A Home for Good

What impact does the environment we work in have on the work we create? I ask this question almost weekly because I’m fascinated by the way in which human beings can be aware of but not really see their surroundings. And after visiting the National Trust property Bateman’s, the former home of Rudyard Kipling over the weekend, it’s clear to me that the home he purchased in 1902 is as much a part of the work he created as the paper he wrote on during the process. The beauty of his words and the beauty of his environment feel like they’re holding hands and stepping forward together.

Front Entrance and Hall

Front Entrance and Hall

The house is built on a small scale, although in the Seventeenth Century, when it was built for John Brittan an iron master, it probably felt rather grand. The decorative details are solid and well crafted; oak paneling, limestone fireplace lintels, black and white tiled floor and the most beautiful printed leather ‘wallpaper’. He knew what he wanted and those features have aged beautifully. Did John Brittan realise that his home would be visited by thousands of people a year some 300 hundred years after he chose to build on that site? Probably not and I imagine he’d be pretty surprised to find that it looks so similar to his original design. This is a house that feels like a home, it hasn’t needed to be altered, although some of the floor levels have changed and even though the bathrooms and kitchen aren’t on display, it is easy to see how a more modern aesthetic can be accommodated within an ancient building.

Kipling's Study

Kipling’s Study

Kipling is quoted as saying ‘That’s She! The Only She! Make an honest woman of her – quick!’ when he first sighted Bateman’s with his wife Carrie in 1900. He knew what he wanted too and two years later they moved their small family Josephine, Elsie and John to what was for them an incredibly warm and happy family home. The family wasn’t immune to tragedy though, Josephine caught a fever when travelling by ship to New York (Carrie was American) and didn’t survive and John, was killed in the early days of WWI.

Kipling appears to have been a doting father, involved in his children’s lives and a giver of advice. His letters to them are warm and caring, full of daily life, telling them what he is doing while he is away and aimed at their level of understanding. I had heard that he forced his son into the army, but that doesn’t appear to be correct. Perhaps his only failing in this respect is that he and his son were both very shortsighted and when John didn’t pass his physical, Kipling pulled some strings – and John ended up in a regiment posted to the Front. They were both firm supporters of King and Country, but that must have been little comfort when John died just days after his eighteenth birthday.

The 1000th Man

The 1000th Man

The walls of Bateman’s seem to echo with the presence of the Kipling family. It’s as if they’ve simply walked out of the room to arrange a pot of tea for their guests. I like that and that their home was so much a part of their lives. Because so little has been changed, there is a sense of time standing still, that they’ve lived lightly within these walls and in the process have left much more of themselves behind.

Leather stamped and painted Wallpaper

Leather stamped and painted Wallpaper

Of course not every home is so worthy of preservation, but it makes me think that we should take care with our choices when looking for a home and be even more careful in the choices we make when we choose to refurbish. Are we creating a space that will enhance our lives, that will be a haven and support us when times are tough? Are we altering a space to better it or simply because fashion suggests that this is the course we should take? Are we creating a space that has integrity? Is it true to the rest of the building? Does it honour the original design – would that craftsman recognise his creation 300 years later?

John's Dressing Room

John’s Dressing Room

In thinking about how our environment affects our creation (or in this case, our lives) we need to step outside ourselves, to assess and to analyse. Being too close to a project can mean the decisions made are emotional and not quite as well reasoned as they should be. Will what we create within its walls stand the test of time? Does the space feel balanced and function well together – does it breathe? If we think of our homes as a whole being, as a living entity – for it will outlast us – perhaps that is the key.

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Moving Outdoors for Summer

When people extend at the rear of their houses, it’s often to achieve ‘indoor/outdoor living’ – a space that allows them to have easy access to the living areas of the house but to transfer the activities of dining and relaxing outdoors. This week it’s Chelsea Flower Show and with the weather as nice as it’s been for the last fortnight, I have to say sitting in my garden is one of my favourite ways to spend time at home. I have french doors from my dining room to the patio and for much of the next few months they will stand open. We eat breakfast on the patio and lunch in the garden, but dinner it’s sometimes too cool in the shade to be completely comfortable, so back to the dining table we go.

