One of the joys of volunteering at a country mansion house is the chance to really drink in the antique feel of the building and its furnishings and effects. When you visit one of these august old houses, you wander round just peering at walls, floors, room settings and it seems quite interesting, but at the end of the day, it is just museum to be looked at – you get no feeling for the families that owned it and lived there. I’ve come to realise this after a couple of years helping at a house that still had a family member owning it as recently as the very late 1990s. The huse was built in 1732 and had been bought and sold by three families during this time. The last owning family leased it out for some years to a redoubtable American heiress who came over with her husband for political reasons. She then spent vast sums of her own money making the house more comfortable with her own individual decorating style. Each room has been left with her inprint and huge numbers of visitors come to view various room settings just to drink in her very popular and well known style.
I have a friend who owns a village house in France. It’s way down in the south, near the spanish border in fact and they bought it the other year, having sold their previous rambling farm house in the next village along. From when they first embarked on this adventure en francaise, they have embraced everything they could about the joy of owning a french home. They used local labour for all the work to bring the property into this century – the plaster work is fantastic and of course, word gets around that the new folk at willing to use local. It helped them to make many friends and they are well respected. The country life suits them – they live six months there and the rest here in a village or at their other place – a smart apartment in London’s dockside. Knowing how to adapt to each location; how to furnish for the right setting and how to get the most out of suppliers in each location are talents my chum enjoyed by the bucketful!
I live out in of town, not totally in countryside but in a house on an estate backng on to a very old farm. The surrounding area was all farmland until a few years ago when housing developments starting popping up along the dual carriageways. I can’t complain – after all, my house was built on what was once prime farmland. Further out, in the more northerly part of the county, there are some fantastic stone villages – really beautiful places that go back hundreds of years, each hamlet or village with its own school and church – well, most of them anyway. I love visiting them – being invited into some of the old cottages and revelling in the seriously old furniture is fantastic fun. Getting hold of one of these properties is so difficult too. Hardly any ever come to the sales market as they are so sought after for their beauty and feeling of living in good old England!
For those folk lucky enough to own any pieces of antique furniture, perhaps handed down from earlier generations, then they may not feel especially blessed. After all, if it’s been in the family for centuries, it’s easy to just take it as an everyday job to look and tut! But looking after antiques properly is so well worth the time and expense. These wonderful peices of craftsmanship cannot easily be replaced and must be loved whilst we do so. And encourage the younger generations to also. The patina on the top surface of a piece buils up over many years – maybe after several hundreds of years. Even with old marks and damage, it is this that gives real charm and character – adding to the value of it and thus must be preserved. Good quality beeswax is the only product to use as modern aersol furniture cleaners dammage the delicate surface and can destroy this long developed patina in a matter of weeks.
I help out at a heritage property that has rooms set out in different eras – there is no family ownership now, the last was back in the 1990s, when it was handed over to the charitable trust upon their demise. So there is no one era for which the house is renowned. The rooms do contain a few pieces of furniture left from various owners and the last tenants – of whom was a real society doyenne and entertained in the Hall at every given opportunity. She had cocktail parties in the grand hall, so replaced the drab, if more historically apt armorial features with spledidly huge sofas and generously proportioned armchairs. The ‘chinese room’, and all historical houses have one of those, don’t they?!, has remarkable wallpaper which needs very special care – and her matching cocktail chairs are in stunning green fabric to match the hand painted lovebirds. It’s a delight to hear the visitors making enthusasiastic comments about these rooms.
Whilst waiting in the checkout queue of my favourite posh shop, I was amused by two couples in front of me – both live out in the sticks by the sound of it – seeing fields of white this morning, they jumped in their 4x4s and braved it to the store for urgent supplies. Amid gin, vodka, mixers, packs of lager and one or two food items were Country file and Country life magazines. Also in one trolley, tins of beeswax polish and some new e-cloths. Expecting to be snowed these were bought for their annual wood caring weekend – they do the lot in one fell swoop, and the couple expressed delight that all furniture is in really good shape and it smells divine for weeks on end. Turned out the furniture had been owned by the family back in the 1700s. Now that’s worth a trip to a posh shop for! Hmmm I wonder if you can use beeswax on non wood furniture ………..
We probably all have far more clothese these days than our parents ever had. In fact, I suspect I make more clothes purchases in one year than my mother did in 40 odd years. The trouble is, I don’t dispose of the unloved/ill fitting ones. I have therefore managed to fill evey single space in each wardrobe, in each of the four bedrooms . . . I am fortunate to have fitted wardrobes. Although if I had not got that space, I may well have curtailed my habit. When I need any other furniture, I am extremely careful about checking my needs. The dining suite for example, I checked it matche my existing decor, seated enougth folk, fitted in with the sideboard etc. What I didn’t do though was to check the colour of their wooden legs on my existing dining chairs didn’t clash with the new table. I should have checked before buying . . . 6 new chairs came a month later!
We all have our favourite furnishing schemes and when it comes to home decor, I guess we all feel we know what goes best. . . . . I was therefore totally amazed when visiting an older lady and had a tour around her quaint but fair to say, unique barn cottage. Her place is on the edge of a country lane of odd barns and workers’ cottages that once belonged to the ‘Hall’. My pal bought a run down dump twenty years ago and has steadily done a room at a time. She’s had help from interior designers and builders. Her favourite contractors though were the furniture and antique suppliers. My word she has good taste. Beautiful oak dressers adorn each bedroom and one has a victorian wash stand complee with porcelain bowl and pitcher. The kitchen has free standing cabinets made of oak – new and clean, well fitting doors but that don’t detract from he feeling of stepping back in time that she has most certainly achieved.
Wow what a strange summer we had this year – started off with late snow and frosts with coldest temperatures for years, then suddenly as if by magic a warm spring came, only to be washed and blown away befre a truly amazing summer. Heat and dryness that we’ve never experienced since our UK records began. Thoughts of quiet countryside holidays came to our familie’s collective minds this year – although summer holidays are meant to be on the beach – there was something ghastly about the prospect of sharing my square metre of sandy beach too closely with Joe Public. However the very prospect of a country living, even for a short holiday period is so divine. Gorgeous old buildings with character – not necessarily all beams and thatches, but thick walls, inglenooks; funny little staircases halfway up the wall and oddly unfitted kitchens. knowing families have lived together over the centuries is a lovely feeling.
I really love the idea of living in a thatched cottage. I’m not sure what has brought this back up to the surface but I’ve found myself more than once lately, thinking how to downsize from my current very comfortably proportioned 4 bed detached. The idea is of course pretty ludicrous. I have large furniture here because when I moved in from a smaller place, my then three piece suite looked daft, far too squat and tiny for the size room. so I have room by room changed all the furniture accordingly. To then have to sell this and revert back to doll’s size bed, tiny chest of drawers, small kitchen units etc. is pushing the realms of fantasy. I love the idea of the older real wood country style furniture – it appeals so much more than the modern scandi self builds that feature still in my living room!