LOVE AMONG THE RUINS
Guy Kennaway delights
in finding a good ruin before it can be saved
THE striking thing about old houses is how new they look. It is a result of the mania for restoration that has been sweeping Britain. I know a couple who spent their honeymoon up a ladder picking old paint out of a cornice with cotton-buds. It's getting difficult to find any houses that really look their age. Twenty years ago the country was littered with marvellous old broken-down buildings. People in Wilt- shire used to live in them perfectly happily. Now you can hardly find a derelict railway station, let alone a barn, and that delicious feeling of chancing upon an abandoned house in a ruined wood is a thing of the past, unless you go to France. It is the fault of the renovators; they are destroying our heritage.
Fortunately, Marcus Dean has just pub- lished a Good Ruin Guide, called Scot- land's Endangered Houses. I believe his intention was to draw them to the attention of the renovators, but there is still time before they 'save' these houses, to experi- ence the delights of buildings that are old, and for once really look it.
I can particularly recommend a couple of houses in appalling condition on the Isle of Skye. The first is an ivy-clogged shell sinking into waterlogged earth in a derelict wood on the banks of a loch. Hebridean storms have blown in the casements and blown off the roof but, incredibly, there is a well-worn path from a side-door to a stream, where an occupant has been get- ting water. If you stand as I did, imagining the story of the house, absorbing the waves of melancholy in the howling wind, a woman with an educated voice and a desperate pair of shoes will emerge from a hovel beside the house and tell you to go away. But she happily lingered for a quarter of an hour to chronicle the unim- peded decline of her family. The council had tried to rehouse both her and her aged mother, tackling the two of them in the Caledonian Bar, Portree, but the offer had been refused. To pay taxes and debts, everything saleable had been sold, includ- ing land on which cement bungalows now stalked the house from behind, but the women were not going to move out. What made them cling so desperately to this disagreeable life? It is impossible to under- stand unless you have looked out at the loch, with the Atlantic to your right, the magical hills to your left, and heard wild- eyed plans for the future, that resonated with tales of childhood summers in the main house with her cavalry officer father. Then it is easy to see. And although the place is now decrepit and depressing, it evokes truer feelings and deeper longings than any of the sanitised museums of the renovators.
The 18th-century house on the other side of the loch has a roof and window case- ments, but was abandoned over a decade ago. Yet when I cupped my eyes at the cloudy window panes, I saw that despite the shovelfuls of fallen plaster the place was still fully furnished, down to rotting rugs, mildewed curtains and punctured cushions. I could almost smell the mould on clothes in the cupboards upstairs. On the back of a sunken sofa a James Last LP had been balancing all these years, left there absent-mindedly on the last day. How had things come to this? Why hadn't the furniture been put into storage? Out- side, brambles climbed in the pantry gauze, sheep nosed by the leaning sundial, and the garden played grandmother's foot- steps across the lawn with the house. The place evoked all the pains of a family in terminal decline: procrastination, disagree-, ment and resentment among the older generation, that has more pressing prob- lems and wants the cash from a sale. An avenue of ancient hardwoods leads down to an immense stone boat-house on the seashore. Its windswept, empty interior must have echoed with laughter when the boat was launched in rainy summers past to cruise the Western Isles. Now it stands as a temple to lost causes, with swollen wood- work, bearded gutters and ivy in the harling, a tragic object in the wild land- scape, a reminder of the way dynasties decline and riches evanesce.
It is a reminder that you do not get from a newly 'saved' country house. These places have been brought to an evolution- ary fullstop by revisionist decorators. And for some reason no one seems to be complaining. What would happen if the iron age settlements on the Orkneys were `saved' for habitation? Or the Rollright Stones re-pointed? Spencer House, in St James's Park, recently renovated at im- mense cost by Jacob Rothschild, is a case in point. There's a painted lily if ever I saw one. Each room has been restored to its golden moment, creating a whole that would never even have existed in the past. It is the aesthetic equivalent of a compila- tion album of Mozart's arias, with a bit of Wagner thrown in for good measure. There is simply no sense of time having passed in its sparkling interiors. If Spencer House could talk it would probably say how embarrassed it was, being, as it is, like a dowager duchess forced into gaudy national dress.
What makes the situation particularly alarming is that the buildings erected today tend to be made of concrete. Concrete may make lousy homes, but it makes even worse ruins. It doesn't even crumble. It holds no secrets. Its stained partitions simply shed their rusting windows and stand like empty boxes before falling over to catch your foot on their sharp edges.
Architectural purists can rebuild to de- signs from archives, and even go so far as to distress furniture and finishes, but they can never reproduce aging. It is the one effect that will always be beyond them. Ensuring that some buildings are allowed to decay in peace is one cause that every- one has a duty to rally to. The good news is that all we have to do about the situation is absolutely nothing.