Country: The old ones are the best?

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The Independent Culture
For better or worse, we have decided that time is up for the flagstones on our kitchen floor. Time is up, in fact, for most of the kitchen: units, work-surfaces, sink, larder - all are for the high jump as we go for a new deal.

Nobody will mourn the demise of these minor accoutrements: they are all about 30 years old and undistinguished. But the flagstones, they are something else. As the house is at least 300 years old, they have probably been in position for centuries, and, as far as we can tell, they are laid straight on to the earth.

They slope quite steeply from one corner of the room to the other, and the reason is easy to find: for generations the room was used for cheesemaking, and the easiest way of washing the floor was obviously to slosh buckets of water down it.

Many a visitor has told us, "Whatever you change, you must never get rid of them." But such well-wishers little realise what a bore the old flags are to live with. Many have cracked, so that spilt liquids seep into the joints. Others are pitted, making them impossible to clean. The whole floor is so uneven that chairs rock about, and anybody sitting at the lower end of the table inevitably has the feeling of being put down. To keep the table itself level, I have to wedge blocks of wood under two of its legs. A further aggravation is that the ancient, studded door leading into the porch will not swing back fully because of the slope.

All this has made us determined to start again. But are we vandals? Are we destroying a bit of history? I hope not. My conscience is partially salved by the belief that the best of the flags will be used again. Our builder assures us that there is a ready market for such rejects: somebody else will have them laid, in another house, to create an impression of antiquity, or reinforce one already present.

In our defence, I could point out that we have already spent pounds 25,000 restoring one end of our house, renewing the crumbling window-surrounds with mullions of cut limestone, and replacing the cement screed that had been slapped on to the windward walls, maybe 50 years ago or more, with traditional lime mortar.

Certainly our vandalism, if any, will not be on a par with that of a nearby farmer who, in the 1970s, bulldozed an entire house to forestall any chance of having a preservation order placed on it. Hearing that government inspectors were in the area, assessing ancient buildings, he went out at night, knocked down the two-storey farmhouse and buried it beneath the ground.

By so doing he gave himself the satisfaction of being able to say to the inspectors, "I don't know what you buggers are after, but you're too bloody late, because it's gone". He also deprived himself of an asset which today, even in a ruinous state, would be worth at least pounds 100,000.

In refurbishing any old property, common sense surely has a part to play. The National Trust, armed with millions of pounds of its members' money, could afford to restore Uppark in every authentic detail, after the house's 18th-century interior had been gutted by fire.

In contrast, when it comes to repairing dry-stone walls, there is no harm in resorting to modern expedients. In our farmyard, for instance, where walls are set into rising ground, we have rebuilt the hidden rear faces with concrete blocks and cement instead of laid stones. You cannot see the blocks, and, apart from cheapness, they have the added advantage of being impermeable to water, earth and roots, which gradually force their way into a wall with two stone faces.

More and more often the question arises: what is one preserving a structure for?

Not far from us there is a fine stone barn, owned by the National Trust, which stands beside a lane on an out-of-the-way site. Its isolation makes it a perfect target for thieves, who have several times stripped the valuable stone tiles off the roofs of the cow-byre alongside, to the value of over pounds 5,000 a time.

After the first theft, the Trust replaced the tiles; but when the roof was cleared again, they covered the battens with modern sheeting, which of course spoils the appearance. Now the thieves have started on the roof of the barn itself: the police believe they are stealing the tiles to order.

What point is there in patching up an empty shell that has very little practical use? Would it not be better to convert it into a house? The Trust concedes that the problem is a tricky one. If the agricultural tenants who farm the surrounding land decide they do not need the barn any more, the best course may well be to turn it into a dwelling: that way, the loss to posterity will be smaller than if the building were to be allowed to collapse altogether.

Similarly, I do not think much will be lost when we re-floor our kitchen with concrete and quarry tiles. But beneath them, we should lay down a time-capsule to show who owned the house and what local conditions prevailed at the end of the 20th century.

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