Winter evenings in a new coat

I’m a creature of habit, and I also love the regular things of life when they happen.  I think you know this. That moment of turning the clocks back is as welcome today as the arrival of summer time hours when they come. I love these weeks of autumnal leaves as much as I crave the break of spring.

I love today’s extra hour. I have a friend who says you must never change the clock until the evening, and you can do something special with it. I’m afraid mine got absorbed in quite a hangover. This is becoming a bit of a repeat story isn’t it? I suppose it’s the time of year.  Last night the cause was my friends Lucy & Duncan’s massive (pre-) halloween dinner and celebration (…well, that is what you would do too if you lived in an ancient moated manor house on the edge of Salisbury, with an early Georgian Gothick facade, surrounded by ancient penumbral trees).   I worked on the house with them last year, stitching it back together after the craziest not good 1970s renovation you have ever seen.   It was wonderful to see the place alive and, literally, kicking.  Lucy and Duncan have got more energy than anyone I know, and they are also the youngest clients I suspect I will ever have.  Yes, out of the some 40 or 50 guests, I was officially the oldest person there, which actually reminds me that if you want to feel young you should hang out with people a lot younger than yourself, not the other way round.

My head was protesting this morning.  Before you worry that the blog needs to be sponsored by that excellent organisation Alcoholics Anonymous: have you ever tried shots of absinthe that formed one of the opening courses? (no, you have not). Half way through dinner a vivid green cocktail emerged at all of our places. You see?  toxic.

So I’ve had an enforced quiet day… a bite of lunch with some neighbours up the valley, a couple of friends over for a cup of tea, and in the middle of a ravaging evil head state this morning, I, um, cooked a giant lamb casserole 25 people… for a bunch of all the Poundbury boys & girls – Duchy of Cornwall people, Leon Krier the masterplanner, builders, the site foremen, and a few of architects, all of whom in a rash moment I decided to invite for supper next Thursday night. No time between now and then to do any cooking, and the evidence suggests that chopping up mushrooms is actually not a bad cure for a hangover. 

The following day the Prince is coming to Poundbury to celebrate 20 years since his project began. There’s a giant ‘do’ for all the architects.  Hmm.  That could be interesting seeing as all traditional architects, as we know, are very weird indeed and there are some rivalries out there to put the Montagues and the Capulets in the shade.  What joy.  

Anyway, the reason I thought I’d get everyone over is threefold. One, I didn’t feel like I quite had enough on that week, you know. Two, it’s actually kind of fun when you mix everyone up – the best times ever.  Three – on Thursday (yes, Halloween) it is precisely ten years to the day since a very tearful younger me said goodbye to New York City after five fantastic years and flew home to London. How can a decade rush by so quickly?  

ALRIGHT ALRIGHT you are saying.  What about his purple dining room?  Yes, it’s new paint colour time. Just in time for winter evenings. And can I confess, I’m very happy indeed. My suggestion, if you ever get bored by your place: slap on a new colour. It’s a whole new home (the previous sentence was sponsored by the British Paint Manufacturers Association).

It was a damn good thing I took these photographs yesterday afternoon.  I couldn’t go in there today, honestly, with my sore head. 

Sharp eyed readers will recognise some pictures from London. I shoved them in the back of the car knowing that the purple was going to need some painkillers.  Luckily I’ve just bought a job lot (sight unseen, and I haven’t got them yet) of a massive bunch of Piranesi engravings of all the things like diagrams of foundations of walls and that sort of stuff, the ones that no-one else wants, not a column in sight, really dull I am sure but a perfect wall filler. So that will be a nice framing job and then I can really get going.  And I am debating whether I should hang my Hone Museum above the fireplace?  They look incredible but is it too much? 

The purple is insane… intense. It’s ‘Plum’ from the Patrick Baty/Paper & Paints 1960s range.

It goes pretty mental in the sunshine, and I think lunch guests may need sunglasses from now on.

Somewhere I suspect this room needs some olive green and kelly green, and some burnt orange.

I guess the big question in my life now is what colour I should paint the staircase walls in between that dining room and the orange kitchen. (Actually, that’s not really the big question in my life, but it’s still a question, I guess).

The sitting room is an altogether more restful thing, in its new coat of powdery chalky pink.  Patrick mixed that for me too, a shade right in-between his 1950s pink and Farrow & Ball’s Setting Plaster (which is a beautiful colour but was a bit too grey for me here).  Should I call it Parsonage rose I wonder?   I remember a friend worrying about the yellow sofa when I told him about my plans for a pink sitting room. Luckily, it feels very at home indeed, although it too would look beautiful in a brown corduroy or olive green silk.

Like, how on earth I got a reputation for being a cool young interior decorator (okay, perhaps I’m making that up, especially the young bit) with these pink walls and  this collection of old granny china on my mantlepiece, I’m not quite sure. Perhaps because I’m gay and wear trainers, I don’t know. Nice reflection in the mirror, huh?

