Country houses for sale

Sandy Mitchell: Stairway to Heartache

My wife and I were lolling about in a rented farmhouse on the Norfolk coast when our builders called to say the new staircase for our own house in the country had finally arrived. It takes a lot to rip us away from family holidays, and the drive down to Wiltshire and back was going to mean a 10-hour slog, but we could not wait to see it. Not least as it had been due way back in April.

It was sure to be a handsome beast, I felt, built of seasoned oak and destined to grow old with us. Best of all, with the staircase in place, we could begin to count the days until we could spend our very first night under the roof of our house?albeit with builders’ mess about for a good while yet.

So, with the sand of Holkham beach still on our plimsolls, we clambered out of the car at our building site, dashed into the hallway to gaze at the wondrous new arrival and there it was: two gorgeous flights, not dominating the hallway too much as we had feared, nor missing any of the charming architectural quirks our architect had sketched those months ago.

It was only when we came closer that something about it jarred. The colour of the wood seemed a little strange. Is oak, even new oak, not supposed to be a dull, animal shade of brown? The staircase glowed yellow like a streetlamp. Words froze in my mouth but our project manager, also on hand to view the staircase, spoke the grisly truth: ‘The staircase is meant to be made of hardwood. This is softwood.’

It all has to be scrapped. A new staircase must be built of oak, although this may add up to a month to our building schedule for the house. Thank heavens the builders are paying (without arguing, much to their credit). They have also explained how the confusion arose. Because painted staircases are normally made of softwood, and ours was to be partially painted, the subcontracted joiners assumed this is what we wanted for the whole structure. Once again, we have discovered the danger of asking for an unusual design.

Laughter was not a big feature of our long drive back to Norfolk that day?in fact, I suspect that journeys across the River Styx are more joyful events. Still, the people we were with on holiday were understanding, having recently restored their own house.

Now back in London, news reaches me of fresh calamities. My wife called a minute ago on her mobile from the building site, to which she drove down today alone, to say that our builders’ foreman has been rushed to hospital by ambulance suffering acute abdominal pain. She also reports with astonishing calm that today’s monsoon rains have swamped the garden, and the gang who came to lay the York stone terrace have gone home until the ground dries out.

If tonight’s news bulletin carries footage of plagues of locusts heading for our small corner of Wiltshire, it will not be a surprise.