Sunday, 19 July 2020

Dymchurch No More

I recently acquired, courtesy of eBay, some 1930's some postcards of Dymchurch, a seaside resort in Kent. These are the without doubt the dullest postcards on the planet, and one fears that Dymchurch itself is squarely to blame. 

Dymchurch dullness (click to expose the dullness)

On the principle that the cheapest picture frames can be obtained by buying the worst art, it was the three glazed frames holding the twelve postcards of Dymchurch, that were my real objective. I was wanting to frame some wonderful Scottish landscape postcards that had been generously gifted to me by friend of Balintore Mrs. M. .

reverse of a gifted postcard

The postcards themselves are paintings in the romantic tradition produced by a French chocolate factory (Choclaterie d'Aiguebelle). To promote sales, the factory produced many different series of beautifully illustrated postcards on a variety of themes, generally educational. The firm was founded in 1868 by Trappist monks from the Notre-Dame d'Aiguebelle Abbey, and production went on into the early 20th Century.

My visiting friend Madeleine used her artistic skill to perform a life-saving postcard transplant, with the old postcards left in the back of the frames for historic purposes, and the new postcards inserted. The irony is that the new postcards are probably older than the old postcards.

Dymchurch no more (click to reveal the art)

I figured the plum cardboard mounts would work well with the blue/green tones of the paintings, and when Madeleine pointed this out to me without prompting, I felt vindicated in the eBay purchase. The plum washed out the monochromatic scenes of Dymchurch with the force of a tsunami on the placid Kent coast.

Anyhow, thank you Mrs. M.. There is a wonderful serendipity in the romantic caledonian vision of a French Trappist monk washing away the dullness of a Kentish coastal town. The walls of Balintore Castle are indeed gifted.

Thursday, 16 July 2020

Window Seats

It is good to be able to blog "live" in the sense of reporting progress on the very day of that progress.  All too often, I am writing articles about things that happened some time earlier.

Anyhow, today Gregor built window seats in two of the rooms inside the entrance tower. The rooms in the entrance tower are not large, so fitting seating in a window alcove is an efficient use of space. Window seats in these locations have been in my mind for many years, so it is good to see them finally realised.

new window seat in Ocean Room (blue paint colour on walls is "Deep Ocean")

You can see that the front of the seat is constructed from the same profiled planking that lines the window opening, which hopefully ties the design together. Gregor had cut the planking to size yesterday and painted it white. Today, he told me he did not have enough plywood left to form the seat. 

As these are permanent fittings in an A-listed building, I told him we should go for a solid wood seat instead and we chose a length of reclaimed wood which had come from an antique restorer in Manchester who was retiring. We thought the wood might be pine, but when Gregor burned off the thick layer of paint and then sanded it back it turned out to be mahogany - hurrah!

We didn't want the front of the seat to be level with the wall as we wanted to still keep the feel of an alcove, so we had to compromise on the size of the seat vs. the size of the remaining alcove. We chose a suitable depth of seat. then Gregor remembered we had some reclaimed seat cushions we could recycle. It turned out that the seat cushion was just a inch or so narrower than our compromise seat depth. It was a no brainer to make the seat depth exactly the size of the cushion.

The seat cushions come from Kirkhill Church in Glasgow. The pews and radiators were being stripped out so some cushions were going spare. Gregor likes the purple hessian material covering the cushions, but this is too 70's for me, and I have some nice damask to recover the cushions. However, when we cut the foam to the appropriate trapezium shape, I might just patch-up the hessian as a first pass solution. 

I would love to run up the cushion covers myself, but I have loaned my sewing machine (which was my Mum's) to a friend.

Ocean Room window seat with pew cushion, which will be cut to size

When Gregor showed me the first window seat I was delighted, but he had used steel hinges on the part of the seat that lifts. I asked Gregor if these could be brass instead, given the metal's heritage superiority. Gregor duly changed the hinges on the first seat and installed brass hinges on the second.

Gregor pointed out that neither the posh mahogany nor the posh brass hinges would be seen with the cushion in place! I tried my usual "But we are doing this castle up properly" line. I could tell he wasn't convinced. :-)

new window seat in Yellow Room (paint colour on walls is "Honey Bee")

And to finish, a quote from Napoleon which I first discovered on the London Underground:

"A throne is nothing but a bench covered in velvet".

It made a great impression on me, and made me re-evaluate the man. Perhaps he was more than just a dictator?