Okay the best room of all is my bedroom. Yes, you’re right, not that many people get to see my bedroom.  And here, I’ve got a confessional to make.  A client of mine reminded me the other day that in my book I wrote: “bedrooms should be painted in calm shades of off-white and grey” (WHAT?)… although, to be fair, I did also admit that I was thinking of painting my bedroom in London “a dark colour so that it’s a snug cocoon at night” (it’s a bit weird quoting myself isn’t it).   Well, don’t believe everything you read in my book is all I can say. Check this out. Good bye Farrow and Ball ‘Shaded white’ it was nice knowing you; hello 4-050 from Papers & Paints. (If you’re a very loyal reader you will know this also is the colour of my kitchen walls in London).

I guess I meant it when I said back in February that I was bored of tasteful greys.  They have their place, especially in the attic, but I’m off on a new trip and I’m loving it. 

It’s pouring, I mean pouring, with rain, on Sunday evening, and the wind is, to be honest, picking up, and the radio is filled with warnings of a massive storm on its way and I can’t quite work out if there really is the biggest storm coming since 1987, or if its hype because it’s an unnaturally quiet moment in the news cycle at the moment (remember, we were meant to be having a war with Syria, right now, if those inconvenient Russians hadn’t come up with a rather sensible compromise… and just think how that would be selling the papers right now).  Well, yesterday morning driving home from Bridport I had a weird premonition, really very vivid, that my giant copper beech tree was going to blow over.  Hopefully without me and my new bedroom in the way, but I always go to sleep slightly conscious that I’m in the falling line.  Secretly, don’t tell anyone, I wouldn’t mind awfully if the tree blew over. It’s incredible, and beautiful, but the garden would breathe more easily. Interesting.  Perhaps I’ll sleep in the guest bedroom at the other end of the house tonight just in case…

47 comments on this post

  1. Giulietta Horner says:

    I always love purple! If it was MY room and I did not have an opinionated husband… I would lose all the white including pictures, paint the ceiling, door and skirting in a darker shade made with the purple, say aubergine, and put in some splendid and vast gilt frames with brooding occupants! Wonderful fun to be had planning ….

  2. Ben says:

    Hi Nicki!! That’s great. Nothing like a pink entrance hall :)

  3. Nicki says:

    Hi Ben, thank you for your wonderful blog, which I read every week. I love your pink sitting room and have ignored the less positive comments. I found it so inspiring that over the weekend I have painted the tiny entrance hall to my Georgian cottage in Yarmouth a similar colour. The room faces north to the main land, so ‘Setting Plaster’ from F&B with its slightly greyer tones was the very thing. I love it. It has settled the house very nicely. Thank you for the inspiration.

  4. Luisa says:

    Love the purple. My sofas are the same colour! Mind you, after 7 years I also feel like a change. For the stairs, I’d go for aqua. Or, feeling bolder, turquoise. Like that spot on one of your pillows?

  5. s p says:

    well done BP….out on a limb and enjoying every plum-shaded view. good for you. beautiful.

  6. Lorraine says:

    French Ochre from Rose of Jericho paints for the staircase Walls perhaps. I suspect you would love their paints if you don’t already know them that is, and am guessing that you do, but they have this wonderful chalky quality. Burnt orange horsehair fabric on Dining Room Chairs? Yummy…

  7. P.S. I also enjoy an organic green in the bedroom! Mine is a bit chalkier, but perhaps that has to do with the stained wood (rather than painted). We bought our place with everything stripped and stained. We promised the seller we wouldn’t paint anything he painstakingly stripped, but I imagine we’ll have to get over that at some point.

  8. I love you and want to have your babies. However, this would upset my husband, and Chicago to London/Dorset is a formidable commute. So maybe we can just be friends?? Ok, stairhall in Dorset: a sunny yellow? Striking against the purple but related to the kitchen? J’adore the blog and wasting many work-time minutes immersing myself in the archives. Also, your father is Rock Hudson handsome. That is all. P.S. I love the car…and we have an ’87 Merc 560SL. Not midnight blue (which, frankly, I’d prefer, but desert tan). Still, a looker. We have absolutely no business having it, but…there you go.

  9. scott says:

    Oh Mr Pentreath, wot ave you gorn and done now? 8/10 for the drawing room, ’bout the same for the bedroom..but the purple dining room….gawd! Can you really perform miracles and pull it off? Does it work in the country? What about that blue hundi lamp…the light must be quite odd…your dinner guests will surely look quite unwell under its glow! Please, please lose some candle stick holders and enough with the Piranesis, is that the correct plural? and are they an architects ‘must have’? How about a lovely old pier glass, floor to almost ceiling, and some of those wonderful inter-war artists works that you love, just to mitigate the purple?…and no, no, no, to the seagrass squares and kelim combo…get thee to a rug shop and purchase a large and furniture anchoring carpet…yes I know “SOD ORF”…
    Goodnight to you, Princelet of Decorators….unlike Dianne, no wine for an excuse!

