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.
The one thing that stands out in heritage properties must be an elegant stair case. I volunteer at one such property as a room steward and there is half a very ornate stair case going up from the side entrance of the house. Strangely, the property was never designed to have the main staircase visible from the great hall. Unlike so many big houses featured in romantic films or ‘upstairs-downstairs life’ serials that grab our attention now. No, this house always had this spectaular self supporting canilever staircase up to the guest bedrooms but there isn’t another one coming down the other side. There is a downward staircase but it is pretty plain and just functional. At the top of the show stopping stairs, there are beautiful pieces of furniture just within sight. A bureau and very antique chairs. The whole scene is almost a setting from a tv drams. We don’t have glorious stair cases in modern houses. They seem to have been dispensed with and in fact, some modest homes are now installing small lifts from lounge to bedroom, so as not to have to worry about stairs at all. A death knell sounding for the humble stair case!
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!