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Private View: an apothecary collector brings his alchemical touch to a Victorian townhouse in Leominster

Rare carboys, Georgian medicine bottles and scientific engravings are all part of collector and professor Darrin Baines’ world. Here he reflects on his magical transformation of his home – now on the market

Charlotte Rickards
Kristy Noble
Private View: an apothecary collector brings his alchemical touch to a Victorian townhouse in Leominster

Step inside this house on Etnam Street and you can’t help but feel your curiosity piqued. There are medicine bottles labelled with strange names, such as “Slipper Elm”. Pharmaceutical drawers bear titles including “Skin”, “Mag. Sulph”, and “Tapioca” on glass plaques. There are glass funnels, a pestle-and-mortar shop sign and stacks of indecipherable bookplates from a bygone era. All seem to tell a story – but what exactly that story is, is hard to say.

There is, however, one person who does know. Darrin Baines, a professor of health economics, has gathered this collection over the 12 years he’s called this place home. Since Darrin began writing about pharmacy in academic journals during his time here, he has been amassing antique apothecary objects in order to truly understand the evolution of pharmacy, from the Georgian era to the late Victorian period. Darrin says that this cramming of curiosities into his “immersive” home has honed his studies.

It comes as no surprise then, that Darrin’s love of history and rarities led him to choosing a home of age and distinction. And when he was looking for somewhere to live all those years ago, an early Victorian townhouse in Leominster, the Herefordshire town known for its antique shops, with original encaustic tiling and polychrome stuccowork proved the perfect choice. As he now brings it on the market, we discuss Darrin’s apothecary collection – and how his work on the house on Etnam Street has been something of a group project, thanks to the help of his Leominster neighbours.

“What drew me to this place was the fact it’s a Victorian townhouse built in the Georgian style. It was probably constructed in the 1840s on top of an earlier house and has a typical early 19th-century design of three levels, progressing from the public rooms up to the private ones, which I liked.

“I tried to echo that feeling across the ground floor by recreating the atmosphere of a 19th-century club – somewhere you can look at books and study objects – or that of a museum, like the Ashmolean. It’s taken me 10 years to build up my apothecary collection; I’ve probably got the biggest collection of pharmacy drawers in private hands.

“Writing about the history of pharmacy while living here, I began collecting pharmaceutical objects – from early Georgian pharmacy bottles through to things from the Victorian age – because it gave me an understanding of how the profession evolved. I haven’t got anything here that hasn’t helped me with my work. I collect rare swan-neck carboys, alchemy engravings and bookplates not for decoration, but because I want to learn more. All objects tell a story and each is a witness to the past – and I wanted to immerse myself in that. That said, I didn’t want it to feel exactly like a museum. I felt it should be relaxed, with open fires and club chairs – somewhere you could sit down and have a conversation, or read the newspaper.

“As you go up to the middle floor, the atmosphere becomes more intimate. It’s a space for family and close friends. It’s more relaxed; I’ve got a huge green sofa and a lovely old chair to flop into, as well as a great big bath. I live on the top floor. There’s a separate kitchen up there and it has its own bathroom too. Sometimes it feels like I’m a curator living on top of a museum.

“The building itself is basically intact. I’ve just done repairs; I wasn’t interested in modernising, because I didn’t want to lose the original look and feel of the house. When the floor needed doing, I worked with Jon Bacon, a carpenter who lives locally. Instead of replacing it wholesale, we fixed it where needed, splicing small bits of wood into the existing floorboards. We carried that thinking through the rest of the house.

“Jon is just one of around 20 of my neighbours and Leominster locals who’ve worked with me to transform this house into what it is now. There’s Catherine the upholsterer, Peter the book dealer, Tony Locock the world-class gardener – he’s got a great eye for colour – and many more, including my dear friend the magical toy seller Amanda.

“When you walk out the front door here, you’re right in the centre of Leominster. It’s alive, you know? You can speak to around 20 or 30 people in an hour if you try. You could talk to people all day if you wanted! It reminds me a bit of Woburn Walk, which is currently for sale with Inigo, with its lovely black-and-white bow-front shop front windows. Step out the door and you’re in the middle of the buzz. That would be a lovely place to live; I’ve been down that road so many times.

“My mornings in Leominster usually involve having a coffee before doing a circuit of around 15 of the local antique shops. Then I might get lunch at the Grape Vaults, an independent pub. This town is like England used to be 50 years ago. It’s got a great vibe.

“I want to show the potential of Etnam Street. I haven’t done any major renovations to this house, except to make sure that everything’s fixed – the electrics, the roof. Now it’s ready for somebody else to take over. I would like to hand it on to somebody who wants to put their own stamp on it. Mine will then come off and the house will become a blank canvas for someone who wants something artistic, something different.”

Etnam Street, Leominster, Herefordshire

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