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A Lust For Window Sillsr

A lover's guide to British buildings

Harry Mount

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If an old London house has windows recessed four inches deep or more, it was built after 1709, when fire safety laws were passed following 1666 Greta Fire of London. Before that, windows were built flush with front, and it only required flames brushing the outside frame to set whole window, then the house, alight.

Normans never figured out that a pointed arch can carry more weight than a round one. So if you see big semi-circles of stone, you're looking at a Norman work. And bc they built their columns hollow, then filled them with rubble, they weren't as strong as solid stone, and had to be made much chunkier.

Early English cathedrals originally had walls covered in red and black paint. All gone now, and we are left with monchromatic churches.

Nobles originally slept in the same large hall as their subjects, albeit in a private bower. After he retired, the subjects cleared away the tables and benches, and covered the floor with bedding. This ritual of making a bed from scratch each evening is why we still 'make a bed' today.

Early workers' cottages were originally built round an A-frame made by splitting a curved tree trunk in half. (To get this shape, builders cut down trees that grew horizontally out of river banks before sprouting upwards). The smallest cottages had two pairs of these 'crucks', one at each end of the building. Larger buildings repeated the crucks every 16 feet.

Most genuine Tudor wooden houses were destroyed in the Great Fire. Wooden houses had actually been banned in London by James I in 1605. He echoed Emp Augustus (I found Rome brick and left it marble) by saying he had found a city of sticks and left it of brick.

This was taken further by architect John Nash, in late C18 who covered all his buildings in stucco, satirised as 'finds us all brick and leaves us all plaster'.

Euro buildings commonly built enfilade - rooms running off one another- whereas English early adopted a corridor, often as a thermal barrier along the colder north side. Consequently, English has no equivalent of German schwellenangst, or 'threshold anxiety' when moving from one room to the next.

Makers of TV period drama always use houses built at the same time as the set, as if nothing else was built before. But when they want grandeur, they go for Palladian, no matter what period. And many use the same house - Wrotham House in Hertfordshire, built in 1754, and still owned by the original family (the Byngs). The architect, Isaac Ware, was famously discovered as a chimneysweep sketching Inigo Jones' Banqueting House in chalk on the pavement.

Big contrast between the humble facade of 10 Downing St and the grandeur within. The front dates from 1775 when the original 1683 house was refaced. It is two 1683 houses knocked into one in 1735 for the first PM, Sir Robert Walpole. It was modernised. most recently for Margaret Thatcher in 1989. (The architect incl a little joke in a plaster frieze - a little model of a roof thatcher working with characteristic industry and determination.

Originally front doors were made of fine English oak, which hardens with weathering. Replaced by scheaper Scandinavian pine, which is softer, and needed thick layers of lead paint.

Terrace houses are purely British invention, and only find them in English colonies. They trace their roots back to Eoro palaces. The word 'palace' comes from Palatine Hill, where Emp Augustus built his splendid palace.

Bitish mad for their old houses. The National Trust has 3.5 million memebers, by far the biggest organiztion in UK.

Architect Norman Shaw responsible for most red brick suburban cottages. He had shirts specially tailored with outsized cuffs so that he cd sketch house plans for clients when he sat next to themat dinner table.

Up until 1914, less than 10% of British houses were owner occupied - everything else private landlords. But after WW1 rents frozen at 1914 levels, and councils began building houses for the poor. Landlords responded by selling up - between the wars they sold 3 million houses to owner occupiers. The real estate agent was born.

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