Monday, 17 December 2018

Happy Christmas 2018

Trying to push the restoration of the kitchen wing at Balintore Castle to completion can make one year feel very much like another. For it's Christmas again and the kitchen wing is still not complete!

From looking at previous Christmas messages, I can see I took a large chunk of 2016 off to try to finish the kitchen wing, but then returned to work when more funds were clearly needed. Since then I have been largely away from the building but trying to do things by remote control. I don't need to tell you the frustration of this.

I would like to think, dear reader, that this Christmas is different as for a while it felt like things might be finished before Christmas, because all floors are down, the heating is now up-and-running, the second fix of the electrics has taken place and a new glass screen enclosing the courtyard walkway has been erected.

new glass screen: exterior view (unpainted)
new glass screen: interior view (painted)
floor down in utility room - new slate tiles abut surviving flags
In fact I am not quite sure what things are outstanding as I have not been to the castle recently. I do know that Gregor has been having trouble getting a hold of a suitable flush mechanism for the antique mahogany cistern in the bathroom: the quest has been going on for months. Using reclaimed items for authenticity is fraught with practical problems, that demand bespoke solutions.

flush-less but golden
I wanted a brass and mahogany look in the bathroom. This is where reality cuts in - a brass high level flush pipe is around £400! My plumber gave me a second-hand chrome one and I bought Greg a big tub of gold paint. The cistern brackets are reproduction and cast iron and were a black colour. Again, I told Greg to wield his paint brush. The bath feet were rusty and had once been painted white, again I coaxed out Greg's inner Midas. :-)

Greg's inner Midas revealed

Greg told me he was dubious about the gold to begin with but that I had won him over! 

We were going to paint the interior of the bathroom window white in best bathroom tradition. However, this made the room look rather anaemic and clinical. What's more the white background showed up the fact that the bathroom fittings didn't quite match i.e. the antique WC was ivory while the reproduction sink was white. Painting the window in dark brown increased the contrast in the room so much, that you don't see the difference between the ivory and the white. It is continually astonishing to me that you think you know what the decor will be, but being in situ tells you instantly that it is wrong, and some other route must be found.

When Gregor gets fed up of painting or Greg gets fed up of tiling, then some effort has been spent in smartening up the internal access from the front door of the castle to the kitchen wing. You could argue that this is taking away effort from the kitchen wing proper, but it keeps Greg and Gregor busy especially if we are waiting on supplies or another tradesman to complete and of course having a smartened up section of corridor as an approach is good for morale. I had an earlier blog article on getting permission from Angus Council to repair the interior walls throughout the building using plasterboard.

lining the approach corridor to the kitchen wing
I am hoping to spend some time at the castle in the New Year and to help drag the kitchen wing over the finishing line. I am buoyed up by my "restoration friends" who take an interest in progress at Balintore and some of whom are trying to find their own restoration projects. The fact that there are people out there who are still willing to take on this type of challenge is good for my soul. It's more than just networking; it's about survival and anyone else who is driven in the same way irrespective of whether their project has started will know what I am talking about.

I am currently on my fourth contract at Lloyd's of London trying to keep Gregor and Greg (père et fils) in gainful employ. They are not totally full time at the castle, but there is a certain continuity of employment and need-less-to-say an infinity of jobs needing done. There is a classic exchange between Gregor and myself. 

David:  "Have you got something you can work on?"
Gregor: (laughing) "Yes!"

My contract ends on the 11 January, who knows what is next? The good thing about Balintore is that it gives a long-term structure to one's life. Though, at times one definitely wishes it were not quite so "long term".

I have been bogged down by legal cases for much of this year - the normal stuff - not being paid for one's work and not receiving the goods or services one has paid for. After a particularly horrific few months of intense legal work came to a close last Monday, I was able to chat to Gregor again on the phone. What a joy it was to talk about moving things forward at the castle, and not to be bogged down in seemingly endless legal doldrums, which do not move the world forward a jot.

Here's to getting things done in 2019.

Seasonal greetings to you and your family.

Sunday, 16 December 2018

Period Costume Fashion Shoot

Thanks to friend of Balintore, Chrissie, for alerting to me to the presence of a wonderful video covering a photographic shoot at the castle. I was absent from this shoot, which took place in 2015, and had no idea the video even existed. Chrissie, by the way, is the striking lady in the gold dress.

One of the joys, for me, was seeing how parts of the castle have moved on from 2015. However, it has to be said that the castle's kitchen before restoration does have a certain distressed charm. With cracked plaster walls, with the original bright yellow paint colour much dulled and with mounted deer skulls - it does look like the archetypal abandoned haunted house in a Gothic horror movie!

