Tuesday, 11 November 2014

When a House Dies

A period of residence in the south of England ignited an old hobby of looking for fireplaces to replace those stripped out or smashed up at Balintore Castle. As England is more densely populated than Scotland and, er, more affluent there is a far better chance of finding something suitable within a reasonable distance.

Anyhow, the fireplace below appeared one day on eBay. The marble is exquisite, a rich deep red with some white veining, and the carving is glorious - like nothing I have ever seen before. You will need to click on the image to get the full benefit. The pattern of almost fractal spirals is unique in my experience, and certainly caused me to be uncertain about the date of the piece. The carpet in the image is 1980's as is the panelling, so perhaps the piece is reproduction despite the overall feel of the 19th Century? I identified some of the vertical veins as possible repairs, but working within the resolution of the photograph it was impossible to tell.

fireplace bought off eBay

Anyhow, I managed to snipe the item for a joyous £79. The caveat was that I had to remove the fireplace from the wall myself, and to transport it myself. I had no idea how to remove a fireplace, especially without destroying the panelling, but I figured there's always a first time for everything! :-) I had just the weekend to remove the fireplace, as the demolition proper started on the Monday. No pressure there then. I did my Internet research on the property "Coombe Edge" near Ascot. The current owners are an Indian family who made their money in construction and shipping. I noticed in the plans lodged with the Surrey Council, that the replacement dwelling will have wings either side at 45 degrees after the American fashion.

I forget to take my smart phone with me, so there is no record of my own "demolition" work or the other people reclaiming bits-and-bobs around me. It literally was a form of "open house" and I felt somewhat of a vulture. Essentially, everything had to go. The couple, Adam and Julie, in charge of the salvage operation were helpful and well organised. In fact, there was much productive swapping of tools amongst the parties.

I did manage to find some photos of Coombe Edge from a recent sales brochure. It was priced at £6.5 million. The aerial shot comes from Google Maps.

Coombe Edge: entrance with columns

Coombe Edge: stairway

Coombe Edge: library with fireplace and desk

Coombe Edge: indoor pool

Coombe Edge: aerial view

 It was strange to think that in a couple of days the building would be flattened. The demolition machines were waiting impatiently on the drive. Anyhow, I set to work with the fireplace. I hammered a 3" scraper tool into the gap under the mantelshelf. It only went in so far - should I have brought something longer? However, I worked along the edge of the shelf, petrified of breaking something. For the longest time nothing happened. Finally the shelf moved a little, and I was able to lift it off. I proceeded in this way, step by step until the fireplace was transformed into a catalogue of parts. The fireplace surprisingly had been built totally in front of the 1980's panelling: in fact it was only connected to the panelling by two wires. Thank goodness I did not have to get the panelling off. This suggested the fireplace was installed in the 1980's and through dismantling I became aware of definite historic repairs. So the fireplace was reclaim not reproduction. The installation had been top class, even thin lines of china clay jointing has been painted purple to match the fireplace and the repairs themselves were very well executed. I did not do any damage removing the fireplace :-) but one of the historic repairs wobbled, so for safely I spit the piece of marble at this join for safe transportation. I still am mystified by the style of the fireplace, but would call it Victorian heritage Arts and Crafts, and date it to the late 19th Century or early 20th Century. In any case, it fitted well with the Arts and Crafts style of Coombe Edge. The red marble is very similar to the red griotte marble that some of the Balintore fireplaces were made of, so the find was very fortuitous indeed.

Behind the fireplace was a stone firebox, with some sections actually in white marble painted with black high temperature paint. This was fronted by an arch of white marble, against which the arched red marble fireplace proper fitted. Originally, I suspect,  the fireplace would have had a huge curved metal insert. However, something this size would had been difficult to find, so the re-fitters improvised with their own solution in stone. The re-fitters had also created a white marble hearth, which unfortunately was fitted against the fireplace rather than under, so the fireplace lost some height and grandeur in the process. However, I am no fool and picked up the components stones of the hearth and the firebox. My pick-up was groaning! Reconstructing the fireplace will be as simple as putting the pieces back just as I found them in the library of Coombe Down

In fact the carved spirals of the fireplace reminded me of a famous J.R.R.Tolkein illustration.

