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A Private View: interiors writer Ros Byam Shaw’s very own ‘Perfect English’ house

The journalist and author of the ‘Perfect English’ book series has spent two decades coaxing her home in Devon into the picture of rural comfort, filling it with second-hand treasures to a degree of sumptuousness belying its size. With it now on the market, she tells us of the stories, souvenirs and superstitions she’s come across here

Ros Byam Shaw
Paul Whitbread
A Private View: interiors writer Ros Byam Shaw’s very own ‘Perfect English’ house

I have lived in this house for more than a third of my life. When we viewed it on a whim, 20 years ago on the last day of a holiday in Devon, it lured us out of London and has kept us here ever since. For a house as old as this, 20 years is negligible. Built between the mid-16th and early 17th centuries, its stone walls, which are nearly a metre thick in the oldest part of the house, have sheltered generations, seen births and deaths, love and conflict, misery and joy. Now it is time to move on.

Surrounded by garden, in the middle of a small town near the sea, the house sits on land that slopes gently, such that inside there are a total of seven steps down from the front of the house to the back – one from the entrance hall to the inner hall, one from the inner hall to the kitchen, three from the kitchen to the cross passage, and a last step from the cross passage into the back hall, larder and pantry.

The weight of the walls anchors the house, making it feel immoveable and solid. There are no cellars or foundations. The flagged floors sit directly on earth and are made from stones that can be as deep as they are wide. In the 1930s, the flags were lifted so that the lead pipes under the kitchen floor could be replaced after an outbreak of diphtheria, and the skeleton of a horse was found buried there, perhaps as a propitiatory offering when the house was first built. It is still there, a relic from a more superstitious age.

Every subsequent generation has left its mark, even if only as a little more wear on the scoop of a stone step. There are initials and dates scratched into the stone of a door surround, and the name Mary carefully inscribed on an outside wall. Mending upstairs floorboards, we found things that had been lost down the gaps – the leg of a small china doll, a metal button, a playing card. Engraved in tiny copperplate script on the fragile glass of the oldest surviving leaded window is the mournful observation, “youth as well as age to the grave must go, 1799.”

We changed the house, mostly by unpicking recent additions, whether a bathroom clumsily inserted on an upstairs landing, partition walls or a rogue plastic window. There was damp, so we chipped away the concrete mortar and replaced it with porous lime. The original broad, shallow fireplaces, designed for burning logs and branches, had been bricked in to create smaller apertures more suitable for coal. Opening them up was like clearing airways, allowing the house to breathe freely again.

Some of what we did was additional. We put oak doors on either end of the cross passage to enclose it, so that we could use it as a coat and boot room, and oak-framed windows in the lean-to potting shed, which is now my summer office. Where possible we mended rather than replaced, scarfing new wood into the damaged lips of the battered back stairs. And we kept and reused everything, from the early 20th-century washbasins and cast-iron bath to door handles, window latches and hooks on the backs of doors.

The stürm und drang of builders is a distant memory. For a long time now we haven’t changed as much as a paint colour or a pair of curtains. The bigger bits of furniture – the kitchen table we have sat around with highchairs, homework and, more recently, sons-in-law and grandchildren; the grandfather clock that ticks and chimes in the hall; the grand piano that deserves a better pianist – all feel like fixtures. But around them there is an ebb and flow of smaller pieces. Brought up with a mother who bought and sold antiques for a living, I have never lost the hunting habit and find it impossible to resist antiques centres, markets and boot fairs. The online shop run by my daughter has become my justification for these forays, as there is a limit to how much stuff our house can absorb.

That said, it is unusual to come across a 16th-century house of a liveable size that has such big, light rooms as these. Those keen on vernacular architecture, like me, are accustomed to the low ceilings and small windows that tend to accompany other traditional features. And yet here, we are blessed with space and brightness; the kitchen is the only room here that feels remotely cottagey. I have never known a house like it.

Some people prefer everything new – untouched, pristine. And while this applies to a toothbrush or a vest, when it comes to furniture, or a bedspread, or a washbasin, I like knowing that other people have used and enjoyed them. And I like the thought that they will be used and enjoyed after I am gone. Our house is much older than anything else I own and will last much longer too. We are passing through, a brief episode in its history. I hope we have left it in better shape than we found it.

Great House, Colyton, Devon

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