When I take people round our Grade 1 listed, 800 year, old house I’m sometimes asked when its restoration will finally be complete. This is not an unreasonable question. Although my wife Anna Keay, and I, have been at it for twelve years now there are still some parts that retain the grey and white paint put on the walls when it was a local authority planning office. Just to reassure people I point out that we have not fallen in love with a 1980s municipal paint scheme, we just haven’t got to that bit yet. I also have to explain that the cat flap in one of the eighteenth century bedroom doors was not an insertion lovingly crafted by our joiner, but something we inherited when we moved in more than a decade ago.
Sometimes when a particularly grand or well-informed visitor comes, I find myself yearning to have finished all those bits that look so tatty. But mostly I don’t. This isn’t because we particularly enjoy living in a partly restored house, but because it means we still have something to do. I live with a terrible fear that one day we might accidentally finish the house. The last historically correct brushes of paint, the last curls of re-cut limewood acanthus leaf, the final carefully sourced Georgian box lock and the obliteration of the eccentric cat flap. If this doomsday were to come we would have to move because I can’t really imagine life without the thrill of restoration. The joy of making somewhere that you own beautiful and, in the case of heritage enthusiasts like us, making it ‘right’.
But, you may say, surely you would be richer if you just got it over with? Just stopping the parade of joiners, masons, painters and plumbers would rid you of a huge annual expense. You could go to the Caribbean every year, have three skiing holidays, buy Anna a fur coat. These are good points, but not ones that I can honestly say that we have ever discussed. I sometimes show people the late seventeenth century brass box lock on our dining room door. This beautifully chased and spun device replaced an aluminium flat handle put on in the 70s. It cost at least one of our air fares to Antigua and, unlike the tan from the holiday which would be long gone, I get a thrill every time I turn the handle to go into our dining room.
So our guests on a guided tour are told the truth. We rather hope to be going strong until we are carried out in a box. Restoration of old houses, for us, is about the journey, not the arrival – and I know we are not the only ones.
Tours of Dr. Thurley and Anna’s House, Clifton House, King’s Lynn can be arranged through www.invitationtoview.co.uk
Dr. Simon Thurley advises RedBook on conservation architects and listed buildings