In a week-long exploration of peculiar living situations, five Standard Issue writers discuss their experiences, from dreamy showbiz apartment blocks to the housemate from Hell. First up is Annie Caulfield, who reflects on how she came to live in an idyllic Andalucían cave house previously occupied by a donkey.
“Ugh, all dark and clammy?”
“Living in a cave? Like Flintstones? Like Hobbits? Like bears?”
I’d seen pictures but I’d not really understood cave houses either, until I owned one.
My partner had seen them on a travel show and became obsessed. He found some rental caves and dragged me away by the hair.
Well, not really, but I had a bad feeling I’d be climbing a rope ladder up a cliff face to get to my bed, which was just as annoying.
At first glance the row of caves appeared to be simple white cottages built against the hillside. From the front they looked normal. From the side they were strangely narrow and would only work as cottages for very, very thin people, with furniture that folded flat while in use. But the cave was behind the cottage front, stretching back and back into the hillside, for people to be as rounded out in as they needed to be.
The rental cave, cute and chintzy inside, was the sort of place where any Beatrix Potter creature would have felt at home. There was hand carved furniture, a log fire, bright ceramic jugs and bowls; gingham curtains…
I thought we’d be creeping about with lanterns, even in the middle of the afternoon, but there was natural light in the bathroom, kitchen and dining area at the front of the cave. Going back into the hill, through the small living room to the bedroom, the white, rough plastered walls expanded the light coming from strong bulbs hidden behind latticed terracotta tiles, to make subtly bright rooms.
“The back room had one tiny high window with a floor full of straw and droppings where a donkey had been kept. In honour of the departed donkey, this room was given a stable door onto the rear terrace.”
Soon it would be night. Would I be able to sleep in a cave? Wouldn’t I wake up to see some hideous eyeless earthworm dropping from the ceiling onto my face?
Internet research hadn’t told me anything about cave-crawling eyeless worms; it had told me the inside of a cave house kept a constant temperature of around 18 degrees, summer and winter. This seemed to be true. The sharp cold winds from the mountains outside didn’t penetrate the cave rooms.
The bed, on a carved stone base, looked like something from a darker moment in children’s fiction than the Beatrix Potter design choices in the rest of the cave. I was sure I’d feel like Narnia’s Aslan being served up for sacrifice on the stone altar and wake up screaming.
But an extra-thick mattress worked as though we were on any kind of firm based bed – perfectly comfortable, no sleep-depriving sense of being offered up for sacrifice at all. No sign of worms.
It was the darkness and silence of the cave night that kept me awake. A city girl, I couldn’t find this level of darkness in my memory. Anything could have been going on inches in front of our faces and we wouldn’t know about it. Till it grabbed us.
Maybe I could get used to the nights but I worried about the daytime psychology of cave life. Lack of natural light might have been all very well when we were hiding from sabre-toothed tigers and didn’t know the words for how we felt other than “Ug”, but wouldn’t cave dwelling make the modern person who knew the word for “depression” sink way down?
Not in Andalucía, where the sunlight felt powerful enough to crack rock. What people needed for at least half the year was to hide from the mind-frying daylight. Besides, there were caves with skylights; caves that went up several well windowed storeys; caves that curved round a mountain with windows all along…
Many of the caves for sale were as cutely refurbished as our rental cave. Or they were long, low rock holes. Like the one we bought. For next to nothing, mind you. And it has its own field by a stream in the valley below.
The main charm of our used hole in the ground is the view. Northern Andalucía has a stark, Middle-Eastern landscape with flashes of blue and green mountain lakes. Or swathes of olive trees beside whitewashed villages.
“It was the darkness and silence of the cave night that kept me awake. Anything could have been going on inches in front of our faces and we wouldn’t know about it. Till it grabbed us.”
Our cave needed rewiring and re-plumbing. It was dark, dirty and carved out for people around five foot tall. But a low ceilinged cave can be fixed by digging down the floors. It ended up feeling quite cathedral-like.
We had the cottage partly rebuilt with plenty of little windows. The centre of the cave had natural light from a wide chimney, then it bent into an ‘L’ shape coming out on the other side of the mountain. The back room had one tiny high window with a floor full of straw and droppings where a donkey had been kept. In honour of the departed donkey, this room was given a stable door onto the rear terrace as well as more windows.
We watched the sun go down over the valley. We heard the bells tinkling on a flock of goats being driven home. Like all the hills of the region, the hills opposite had chimneys dotted about. We seemed to be the last house in the village but the underground population spread for miles.
Down on the roadside below us, a group of our neighbours, old Spanish ladies in pinnies, accompanied by small yapping dogs, arrived pulling kitchen chairs, gathering to natter until the sun went down. They must have seen this so often but they paused for a while to watch the last blaze of the sunset. It was never the same two nights in a row. The old ladies and their dogs retreated to their caves for dinner and we sat out waiting for the clearest view of stars I’ve had in my life.
Rental caves: http://www.cuevasatalaya.com
Sadly, Annie died in November, 2016. Please consider donating to the Macmillan tribute fund set up by her sister Jo Caulfield in Annie’s name. https://macmillan.tributefunds.com/annie-caulfield2744 Views