  10. Simon says:

    I think the dinning room is horrific. Especially as your other reception room is pink. Pink and then purple? Really? The pink is great as it looks like it’s always been there…. which is a hard thing to achieve and what I kind of thought you are about….. Ok, the always been there since the 60′s colours can be great too, and your new bedroom colour works well in that way…. Even harder to get right, and beautifully done. But the dining room is pure Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen. Habitaty but not in a good habitat-in-the-60′s kind of way. And the sharp new white of the plaster cast makes it look even worse. Of course 10 out of 10 for going for it, and it’s really none of my business, but I’m only saying this as usually NO ONE tells you when a freshly painted room isn’t very nice. And there’s a difference between wanting or hoping it’s nice and it ACTUALLY being nice. This is a tiny point as I do think you have flawless taste and I’m probably wrong anyway…….. Enjoy the new colour scheme, and thanks for sharing and inspiring…..,

  11. Michael says:

    Looks lovely. As everything does here in Dorset. Enjoying my vacation so much, though it is pretty windy right now at the coast. Don’t want to return to Germany on Saturday.

  12. EC says:

    I love the colours. It’s inspiring to see ever more bold choices. However, I’m concerned about the mahogany chest right in front of the radiator. Antiques – even run of the mill (is it Geo III or a later ‘in the style of’?) pieces – are a finite resource.

  13. Diane Keane says:

    Ben, my apologies, wine makes me voluble!

  14. Patrick Baty says:

    Thank you Ben. You have wrought wonders with our colours. It’s always good to see someone with the knowledge (and guts) to use colour. Colour should add to ones life. It should also make one smile. Well done.

  15. Ben says:

    Diane that is almost a blog of your own!

  16. Vanessa Ryall says:

    The purple reminds me of my my very hip aunt’s home in the early ’70′s…groovy..but the pink is a triumph and the yellow sofa looks beautiful.Hope the copper beech has survived.I love your blog.

  17. love the sitting room. the dining room a bit too “cadbury” Wrapper for me but at least its not clunch
    well done for being brave

  18. Diane Keane says:

    Dear Ben, an exceptionally colorful post!

    Dahlia purple DR—well, I was in favor, but now that I see it—not so sure. Maybe a darker shade, such as appears in the rich shadows of some of the photos? Aubergine? I am glad you are happy, and I know many readers love it. One can only get a momentary impression from the photos, its presence in real time may be something altogether more alluring than appears to me from the pix. Bottom line: chacun a son gout! By all means the Hone above the FP in the DR. It’s already a room so over-the-top, why not go for it! (Keep an urn full of sunglasses handy to pass ‘round the guests…)

    “Pink” living room perfect! So many lovely shades, from a blushed almost-white in the sunlight to rich peach in the lamplight. Love how it works with the rug! Ditto yellow sofa. Did someone say it makes the other colors ‘bland’? I disagree. It makes them harmonize, which can indeed have a ‘bland,’ neutralizing effect to some, but in this case, I think not. (I’m an artist, trust me on color!)

    OMG, anything Piranesi is to die for!! Do you have JW Ely’s “The Mind and Art of GB Piranesi”? I think the best study of his work ever. He was one of the most intriguing personalities of the 18th c.

    Well! As I write, I am sipping my 4th (5th?) glass of Cab, for a very good reason! Tonight I finally finished my sole remaining annual calligraphy job (chucked the rest in favor of painting) which is a honking huge testimonial piece for one of the scholarly societies at University of Pittsburgh to present to this year’s outstanding scholar in their field. I do love academia! Dorothy Sayers’ Gaudy Night and all that. Or is that a bad example? Given the murders? You do read Sayers, don’t you Ben?

    Anyway, I too sometimes find myself beset with hangovers. Sheer stupidity on my part, of course. I don’t’ know about the UK, but in our Puritan-heritage-benighted land over here, you cannot get absinthe made with real wormwood. It’s illegal. I forget what’s in the absinthe they sell now, my daughter could tell you. Well, I suppose one can always grow one’s own wormwood? One of the lovely silver-foliaged artemesias. And brew your own absinthe, the real poison. Perfect for Halloween!

    Ben, are you a Nancy Mitford fan? (if not—heavens, WHY NOT?!?!) Anyway, currently reading “Highland Fling” in which a c 1924 aesthete bemoans the desecration of a medieval/Victorian castle in Scotland, while other weekend guests raise the rafters in praise of the 1970’s wallpapers and so forth. You don’t know who to root for in the end. Very amusing.

    Olive green bedroom, very restful. Wait—where’s the four poster? Where’s the Fornasetti chest??? Did I miss something?

