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

Arboreal Smorgasbord

still room in progress

It is useful to show work in progress as the pain and effort to get to the finished product can be appreciated much better.

Currently, we are trying to finish off the still room in the basement. The major job has been to construct a unit round a reclaimed pair of butler's sinks which we have placed in the window alcove directly above the existing drain.

To the right of the unit is a set of drawers whose construction was described in an earlier blog entry. The depth of the drawers sets a minimum value for the depth of the worktop above, but to get close to the sinks in the middle we have had to stagger the worktop using two 45 degree angles.

We worked out that we could get 4 cabinet doors in the unit. Two below the sink and two on the 45 degree angles. It was all going to work out rather nicely, However, I am not quite sure what happened but Gregor started running out of room by the time he had accounted for spaces for the hinges. To ameliorate the situation we moved hinges around, so we were using ones where the ends has snapped off. :-) Even then there was not enough room and Gregor said he would have to cut the 45 degree doors down. My heart sank, but the cabinet design had been committed to, so there was no other option. I hate chopping up historic woodwork, and now the doors would not be the same size. :-( However, because the doors have small central Gothic arches, which are still intact, the design in my view hasn't in the end really been compromised and I am pleased with the result. :-)

I should add that the design of the unit was never put on paper, which would have avoided these build time compromises. The unit was just built in an organic manner on site step-by-step. We simply held the next element in place to see how it would look, and there is a joy in this bespoke improvisation.

The work top on the left is iroko from an old school science lab. Gregor filled in the hole for the laboratory sink with a square of mahogany. The unit's work top is mahogany and the window cill is recycled from a large piece of pine which was painted as a sign. Gregor burned off the paint and then sanded the pine - you would never know - it is a fantastic piece of wood.  The iroko, mahogany and pine all came from an antiques restorer in Manchester who was retiring.

Other wood used in the unit are modern plywood and modern pine and of course the pitch-pine of the Gothic doors, which are the former box pew doors of a church near Bath. In total, there are 6 different types of wood in this arboreal smorgasbord.

I will be trying to stain all the different woods so that they somehow blend together. I don't even know if this is possible, but the castle restoration is a voyage of discovery if nothing else.

I was asked by Greg why a Belfast sink is so-called. It turns out that a Belfast sink is a type of butler's sink that was designed in Belfast. In the Victorian era, water was in short supply, so a butler's sink was wide and shallow with no overflow. However, there was no shortage of water in Belfast, so these sinks were deeper and possessed an overflow.

Interestingly, the two reclaimed sinks are different - one has an overflow and one doesn't. So, with my new found knowledge, I am tempted to call one a butler and one a Belfast. However, life is messy, as the sinks are more or less the same size and are the same depth, so perhaps I will avoid the sink categorisation so I can sleep at night.

At this time of the year, the light is streaming into the still room and for some reason all the flies from the mainly un-restored basement are attracted to this window. To spare the delicate sensibilities of my readers, I hoovered up around 200 flies, before taking the above photo.

Friday, 5 June 2020

French Fossils

What do French fossils have to do with restoring a castle in Scotland? Well let me explain ...

I have been on the hunt for reclaimed antique sets of drawers for a number of years. The intention is that these can be built into bespoke cabinetry at the castle, saving the expense of the fiddly bits as well as achieving a period look. Drawers need to made to high tolerances. Otherwise they stick or drop down when opened.

During those years, I have only ever won a single set of drawers at auction, but thankfully it was a good large set (22 drawers) and when they arrived, they turned out to be quality items with neat dove-tailing; a mahogany front; and an oak carcass.

As we are currently building units in the house-keeper's room and the scullery, the drawers could finally be taken out of storage - hurrah! Enough of the knobs were missing, that it was going to be impossible to have the knobs coordinate between these adjacent rooms. You will probably be aware that I am allergic to removing original knobs. However, if I managed to get a large enough joblot of knobs, I could replace all the drawer knobs and install these knobs on the wall cabinets as well, and so be totally coordinated. Even though the reclaimed wall cabinet doors and these reclaimed drawers are from different sources, putting the same knob on both might fool the eye into believing otherwise. OK, so I am betraying a principle, but for the greater good. :-)

I was just going to install modern brass knobs or modern brass pulls of a simple classic design, but spotted a job lot of more elaborate reclaimed repro knobs on eBay. After lengthy negotiations with the seller, these were mine. Again, I have betrayed a principle by going for repro but the bigger picture is that the quality was still there. These were apparently from a Chelsea appartment via a designer on the Kings Road.

The other principle I have betrayed is the "form and function" one, the knobs have 6 "faux screws" on the backing plate. Yet another design principle betrayed is that these are artificially aged, whereas I prefer the natural patina of brass built-up over time, but hey, I thought the gothic back-to-back fleur-de-lis design was very Balintore.  :-)

Anyhow, replacing the knobs on cabinet 1 (for the housekeeper's room) and cabinet 2 (for the scullery) has, I think, improved the overall look. If I look at the knobs close-up, I can see "repro" so everybody, just please socially distance yourself from my knobs. :-)

Gregor did an excellent job building the 2 plywood cabinets, and constructed each around its own set of drawers to ensure a perfect fit.

I removed the label holders and the old knobs; cleaned the drawer fronts with white spirit to get rid of encrusted varnish, encrusted glue and old paint; then cleaned the drawer fronts with detergent; then varnished; then attached the new knobs and old label holder again. So the whole process was quite labour intensive.

