House Museum 3 of 3: Mr Straw’s House – hoarding Edwardian-style

Walking into No.7 Blyth Grove in Workshop, Nottinghamshire, you’d be forgiven for thinking the Straw family were hoarders. Not the kind of hoarding that provides voyeuristic fodder for Reality TV shows – television hadn’t even been invented when the Straw family bought their semi-detached house in 1923 – theirs was more of a post First World War ‘Make Do and Mend’ approach.

The charm of the house is that little has been touched since 1932, giving a real life – rather than a museum curated – insight into a bygone era. William Straw was a prosperous tradesman, a seed merchant and grocer with a shop at the top end of town, and father to two sons, William and Walter. William senior died suddenly while gardening aged 68 in 1932 and his wife Florence passed away seven years later.

After the death of their parents the two boys continued to live in the house, keeping everything exactly as it was for the rest of their lives, William being the last to depart when he went to hospital in 1985. It’s almost as if the house is a shrine to their parents’ memory.  They kept the curtains closed to keep out the sun in Florence’s sitting room, her bible on the table, the French Empire-style clock on the mantelpiece, her music scores on the piano stool, the bookcase fully stocked and side board crowded with ornaments and china. Fortunately, for us and future generations, William bequeathed the property to the National Trust on his death in 1990.

Florence’s sitting room

The dining room, which is to the right as you enter the front hall, where William senior’s coats, caps and hats still hang from pegs, is the room where time seems to have stood still. The calendar on the wall with a picture of two kittens is from 1932, William’s pipes and tobacco pouch and favourite chair to the left of the fireplace are as he left them. The walls are covered in dark wallpaper and hung with oil paintings, the furniture heavy and every surface laden with glass, china and pewter ornaments and collectables.

One of the most touching rooms in the house is the parents’ bedroom, where William’s detachable collars are still in a box on the dressing table with Florence’s diaries, gloves and the blue sunglasses she used on her annual seaside holiday in a drawer. The brass frame bed is heaped with Florence’s clothes perfectly preserved between layers of newspaper and carbolic soap to protect against moths. While the Straw parents hung onto everything ­– from postal correspondence to bills and old newspapers (even those that were delivered while they were on holiday) – there’s an air of thriftiness about the place. This wasn’t the age of fast fashion with flimsy throw-away items, worn just a few times, creating mountains of toxic waste in landfill sites, of electronic gadgets with built-in obsolescence or one in which plastic water bottles and takeaway food containers litter the landscape.

The Straws on their annual seaside holiday in Scarborough

Yet there’s a homeliness and cosiness amid all the paraphernalia, clutter and heavy furniture – possessions were an indicator of status and wealth in the 1920s. And, while the sons remained deeply resistant to change after their parents died, refusing to make way for modern conveniences as they became available such as phone, radio, central heating and television, their parents were not afraid to move with the fashions of the time.

One of the first things you notice on entering the house, with its attractive stained glass door panels,  is the Axminster stair carpet bearing an Egyptian design, one that was very much in vogue following the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Before moving in, William Senior had all the rooms decorated with fashionable Sanderson wallpapers, dado and picture rails put up, new curtains, carpets and lino laid. And, in a concession to modernity, a new lavatory was installed in the bathroom, and in 1927, a new sink and bath were put in with two taps to accommodate the introduction of hot water.  Imagine two taps being a symbol of luxury! With exposed lead piping – I always think of Cluedo and whodunnit – it looks sparse to our modern tastes but, along with improvements to the electrical system, the Straws were very much up and coming.

Two tap luxury

In 1940 William drew up an inventory of the entire ground floor of the house – down to every last packet of food in the kitchen cupboards –  and labelled some items of furniture. In common with the original owners of other house museums, the Straws documented their lives for posterity, whether consciously or unconsciously. What kind of legacy are we creating today in the absence of letters and hard copy documentation. Will our lives be digitally recorded and archived? What will happen to all our emails?

Curiously, the boys used a cupboard on the second-floor landing as a pantry. Sauces, tins, jars and bottles – some vintage such as Fowler’s Pure Cane Indian Treacle and some more modern such as a tin of Heinz baked beans – line the shelves. A lumber room on the same floor – probably originally a maid’s room (there are servants’ bells in the kitchen) served as a storeroom. It’s crammed with eclectic objects such as a foot-operated Baby Daisy vacuum cleaner, jars of home-made bottled jam, hat boxes, biscuit tins, wooden crates and a World War Two wardens’ helmet.

