Sunday, 31 December 2017

Kirremuir Talk for the Saltire Society

I was invited to give a talk "The Renovation of Balintore Castle" in Kirriemuir at a Saltire Society meeting on the 26th of October this year. My first instinct, not being a natural public speaker, was to flee! However, as I enjoy going to talks myself and love watching TV programs on other historic building restorations, the hypocrisy of refusal was unsustainable.

publicity poster for my talk in Kirriemuir

To cope with the upcoming alarming prospect, I was able to pretend to myself that I wasn't actually giving a talk. However, this broke-down big-time when I was standing at the front of the audience on the night, and more and more and more people filed in. The turnout was astonishing, and more seats has to be brought in and set-up at the back of the hall. I didn't count the number, but I would estimate there were well over 200 people in the audience. Eeeek! There was even a couple from Crieff, who has supplied me several years before, with reclaimed hardwood flooring.

notice in local paper for my talk
I chatted to a lovely lady in the front row to quell my nerves. I commented on the turn-out. She replied that I might actually be the main attraction, not the talk i.e. "Who is this idiot restoring a castle outside our village?". While not the most confidence-inspiring remark, it was certainly funny enough to break the tension. :-)

I have no idea how the talk went as it is impossible to be objective, but I managed to wrap-up the talk in exactly the planned 40 minutes. I had skipped over some "contingency" slides, as I always produce extra material as I am paranoid about running out of things to say and know that for myself, at least, good preparation is essential. Anyhow, the audience demanded the extra slides and also asked some good questions. The slides are here in a variety of formats.

I was most heartened by the people that came up to me after the talk and gave me their personal memories of the castle when it was still a functioning building. If only I could have jotted down the personal reminiscences then and there - they were like a goldmine to me!

The experience confirmed in spades what I already knew, that you cannot separate a big historic building from its community. These buildings hold community memories, and bind generations together.

I am greatly amused by the fact that the Satire Society, founded in 1936 to promote Scottish culture, has chapters in Aberdeen, Dumfries and Galloway, Glasgow, Helensburgh, the Highlands, Edinburgh, New York City and Kirriemuir. If ever there was a demonstration that the "wee red toon" punches above its weight!


Purple Fungi

As we are in the depths of mid-Winter, it is timely to reflect upon a small outing Andrew and I made in the environs of the castle in the Autumn of this year. The drainage for the walled formal garden of the castle has been broken for as long as I have known the grounds, resulting in the majority of this area being a bog. The only beneficiaries of this situation are the rare orchids that flourish in the damp conditions.

Anyhow, Andrew and I decided to make a reconnaissance of all the drainage ditches in the area to see if we could gain any insight into how to ameliorate the situation without, at great expense, digging underground drainage channels in the garden itself.

As we followed a ditch through a forested area, we came across bright purple fungi, that I had never  ever seen before. This is all the more surprising as I am a student of fungi. The intensity of the purple colour was astonishing! Andrew took the photos as I did not have my phone with me at the time. 

It was one of those sunny autumn days that made one feel it could be Summer. Sadly no such mistake can be made in mid-Winter, so it is pleasant to recall this day!

Does anyone know the species? Is it the, apparently delicious, Amethyst Deceiver?

bright purple fungi near Balintore Castle

cluster of purple fungi

other fungi in the same forest

Wednesday, 27 December 2017

The Quest for the Holy Radiator

One of the ongoing restoration activities for Balintore Castle is "radiator quest". How does one locate, let alone transport, sets of matching antique radiators with which to heat the castle? Factor in "on a budget", and the word impossible comes to mind. 

You can expect to pay £400 upwards for a large working Victorian radiator in good condition. I spoke to the restorer of Gagie Castle, who said "When we started there were 4 radiators in the castle, by the time we had finished there were 70". I can testify as to how a castle swallows up radiators! You don't want to do the finance math.

However, occasionally sets of radiators that are being stripped out appear on eBay before they have got to a dealer, and one just hopes that one is around to spot them. Anyhow, this blog entry shows 7 satisfyingly behemoth radiators arriving at Balintore Castle (1860) from St. John's Minster (1855) in Preston. The date is perfect. 

St. John's Minster radiators on eBay

There has been a church on the Preston site since 1094. The minster status only arrived in 2003, when Preston was made a city, but from its origins the building has always been the parish church for Preston. The Victorian building was the first church to be lit by gas.

St. John's Minster: exterior

The seller said the new radiators that were installed look horrible, but service companies nowadays will not work with anything except a total replacement solution.

St. John's Minster: interior
Transporting the radiators was a nightmare, three companies in turn agreed to move the radiators and then each in turn chickened out. Finally, I got a local firm, Campbell Lemon, who has proven reliable in the past to do the moving. The small crane on the lorry was essential. We moved the two largest radiators into the entrance hall to get them out of the rain - they had never been stored outside. The two of us then attempted to move them by hand: there was no way this was going to happen and we laughed at the futility of our ambition. It would have needed at least 5 strong people for each one. And yes, the entrance hall was blocked for a considerable time afterwards! :-)

moving radiators into castle

The radiator style is Princess, a substantial two column design which is my favourite. I suspect this because the radiators in my Victorian primary school were gold-painted Princess radiators. Sitting on top of these mammoth radiators in the corridors on freezing cold days, is one of those joyous memories from childhood. I had bid on previous lots of Princess radiators but nothing had worked out, so this relativity large batch turning up at an affordable price was an opportunity not to be missed.

the two largest radiators in the entrance hall
The Preston radiators are so large that I suspect I may never find the like again, and I thought about installing them in some of the large principal rooms, which will need heavy duty heating. However, I have to think strategically and put the radiators in rooms which will be commissioned earlier rather than later, and the corridor from the front door to the kitchen wing and the servants' hall are prime candidates for heating. In fact, these two spaces swallow up all 7 radiators quite adequately! I obviously need yet more radiators.