However, as soon as I started work on the building, and I saw the romantic ruined look being put to one side, I just had to be pragmatic. A poetic ruined look will only last until there is nothing more to decay. It was surely better to keep Balintore around for future generations, and restore it in a way preserving both its Victorian splendor but also permitting some crumbly-edges to remain, as an honest reflection of its troubled past.

Somnolent Images - Castle Shoot from Juliette Lichman on Vimeo.

Sunday, 25 November 2018

Sans Watermarking

I wrote a blog article last year on how to remove a watermark from a digital scan of a contemporaneous drawing of Balintore Castle. I needn't have bothered as a very thoughful Jeffrey Sanchez has recently supplied me with a copy of the image before it was watermarked. In a sense, it is the image which holds all aspirations for the building, as it was the one drawn up by the architect's practice for the client and captures the Victorian baronical dream of the Scottish Highlands.

Old Parsonage Open Days 24/25th November 2018: Part 2

When my friends inside the Landmark Trust invited me to visit the Old Parsonage in Oxford this weekend, there was no prospect of me refusing. I was super keen to see how this British charitable organisation ( founded in 1965) presents historic buildings for holiday rentals. And of course, who can resist a dinner party with good company in a delightful setting?

With my car out of action, I set off in the dark to cycle the 9.4 miles from my house to Iffley where the soiree was taking place. Having not cycled this route in the dark for a number of years, I got lost and took the wrong turning three times. Due to the rough cross-country terrain, the gear mechanism on my bike broke half-way there. Holding my bike light over the gears and moving some bits of metal around, I got rid of the grinding noise but not the squeaking. Still, it was a good enough fix to continue my journey. The entrance to the normal cycle path I take along the banks of the Thames, was closed with many warning signs about there being no access to Oxford. However, at that stage I had only 10 minutes to get to the parsonage on time, so I continued regardless. Thankfully, the route to Iffley was still open and I crossed the Thames at the Iffley Locks for the first time in my life, despite cycling past the locks many times.

I got lost in Iffley. I knew the Old Parsonage was near the church and I cycled all the small lanes round the church but could not find the building. In desperation I looked back at the church, and could see a series of lit small arched upper floor windows in a row, of decided historic interest, somewhere to the right of the church tower.  I cycled to where I could get as close to this architectural feature as possible and found, much to my relief, a door marked "Old Parsonage" which led directly onto the pavement. I had cycled past here already, but in the dark I had missed the mediaeval stone detailings!

Tim of the Landmark Trust welcomes you at the front door of the Old Parsonage

The Old Parsonage is, it has to be said, an absolute star of a building. If there is a square foot of wall space that is free from panelling, I did not manage to find it. :-) Like most panelling in really old buildings, this was likely recycled from an even older building as it had been bashed about somewhat to fit. The main block in which the holiday accommodation has been placed is around 1500, but some other parts of the building are considerably older. Another part of the building is the vicarage for the adjacent Norman church. And yes, there is a vicar living in the vicarage. 

drining room Tudor fireplace - flaps in panelling reveal ancient stone structures

There is a classic monumental stone Tudor fireplace in the dining room. Around the fireplace are four opening flaps in the panelling where you can see the stone structure in the wall behind. These reveal a 12th century relieving arch above the fireplace and the massive stones from which the Tudor fireplace itself is built. Had the 12th century arch once formed an even larger fireplace opening? Was this was wall 12th century, or had the 12th century stones been re-used from elsewhere? No-one knows. However, the site is clearly one of deep time.

To my mind, the Tudor interior is the most quintisentially English with the large fireplaces, dark wood panelling and furniture giving the most homely vibe imaginable. The wooden floors with the patina of age, were raked at a variety of improbable angles and the floorboards creaked exactly as they should in an old historic building. I needed no convincing: the generous room sizes, yet with an intimate feel; the comfortable and well appointed accommodation; and a Thames frontage, made it a building I would be happy to settle in for the rest of my life. The dinner party guests discussed their favourite periods: Julie is medieval and the parsonage has her name on it too; Tim is Palladian and Georgian; Duncan is Victorian and I am a mediaeval/Victorian hybrid. 

