"...ceilings fantastically clouded by smoke and dust..."

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Your gracious Majesty will need to lay right off the penny buns and pints of port and lemon is she wants to avoid getting stuck in my new bath again. Here is your new menu list. Yes, that says two Bath Oliver biscuits a day, your regal tiny-bottomed Empress of India, and no, I'm not taking the piss.

About twelve years ago, my parents retired. The Northern Socialist had grown weary of globetrotting and morphed into a devoted old grandpappy, hanging up his ruler-for-walloping-wayward-kids and football boots and swapping bellows for lullabies. They sold their place abroad and started looking around Down South. The NS wanted a bungalow - years of restoring houses had tried his patience and wallet and he felt that spare bedrooms would encourage his sodding offspring to darken his doorstep and outstay their welcome.

He was roundly ignored - my mother and sister found an old tumble-down gothic Victorian pile in an ivy-clad, slightly gloomy village. It was enormous - cellars, attics, a bottomless, vertigo-inducing well in a room downstairs, peeling old paper with ancient horse-and-carriage scenes, windows on the outside with no correlating rooms and many many ghosts. An old lady put it up for auction on the understanding it would be restored to a family house and that she could come and visit twice a year to see children play on the wickedly neglected lawns. My mother and sister decided to buy it together and split it into two parts; a full-time one for the olds and a holiday house for the Pretty One and her family.

My parents and the Pretty One and the Professor put in a sealed bid and won. The NS was furious. The rest of us were delighted. Work began in earnest. My parents camped for six cold, filthy months in the butler's pantry, living on fish and chips and wine, oil lamps strung up and a paint-spattered wireless crackling Radio 4. The Professor, by contrast, stayed in London, sending down teams of artisans who has worked on the restoration of Hampton Court.

They had their work cut out, all of them. The place had been neglected for years, but from the damp, dirty, dingy rooms, the bones of a home emerged. The house had been built for one of Queen Victoria's ladies-in-waiting, and, hopeful and career-minded as these types are, she had high hopes of a Royal visit. Dashing of hopes as the royal types are, it never happened - the specially-built porch to screen her arrival from common eyes; the blank stone shield on the side wall all ready to be inscribed with the details of her Majesty's visit; the new bathroom with a thunderously flushing loo and huge wide bath, all for nothing. Royal sceptics and suck-ups alike may draw lessons from this bathetic scene.

The artisans were briefed to replace all the rotting cornices around the tops of the walls. They studied Victorian domestic design books and archives; blueprints were found and pored over. Many moulds were cast before the correct plaster shape emerged, then the job started of casting the cornices, carefully removing them from the moulds and mounting them on the walls. The Northern Socialist and my mother went to B&Q and bought tenner-a-metre polystyrene cornicing in a Victorian style. Over the past twelve years, not a single visitor out of the hundreds who've passed through the shielding porch has ever been able to tell where the precious plaster ends and the polystyrene begins.

The joke has worn exceedingly thin with the Professor.


  1. Are there any pictures? Or will that make NS angry? Why do you insist on calling your sister the pretty one? I seem to be full of questions today. Sorry it's the nosy old tart in me coming out.

  2. James, afraid not. No, I just want to respect his privacy and don't want him overrun by daytrippers! She is called that because at six she was delighted to discover that in fact she was. Someone said to her recently that if she was the pretty one, I must be a right munter. Time has been kinder to me, it must be said...

  3. Necessity is the mother of invention...polystyrene vs. thousands of $$ spent to replicate said moulding...is quite acceptable providing it is done as your family have where it is not obvious or glaringly fake..... I know all too well living in a refurbished designated heritage home and having served on the Heritage Committee which grants $$ to homeowners for restoration, that some comprimizes are necessary.
    If sister is known as the Pretty One, pray do tell, what are you known as?

  4. Hostess, I absolutely agree, though I would also add that laughter, welcome, cold wine and warm cakes are, in this case, far more important than architectural integrity. I, since you asked, am the clever one, the funny one and the One That Looks Like Cate Blanchett.

    Tintin, oh absolutely. Though in our case, less Hugh Grant and more Norman Wisdom.

  5. I love Cate Blanchett but have you ever noticed her hands? She has Martha Stewart hands. Hey, that's a new song that is.

    She's got boom - boom Martha Stewart hands...

  6. I'm guessing that's a bad thing? Sort of truck-driving hands?

    Same tune as Bette Davis Eyes, right?

    Thanks. That's stuck in my head now. So I am like CB with a tic.

  7. My father was a great fan of polystyrene ceiling tiles as insulation for our draughty Victorian abode. He even lined the walls with polystyrene wallpaper. He painted the ceilings Battenburg pink and white and sometimes the glue would give out and they would float down. Thanks for the memory jogger.

  8. We call them 'man hands' over here. I could refer you to the Seinfeld episode.

  9. Voila!


  10. Cate Blanchett, lovely clever and funny even better!
    Food and hospitality are much more important than architectural integrity...do not mention this to my architect husband! LOL
    They are what is remembered, and having spent untold years entertaining here with orange crates nailed to the walls in the kitchen as make do shelves...I so relate.
    I do so enjoy your witty posts.

  11. A right munter? A right munter? Where do they issue the licenses for you all to SAY those kinds of things?

  12. Such a great post - you are so clever at "telling it like it was" so that we can imagine being there too! And love the idea that the NS feels very smug re : his B&Q cornices - ha! Good for him. Do you all gather there en famille for high days and holidays?

  13. Integrity - wonderful word that. As long as no one knows who's to tell? That's what I like about integrity it can be such an equivocatable (sp) word...;)

  14. Normally I avoid all controversy, but having once had to deal with Martha Stewart, I would just like to say: Let's try not to mention those about whom we cannot say nice things OR connect with me by e-mail and I'll tell you everything. . .

    As always, loved your tale. I think Cate Blanchett is beautiful, stunning and oh that famous English skin.

    We should do a blog contest -- since we all wish to stay somewhat anonymous -- entitled something like: Who do you think I look like?

    Followed by: I look like-------.

    What do you think?



Please leave a comment if you can be remotely bothered - anything you have to say is valuable and I absolutely love hearing from you all. Elizabeth