Saturday 13 May 2017

Losing the way in San Jose

"They're making a movie with Helen Mirren about Mrs Winchester!" the OH called up the stairs. And then he waited for my reaction, clearly thinking no further explanation was required. He, of course, had the rest of the newspaper report right in front of him, giving all the background - but me? No idea. So it was a bit peeving to have it explained to me in tones of condescension for my inadequate memory when, it turned out, the reference was to the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, where we went TEN YEARS AGO.

Of course, once I had that reference, everything became crystal clear, and I remembered it perfectly. It's an extraordinary place: originally a pleasant but unremarkable Victorian villa built in 1884 that, once Mrs Winchester moved into it, she kept adding to in a totally random manner. When she died, in 1922, it had 160 rooms, 2,000 doors, 10,000 windows (more than the Empire State Building - some of them in the floor), 47 staircases, 13 bathrooms and six kitchens.

We drove there straight after arriving at San Francisco, and our tour over the house was made even more challenging by the jetlag. We trailed along corridors, round corners, past a staircase that led up to the ceiling, through rooms with hidden doors and secret spy holes, into grand reception rooms with intricate wooden parquet and panelling and beautiful tiled fireplaces, past priceless Tiffany stained glass windows (the best one facing onto a wall) and, most confusing of all, up and down scores of stairs. The switchback staircase with its 44 steps, each only 5cm high, zigzagged seven times as it rose only three metres, and gave the weirdest sensation of descending while climbing up.
One explanation goes that Mrs W felt haunted by the souls of all those people killed by Winchester rifles her husband's company invented and manufactured, and this was her way of keeping them at bay: that's the theory the movie is going with, apparently. Another idea is that she just wanted to keep everyone employed, so carried on thinking up new projects for them, which she designed herself, unconstrained by any sort of architectural principles.

It's a fascinating place, and well worth a visit - as is San Jose itself, capital of Silicon Valley. It was impressively wired-up back in 2007 - I can't imagine how connected it must be now. It's weird to think that our visit was pre-satnav, and I was navigating old-style from a paper map on my lap. Said map ended up scrunched into a ball after my saying "Next left" and the OH turning onto what it transpired was the city's (fortunately empty) light railway, which we had to drive along for an entire block before the concrete barriers either side allowed us to escape. Serves him right that his question has revived my still-burning resentment for those few minutes of sheer terror.

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