Sunday, 5 July 2020

Summer Nature Watch

One of the joys of Balintore's location is being able to observe the change in fauna and flora with the seasons. The foxgloves this year are not quite as spectacular as last year, but I always take delight in the "sports" which are not the standard purple. Below is a hasty arrangement of a white spike, a pink spike and a standard purple one.

tri-coloured foxglove display

This year I have been suffering from marauding sheep more than ever before. These are sheep that come from neighbouring fields and munch on Balintore's grass. Who can blame them? I don't do any lawn mowing myself, so their attentions are almost welcome except when they rip up my few plants.

Today, I had my first ever marauding cows: two calves who thought the grass was greener at Balintore and just went for it. Calves can clearly slip through fences much more easily than adult cows, and I would be very surprised indeed to see a full-sized cow at Balintore.

Greg and Gregor spotted a brood of wildcats in a hidey-hole within the castle grounds: a mother and three tiny kittens. At one stage, apparently, the mother was carrying one of the kittens. I was called over, and despite crawling on my hands and knees in the locale, did not spot them. Anyhow, we were all totally delighted. I am not a (domestic) cat lover, but a brood of wildcats in your garden is pretty special.

I was just about to do my food shopping, when I spotted some vegetation on top of one of my vehicle's tyres. My previous food shop has been over 3 weeks ago due to covid. "Typical," I thought, "trust me to pick up some grunge on my tyres.". I pulled out the vegetation, and to my surprise I found myself with a bird's nest in my clutches with a very annoyed blackbird sitting in it. She looked at me, emitted a loud cheep, and flew off. Underneath was a clutch of 4 beautiful blue eggs:

4 blackbird eggs in a nest

I was bowled over by the perfection of the round form of the nest. This was the first time in my life I had held an occupied one. At Balintore, nature comes to you.

Saturday, 27 June 2020

Staggy Snap

There seems to be a dearth of detailed castle restoration information on the Internet. However, relatively recently I discovered two high quality vlogs: "The Château Diaries" by Stephanie Jarvis about Château de la Lande; and "Doing It Ourselves" by Michael Petherick about Château de la Basmaigne.

It would appear that the two Channel 4 programs about French château restorations, "Escape to the Château"and "Escape to the Château DIY", have set off a mini renaissance or chain reaction of Internet media about restorations.

I am left wondering if there are any more to discover. Even just dipping into these two very enjoyable vlogs above takes more spare time than I have. :-) 

While I lack the glamour and personable star qualities of Stephanie and Michael there is at least one commonality.  Here is a screenshot of Michael at  Château de la Basmaigne.

Château de la Basmaigne interior

Here is the scullery at Balintore Castle:

Balintore Castle interior

These show identical picture of stags being used to fill in the space either side of a  window. However, Michael has them the wrong way round.

Friday, 26 June 2020

Just About Fit

It befalls the castle restorer to source reclaimed items that bring back the period feel. Nothing can match the glorious patina of old wood. When an architectural antiques business is selling-up, the opportunity cannot be missed. I travelled to Robert Mills Ltd. in Bristol for one of their socially distanced viewing days for their closing down sell-off auction, just before lock down. 

I have to say it is one of the most astonishing and overwhelming emporia that I have even visited.  The range, quantity and quality of the architectural antiques blew my mind, and I baulked at the company's logistical nightmare of moving everything out of the premises.

The Robert Mills Emporium of Architectural Antiques

There was too much to deal with systematically e.g. photographing items of interest or even taking down lot numbers and I was reduced to walking around and taking photographs with my mind. I am so delighted I visited, as lots I had dismissed in the catalogue looked great in person and lots I had liked in the catalogue disappointed in the flesh. Photographs never do justice to scale and patina.

I walked passed some massive Edwardian shelving that was being used to hold vintage laboratory equipment. This would work wonderfully as storage in the castle's still room but would it even fit? I had my doubts, but thought it might just about squeeze in.

Edwardian Shelving at Robert Mills

At the online auction, prices were strong and I despaired of being able to afford anything. However, thanks to the size and rough quality of the shelving, I was the only bidder and got it for £50. The auctioneer had been dropping the price and was going to £30, when he noticed my bid. I did not begrudge the extra £20, as I knew the transportation cost would be more than the item itself. I had already bought some larger items, so had already committed to a Luton van.