    Staircase. Why not a tromp l‘oeil mural? Dizzying view of himalayan crags or something? They’ll be prepared, coming out of the dining room…

    BTW, the current issue of Time magazine has Prince Charles on the cover, story mentions Poundsbury If I may, I will mail a Xerox copy of it to Pentreath & Hall (almost typed “Bentreath & Hall”!) unless you can get a copy there? It even comments on his habit of wearing patched clothing.

    Good night, dear Ben. Thanks for another astounding, no-holds-barred post! I think you got perhaps more decorating advice (including mine) than you bargained for? Sleep tight!


  19. Jane says:

    Hi Ben, yes do hang the Hone over the fireplace, as well as being a beautiful piece the cool white lifts the intensity of the purple.

  20. Love the purple. Not so sure about the pink, but the thing to remember is that its *your* house!

  21. EBG says:

    It may just be the lighting, but to me the new colour in the sitting room, which I am calling “Washed- out Primark bra pink” seems to make all of the surrounding colours look blah.
    And I would be cautious to introduce another vivid color to your staircase. If your not careful, you lovely parsonage is going to start resembling overly enthusiastic shared student housing.

  22. Emily says:

    The pink is lovely, and I like the green bedroom too. I think green on the stairs too – maybe sage or even the right shade of apple? If it is too bright it might all be a bit psychadelic when you are stuck inside in the depths of winter? I can’t believe I just made a suggestion to you; I used your book heavily for inspiration when we moved recently (though we live in a Services house so sadly it is Magnolia walls all the way!).

  23. Paul says:

    The sitting room looks utterly beautiful even if it has been photographed
    pre-housekeeping, that pale yellow settee and the Turkish cushions are very
    elegant, its a masterpiece in English country decorating.

    your bedroom in green is calm and inviting, a massive success id say!

    But the purple…………oh no its very 90′s makeover, we all have our off
    days….try again !

    what may help for the time being is a huge collection of blue and white

  24. Nia says:

    how about a navy blue calibrated to a lighter tint?

  25. Steve Truncellito says:

    Great post again! Love love love the purple and hope all is well in the UK post storm.

  26. jo says:

    love it. love it all.
    best of luck with the storms.

  27. Paul says:

    You should have no fears that the Hone Museum will be too much for your dining room.
    When Joel Schumacher was directing the film version of “Phantom of the opera” it was suggested that it was all pretty over the top. Quite rightly he replied “No one ever wanted to see UNDER the top”
    Love your blog Ben and your homes are very enviable.

  28. Anne says:

    Yes I agree with Catherine, leave the sofa yellow

  29. Charles says:

    Loving the strong colours. Staircase in Little Greene Tivoli 206 perhaps?

  30. lucy says:

    Love the pink. Have chosen a similar colour for my hall/stairs in London with a massive yellow light.
    Can you offer any suggestions on where you get your lovely rugs from? the Kilims etc. Do you sell any in the the shop?

  31. Pamela says:

    It simply must be green for the stairs!

  32. Catherine says:

    Lovely colors all. Leave the sofa yellow. Soft sage green for the stairs…not too dark…stairs are usually too dark anyway.

  33. Ellen Spencer says:

    I say yes to hanging the Hone Museum piece!

  34. June says:

    Hip or classic … who cares? You are generous with color (and you make me laugh) please don’t change.

  35. Lissy parker says:

    Love the new dining room purple. The green bedroom is so warm and cozy, bit the rose drawing room is my favorite. All of your guest will look beautiful in that color. Great job!
    xo, Lissy

  36. Deborah says:

    For the staircase, electric blue.

  37. Lucy Clayton says:

    LOVE the purple. Sorry about the hangover (not really that sorry) Lx

  38. Linda Geary says:

    Love, love, love the new colours! I’m currently painting my porch and utility area in F&B Arsenic. Now planning a pink sitting room. Suggestion for the stairs – F&B Ball Green.

  39. I’m glad strong colour is making a comeback. Nice to see a scheme that doesn’t look like undercoat.

  40. Amicia de Moubray says:

    What about a strong yelllow for the staircase?

  41. Hilary Lambert says:

    Youre colour schemes & Ravilious mugs show great taste? Especially like the pale pink room.

  42. Beatrice says:

    This strong purple reminds me of how Frank Zappa used purple on his walls back in the 70s.

  43. S@sha says:

    Go color! Its nice to see something different from the all white Scandinavian look on the internet these days.

  44. Nick Heywood says:

    I enjoy all of your posts, but it’s interesting how different the tone is in this one — so sassy! Love it. Stress and after-effects of drink, but it works. And even if you wouldn’t mind the loss of your copper beach, I would. My neighborhood across the sea has several, and whenever it’s hurricane season I pray they’ll make it without falling. My partner and I have spent a few nights in the front bedroom to avoid a possible accident from the sycamore grove behind our house, which would smash us and the back half of the house to smithereens. One more comment/question: I had to look up “penumbral” (which spell-check does not believe is a word) and in ALL OF GOOGLE, there are only 5 uses of the phrasing “penumbral trees” (a few poems, some overwrought lesbianish writing, etc.). I think you mean that they’d lost their leaves, as it refers to something casting a half shadow, but perhaps you mean simply that the trees grow in a surrounding, peripheral location? Great word, thanks for the introduction.