My family lived in Workshop, a small market and former mining town, in the 70s. I wonder if I ever passed William and Walter, both regular churchgoers (always sitting in the same pew) in their serge suits and bowler hats? What austere lives they led –baking bread once a week to their mother’s recipe and using her utensils, only ever lighting fires in two of the rooms even in the coldest months, their bachelor beds covered in checked blankets.  Little did I think I would return one day as a tourist from Australia thrilled to discover a time capsule of the Victorian and Edwardian Age.

 

Hoovering, holidays and tents

Even though I returned to work on 4th January, I’m still tapping into the holiday vibe as much as I can. There’s such a frenzied build up to Christmas Day and a pressure to get everything done that I’ve begun to really cherish the peace that comes afterwards when everything and everyone calms down.

Two months into a new job, this year’s yuletide season proved quite a marathon. My workload started to intensify at the end of November and, from the beginning of December, life became a seamless blur of grant-writing and deadlines, social stuff, choir rehearsals and practising new songs (I’ve joined a smaller choir and we did a couple of pre-Christmas performances), putting on a garage sale, co-hosting my first dinner party for about two years – typically, it turned out to be the night (a late night) before two morning choir gigs, one of them in an aged care facility. What joy it was to sing (even if I was a bit post party croaky) new versions of old favourites such as Away in A Manger and Silent Night to the oldies.

Deck the Halls...

Deck the Halls…

The week before Christmas I went up to Brisbane for a couple of days of work and play. After a day and half of strategizing followed by a long and lavish staff Christmas lunch, I raced off to the Powerhouse to see a show by Cocoloco, a madcap duo consisting of a university friend from Bristol and her Australian husband.

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I spent my last day wandering round GOMA – the Gallery of Modern Art – before squeezing in another show at the Powerhouse, having a quick chat with Helen and Trevor, and then travelling straight to the airport from there. It’d all been fun but exhausting and I had a sense of humour failure when I got stopped in security because the funky fish-shaped corkscrew I had bought for my nephew had a foil-cutting knife on it. What?! I’d been in too much of a whirl to notice. Amazingly, I was allowed to go back out to the Qantas desk and post it back to myself. Even more amazingly, it arrived in time to go under the tree!

I got home late the Saturday before Christmas and on route to a lovely Christmas lunch the next day, I managed to hit my head on a shelf, drop a bowl I was given for my 21st and then scrape my car along my carport wall. Not a good look, any of it! Things continued apace until Christmas Eve when I spent all day cooking two complicated desserts (and this from the woman who is 90% sugar free) to take to my brother’s. Dinner was at 7 p.m. and at 6.30 p.m. I was still hoovering and mopping the kitchen floor. I just couldn’t bear to leave it dirty; Christmas, for me, is also a time for renewal and reflection and I didn’t want to kick off with a crumb- and dog-hair-strewn floor.

Talking of hoovering – it’s not just the Brits, some Kiwis also talk of hoovering – reminds me of my trip back to the UK in August. My hoover is a Sebo (yes, I know that’s like saying my Mazda is a Toyota), a German make, which travelled the seas with me from England in 2004. It could probably do with a complete overhaul but my mission in England was to track down a spare part. Now the small market town in Nottinghamshire where my mother lives is no retail Mecca – at best, you’ll find Dorothy Perkins, Primark and Poundland, but it is exactly the place to find a store specialising in vacuum cleaners. Near the train station, in a residential street, is a shop that looks just like the one in the BBC show Open All Hours with Arkwright and Granville. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4mTxaK1AHMc

The shop is delightfully cluttered, dusty (don’t think they ever hoover it) and a bit dark. Somehow it’s escaped the digital age completely and there’s not even a computer anywhere in sight. An older man in brown overalls (Arkwright without the stutter) explained that the shop started life in 1946 when his father was one of the first approved Hoover dealers in the area. He, in turn, now works alongside his son who will inherit the business. Helpful as they were, they didn’t have the spare part I needed – my Sebo is now so old as to be obsolete. However, visiting the shop was quite an experience. As we were leaving, a curious-looking man with a pot belly, lank, dyed blond hair and a generally dishevelled appearance strolled in and greeted us with a rather affected and effeminate “Helloooo!” The son explained it was his brother and quickly ushered him next door to a rather run-down house. All I can say is that if this bloke wasn’t the inspiration for Little Britain’s “Only Gay in the Village” sketch I don’t know who is.

Anyway, back to the Christmas holidays – once I had farewelled English and interstate visitors on the 28th, I sat in the garden with my feet up and got stuck into a fabulous novel about a Special Operations Executive parachuted into France as a spy in World War II. But the real hero of the holiday was a sun shelter tent lent to me by friends. I feel so blessed to live near the beach and really made the most of it. There’s something magical and healing about swimming in salt water and then lying on warm sand and sculpting it to your body shape. It’s as good as a massage. Without phone calls, emails, chatter and the normal day to day stuff, it was pure bliss and the tent meant I could stay for longer and not get burnt. Just me, the birds, the waves, the wind, the sun and the sea.

