About to re­store your pe­riod home? This could be for you...

An­gela Per­tusini re­views a guide for would-be own­ers of a his­toric house: handy tips for those who love char­ac­ter, but at what price?

The Daily Telegraph - Property - - PITFALLS -

At pri­mary school I re­mem­ber at­tend­ing a pup­pet show doc­u­ment­ing the ef­fect that su­gar would have on my teeth. At the end of the per­for­mance “Jimmy Germ”, the pro­duc­tion’s insin­u­at­ing an­ti­hero, talked us through a se­ries of slides fea­tur­ing chil­dren with lit­tle more than brown stumps for smiles, hideous gap­ing voids for mouths and bleed­ing gums. It wasn’t sub­tle but it worked: I have brushed reg­u­larly ever since, worn braces un­com­plain­ingly and dili­gently vis­ited my den­tist ev­ery six months.

The Old House Hand­book has a sim­i­lar take on stark re­al­ity: for ev­ery lav­ish pho­to­graph of a Ge­or­gian rec­tory, tim­ber-frame cot­tage or Vic­to­rian town­house, there is an­other show­ing the ef­fect of de­cay, ne­glect and, most damn­ing of all, in­ap­pro­pri­ate restora­tion. The open­ing full­page im­age shows an an­cient cot­tage of such de­crepi­tude that just let­ting out a yelp of hor­ror could be fa­tal to its re­main­ing struc­ture.

Now, the brave among you might de­cide that this cot­tage is just the sort of restora­tion project that your deep pock­ets and thirst for masochism would ac­com­mo­date, but you would be wrong, so wrong. There is noth­ing very en­cour­ag­ing about this book and even the word restora­tion is frowned upon. If peo­ple re­ally want to buy an old house at all — and there is a very strong sen­ti­ment that this is the pre­serve of ex­perts, not wellmean­ing am­a­teurs looking for some­where to live — own­ers of his­toric houses should be looking to “re­pair”. Restora­tion im­plies all sorts of mod­ern anx­i­eties in­volv­ing straight­en­ing walls, try­ing to tidy away the patina of sev­eral cen­turies of wear and tear and its “won­der­ful scars of time and his­tory”, and is “gen­er­ally highly de­struc­tive”.

Writ­ten by Roger Hunt, a his­toric house en­thu­si­ast, and Mar­i­anne Suhr, a sur­veyor spe­cial­is­ing in con­ser­va­tion of build­ings and pre­sen­ter of BBC2’s in­aptly named Restora­tion se­ries, the tone is rarely re­as­sur­ing and some­times down­right stern. “Can you cope with un­even plas­ter­work, slop­ing floors and po­ten­tially draughty doors and win­dows?... The aim isn’t to hide im­per­fec­tions such as bulges, bows, sags and leans but to re­spect them,” they ex­plain. Else­where, they re­fer to a “damp prob­lem”, the quote marks lend­ing an air of scep­ti­cism to such a per­cep­tion, as if a big brown mark on the wall is just an­other man­i­fes­ta­tion of neu­ro­sis for Hy­acinth Bucket-like own­ers.

There is an en­thu­si­asm verg­ing on ma­nia for all things lime-based, but once you ac­cept that and get past the gen­eral air of dis­ap­proval, there is use­ful in­for­ma­tion for the novice. One area in which it ex­cels is to pre­pare own­ers for the in­evitable and pro­hib­i­tive ex­pense of re­pair­ing and main­tain­ing a his­toric house (the book it­self — hard­bound and with flam­boy­ant use of colour il­lus­tra­tion — costs a tasty £25).

More prac­ti­cally, I’m not sure that many peo­ple would feel con­fi­dent enough to lay their own “lime­crete” floor on the ba­sis of the sin­gle page of in­struc­tions, but boxes ex­plain­ing how to re­move old paint, tint new paint, make beeswax pol­ish or as­sess tim­ber de­cay are handy. The over­rid­ing mes­sage, how­ever, is that you should do as lit­tle as pos­si­ble to your his­toric home even at the ex­pense of your own com­fort or sense of pre­sen­ta­tion: elec­tric con­duit and heat­ing pipes, the au­thors sug­gest, could be sur­face run to pro­tect the fab­ric of the build­ing; early gas light fit­tings could be made work­able again… Hmmm.

Th­ese sorts of rec­om­men­da­tions are prob­a­bly as much ev­i­dence as is needed to show that I should def­i­nitely not be left in any sort of charge of an his­toric house (wor­ry­ingly for the So­ci­ety for the Pro­tec­tion of An­cient Build­ings, which has been in­volved with the book, my Ed­war­dian home fits within its rather gen­er­ous def­i­ni­tion of his­toric). Suhr and Hunt feel it is all about the house; I feel it should be more about the home.

So, if a rel­a­tively de­sign­lit­er­ate, Na­tional Trust- vis­it­ing, his­to­rysym­pa­this­ing home owner finds the Old House Hand­book off-puttingly strict, who is the book aimed at? Per­haps it is part of some govern­ment­backed scheme to drive us back into the arms of new­build de­vel­op­ers who are cur­rently feel­ing the pinch.

More likely, I would guess that, like cook­ery books by Miche­lin-starred chefs, it is prob­a­bly writ­ten for those who sim­ply love to look. The peo­ple who will en­joy this will never go near a his­toric house project — and for those who have, the book’s cat­a­logue of hor­rors will be a well-in­ten­tioned present to re­mind them why they will never wish to re­peat the ex­pe­ri­ence.

Old House Hand­book (Frances Lin­coln, £25). To or­der a copy for £23 plus £1.25 p&p, call Tele­graph Books on 0844 971 1516 visit books. tele­graph.co.uk

Re­spect for the aged: if you are the type to lay your own lime­crete or re­store orig­i­nal gas light fit­tings, this would make vi­tal read­ing

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