While I was close-up to the drawers, I could infer they they has already had a couple of lives before me. There had been a different label holder on all the drawers before the brass one, in fact one drawer still had the original wooden label holder. The drawer fronts has been varnished with the brass label holders on, which is a clear sign that this was not the original coat of varnish, and that my make-over is not the first.

One paper label reads "Colline de la Goupillerie, Day 6" and before removing this, I felt I should photograph and try to work out the provenance. The mixture of French and English is perplexing. It turns out that Colline de la Goupillerie is a geological site near Le Mans, with many interesting fossils from the Carboniferous period.

The conclusion is that the drawers held fossils, and "Day 6" would be day 6 of the sale at which they were auctioned off. The drawers are graduated in size, with differences in height of 5mm. Given the drawers are old and metrication only reached the UK in 1970, I conclude that the drawers are French and the collection was held for at least some time in France. At some stage in the history of the drawers, they were moved to the UK. The photographs of this label and the others are in high definition below, so any extra detective work you can do would be much appreciated. Sherlock Holmes, where are you?

cabinet 1 before make-over
cabinet 1 after make-over

cabinet 2 before make-over
cabinet 2 after make-over

Wednesday, 3 June 2020

Butler's Pantry

panorama of butler's pantry's underfloor

The butler's pantry in the basement has been one of the neglected rooms in the castle. Absolutely nothing has been done to it. However, this week Liam and Greg started to clear out the rubble, and are currently slipping damp proof membranes under the surviving wooden floor plates as you can see in the above panorama.

With the room cleared out, I thought it was a good opportunity to record the "archaeology" photographically in this blog entry before the floor gets rebuilt. You can see a wooden channel on the right which probably brought water from the adjoining tower to the butler's sink.  There are a couple of holes under the door which look like they also carried plumbing or drainage, as you can see in the photo below.

two holes under the door of the pantry
Ironically, the butler's pantry is one of the more intact rooms in the castle with a lot of plaster on the walls and an almost totally intact window including glass. This is no doubt because it was boarded-up from the outside a long time ago. I plan to record the progress of this room in the blog - watch this space!

Monday, 1 June 2020

Diluting the Drugs

Yesterday, I ran out of stain for the new wooden floor in the housekeeper's room. This comes in a crystal/powder form called variously "Van Dyke Crystals" or "Walnut Powder". There is nothing I know that looks more like an illegal substance, especially given the Dutch Name. :-)

This morning, I discovered a few more crystals in the bottom of the bag: could I finish the room? It was going very well: I covered quite an area, but as I was backing out the door my stain supply in an old coffee jar got lower and lower. I diluted it once (i.e. cut the drugs), diluted it again, but finally the liquid ran out just before I got to the door.

You can see the result in the photo below. There is an area of medium stain, below this an area of light stain and below this an area of no stain:

effect of diluting stain before supplies ran out

At least you can see how you can control the tone of the stain by dilution, or indeed by using multiple passes. Now, with experience of mixing the crystals in water, and knowing that the brushwork is critical, I try to do the staining in a single pass for efficiency.

How frustrating to have the stain run out just at the last minute! It blocks progress in the room i.e. varnishing the floor and then installing units. However, as I was writing this blog entry, the new stain arrived by post. See the 1Kg bag below:

new bag of Van Dyke crystals - hurrah!

Open to the Sky

One benefit of the current glorious spell of cloudless and warm weather is that we can undertake roof replacement work. Gregor had previously cut beams to the right lengths for a section of flat roof above the entrance tower. Everything was ready for action. Today's continuing good weather gave Liam and Gregor the green light.

Sadly the roof we are replacing was the first area that was fixed at the castle. However, there was a section of roof in the first repair that sloped the wrong way and instead of draining, forever held a puddle. Over time, this started leaking and the old beams underneath became even more rotten.

As we are now smartening up the entrance tower, the leak had to be sorted once and for all. With the roof removed, the sun is currently streaming into the top of the tower. This is so lovely, and there is part of me that doesn't want the space covered over. :-)

corridor open to the sky - looking south - new replacement beams visible

corridor open to the sky - looking north - original rotten beams visible

With a sound roof, we can finally work on the section of corridor underneath. Further progress will be reported on this blog.

If the Knob Fits

I was donated this rather handsome dresser by a friend of Balintore who was downsizing in Dundee. Even though it is 1920's rather than 1860's, I liked it immediately: huge, solid oak, Arts-and-Crafts inspired and Scottish in character. 

Balintore dresser with missing knob

I lightly stained it to bring the warmth back as it had gone somewhat yellow in storage. However, the right hand knob on the bottom drawer was missing, and try and I might over the last 6 years or so I have been unable to find a tear drop knob that was anywhere near a suitable replacement. When knobs drop off, why do people not reattach them immediately? Antique furniture often suffers from mismatching partial replacement knob(s) or inappropriate total replacement knobs.

Anyhow, I have recently bought 65 good quality second-hand reproduction knobs, that would allow me to do a convincing total replacement. You know you are on a budget, when even your repro is second hand. :-) "I'll have one last look on eBay" I thought. After several mis-matching tear drop handles, I finally came across this:

knob on eBay

Surely this was not the same knob? The dimensions were identical, and I held my laptop in front of the buffet for visual comparison. The style was similar, but the bright polished finish was rather confusing. Anyhow, for £12 it was worth a punt.

The knob arrived this morning and I installed it, see below. It is the very same knob. What are the odds against finding this 100 years after manufacture? I would have been happy with something of the approximate size and approximate shape.

eBay knob is perfect match - astonishing!

I could polish the other knobs, or dull down the "new" knob with wood-stain in varnish, but for now I am happy with the disparity as it makes the triumph clear.