Oak furniture is one of those phrases that for some, will conjur up visions of grandmothers and their pristine ‘front parlour’, smelling of beeswax & lavender. For others it will mean wandering around tagging on to mum or dad’s hand whilst they go round stuffy historic houses. However for a very pleasing number of younger families, the phrase is again the by-word for excellent quality, beautiful finish, versatile uses and something worth paying for and cherishing for ever! As borne out by the previous examples, although we don’t recognise or appreciate the reasons why oak is revered amongst woods, when we look back to childhood and late teens, we do have many examples of how it has been the mainstay of country furniture over centuries. Trestle tables, high backed testers, church furnishings, baronial castles, modern town house dining suites, and everything else between. We will have used this amazing commodity in every stage of our lives and will always do so.
There’s a programme on tv that everybody seems to like – one where we see experts repairing much loved heirlooms and that aged relatives have been hanging on to for years. I particularly like the clock repairs – the chap is a real expert and expalins very clearly what he thinks is wrong with the thing at the start of the show. Obviously the researchers have gone through everything first with a fine tooth comb to ensure that each piece offers enough work to keep it viable for a third of a programme – the amount of film ending up on the cutting room floor must be heartbreaking! There’s also a really fantastic ceramics expert who seems able to put back together the most incredible mish mash of chipped and broken collectables. I remmeber also a fantastic job was carried out on a very old rocking horse – the leather expert really made an outstanding job of a seriously battered saddle – other colleagues were brought in to deal with the mane and tail. It’s heartening to know we have real expertise in this country – a real morale booster in these very challenging times.
We are all used to living at an incredibly fast pace as a rule. When there are not lockdown restrictions in place to combat viruses and other pandemics of course. Most families still tend to follow the regular 5 day week with 2 family days off together and on those 2 special days there’s the shopping, cleaning and hobbies to fit in! One of the benefits of an almost country living is the chance to really take in the beauty of the local surroundings, be that farm land or hills and dales, whilst still having the avantage of a local market town for the supplies and social life. When we look at the hundreds of escaping to countryside programmes on the well known tv series, the majority of candidates are looking for a ‘country cottage with character’. They usually demand a fantastic sized kitchen – normally anything less than the footprint of a small bungalow will be considered far too small – the host of the show has to drag the expectations back down to reality – the secret being in the name – country cottage!
For some reason my brain always associates country living with large farmhouse style homes filled with luscious old wood – furniture, panelling, trees in the garden . . . . . Having been brought up in a very english village, I used to walk past some fabulous houses and cottages just on the route out of our small modern development up to the main road. As a result, although I could never afford to live in a similar property, it gave me a love for visiting them by way of heritage houses that offer old furniture and furnishings. The smell of the wood and the knowledge that even if not originally bought or made for that property, they will be of a contemporary age and well worth admiring. Wooden furnirure needs special care to ensure its longevity. The commercially available oil is not always needed and can sometimes do more harm than good on a real antique. You need to know the original finish of the piece. Sometimes dust and dirt stock to oiled furniture and this causes more damage in a short time than centuries of careful neglect ever did.
We we live is alwas going to be dictated to a certain extent by our family needs rather than desires. It’s one thing to be able to find that absolutely perfect property out in the middle of nowhere. Maybe a stone pile surrounded by hills and trees and very little else. Apparently hat is the dream of thousands of people in this country. However, as I know very well, it’s a major undrtaking actually moving out to the sticks. You soon realise that when you first run out of milk or eggs. You also realise that not evey company is prepared to deliver out to the further reaches of your county. Also, there are the small matter of utility services too – I do know a couple of invested every penny they had to buy a stone conversion in a very secluded spot – only to realise the shortcomings when heating the place. They had no gas in the area so it was only electricity or oil. Fortunately, oil has been quite cheap lately and they have an early warning system to alert them to the need for more to be ordered. It runs the boiler very efficiently.
