WATCH: Look inside one of Britain’s most extraordinary, magical, mysterious homes!
- Credit: RACHEL EDGE
Could Talliston in Great Dunmow inspire you to transform your own semi-detached?
John Tarrow - the man who transformed a 1930s three-bed semi into Britain's most extraordinary home - drops a bombshell: "I'm moving out because, without moving out, this would be my life for ever more. I can't say it isn't infinitely scary, but I know it's the right decision."
It seems inconceivable. This is the dreamer who once couldn't wire a plug but spent 25 years turning the unremarkable ex-council house near Stansted Airport into something totally remarkable - room by room.
Not one square-centimetre of the original interior remains. Discombobulated visitors find themselves cast as Mr Benns (the character from the children's TV programme who would step from a fancy-dress shop changing room and find himself no longer in suburbia but a jungle, or at a circus, or on a pirate ship…)
At Talliston House & Gardens we're one minute in a kitchen from 1954 Louisiana (painstakingly authentic to the last detail); the next, a haunted Scottish room from 1911 - the bed-chamber of a seven-year-old Edwardian boy, with books and toys.
Then a starstation from 2282; later a treehouse sanctuary from mid-1960s Cambodia.
Astonishingly, John turned to professional tradespeople only when absolutely necessary - to deal with electrical and gas matters, for instance, or structural works. Much was instead done by "ordinary people", with the transformation funded by an "ordinary budget".
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The homeowner found himself learning how to lime-render stone walls by hand, for example. Supporters of his vision developed skills in carpentry, basket-weaving, and even gold-leaf work.
The transformation was completed at midday on October 6, 2015 - 25 years of dreaming and hard work having produced a unique and fantastical home.
So why the heck is John going to leave?
It's about life's next adventure
"Talliston isn't my be-all or end-all. It's not where I began; it's not where I will finish. I never created it to become a tour guide or show people round.
"Talliston takes up my every waking moment, seven days a week. Even with leaving work (he left his job with an educational publisher in May), I'm still getting up at quarter to six in the morning and going to bed at half-past 11 at night."
John has it all worked out - and will go out on a high. On his 55th birthday early in 2020. Big party at Talliston. Leave that night. Fly to Auckland.
He's always yearned to go to New Zealand, so has seven weeks booked there that should provide some "geeky expeditions and adventures".
"I will have given 30 years of my life to Talliston. I'm happy with what I have done."
The same record, over and over
We're sitting in the first room he created. The Office (once the box room) is pure New York 1929 - complete with pull-down blind on the glazed door and wooden desk with typewriter. It's what the author wanted: his perfect place to read and write.
Author John, who used to work in the magazine industry and has written in the past as John Trevillian, shows me a map of his planned "walkabout" in New Zealand. After arriving in Auckland he'll work his way down to Dunedin and then return the hire car to Christchurch.
"This is the carrot that's going to get me out of this house; because leaving this house will be impossible," he smiles.
Beautiful and stunning it might be, but, if he carries on, "when will the time come when I absolutely hate this house?"
He's certain that moment would arrive. Time, then, for new adventures.
"I'll be going out on an absolute high. The book will go out" - more about that later - "and hopefully sell loads of copies. If it doesn't, I'm fine with that as well. The house will be there - I've done it."
But if he doesn't make the break, "I'm just going to be playing the same record over and over again".
What will happen to Talliston when he leaves?
Fortunately, there are plenty of passionate volunteers to pick up the reins - happy to show visitors the wonders of this Great Dunmow gem. Talliston House & Gardens will be going into a trust, and John will own the property no more.
"Team Talliston will take it over. Someone will live here, so it stays a home. I need to mindfully make sure that the house continues. We will have a trust with trustees and it means I will be able to go away."
And what about him, post-New Zealand? Well, John doesn't know. He can't really line up anything until after his walkabout. There are lots of offers from friends to put him up. Mum Jean now lives on her own, so that's his likely first destination. Then it will be time to consider the rest of his life.
The Stranger's Guide To Talliston is a "young adult" fantasy adventure set in Talliston House & Gardens. It's out on July 11.
In it, 13-year-old Joe is abandoned and alone. He's been living - hiding - in an old school bus in the middle of a wooded roundabout.
After going into a deserted council house he becomes trapped within a labyrinth that protects the last magical places on earth.
The teenager finds a cryptic book called The Stranger's Guide that charts a vast no-man's land and provides his only map through the dark and dangerous puzzle of doors and rooms.
To add to his predicament, he's hunted by sinister forces. Joe has to go deeper into the maze and confront the mystery of his missing parents. Will he ever be reunited with them?
It was Talliston House & Gardens that inspired the novel - a happy spin-off.
Talliston was designed to feel real, not like an artificial film set. Not a museum but a working house.
John considered all the room "locations" and periods, visiting 27 countries and sourcing and bringing back to Essex nearly 2,000 different objects - including old photographs from vintage shops.
"When I finished, I had all this research and 'occupants' of the rooms, pulling together all these little details. That really was perfect research for a book.
"It's my sort of take on the world, really - about the world becoming less magical. It's whatever you feel you're losing and how you hold on to it."
Growing up in the East End, in a two-up, two-down house where he shared a bedroom with his brother, John was "always a dreamer". He saved, and moved out when he was 25 and could afford to buy the Great Dunmow house in 1990.
It was a big step for someone who had spent virtually his entire life within the bounds of the M25, bar 14 consecutive years when the family spent the first fortnight of August at the same Cornish campsite.
His horizons would widen. And then some. John's been around the globe: Tibet, Nepal, Japan, Moorish Spain, Monument Valley on the Arizona/Utah border…
"The house challenges our preconceptions. Nobody would spend this amount of time and money doing this to a three-bedroom home. Nobody would then leave it. Actually, it's been through my travels that I've created a world view."
The book, he says, contains his entire philosophy, "which comes down to four words: Embrace all. Follow none".
To children and teenagers he'd say: "You are at a point in your life when your choices are important. You've seen all this…" Be inspired. Follow your dream.
"When I went to careers advice, they said I should get into banking!"
The house and gardens are really a launch-pad, not an ultimate destination.
"Talliston isn't about me buying this house and saying 'I want to live better than other people'. It's about showing what can be done in the most ordinary of spaces. Just break through that magnolia and see what you can do!"
In each copy of The Stranger's Guide to Talliston is a token that gives entry to an annual lottery. It's open to children aged 11 to 16 years.
The winner is drawn at random at 12noon each October 6 (the anniversary of the start and finish of work on the house and gardens - in 1990 and 2015).
The prize is the fabled Golden Key to Talliston. It allows one child and their guardian to live at Talliston House & Gardens for a week.
The Stranger's Guide To Talliston is published by Unbound.
There's a 500-copy limited edition (with gold embossed hardcover and other touches) at £19.99. The non-limited-edition hardback is £14.99.
Want to visit?
Historic Houses run Invitation To View tours on the last Sunday of each month. Book in advance online or ring 01946 690823.
On the last Saturday of each month, join John for The Stranger's Guide Tour - exploring the locations, chapter by chapter.
There are private views, called Enchanted Evenings, for two to four guests.
Via Airbnb: Limited-dates overnight stays in three of the rooms (The Cabin, The Room of Dreams and The Haunted Bedroom).