Talliston creator John Tarrow's new adventures: children's fantasy novel and a sabbatical in New Zealand
He built a fantastic world in a former council semi in Dunmow – now he's created another one in the pages of a book for young adults. SINEAD CORR talks to visionary and author John Tarrow before his next adventure begins...
Creating fantastic worlds is something of an everyday experience for author John Tarrow.
On October 6, 1990, he pulled up outside a suburban semi-detached in Great Dunmow in his battered green VW Beetle, with his worldly possessions on the back seat, and began a 25-year journey which would see him transform the former council house into a "wonderland of inspirational location" called Talliston.
After a quarter of a century, his mission was complete: at the age of 50, he had created a labyrinth of 13 themed rooms where time stands still and his imagination roams free.
He has spent the intervening almost five years building a community of conservators called the Friends of Talliston to care for the house and gardens – a task he joked was akin to maintaining Downton Abbey.
He said: "I have all of those people in place now and that means that the house can be kept exactly as it was finished. It's like being given the Mona Lisa – you can restore it but you cannot add to it."
On January 18 next year, John will leave his legacy in their hands, pack his worldly possessions into a green Beetle and drive away from the property which has been his passion for the past three decades, ready to start the next stage of his life with a sabbatical in New Zealand.
He said: "I didn't create the house to become a tour guide. Talliston takes up so much of my time and I did say when I was 50 I wanted to take a break. New Zealand is somewhere I've always dreamed of and I'm going on my own as a bit of a walkabout."
Before he heads down under for the next stage of his own personal journey, John is revealing his latest flight of fancy to the world – a novel for young adults, inspired by the house's mystic qualities, called The Stranger's Guide to Talliston.
He will be holding court, describing both the book and the building behind it, to literary fans at Bishop's Stortford's branch of Waterstone's in South Street on Saturday (September 7) from 11am.
He entered the house unable to wire a plug and leaves it rebuilt from the bare brick upwards, having painstakingly recreated environments including a Moorish bedchamber, a 1920s study, a New Orleans kitchen and a Victorian tower.
John's aim was to prove that "you can live at any time and place". Guests often leave Talliston saying they are returning to the real world, but John said: "This is the real world. It's about taking all the things you love to create a better now."
Each room is more than just an assembly of decoration and furnishings. John has curated scents and sounds to make each setting a truly sensory experience, weaving myth and legend into the fabric of each and creating characters to exist there.
This process of creating a back story for each space tapped into his talent for storytelling, and now he has given it free rein in the adventures of an abandoned 13-year-old called Joe.
He said: "It takes all the things I learned from building the house – the life lessons – and links them into a narrative that connects all of the rooms in the house into the story."
The teenager's world is shattered when he enters a deserted council house and becomes trapped within a labyrinth. The discovery of a guide book to this no-man's land, where each of 13 doors leads to a different realm, provides him with the rules: nowhere is safe, always have a way out, be invisible, don't make friends and do not talk to dead people – he needs to navigate his way through the maze and find his family.
Although the book has been written for 11- to 16-year-olds, John hopes it will become a favourite for all ages in the style of Harry Potter. Part of that has been designing a hardback cover which looks like an ancient volume of mystic lore.
John said: "I wanted to create a children's classic."
Those who buy a copy of the first limited editions are in with a chance of writing their own chapter of the Talliston story with an entry into a grand draw to win a stay at the hideaway.
While John is leaving the country and heading for a new continent, Talliston will not be far from his thoughts. In addition to Letters from the Labyrinth, a collaboration with artist Rebecca Solow which posts a monthly fantasy story from the house to subscribers, John is well on his way to completing a second novel inspired by its rooms – and those he was unable to build but can construct on its pages with new characters to explore in a different time and space.
* The Stranger's Guide to Talliston, by John Tarrow, published by Unbound, costs £14.99 and is available from Amazon or https://www.talliston.com, along with information about Tallison tours and stays.