Tolkein illustration reminiscent of fireplace

Scott and Julie asked if I was interested in anything else at Coombe Edge. I said yes, but that I would remove the fireplace first as I was not sure how long it would take, and only then address other items. At one point while I was removing the fireplace, and another couple were removing a fitted desk next to me, Julie declared she was bored and had nothing to do. I told her that if she wanted to removed the sash window finger pulls I would give her £1 for each of them. We had discussed the sash windows earlier. There had been no time to organise anything, and these were just going to be trashed. As someone who is spending a lot of money on bespoke sash windows for Balintore Castle I was almost in a hospitalisable state at this revelation! :-)

Anyhow, here is Julie's bucket of finger pulls (46 of these) . Scott then got the sash window catches off for me (10 of these). I polished up some representatives and they have come up beautifully. The finger pulls are quality and would suit Balintore. The window catches are an Arts and Crafts "rose" brass: lovely items but perhaps not the right style for Balintore.

bucket of salvaged sash window fittings

salvaged sash fittings before and after polishing

Oh for the missed items at Coombe Edge! Scott and I tried to remove a pair of small but monumentally constructed Victorian radiators that would be perfect for Balintore. I was looking for just such a pair for a couple of window alcoves. However, the nuts had rusted up and we could not turn them for love nor money, with our modest wrench. As I wanted to leave before dark, I suggested it was best just to admit defeat. The beautiful wooden staircase will be firewood by now. Someone tried to lift the beautiful 80's parquet floor in the hallway, but unlike Victorian parquet, this was only around 4mm thick and split on lifting, so this salvage was abandoned. There was no time either to collect any of the window shutters which were Balintore style, but I'm guessing/hoping were not the right sizes. The house had a reprieve with a 1980's makeover, and though this was top class, still the materials were not Victorian quality. When Scott and I removed the MDF radiator covers with a crowbar, the bits of MDF simply split!  Victorian carpentry sections would have stayed intact.

Scott allowed me to run around the building to look for salvage e.g. radiators. This was a huge joy though tinged with sadness. Afterwards I was able to reflect on what I has seen: a house in its death throws. Without the furniture and indeed with the shell of a 1980's makeover, the interior was surprisingly bland. However, I have long since learned that atmosphere is created not just by a building, but by fittings, furniture and most importantly people. :-) Nevertheless, there was no disguising the magnificence of the stairway and the quality of the Arts and Crafts portico at the main entrance. These carved Cotswold stone pillars were marvellously done: Moderne in design, but still with the subtle curves that harked back to Ancient Greece. The Oxford Colleges are constructed from this honey-coloured Cotswold stone.

Getting the fireplace out and finally loading this on to my pick-up with Scott, had been hot and sweaty work lasting many hours. After it was all over, I had the strongest urge to jump into the lovely indoor swimming pool which was still full of water. A sort of "last chance" valedictory dampening. It's funny how demolition changes the rules, I would never normally think of taking such a liberty in a stranger's private house.

There is considerable irony is me trying to save a building in far worse condition than Coombe Edge, yet despite Coombe Edge being in perfect condition, it is the building being demolished. As well as talking, money often wants to build and even a pleasing existing 1899 £6 million structure cannot stand in the way. 

But to put this demolition in perspective, I am better off by a beautiful fireplace. :-)


  1. Glad you got the beautiful fireplace but...just tearing that place down, eh? Wow.

  2. What a waste to knock the house down, I'm still rather shocked that people would do that. Still, I'm glad you managed to salvage the fireplace.

    1. Indeed - glad I was not the only one who was surprised. :-) However, a life in which one is never surprised would be very boring indeed.

  3. Waste on this scale makes me feel a bit sick. I'm glad you rescued the fireplace.

  4. It would seem that buying a house and then paying for it's demolition is cheaper than buying a piece of land ? But I suppose as Phil and Kirsty would say it's all about location ! Still when perfect things are demolished it's a heartbreak but great for the fireplace, it's gorgeous !