“I remembered our shared delight in architecture and nature
As bicycling we went
By saffron-spotted palings to crumbling box-pewed churches
Down hazel lanes in Kent.”
John Betjeman, ‘The Commander’
My husband insists I’d have got on with John Betjeman, and it’s not because of a shared despair of Slough (though I sympathise). I guess it’s in part his often-justified hatred of myopic town planners, and perhaps a sense that often we ‘improve’ things that don’t really need improving! Betjeman wasn’t particularly sentimental or even nostalgic about the past – he just recognised good design. I don’t pretend to be knowledgeable about design, but some things just seem so obvious: there’s a brilliant short video of Betjeman talking about Georgian/Victorian Bath on youtube. Fast forward to about 4.55 and watch the next 25 seconds or so, taking particular note of 5.05-5.16. Is he wrong? He isn’t, is he? Now look around you, at the numbers of houses that have been ‘improved’ in the same way.
This is a borderline rant, isn’t it! I set out to write a post about our house, actually. It’s a very modest (some might say ugly) semi-detached house built to no particular architectural agenda in 1922. It has the virtue of being one of the first pebble-dashed houses in Deal. Mmm, pebble-dash. It has a nice set of asbestos cement rooftiles too. Yum. I used to drive past this house before we bought it. It was empty and clearly deteriorating and I knew, just knew, that because it still had its original windows, doors (and roof, as worrying as it is) it would be perfect inside – and for me, the interior quality is every bit as important as that outward proportion. When it came on the market I persuaded my husband to go and look at it with me. He can be an immovable object, so by the time I’d convinced him, it was under offer. That sale fell through, and when it came back on I was down there like a shot, dragging D by his beard. It had been owned by an elderly lady (only the second owner) – a very eccentric elderly lady, as it turned out – and had been derelict for the four years after her death. I knew it would be untampered with, you see, and that is a real rarity. I know that people will always want to make their mark, but it upsets me that so many people do so much stuff to so many old houses (why don’t they buy new ones?!). And so much of it in the name of (cue estate agent speak) ‘adding value’. It really really depends how you look at it, doesn’t it?
Anyway. As the estate agent followed me around the house… erm, I mean showed me around the house, insistently telling me that the 1920s tiles in the living room fireplace weren’t, in fact, 1920s tiles, I couldn’t help myself. With my husband’s warning to ‘play it cool’ ringing in my ears, I started squealing at every little thing that spelt ‘unsaleable’ to the EA and ‘heaven’ to me. That included the bakelite door handles (somebody, alas, had already removed the bakelite doorplates – don’t worry, though, we’re replacing them one by one!); the original hardwood sash windows (only one coat of paint in 90 years and, to date, only one of them has had to have any work done on rot – they’re painting up a treat); original fireplaces in every room (barring one very sweet ’50s replacement); original fitted cupboards in most rooms (real wood!); a utilitarian fitted dresser in an otherwise unfurnished kitchen; and – the proverbial cherry – the original 1920s wallpaper in the dining room. It was in the bathroom that I knew we were going to buy the house. It was when the EA looked at my husband and suggested that one could rip out the wall-to-wall ceiling-to-floor built-in cupboards and relocate the bathroom to the box-room, making this a bigger third bedroom. Apparently one could add value. D got a look in his eye that I read as ‘over my dead body’…
So here we are. A little curious scratching and we found the original 20s wallpaper in one of the bedrooms too. Sure, there was damp – we had to pull out and completely rebuild the rotten staircase, for instance – but once the roof was mended and we put in central heating (yes, there’s always a compromise – but we were able to avoid those nasty modern white radiators. Why is white the default colour of modern appliances?) the house dried out nicely. It wasn’t all there, of course. Most of the original wallpaper had been painted over, but we are gradually replacing it with reproduction papers (we’ve tried sourcing the real thing, but someone with £ signs in their eyes beat us to it). There were these horrible white plastic boxes everywhere that switched on horrible white plastic lights all over the show. We’d been collecting porcelain light fittings for years, though, and it’s amazing how much bakelite you can find on ebay… there’s a fine line, of course, between liking old stuff (as I keep telling my father in law, it’s an aesthetic thing, a tactile thing, an emotional thing) and fetishizing the past. But I think we’re treading it – not in any refined way – and certainly not expensively – but with genuine, bona fide OLD stuff. We concede that we’re totally mad – my father in law, who grew up with grotty wallpaper, few mod cons, and bakelite undershirts, will never understand – but there was just something about this house that made us want to let it dictate how we would live in it, not the other way around. So, no fuss, no finesse, and certainly no shabby chic: we’re settling for shabby shabby! Somehow, I think we’ve gone one step further than JB…