The Luton van duly arrived this week. Gregor insisted the way I wanted the shelving installed was upside down. He convinced me he was right, but if so the shelving was upside-down at Robert Mills. 
The top of the unit (bottom at Robert Mills) seems to have disappeared between the auction catalogue and arrival at Balintore. I knew something did not look right, in any case, and asked Gregor to make a replacement unit top out of plywood. Gregor also patched up the front, both top and bottom, with new timber so that it looks smart. These will be stained dark. Originally, there had been shelving either side: the grooves can still be seen. So the original unit was at least three times the size of the one I bought!!!

Edwardian Shelving at Balintore Castle

The angled moulding at the front of the shelving is very interesting, as Gregor pointed out. It is angled down above head height, and angled up below head height - presumably for sticking labels on. And assuredly, there are paper labels of all vintages still adhering to the unit.

close-up of shelving showing old labels

The unit could not have fitted the space any better: going all the way from floor to ceiling and from the wall to just shy of the door frame, allowing the door to open just as fully as the door frame permits. So overall, I am delighted by the re-purposing of the shelving thanks to Gregor. This is the third life, at the very least, for the shelving. It had to be partially dismantled to even get through the still room door. 

If I had not seen this antique in the flesh, I simply would not have bid on it. So serendipity city. I wonder where it comes from?

An update! Many thanks to an employee of Robert Mills for supplying the following provenance.

Gregor was right we did store the item upside down, the base was incomplete and would not stand the right side up. The item came from a haberdashery shop in Newport, South Wales. Over the decades it became more of a hardware shop and then more of a fancy goods (cheap) shop. They just kept adding more shelves to the original units until all the walls were covered with shelves, over the doorways and right up to the ceiling. They then seemed to have knocked through to the next door shop and took over that one as well. Filling it with their own style of adding on bits of ad-hock shelving as they needed it until that shop was filled as well (not to mention the store rooms).

Tuesday, 23 June 2020

Marsh Orchid

This year, my neighbour Jeannie has been processing the rhubarb, which survives to this day in the historic formal garden at Balintore Castle, into wonderful edible products. My 50% share of the goods in exchange for permitting access to the patch is more than equitable. The castle restoration is so time-consuming at the moment, that I have no spare time for cooking or even picking the rhubarb, so it is a win-win scenario.

I like to stomp upon the nettles that grow around the rhubarb at least a couple of times a year - otherwise the nettles take all the light. My stomping negligence in the last few years means that the patch is not as healthy as it once used to be.

Anyhow, Jeannie's rhubarb crumble is the most delicious I have ever tasted. I tried to coax out the culinary secrets: one apparently is using a recent gift of an Indian dessert spice mix in combination with a dark sugar. I did not know that rhubarb chutney is a thing, but here is the photographic evidence that it does exist:

Jeannie's rhubarb chutney

From today's first encounter, I can report that rhubarb chutney is gorgeous. It is quite an unexpected taste, as one is so used to rhubarb in a sweet context, but in the presence of onions, cider, raisins and spices there is a alchemical transformation.

Jeannie pointed out that there are some Marsh Orchids in the formal garden. It is certainly marshy as the drainage failed a long time ago. Indeed, my longstanding and rather feeble positive spin on what is essentially a marsh with a huge crop of nettles, is that at least I have some rare orchids. However, I am not a plant expert and had never looked into what type of orchids they are or if indeed that were actually orchids.

Marsh Orchid #1
Marsh Orchid #2

I took the opportunity today to photograph the flowers, and stomp even more vigorously on the nettles. You can see that the rhubarb patch looks rather decimated after harvesting, but by letting the light in, I am hoping for more cropping and increased patch vigour.

rhubarb patch after harvesting and nettle stomping

Saturday, 20 June 2020

Midsummer Mists and Moths

eerie glow at 10:30 at night

Today is midsummer: my favourite time of the year in Scotland. The long evenings are magical and great for having friends over - sadly not possible at the moment. Instead, I thought I might do a midsummer post. 

Late yesterday evening there was an eerie luminescent glow coming through the castle windows. It was night time and yet there was this strange light. Putting two and two together, I realised this is the result of the cloud coming down at 10:30 PM near the end of a long Scottish summer's day, when there is still a lot of light around. Even later on the light turns blue, which is the famous Scottish "gloamin" where you can walk around almost as if it were day long after midnight.

Summer also brings beautiful butterflies who seem to love the inside of the castle. The photos show a Peacock and a Small Tortoiseshell. Excuse the use of "moth" rather than "butterfly" in the blog entry title, but who could deny me the alliteration? :-)

Peacock butterfly in castle

Small Tortoiseshell butterfly in castle