  45. The new colors are all winners. I’ve had a red sitting room and a Delft blue bedroom and a purple bedroom and . . . . no color in your interiors means no life. The pink/yellow combo reminds me of David Hicks. I know that was not your intent but his room with those colors was a room to spend a lifetime enjoying. So don’t go redoing that sofa too soon.

  46. Paulette hostetler says:

    Ben-My husband says to save the tree you must run” a cable to a dead man against the prevailing wind.” “A dead man” is a buried anchor and you and your wonderful blog are NOT! Good luck!

  47. Rachel says:

    What a treat to see picture upon picture of your gorgeous home, and in technicolor. Terribly, terribly inspiring Ben.

    I really like the purple. Prints and perhaps a colorful, framed textile or 2 (?) will help break it up. The living room buff is soft and fabulous. Please don’t reupholster that gorgeous yellow sofa. Though, you know, perhaps you could have a winter slipcover made for it in a darker, cozier fabric (the reverse of when slipcovers are normally employed, but oh well!)

    As to why you are a hip, young decorator: it take guts to embrace the old and classic these days.

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Do you ever have one of those days where you get out of the wrong side of the bed… and nothing goes according to plan? That was this weekend. I had planned to be in Dorset, but painting work was running on (note: I now have a scary purple dining room. Watch this space). So I stayed in London and woke up on Saturday morning a bit too late and a bit too hungover (as a friend of a friend used to say at this point: “no details”). 

My plan was to head out to Dreweatts auction house, near Newbury. A few things I wanted to see before their sale on Wednesday. But just that, and coming back, would have felt like too much of a work trip. So, beginning to recover, I spent a while searching on google to find out interesting things or places. I began to develop a perfect itinerary… Ashdown House, that perfect 17th century box now owned by the National Trust; the Great Coxwell Barn; and finally, a house that I have longed to see for ever, Kelmscott, William Morris’s Oxfordshire house… each just happened to be not so far from the next, and all open on a Saturday afternoon.

What happened? Well by the time I was finally out of the house, camera charged, after breakfast, and some strong coffee, and in the car, and realising that I had no petrol, and that the traffic was dreadful… well, by then, I realised that there was no way on planet earth I was going to get to Dreweatts before they closed. I called just to check, and a polite lady confirmed that they close at 12.30 on the dot. The petrol was the real clincher. Never, ever leave your car with no petrol will be my new rule: who knows when you need to make an emergency road trip to the Cotswolds.

I could have pressed on, of course, but somehow a two hour drive to Kelmscott and back felt just as strange as a going to the auction house and returning. I like trips with multiple agendas. And somehow… once if it was off on the wrong foot… well, you know what I mean. 

So, no beautiful photographs I am afraid. Can’t you imagine what we would have been looking at right now? My friends Maria and Will came to the rescue of my cabin fever, but I spent the better part of the rest of the weekend grappling with one of the trickier articles I’ve written in a while – a long piece on Poundbury for the FT.  Talk about being too close to your subject to write. Then last night went to a fabulous supper given by my friends David & Chris, who’s house I’ve been working on around the corner in Gordon Square. It was great fun, but a Sunday? (reader, there was actually a good reason). Monday mornings can be pretty grim at the best of times (I am never quite sure why, because I like going to work)… but this takes the biscuit.

In the interests of the blog, therefore, I want to declare this week: INTERLUDE.

Do you remember those BBC films of a potter making a pot?  That they stuck on when one programme had ended a bit early and before they were ready to go with the next?  To be honest, I am not sure if I can actually remember them: I think they were already wrapped in irony and inverted commas by the mid 1970s. But for readers wanting a fun way to waste a few minutes, watch this interesting little film which explains the history of the interludes; have a look at the potter’s wheel, London to Brighton in Four Minutes, and my favourite, by far: Roadworks, as re-broadcast on Friday 3rd September 1982. Insane on a number of levels. You will see why.

What would we do without youtube?

Incidentally, I am sorry that I don’t seem to be able to embed the videos directly into the blog. Something is up.  I would bother Colin, but he’s got, how can I say, a bit on his plate at the moment (the new Pentreath & Hall website is launching very soon…).

Finally, at the end of an otherwise bizarre post, let us extend a cordial welcome to all who do not yet know about our fabulous opening night on Wednesday for the Cabinet of Curiosities: L O N D O N, curated by our very own Bride Hall and The Bible of British Taste. I’ve been spying some incredible things happening. Well, maybe it’s still going to be pretty bizarre. Here, for instance, is one of the lettertrays that Bride and I have designed.