Acquiring the art of buying the right furniture for a room is something that simply has to be gained with practice and many an error over the years. If we have an inexhaustible pocket then the small matter of just replacing and starting again isn’t such a problem. However, in days gone by our ancestors – well rich folks’ ancestors, spent vast sums of money on buying up whole houseloads of furniture and effects when they went on their grand tours of Europe. They’d see something in a grand house and literally insist on buying it to bring home. As not so much of the original is available these days, many copies have been made but they can still be a couple of hundred years old and need just as much care and attention. Just gently brushing dust off with a very light dry paintbrush is very effective, dust gets ingrained in the corners of leg and table stresses. Wooden furniture, oak, walnut, rosewood etc. anything made from a tree in fact, will appreciate a very sparing application on furniture poslish or beeswax. A gentle buff afterwards will restore the lustre of the wood. Just once a year is generally enough for that prized table or dresser.
Ahh well, this is the time of year when we are bombarded with adverts for furniture and bedding sales. Christmas and the New Year period has historically been the time for all the major companies to offload their stock in readiness for the new season designs. However, with so much more money floating about, families using credit far more than before, they are introducing new designs more often throughout the year. This has in some way brought many families to the point of wanting to actually stop the merry go round, constantly changing fads and fashions and to actually look out for and cherish real furniture and to surround themselves with quality pieces they can hand on down their own generations. I love looking through local county magazines – they highlight the joys of country living, showing areas for walking out and really enjoying what life can offer. They also show very beautiful houses that have stood for many years and are filled with antiques and quality furnishings. Leaving the quick throw-away cheaply made stuff behind, there is a move back to wanting solid oak and other wood – some antique sale rooms and suppliers can’t keep up with demand, which is fantastic. Heritage homes help to foster this trend. Appreciation for real quality. At last!
There’s a regular programme on the leisure and lifestyle channels – it deals with folk who tour around in historic cars, visiting various antique outlets around the country. They have to buy, scrounge, steal min of three articles – can be anything but must have potentuial to turn in a profit at a geuine auction house later in the show. Amongst the regular articles are china and prcelain, silverwares and quirky outdoor things like wagon wheels etc. The things they fall down on most often are unwise furniture purchases – things they’ve not looked into and are in bad shape. This is sad because it puts other people off going to auction houses to look at second hand and antique pieces. It’s often possible to pick some really lovely items at the local auction house. But for the serious antique furniture buyer, or someone just starting out, it is best to contact a reputable dealer – yes, more expensive but they’re unlikely pass on something they don’t feel is the genuine article and they are experienced at sourcing the right age and style of piece you seek.
Even modern homes feature in lists of heritage properties to visit, along side the established historic houses. Our coutry is blessed with thousands of fantastic houses and halls that are open to the public. For a very modest fee we can wander around – sometimes, and infinitely preferable, with a guide. These folk are experts at explaining various aspects about the property and can bring to life that odd looking tapestry up in the Green Bedroom, or the rather awkward looking portrait in the small Hall . . . . I have visited many such houses and as I help out by volunteering at a medium aged Hall, I now like to visit the more modern places just to bring myself up to date with what can be done to save them for the nation also. The architecture can sometimes jar on the senses but in every case, there is something very special or maybe even unique about the properties which have earmarked them for national interest. I’m personaly very grateful that we have such august heritage institutions – without them we would probably have no such properties to visit.
It’s a funny thing about opening up houses for showing through the summer months – it seems to take ages getting all the rooms set, with cleaning the furniture as carefully but thoroughly as their age and fragile state allows. We carefully take the dust covers off and brush each item down to ensure nothing can attract further dust as we move around. The wooden arms and legs of each are dusted and wiped with an e-cloth lightly moistened with furniture care oil or polish – it’s not soaked, just a very light touch to keep each piece looking and smelling tip top. The fabrics of each room have to also be gently shaken and a sturdy person on a ladder climbs up to the hangings to check they’re still rest free and able to move if needed. There are the orginal wooden window shutter in each room and these are closed every night after visiting is over – that’s an exciting task in itself. Buyt it is vital to preserve the rooms and contents.