outdoor seating

Having this flexibility with my living space is one of the reasons I bought the house. Even though the garden is shady from mid afternoon onward, I still spend the bulk of my time out there in the summer months, so planning how to use this space is as important as the thought put into how your kitchen and dining room will work. Not only do you have to consider things like lawnmowers and parasols that need to be stored when not in use, you also need to think about the orientation – the way the garden faces. A garden that faces North-East, as mine does will have next to no sun in the winter and this will wreak havoc with your grass. That might sound bizarre and somewhat extreme, but consider if you will the very wet winter we had. I now have a lawn that is 3/4 covered in moss – and the moss is thick and healthy! That’s too big an area to ‘patch’, so what on earth am I going to do with it? In the nearly three years since I’ve lived here, my lawn has gone from lush to lame – and I have fed it.

the grassy side

the grassy side

On the other hand, if my garden faced South-West I’d have another problem; the area closest to the house, usually where people have their patio’s, would be too hot to sit in, even with a parasol.

Outdoor space at this time of the year becomes an additional room, but it’s totally dictated by the elements. This may sound obvious, yet people are often mystified when they can’t quite use their gardens the way they want. Of course if your garden is huge, none of this applies, but for a garden in town you are very much at the mercy of your neighbouring properties. Big trees are either a problem because they shade your side of the fence and the neighbour won’t get it pruned or a delight and you’re terrified that the neighbour might decide to pull it down!

the stump is to become a garden seat

the stump is to become a garden seat

I have a bit of a thing for trees I have to confess, but this spring I took the decision to remove one that was cutting a lot of light from my garden. Given the grass situation and the fact that I have 10 trees in an area 5m x 12m, I wasn’t sorry to see this one go even though in the aftermath of last winter several people I know have large trees that are now at risk. Their roots haven’t held in the saturated soil and these landmark trees are now dangerous, leaning badly and must be taken down. Sad.

Rooflines do the same thing where light is concerned, especially if a loft conversion goes up and you suddenly lose your sunshine. In our first home, we consented to our neighbours putting in their loft conversion and our garden changed completely. No longer could we sit in the sun for lunch, unless we wanted to eat after 3! Can you see why I say it needs thought?

afternoon tea

Making the most of your outdoor space is more than simply putting in some decking and buying outdoor furniture. To be able to use the space the way you want, your patio might be better situated as an island away from the house. It depends on whether you hanker after basking in the last rays of the evening sun and sipping on a ‘sundowner,’ or if you’ve always dreamed of breakfast on the terrace. This is the type of question to ask yourself, it’s not enough to say let’s put in a summerhouse and then find that it never gets used. As with all space planning, the garden needs to be considered as a whole – even if the work is done piecemeal. And this is one situation where you really are better to have lived in the property for a while, so that you know where the sun rises and if the shed is actually the part of the garden that gets the most sun! It’s worth moving things around to make the most of your gardens natural attributes. If my lovely garden shed were on the other side of the garden, I’d have sun until about 7pm…

late afternoon in the garden

late afternoon in the garden

So back to planning the way you use your garden. As with any ‘room’ – and garden designers do talk about themed areas of the garden as rooms – flexibility is key, so zoning the garden with areas designed to be used at different times of the day is actually quite practical. It enables you to create plantings and privacy in those areas which will introduce a journey as you move through it and reveal different aspects of your personality in the same way you would indoors. It also allows you to hide the bicycles and compost bin – or create a fire pit… Marshmallows anyone?

a garden ornament

a garden ornament

Framing the View

Why are people afraid of curtains and blinds? They improve the quality of our living space SO much; they keep out the cold in winter and shade the sun in summer. They cut the light in bedrooms and protect us from prying eyes – in terms of both privacy and security. They enhance our environment by absorbing sound and deadening echo, they can be used to compliment the decor and they add visual impact, but no-one wants to spend money on them!

kitchen curtains

Why is this? They work as hard for us as the bed or the sofas that we’re prepared to spend upward of a £1000 on. Perhaps curtains and blinds are seen as more of a fashionable item than a necessity? You only have to look around to see the number of homes that have had plantation shutters installed to realise that people like to play it safe when they install window treatments. But here’s the downside – plantation shutters don’t cut the light, reduce the echo or stop the drafts, if you want to feel tucked up on a winters evening, you will still need something made of fabric for that!

pelmet and roman blinds

pelmet and roman blinds

Curtains don’t need to be fussy or contrived. They can be very simple, streamlined and edgy, its all in the styling and the type of heading you go for. Blinds are the same and they are economical on fabric too. So let’s look at some options because to my way of thinking, curtains and blinds are like putting on mascara, they widen the window and frame the view.