That woke you up! See you from 6.30 until 9… and in the meantime, I hope your week gets off to a better start than my weekend.

11 comments on this post

  1. Colin says:

    The NT guides were printed at The Curwen Press for years, if not decades. They were also designed there and that design basically continued unchanged after they went bust. The earlier ones were designed by George Carruthers and then I think there was a new design using Walbaum [which Curwen was the first to import to the UK between the wars and these were designed by James Schurmer

  2. Ben says:

    Thanks Diane!!!! ;)

  3. Diane Keane says:

    Dear Ben, my mouth waters reading this post–Ashdown House, Great Coxwell, Kelmscott!! (I’m a William Morris fan from way back, got to him by way of Aubrey Beardsley, no less.) Not to mention the delicious typography.

    And now for something completely different, here’s something to make YOUR mouth water. Cheers! diane.

  4. Ben says:

    Dear Ralph and Annelies, that is a very good point! Ben

  5. Ralph and Annelies says:

    Two of your Dutch fans were just wondering. We know you live in a different time zone but do you also have more hours in a day than we over here? How did you ever thought you could fit a late breakfast, a trip to the auction house in Newbury and a visit to the those properties in the Cotswolds and drive back to London all in one day? … even with a clear head and petrol? ;-)

  6. Ashdown House looks utterly beautiful, I drove past on the way to a pub for a meeting with a client and on the return journey we stopped and wandered and took lots of photos. If you do make it, there is a nice pub (The Royal Oak in Bishopstone) down the road with lots of organic goodies but make sure there are no coaches booked in that day!!!

  7. Peter says:

    I do hope you get to see the Great Coxwell Barn it’s an absolute delight. Before moving “up North” (to Liverpool) we lived close to it and visited the barn often – happy days.
    Regards Peter

  8. Ben Thomas says:

    Ben you need to be taken in hand, you are always an inspiration but please relax and have some calm I your life.

  9. Rachel says:

    Will the London tray be available online? It would be a perfect Christmas gift for my brother. And I am in the U.S., soooo… (We are popping over the pond in November to visit Sussex relatives, but he will be with us the day we plan to visit London, soooo…….)

  10. pimpmybricks says:

    As someone who is forever hopping on and off the potter’s wheel, I find it delightful that the BBC should have thought to entertain its viewers with a pottery demonstration. I did find the potter’s technique a little eccentric though – he seemed to have been commissioned to go for five minutes rather than to make anything in particular. Maybe they commissioned a whole series of potters to run, variously, for one, two, three etc minutes, depending on how early the previous programme had ended. Either way, give me a pottery demo any day over more commercials. Especially with that sort of musical accompaniment that suggests lambs and frolicking and fields, open topped cars and flying scarves and jolly jaunts.

  11. Samantha says:

    This probably isn’t going to help your Monday mood, but Great Coxwell tithe barn is a gem. I’ve been to a wedding/ceilidh there and it was magical, and my mother had an exhibition in the barn once too – so I hope you make it on another weekend, it’s really worth the trip!

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Scraping the surface

Drama on Rugby Street. On Friday, I got a message from the shop that sink holes were opening up in the street. What?!

I think I’d vaguely been aware that re-surfacing works had been planned. They were due to happen, starting on Friday, for a couple of days.  We were even rather looking forward to having some smart new tarmac about the place.

The road-scraping lorry turned up and scraped off the top of the road, ready for the asphalt lorry to come and deliver a massive load of new tarmac to put over the top. 

But as it was delivering, something went wrong. The road gave way, and the lorry sank into the ground, somewhere between Maggie’s shop and our other neighbours Thornback & Peel.

The driver quickly took action and pulled out of the collapsing highway.  He re-parked the truck outside Cigala, London’s best tapas restaurant, thanking his lucky stars… and then the road really gave way. The back of the lorry disappeared into the road.

The fact is, it seems there’s a series of massive cavities under the whole street. Or should that be the hole street?

Here’s a photo Maggie sent me earlier. These are the guys outside her place.  I will try and post a photo of the Cigala hole soon.

Okay, okay, it’s not Guatemala City…

… but can I confess, I’m obsessed about sinkholes.  There’s something so… I don’t know…. elemental about what is going on here. I can spend hours surfing you tube for films of chinese ladies disappearing down sinkholes.  This is one of my favourites. 

Back to Rugby Street. I got back from Suffolk this afternoon and this is what I found.

The bit under the plastic sheet is where the lorry went under.

I should say the parking is suspended.

Okay, I admit, it’s not quite Guatemala City out there. But I’m still very excited by collapsing roads.

As I looked, I began to reflect a little on the nature of time and the city.

…thinking about what is just beneath the surface. 

What are we all walking on?

I should say so.

