23 April 2013

My Tuesday Talk Guest: Margaret Skea

I invited Margaret to join my Tuesday Talk spot and she decided to talk about Escaping to the Country - a subject close to my heart seeing as I did just that back in mid-January via the BBC TV house-finder show of the same name!
( see details on my Devon Diary )

So, please welcome Margaret Skea: 

Escape to the Country – then and now…

I have to confess to a mild (my husband would say serious) and long-standing addiction to house programmes on the TV – buying houses, selling houses, renovating houses…even cleaning houses. If a programme has a house as its focus, I’m your man. (Woman actually, but let’s not quibble.)
And with apologies to non-UK readers – a little nostalgia here  – Who remembers the excesses of ‘Changing Rooms’ or the fun of watching wannabee property developers making mistakes on Sarah Beeny’s ‘Property Ladder’?

For the record I once applied to be on Property Ladder, and got as far as being invited to send in photos / details of the renovation project, but to my husband’s great relief a similar project had just been accepted and so I was turned down.  It didn’t dampen my enthusiasm though and my ‘house’ addiction is now fed by watching as many airings of ‘Grand Designs’ as possible (mostly re-runs) and, my latest ‘fix’, all episodes of  ‘Escape to the Country.’

For the latter I blame mine host, Helen, for although I tell myself that they are very educational, and my knowledge of the geography of the south of England is certainly improving, it is Helen’s appearance I’m watching for, oh, and the landscape and the many and varied houses…
(Helen: I've been told that our episode will be the last one of Series 13 - watch my Devon Diary or News Blogfor details!)

Having now watched oodles of episodes  (yes, I admit it, I would be hooked, with or without Helen’s imminent appearance) there is a recurring thread that runs through most of the programmes. – Most folk looking to relocate seem to want a property with ‘period features’. But not too authentic – for, along with the desire for the period feel, is usually an equally strong preference for every modern convenience. And who can blame them? A medieval hall house may sound romantic, but how many of us would want to live with a central fire and no chimney to take away the smoke?
Or an outside earth closet in lieu of a toilet? Not me!  
(Helen: mind you, a cess pit - like what we have - comes a close second!)

Interesting though to see how medieval house-styling is still echoed in new-build England today.  Compare developments of ‘mock-Tudor’ housing with the originals and externally, at least, the derivation is clear.

If you dislike ‘mock’ anything, and you have plenty of money to spend, it is possible to re-create the real thing - there are specialist firms who will supply and erect an oak frame, using very similar techniques to those used in Tudor times.

The current trend for open plan living certainly lends itself to that style of house.

I have to admit here to a closet desire to live in an oak-framed house, a dream I’m unlikely to fulfil, for though these houses, both the original properties and the modern re-creations, are undoubtedly beautiful, they would look entirely out of place where I stay in the Scottish Borders.

Why most people would feel that way is an interesting issue – for modern architecture is much less location specific. Perhaps it is an instinctive appreciation that style of housing is part of our historical landscape, and often in earlier times directly reflected the physical environment; for example, the honey-coloured Cotswold stone, the flint houses of Essex and the thatched cottages of Devon - all of which owe their predominance to the convenience and local availability of the materials concerned, in a way that 21st century building doesn’t.  And therein lies their charm.

Why isn’t the Scottish Borders peppered with half-timbered houses? It can’t be explained by a lack of materials, for Scotland was just as heavily wooded in the 15th and 16th centuries as England, perhaps more so. The answer lies not in the landscape but in lifestyle.

While a Kentish farmer was enjoying the relative comfort of nestling securely in the surrounding farmland, his Scottish social equivalent was keeping fit on the spiral staircase of his gaunt and forbidding tower house, built primarily with defense in mind.
A reflection of the widespread lawlessness of Scottish society at this time. 
So no timber-framed ‘hall-style’ house for me then.

If you think renovation is a modern concept think again. The island of Bute on the west coast of Scotland boasts one of the most amazing restoration projects I have ever seen. Mount Stuart House was transformed from this:

to this:

Well worth a visit, with ‘wow’ factors galore, from the overall magnificence (decadence?) of the interior to the detail of the decorated brass door hinges, individually designed according to the purpose of the room in which they are used!

But now, as then, if you have enough money you can build almost anything, anywhere. 
Apart from the restrictions placed by the planning authorities of course.