When you start to think about window treatments, consider how much sun the room gets. Blackout lining is the way to go for bedrooms and living spaces because not only does it reduce the amount of light filtering through the curtain to almost zero, it protects the face cloth (the fabric your curtains and blinds are made of) too. This is a consideration in rooms that get large amounts of sun because some fabrics rot over time with sun exposure (like silk) and blackout lining acts as a barrier.

curtains and track

Often when a fabric is suspended, it doesn’t have a lot of body to it and looks limp instead of commanding. That’s when an interlining is called for. It comes in two weights and I prefer the lighter of the two called Domette. This gives a nice amount of body without adding too much bulk and allows your curtains and blinds to have a bit of substance; they hold their shape nicely and roman blinds pleat up well when being opened.

bay window with roman blinds

bay window with roman blinds

When you measure your windows, there are two different ways to approach it – a recess measurement or an opening measurement. The recess is the return of the wall to the window and is a tight measurement created by the recess from side to side and head to sill. In this situation a blind (usually) would be fitted to the window frame. The opening measurement is the measurement of the window opening flush to the wall. It is a less precise measurement and means that the intention is for the curtain or blind to be mounted on the wall that surrounds the window – as opposed to the window frame. This means that for curtains you can create the impression of a longer window or higher ceiling, by fixing the track or pole at a distance above the window frame. It also allows you to make room for things below the window, like radiators.

blind fitted within the recess

blind fitted within the recess

And a word about the positioning of radiators below windows. You aren’t sending the heat straight out the window by closing off the window with a curtain. It actually does the opposite – and creates a warm air barrier because hot air rises and draws the cold air in with it. This circulates the air inward – through the fabric – the same way that an air curtain does over an open door. If you really are worried about ‘heating the window’ add a layer of protection by installing a roller or roman blind that can be lowered as soon as the sun goes down and then close the curtains as the heating goes off. The curtain protects your room from drafts and the blind allows you maximum exposure to the radiator heat – neither option will do both!

Poles and tracks are conventional ways of suspending curtains, but of course the decision as to whether you want to see the mechanism is entirely over to how your home is built. Suspended ceilings allow for concealed curtain tracks and motorised systems make drawing the curtains the work of an instant – no more heaving yourself against the bulk of a curtain three times your body weight! If you want something a little less hi-tech, then a simple eyelet headed curtain and metal pole are stylish and give a column like appearance at each side of your window.

eyelet heading and pole

eyelet heading and pole

Whichever way you approach the window treatments to your home, getting the measurements right is vital to success, which is why I’m not a great fan of ready made curtains. (That’s not to say I haven’t used them as a temporary measure (ha ha) but you’ll have to get your sewing machine out and do some work to get the length right, for a start!) Window shapes and sizes vary from era to era, how can there be such a thing as a standard set of measurements? Do the generic curtain makers have a breakdown of the ‘standard window measurements’ from the Victorian era? From the Georgian era? From the ‘between the wars’ era? If they don’t have that information about your home, how can you hope to buy ready made curtains that will fit?

pole outside the window opening

pole outside the window opening

So this is my point, if you’re prepared to spend money on a pair of curtains or blinds that aren’t quite the right size, that you will have to try and fix to the wall yourself, that will never quite look as good as you thought they would, why would you not at least make the effort to get a quote to find out how much the relative costs would be to get something that does fit, you won’t have to fix yourself and will be exactly what you want ( because you get to chose the fabric that’s perfect.)? Yes, they will cost (a lot) more but there will be no hassle to yourself at all, no cold sweat that the drill holes aren’t in the right place and the pole isn’t quite level. These sorts of finishing touches are what makes your interior style complete. ‘The devil is in the detail’ and believe me (I have done this) its the absolute devil to notice every time you walk past something that its not quite right.

