Country houses for sale

Restoring a Georgian staircase

It had a certain eccentric charm, but the tree trunk holding up the staircase had to go. And when I say tree trunk, I do not mean a roughly hewn wooden beam — this had branches and bark. I had just bought the semi-derelict Spitalfields house from a young couple who had lived there, enjoying a Bohemian existence, for the first few years of married life.

* Find more on restoring Georgian property on our dedicated webpage

The tree was one of their additions — an emergency measure to prevent the stairs collapsing — and they were rightly proud of it. Apart from doubling up as a hatstand, it was adored by their cat, Otto, whose ‘Mouse Scorecard’ had been etched at the base. The contrast between this rustic prop and the elegant staircase it supported encapsulated the mixed fortunes of the house over recent decades. Archive photographs from 1971 show the ground-floor rooms with their original panelling, fireplaces and chimneypieces, but all this went, mysteriously, in the 1980s, leaving a large, forlorn, open room.

However, the staircase survived the vandals, and I resolved early on not only to repair it, but also to restore the dignity of its setting. The staircase is fairly typical of the period and the district. It is not flashy — there are no twisted balusters or carved tread-ends as you might find in a Soho house of similar date, and it has a ‘closed string’, meaning the balusters stand on a diagonal runner rather than on the end of the treads themselves. However, it was clearly intended as a feature.

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Its generous proportions and wide treads reflect the sophistication as well as the solid prosperity of the Huguenot silk weaver for whom it was built in 1717. With the help of an architect, I set about repairing the staircase. After analysing the structure, work began on strengthening the flights from underneath and replacing some of the worn-out later treads on the upper floors. A local woodturner remade the missing balusters and a joiner laboured for many hours remaking the capping on the newel post. There was a moment of excitement when a complete flight of original balusters was found behind a plaster partition in the attic.

This process of repair went hand-in-hand with the reinstatement of the original ground-floor plan. No trace remained of the panelled entrance hall, but this was reconstructed based on other Spitalfields examples. Once it was painted, the full significance of the staircase hall became clear. It was always intended to be a grand introduction to the house—and the effect of its reinstatement was breathtaking. When the time came for the tree, with its testimony to Otto’s mousing exploits, to be removed, I felt a pang of sadness.

Although a more suitable support, disguised within a panelled partition, had taken its place, I found myself missing my much-commented-on cottage ornée feature. I kept it for a while in the garden, then finally chopped it into firewood. It kept the house warm during a particularly chilly January. Joinery work was undertaken by Fullers Builders(020–8520 2275); balusters made by London Woodturners (020–7739 2296).

* Find more on restoring Georgian property on our dedicated webpage