Are planning regulations a new thing? Yes and no. Aside from national regulations, we have conservation areas in towns and cities, and national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty in the countryside, all of which place specific restrictions on the extent and style of building allowed within them. Along with mountains of paperwork to be waded through in order to understand the restrictions or to make an application.

It was much simpler in the 16th and 17th centuries, but by no means a free-for-all.   Consider the 1589 ‘Act against the erecting and maintaining cottages’, which stated:
        no person shall within this realm … make, build and erect, or cause to be made, built or erected, any manner of cottage for habitation or dwelling, nor convert or ordain any building or housing made or hereafter to be made or used as a cottage for habitation or dwelling, unless the same person do assign and lay to the same cottage or building four acres of ground at the least, to be accounted according to the statute or ordinance De terris mensurandis being his or her own freehold and inheritance lying near to the said cottage, to be continually occupied and manured therewith so long as the same cottage shall be inhabited’

Hmm – 4 acres…and as for the manuring… 

But regulations are made to be broken, and illegal building of cottages on common ground was rife. It was however possible, but by no means certain, to obtain retrospective permission, usually by payment of a fine. (The equivalent of a modern-day ‘sweetener’ perhaps?)

Poplar Cottage, now re-erected in the Weald and Downland museum, but originally sited in West Sussex, is thought to be one such illegal or ‘wasteland’ cottage, the owner of which must at some stage have received a ‘licence to remain’.

As it happens, I wrote a short story last year called ‘The Price of Poplar Cottage ' speculating on the means used to gain that permission, which will be published in a forthcoming Historical Novel Society anthology.

Is ‘escaping to the country’ a modern concept? Not really – (seriously) wealthy folk in Tudor London also prized their country estates, enabling them to escape from the city when the weather, or disease, or political difficulties dictated.

The TV show ‘Escape to the Country’ is somewhat different. Not featuring temporary escapes to country estates by the privileged, but folk like me (well, ok, maybe a teensy bit better-off than me) making a permanent move; choosing, not just a beautiful part of the country to live in, but often also a different pace and way of life.

May they all enjoy it!

Margaret Skea is an award-winning writer, who’s debut novel, Turn of the Tide, the Historical Fiction Winner in the 2011 Harper Collins People’s Novelist competition, was published in November 2012 by Capercaillie Books. 

It is available in good bookshops in the UK and online

Visit her on her Website
or on FaceBook

Helen: Thank you Margaret - that was really interesting! For anyone who doesn't know, following an unexpected windfall my family decided, unanimously, to escape from London and move with our pets and horses to Devon - looking for a period property with character which had land and stables. (and turned out to also have original oak beams and a 3 foot thick outer wall!)

Being let down once or twice I applied to the TV show pleading" "Please help! We've tried tunnelling our way out of London but or spade has broken!"

We were accepted for the last show being filmed in series thirteen and my daughter and I were whisked off to North Devon. ...

We were shown this: 

 ...and promptly fell in love with it.
We moved in, however, on a day in January when it looked like this...

True escapism.
The view of the Taw Valley from my bedroom window
 one misty morning

Next week: writer Cynthia Haggard will have an article of interest to share


  1. Thanks, Margaret. There's just something universal about houses - they all have similar functions but we rejoice in their differences and idiosyncratic features. And of course a key point is always where the house is situated. I take it you don't fancy a border Pele house then...

    1. Hi Derek,

      Well...in summer perhaps, when small windows let in a reasonable amount of light, but in winter...maybe not. Though some of the locations of suitable ruins in my area that could be renovated are quite spectacular and I could probably do with the exercise on the stairs!

      And thank you, Helen, for inviting me onto your fascinating blog. It's been fun.

  2. What a great post - I love old houses (or perhaps I'm just nosy) and found this really interesting :)

  3. That was really interesting, Margaret. Though I've often dreamt of living in a Scottish castle I think it would be more of a nightmare with those tiny windows, no light, not to mention the heating and sanitation. So will drop plans to do up any of Bothwell's properties Hermitage, Hailes or Crichton.

  4. Thanks for leaving comments Yangsze and Marie - not nosey at all, if people didn't take an interest in old houses I guess a lot of them would have been pulled down!
    Marie - for me it would be the stairs. All those stairs to go up! :-(


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