Oh, and the window blind I was moaning about a few weeks ago (Changing Rooms) arrived within about three days of being ordered! Totally brilliant service from Vale Blinds (http://valeblinds.com) who replied to my emailed photo and measurements with the make and the reference numbers that I needed to place an order. And it was easy to install… (says she who suggests ready made are less than acceptable!)

A Little Bit Nuts

There are some houses in this world that you visit and wonder ‘WHY?’ Claydon House in Buckinghamshire is one such. Rebuilt by Ralph, 2nd Earl Verney between 1757 and 1771 to rival the nearby Stowe house in magnificence, it is almost as if he got so carried away by his obsessions that he didn’t know where to stop. And indeed this singleminded ‘mania’ led to his financial downfall and after his death in 1791, the demolition of more than two-thirds of the house by a disapproving niece – as a lesson on the perils of excess. I can’t imagine many families putting up with such extreme behaviour – of either generation – for very long!

North Hall Claydon House

North Hall Claydon House

I’d wanted to visit Claydon for such a long time because I’d seen pictures of the exuberant Rococo and Chinoiserie styling but I didn’t realise that Lord Verney had not been content simply with (arguably) the finest examples of their kind, he’d also included interiors of Gothic splendour and a faux wood grained room too. (The family is related to Florence Nightingale – this was her room.) There are cupolas and hung staircases, marquetry flooring and heraldic symbols – at one point I felt as if I was in the sugar fondant room of a cake decorators, such is the scale and complete abandon of restraint.

rococo detailswindow frame details

An interior such as this overwhelms the senses and almost creates a barrier to taking in what is around you. Simply standing still to appreciate the intricate decoration becomes impossible as your eye is drawn to yet another detail you have to examine. What starts with curiosity becomes a journey complete with switch backs and false paths to lead you through an internal landscape that defies belief and exceeds expectations. How the collaboration between craftsmen and Lord Verney must have excited him, fed his obsession and spurred him to further expense, for once started to leave any room unadorned would be to create an imbalance and to dishonour the standard of work already achieved. Considering what remains standing today is one third of his creation begs the question, what exactly was lost when his niece called in the wrecking ball?

The Black and White Hall

The Black and White Hall

On a much smaller scale, I can almost understand how Ralph, the Lord Verney found himself in this predicament. There is a point in any building project where you wonder ‘if it is worth it’ and it isn’t only the expense that springs to mind. Living with the dust and confusion of a house being reconfigured tries the patience and frays many a temper. If we haven’t a clear idea of what we want to achieve in the first place, this confusion is compounded by the fear that we might not like the end result; that we’ll be paying for something we aren’t really happy with, that it won’t be worth it! But believe it or not, this doubt is a part of the journey, taking that leap of faith is what the creative process is all about.

chinoiserie doorway

That feeling of uncertainty is the same experienced by the artist, the writer, the actor, the dancer – and the mother. In pulling forward our dreams, we must allow that the process will challenge us, that we will feel out of control – or controlled by another entity – and that we must trust that the divine power who gave us the inspiration in the first place, will not fail us. Perhaps that sounds a rather grandiose idea, but in a smaller personal way, without the courage to believe we can achieve what we dream, we lose the ability to imagine ourselves outside our current situation – and where would mankind be without that vision?

Chinoiserie styling

Chinoiserie styling

Living in an interior such as Claydon would be a supreme challenge in today’s world; it is clear that the roof leaks and that the foundations of the house move according to the soil moisture levels. The fact that it is owned by the National Trust, but still inhabited by the Verney family goes some way to describing how complex and sensitive the upkeep and maintenance of the property must be.

Chinese Room mirror

I like the fact that the 2nd Earl embraced his dreams, that he totally committed to the vision of his craftsmen and that the end result is still able to instil such strong feelings. In this age of playing it safe, it is good to be reminded of the sheer joy of daring to dream. Yes, it is a bit nuts, but if I were to take anything from this stunning example of madness, it would be have the courage to embrace your vision – and to follow through with that vision to the end – but perhaps make sure you had enough money in the bank first!

With many thanks to the National Trust for allowing me to take photographs during my visit