The previous batch of radiators from Albertopolis, two of which are shown here will most likely be used to heat the entrance tower. In that way zones of the castle, at least, will have matching radiators. The odds of finding a castle-sized batch of antique radiators is vanishingly small.

Wednesday, 20 December 2017

Christmas 2017: Serendipitous Art

I was wondering what image to use on this year's Christmas missive given I have no
photos from this winter of Balintore in this snow. There hasn't been a shortage of snow, just I haven't been around at the same time.

Anyhow these thoughts were going round my brain, at the same time as I was driving
back from a nearby auction house (Special Auction Services, just south of Newbury)
having picked up a watercolour, which I had won to my great surprise with a low bid of £20.

Eurika! I should use the watercolour's image as my Christmas card. OK, so the watercolour is an image of spring (primroses and hyacinths) but these are very much a sign that winter is over which we all want i.e. Christmas is compensation but primroses and hyacinths are the real deal.

Spring flowers, hyacinths and primroses
by Albert Durer Lucas 

The narrative journey to this watercolour is a strange one. I had been buying essential furniture for Balintore at auction, but avoided paintings, as I regarded them as a frippery. Eventually, I bought a job lot of Victorian prints for around £20, and as soon as I put them on the wall I could see the transformative effect. A Victorian ambiance needs wall art, and the greater the profusion, the better things work.

I grew up in a household that revered great art, and like my father I realised that it was not worthwhile bothering to buy any as one would be disappointed. It was therefore a revelation and a release to realise, that Balintore did not need great art, just quintessential art of the Victorian era to correctly set the scene.

Since then, I have been on the look-out for inexpensive and suitable items. The 19th Century watercolour had a guide-price of £80-£100, but something told me that the
art was a cut-above so I made a speculative low bid not expecting anything to happen.

After I found out I had won the item I did my internet research to find out the name of the (unattributed) artist by doing image searches based on the subject of the painting. I tracked down my man in less than a minute, There was no mistake, I had a work by Albert Durer Lucas (British, 1828-1918). 

Albert was the son of sculptor Richard Cockle Lucas and exhibited mainly in London between 1859-78 with the Royal Institute and the Society of British Artists.  He painted small, detailed studies of flowers and foliage, sometimes with butterflies and other insects. In 1910 he caused a sensation by revealing that his  father was the real author of a bust of Flora which had recently been bought by the Berlin Museum as a Leonardo.

If the Web is to believed, and it frequently isn't, his watercolours fetch £500-£700 and his oil paintings fetch £1000-£1500 I love Albert's work. These are not the effete nature studies of the parlour, but nature in looming confrontational turmoil. His Hyacinths are like giant tress in "The Lost World" or "Journey to the Centre of the Earth".

other works by Albert Durer Lucas

I am delighted to have had the "eye" in this instance to catch something special on
a budget. I have no plans to become an art dealer, but it makes sense to sell
the picture on to fund the castle, though I shall certainly enjoy it for now.

This year has been one of steady progress at the castle, though working at Lloyd's
of London as a contractor has left little time for me personally to be hands on, which
is frustrating. Gregor, my carpenter, has been pushing things forward and the utility room (shown below) is coming together.

utility room: left-hand side

utility room: right-hand side

This is a small room (the old dairy larder for the castle) but because it will become an auxiliary kitchen as well as a utility room for the kitchen wing, getting this up and running as a practical space is key. The original kitchen can then become a dining/sitting space, while the real work and cooking can go on in the utility room. Of course the original kitchen will still function as a kitchen, but any behind the scenes catering can be done in the utility room. 

The wooden counter top is from an old-fashioned gentleman's outfitters in Banbury
which closed down after 60 years. I picked it up from a retired antiques dealer, who
said it was one of his few remaining large items that he had to dispose of. He
mentioned that the wood was Scotch Pine and that therefore, very pleasingly, the counter was returning home to Scotland.

The doors, which featured in an earlier blog entry come from the Museum of Natural History in Nottingham and date from around 1928. In short, I have been using reclaim wood where practical to give a feel of genuine Victorian service areas i.e. nothing too smart or obviously modern.

Something seems to have gone wrong with the choice of taps! I had some French wall
taps planned for this space, but Gregor seems to have stuck some bottle taps on a
large bit of wood instead. A phone call to investigate, revealed that Gregor hadn't liked the French taps. I have no say in the matter apparently! :-)

The next stage is heating for the kitchen wing. I had ordered a boiler and oil tank, but cancelled the tank the following day. I had phoned up to check the spec, only to find out that the Internet has got it wrong. Anyhow, today when the boiler should have arrived, the tank arrived instead! So things are going very wrong.

However, once the heating is installed working through the winter will be more pleasant and a viable holiday let must be not far behind, though I have been saying this for about 3 years! :-)

The castle is surely a great place to host Christmas and the New Year: I wonder when this will happen? Anyhow, I wish you and your family all the best for 2018 and hope you have a great Christmas.