Directly across the road from us are these beautiful early Georgian houses, built in about 1710. What have these walls witnessed in 300 years?

On Wednesday, we have the opening, in our shop, of our neighbour Bobby Williams’s fantastic photographic exhibition telling the history of 18 Rugby Street, once the home of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath. Please come and visit.  All are welcome.  You see what I mean about scraping the surface.

Here’s the poster (photographed in Maggie’s shop – our shutters are up on a Sunday. Sorry you can see my reflection!).

I turned the corner in to Great Ormond Street.

Home of the world famous Great Ormond Street Hospital for Sick Children. The building above is part of the 1950s extension. In the office, I’ve got a rather wonderful book, at the end of which is some photographs of what used to stand on this site.

44 Great Ormond Street survived the war, and was demolished in the 50s to make way for the hospital expansion.  But the staircase isn’t entirely forgotten. I have recently incorporated some of these specific architectural details, which had been carefully measured in the book, into a new house I am building in the Chilterns.  Its memory lives on.

If you have a look at the Roque Map hanging on the wall of my flat, you can see the houses on the north side of Great Ormond Street…

…. with their beautiful, deep gardens, that to the north gave way to open fields and countryside. For 100 years, as London spread west, this remained the edge of the metropolis, which is a fact that – living on Lambs Conduit Street and now Queen Square, as I have done, for 10 years – I find remarkable.

Just to the west of those aristocratic, grand houses, is Powis House, built in the 1690s for the 2nd Marquess of Powis. It became the French Embassy. On 26 January 1713 it burned to the ground (blamed, we are told, by Jonathan Swift, on ‘the carelessness of the rascally French servants’). Rebuilt the next year, here is an engraving of the facade, from a brilliant little book I’ve got published by the Camden History Society:

Incredible. And now?

I love the shadow of the old street sign. This is the site of Powis House.

There is something magical for me, despite everything, in looking back at the old early Georgian houses that still line the southern side of Great Ormond Street. 

I love London. I love what’s survived, I cherish what’s gone, and I’m interested why. And I’m fascinated by what’s replaced it.  It’s an amazing, unpredictable game when you start scraping the surface.

And as for the sink holes? I suspect we’ll be enduring road construction for some little time to come. I will ask Bridie to institute a special sale with immediate effect: 20% off all kitchen sink accessories (until the works are complete). Please come and visit us all soon.  I rather have the feeling that for the next few weeks: Rugby Street needs you!

19 comments on this post

  1. OMG…upper sashes that actually function; what a concept! It’s taken us several years, but I’m happy to say we have them. I almost never open the lower sashes.

  2. lillian sharp says:

    I hope you and your family survived the storm. Are you all okay?
    Of course i love your colors.. especially living room, then dr and I’m not a fan of olive but thats okay.

  3. Deby (in Canada) says:

    Dear Ben
    You never cease to surprise and delight. In this story I am amazed how calm you are while road in front of the shop sinks away to a strange place… is Bridie just as calm?
    So excited I fly to London on Thursday…

  4. Sink holes in Rugby St? It could be turning into a re-make of ‘Quatermass and the Pit’….

  5. Amicia de Moubray says:

    I can highly recommend Ashenden (see above) it is an imaginative book and would delight anyone interested in architecture.

  6. Judith says:

    Dr Mead was also the first physician of the Foundling Hospital, and there is a portrait of him in their collection. Also on the site of the Great Ormond Street Hospital extension was the convent and hospital of St John and St Elizabeth which is now in St John’s Wood. The convent chapel was demolished and re-built as part of the current hospital. A very beautiful doorcase from one of the demolished houses in Great Ormond Street is now in Great James Street. No. 44 Great Ormond Street was, I seem to recall, the house of Lord Eldon who was Lord Chancellor of England. It was later used at the first Working Mens’ College. But I suspect that the holes in Rugby Street open onto vaults – I was told by a civil engineer friend who lived in Lamb’s Conduit Street that there were vaults under the roadway there which prevented the installation of cable.

  7. Andrew says:

    I heard on Radio 4 a while back that Lewis Carroll, whose father was a vicar, was brought up in various parishes that in the nineteenth century were the location of a number of sinkholes. It’s thought that these could have been the starting point for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Perhaps the same will be true of you on Rugby Street Ben?

  8. Tokyo Jinja says:

    So I checked in today because I am sitting in Rome at our small hotel around the corner from the Pantheon, which made me think of you. No sinkholes here, but lots of bumpy cobbles and new excavations as well as juxtapositioning of ancient, old and new. I hope the work goes quickly and Rugby Street isn’t disrupted for too long.

  9. sarah tribe says:

    We have an online story about drain covers.
    Lots to tell about social history of the day – road archaeology – local foundries making covers piecemeal and suchlike before Highways Agency ‘custard’.
    Filed under ‘quirky things’ – where else – a 15C word to describe the somewhat unusual and alternative, now sadly much overused.