My visit to the parsonage was all too brief so I did not really take any photographs, but being a fireplace nut I recorded these and I had a photographic reconnaissance round the garden on Sunday morning. When I arrived on Saturday evening, I had no inkling there was any exterior space let alone that a garden led directly down to the Thames.

the grassy Thames-side terrace of the parsonage - looking over Iffley Locks

The terrace by the water will be amazing in Summer. There were steps leading down to the water, and the Landmark Trust could do well by the building by installing a mooring point.

view through drawing room window to ancient Mulberry and Thames beyond
An ancient, just alive, mulberry tree in the garden was propped precariously in position - let's hope it survives for many years into the future.

the drawing room fireplace

The fireplace in the drawing room looked like the collision of a Georgian marble fireplace and a deeply carved Victorian dark wood fireplace. Whatever the story behind this chimera, it was obviously bespoke, and its history merges with that of the building. I couldn't help but love this mongrel.

Two women visitors on the open day on Saturday were discovered standing in front of one of the fires. It emerged they had swum across the Thames to get to the parsonage. Emergency beverages were supplied forthwith. "But where did you get changed?" asked Duncan. "We have our ways" replied one of the women mysteriously. Hats off to these intrepid visitors. I have never been able to even manage a cold shower myself. 

The incident puts me in mind of Dame's Delight which was nearby. This is the female equivalent of the legendary Parson's Pleasure also nearby. The latter Wikipedia article records one of my favourite related and ribald Oxford anecdotes. One wonders if the eponymous parson of the nude bathing spot, came from this very Old Parsonage?

where else would one see the use of "abut": one of my favourite Angle Saxon words

I had an incredible night's sleep at the Old Parsonage. I have a theory that the older the building the better one sleeps. And I am no longer a Landmark Trust virgin! My observation over the weekend, is that the Trust presents their buildings to the very highest standard. 

They set a very high bar indeed for the holiday lets I am planning at Balintore Castle. I was relieved, amongst such perfection, to see naked light bulbs in the dining room chandelier. I have a phobia of naked bulbs in period buildings as they reveal the lighting technology of the day and break the period illusion. I hide all bulbs at Balintore behind glass shades.

Staying at the Old Parsonage is a special and much-to-be-recommended experience. It has spurred me on to try to do something similar at the castle.

the incomparable Old Parsonage from the garden side

Old Parsonage Open Days 24/25th November: Part I

One of the utter delights of restoring an "at risk" building is meeting and making friends with like-minded individuals. I am indebted to friends of Balintore Duncan, Tim and Julie who invited me to a dinner party at the Old Parsonage in Oxford yesterday evening.

The Old Parsonage in Iffley is a Landmark Trust property, with open days this Saturday and Sunday (24/25th November 2018). Duncan, Tim and Julie are on hand to show members of the public around and ensure the building is looking at its best. In fact the open day does not finish until 4PM today (25th November) so there is still time to visit.  I implore you not to miss this opportunity to see such a delightful and historic property. You will be made very welcome.

Open Day at the Old Parsonage Iffley

Tuesday, 13 November 2018

The Counting House Knockers

Just 100 yards from where I am currently working is a hostelry called "The Counting House". It was built in 1893, on top of the foundations of a 2000-year-old Roman basilica, as Prescott's Bank. My work colleagues and I love the sumptuous interior. However, this story involves the exterior of the building. 

I was walking past on my morning commute (hence semi-darkness in photos) when I spotted that the front door of the Counting House has two lion's head knockers, absolutely identical to those I have recently installed on the front door of the castle. A few yards further on, the service door for the Counting House sported a letter box of almost identical design to the one I had just installed on a side door of the castle. 

What an amazing coincidence! Presumably the brass fittings at the Counting House were from the same company, so inadvertently I had bought coordinated fittings from the same company but in separate purchases. My two lion's heads were bought in two separate purchases as well, and I was delighted to get a matching pair. I never thought this would happen. I can also now date my fittings to 1893, a bit later than the castle (1860) but within the correct period ballpark.

Lion's head knockers are in essence portal lions in microcosm: those grand statues of lions either side of the entrance ways to ancient cities. There was originally a lion's head bell pull on the front door of Balintore Castle, long since gone but visible in old photos in this blog, which was no doubt inspired by the first owner's name of Lyon.

The morale of this story is that the almost instinctual choices we make in aesthetics, but also in other matters, hold strong truths and patterns that we may not even be aware of. Until that is, we are walking around the streets of London and spot things that are strangely familiar.  :-)

the Counting House on my morning commute

lion's head knockers at the Counting House
lion's head knockers at Balintore Castle

letter box at the Counting House

letter box at Balintore Castle

Sunday, 14 October 2018

Feel the Love

Thanks to friend of Balintore Emma for pointing out that Balintore Castle is currently feeling the love on "Visit Scotland" on Instagram with 25, 387 likes !