Pigs can fly

Fancy a badger, a biplane or a bedstead on your roof? You are not alone, writes Rosalind Russell
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Indy Lifestyle Online
You'd think that, having spent a fortune on a country mansion, a buyer would invariably expect the house to reflect the gravitas of his financial standing. Not a bit of it: for all the discreet new owners of Old Rectories, there are always a few who promptly change the name of the place to Toad Hall or Pooh Corner. And to drive the joke home, a matching house sign or weather vane may be commissioned.

One bachelor owner of a country house asked Village Green Signs in Middlesex to make him a sign for the renamed Bedside Manor, bearing a hand-painted scene of a nurse in suspenders sitting on a four-poster bed. He is, admitted a spokeswoman for the company, an exception to the rule. Most people ask for foxgloves, squirrels or badgers.

Not all personalised additions are naff. One keen gardener commissioned a weather vane shaped like the famous gardener Gertrude Jekyll - though who would recognise the old girl up on the roof, it's hard to say.

"You do have to be careful with the design," warns a spokeswoman for the Southampton-based weather vane company Good Directions. "What may start out as a swan can look like a sparrow once it's up there."

The cockerel is the most traditional design for a weather vane. When Pope Gregory sent St Augustine to convert us, he decreed the cockerel to be the symbol of Christianity. But now hobbies, professions and pets feature on walls and roofs.

Village Green made a specially ordered house sign for the athlete Fatima Whitbread, showing her throwing a javelin. Good Directions made a weather vane for Nigel Mansell shaped like a racing car.

"They make popular birthday and anniversary presents," say Good Directions, "especially as we can cover them in gold leaf for golden weddings. One lady asked if we could make an aeroplane weather vane for her husband's birthday - he was a jumbo jet pilot. We didn't have a jumbo but we did make her a biplane, and he rang later to say how delighted he was. It's now one of our most popular designs."

A biplane will cost pounds 272.60; delivery, gold leaf and mounting kit cost extra. Weather vanes can be given a verdigris finish to match existing guttering (Good Directions also supplies "pre-aged" copper guttering and cast-iron repro rainwater systems).

Golfers, bowlers, rugby players, riders and vintage car owners are all catered for. BSE did not deter customers from buying copper cows, and a whale (sperm or otherwise) is just as likely to be spotted on the roof of a country house as is a flying pig.

Fatima Whitbread commissioned her house sign while visiting the Hampton Court Flower Show, where Village Green Signs was exhibiting. "She sent us a copy of her autobiography and we worked from the photos in that," says a spokeswoman.

The most common mistake made by customers is trying to cram too many personal references on the plaque. