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?
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