All the World is a Tent

All the World is a Tent

I even let myself off the hoovering – well almost. All that time on the beach – whether alone in my tent or walking Bertie adds up to quite a few grains of sand on the floor…

Bertie sporting sand and salt sculpted hair...

Bertie sporting sand and salt sculpted hair…

Back in Blighty

Well, I made it over here in one piece. The flight was LONG as it always is but I stuck to my plan of seeing it as a mini holiday. The food was pretty mediocre but I watched three films, a light Spanish comedy, Ocho Apellidos Vascos, Words and Pictures, a rather hard work film with Clive Owen and Juliette Binoche, and The Grand Budapest Hotel, which I loved. I also continued to read Slipstream, Elizabeth Jane Howards’s autobiography. Howard, who died recently, was an author married to the naturalist Peter Scott and then, latterly, after multiple affairs with married men, to Kingsley Amis. The book is full of encounters with literary figures, artists, playwrights and the like – from Charlie Chaplin, Laurie Lee, John Betjeman, Laurens Van der Post, members of the royal family and other glitterati. The rest of the time I slept and dozed and longed to lie down. I’m normally very organised but had run around all day like a mad thing only taking Bertie to the dog sitter a few hours before I was due to leave so I was still watering my lemon tree and washing up when the taxi came. No wonder I felt a bit tense and stiff by the time I got on the plane!

I’m now back in Nottinghamshire, the county we’ve all heard of thanks to the forest-dwelling tax evader, Robin, he of the Hoodie, with my parents. I did spend some of my childhood years in Nottinghamshire, but I don’t feel any particular allegiance to it or that it’s what the Spanish call ‘mi tierra’, which, literally translated, means my homeland or my country, but on a deeper level conveys a sense of soul connection with a place.

I flew into Manchester airport, where Eddie from Mum’s village met me, along with his dear little dog Scruffy who was rescued from a Spanish village. We travelled over the Pennines (following at one point the Tour de France route) passing through wild expanses of moorland cloaked in bracken and heather, now turning brown and gold as autumn moves into winter. It was unseasonably mild and sunny and the trees look magnificent in shades of russet, copper and gold. We passed through tiny villages with names such as Tintwhistle and Stone and past fields bordered by hedgerows and dry stone walls. I’d forgotten about hedges but now I’ve seen and remembered them, I realise how much I’ve missed them! Hedges are havens for wildlife – according to the Royal Society of the Protection of Birds, Hedges may support up to 80% of British woodland birds, 50% of British mammals and 30% of butterflies.

A good native hedgerow is made up of a mix of plants such as Hawthorn, Blackthorn, Crab apple, Guelder rose, Dog rose, Wild privet, Honey suckle, Hazel, Field maple and Holly. As a child I used to look for birds’ nests in the hedges and watch the parents flying in and out until the babies flew. Even in my mother’s garden we get a great selection of birds; this morning we saw goldfinches, blue tits, robins and green finches all darting around on her bird feeders. Although Australia has a rich diversity of birds, I only seem to get mynas, an introduced species, wattle birds (they can be very noisy too) and pigeons in my Melbourne suburban garden.

Much as I love Australia, the life I have created there and all my wonderful friends, I really miss the British countryside. It’s definitely mi tierra, my spiritual home. There’s something about the soft, green, gently rolling landscape that gets under my skin; it reminds me of family walks on Sunday afternoons, picnics by rivers, bike rides along country lanes, village fetes with tombolas and teas and long summer evenings when it’s light till ten o’clock.

I read an article a few years back about Sidney Nolan who moved to England in 1955 and then to the borders of Wales where he settled in 1983. He painted Australian landscapes from afar, but also travelled widely outside Europe to Africa, China and Antarctica, returning regularly to Australia to connect with the quality of light and the shape of the trees. When people talk of homesickness, perhaps what they are really getting at is a yearning for the topography of their native country. Every time I return to English I feel like doing a Pope John Paul II and kissing the ground.

I have very intermittent internet access and so am writing this from the library in Retford near where my mother lives. It’s a small market town, worlds apart from Melbourne in every way, but I’m rather fond of it. There are no shops to speak of – not even a Marks and Spencers – but there is a great little market on Thursdays and Saturdays. On Saturday I bought a wonderful 1950s style cloche hat with a flower on the front ready for Krakow and Zurich, and a red leather collar for Bertie. The hat cost just £10 and the collar £3.50; everything seems much cheaper here. My brother tells me that the cost of living is indeed higher in Australia but so are wages. Not mine, I fear! Next time I come over I’m going to bring an empty suitcase and load up with goodies.