  10. Beatrice says:

    What is just beneath the surface? The Borrowers!

  11. Scott says:

    Dear Ben, since everyone is recommending books to you, here is another, The Treasury of London’s Past, by Francis Sheppard. It’s about the founding of the Museum of London. I’ve owned a copy for about 20 yrs..since uni, God, that seems like a long time ago! It contains some really interesting old pictures of 19th century excavations in London and of some of the amazing finds that were made. Hope you can locate a copy, or I’d send you mine… unlooked at for ages, except for your sinkholes reminding me of it. A late friend of mine had an ancient glazed earthenware watering pot that was dug up when some drains were laid in the late 19th century, somewhere in London… wish I owned it! It’s in Tasmania with one of her kids. Isn’t it funny to think of the secret histories of all these fascinating things? It never ceases to amaze me how these objects travel about the globe..we have a lovely blue Roman glass vase that I bought in a junk shop here in Tassie for a few dollars, and I often wonder how it has survived since before the birth of Christ, and made its way here unscathed to the antipodes…wild! Cheers, Scott.

  12. Paul Fenton says:

    We had a similar experience at Notting Hill Gate earlier this year, near where we live. From our perspective it was great as it cut traffic dramatically. It started with 1 JCB and 2 workmen fixing a leak on the corner and culminated with all 4 carriageways being closed for about 3 months, installation of portacabins and 4-6 digging machines. Lots of looking in holes and examining of plans by men in suits with serious expressions on their faces. Our children (3 and 6) found it all fascinating. I’m sure Thames Water, weren’t quite as excited/pleased.

    Hopefully it doesn’t take as long in this case and you possibly don’t have tube lines underneath as well.

  13. liz wilhide says:

    Ben, I look forward to your blog every week and always find a point of connection in your posts. This one really chimed with me. Since you already have had a few recommendations on what to read, may I add another? It’s my own book (*blushes*), a novel called ‘Ashenden’, whose theme is precisely what you are describing here — how history can be read in the story of a house. My inspiration was the real-life Basildon Park and how its changing fortunes since the eighteenth century have echoed the history of this country. It was published last year by Penguin. As authors we are expected to be active in self-promotion, which I find hard to do, but I do think you would like it!

  14. Barbara says:

    Hi Ben, I took the opportunity to visit your shop for the first time on Friday and as I turned the corner into Rugby Street found a huddle if workmen and Maggie (although at this point I didn’t know it was Maggie!) all peering down a hole in the road that had evidently just appeared! I then some enjoyable time in Maggie’s and your shop. So it was funny to see your post this morning and The photo/photos that Maggie had said she had taken. What a delightful street and area. I found a great cafe in Lambs Conduit Street too and will surely be back soon – it’s lovely to discover another part of my city as I live not too far away – in the East at Limehouse. Thanks for another interesting post. It’s a nice way to start the week. With very best wishes.

  15. jane says:

    come for the sinkholes; stay for the history. i’m learning about london, bit by bit, thanks to your posts.

  16. EllenB says:

    Now would appear to be a good time for you to read Peter Ackroyd’s London Under: The Secret History Beneath the Streets. With all that’s down there it’s surprising more London streets don’t collapse. Seriously, the book is fascinating and fairly recently published so should be readily available.

    By the way, I can’t decide which I prefer, the London posts or the country posts, and of course there is always Italy. I guess I will just have to be certain to read them all. Thank you, Ben, for this amazing blog.

  17. Claire Howard says:

    We live in old properties and often knowing nothing of the secrets they hold, I was very fortunate to come across a book written by a former owner of our family home.The book described the house and the owners time as master of foxhounds with hounds living at the end of the garden in specially constructed kennels.The dust cover showed a picture of master and hounds painted in situ by Lionel Edwards,one of the most respected artist of horse and hounds.I feel very lucky to have come across this book by total chance.We no longer own the property.but the book I will always treasure.

  18. Craig says:

    Thanks for a fascinating posting (with enough material for two or three postings, maybe more!). Notwithstanding the drama of the sink holes (which are just stunning), I’m especially interested in the eighteenth-century history of Great Ormond Street since Dr. Richard Mead lived there in the 1730s and 40s (at #49, I believe — it became part of the hospital in the nineteenth century). Mead was one of the period’s most important collectors, along with being physician to George II and friends with Newton. Please include photos (if you can) of the new staircase for the project at the Chilterns.

  19. Given your fascination with architecture and history, if you haven’t already read it you might enjoy “How Buildings Learn” by Stewart Brand (of the Whole Earth Catalog). The old Great Ormond building is wonderful but what is really breathtaking is the ironwork around the exterior. And your book showing the old building is perfect: B&W and beautiful type. As yummy as what it depicts. I am still marveling at where your post ended based on how it began. Another great BP production. How I look forward to the beginning of the week and your post.

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