels about the house. Here Talliston really comes into its own; as a place of inspiration, adventure and an underlining of how important our environments are to our feelings of creativity and well-being. We run various residencies (fellow SCBWI member Jools Abrams-Humphries was our writer-in-residence last year – she wrote about it for W&P here) and encourage creative endeavours through our events and visits. I strongly believe that places we live in are the people we become – and that it is up to each of us to change our world, even if it is, like the fantasy words from our childhood literature, only in our imaginations.

The Haunted Bedroom
The master bedroom charts darker territory being an Edwardian child’s forgotten bedchamber.


1. TASK: To take an ordinary house and transform it into an extraordinary labyrinth of locations from different times and places, so that not a single square centimetre of the original house remains, while:

- keeping the orientation and use of the original rooms

- only adding those elements that a typical council-bought house would contain (conservatory, kitchen extension, garden shed, etc.)

- utilising only those tradesmen and craftspeople required by law or necessity, with all other work accomplished by a core team and volunteers.

2. TIME: Exactly twenty-five years, starting at midday on 6th October 1990 and finishing at midday on 6th October 2015.

3. COST: To do so without any outside funding over and above the time and finances of ordinary people.

* Header image shows The Waystation at Tzu: The conservatory is a futuristic Japanese teahouse and Shinto temple
Credit all images: Gavin Conlan Photography

John Tarrow is an author, poet and creator of ‘Britain’s most extraordinary home’*: Talliston House & Gardens.

* The Sunday Times


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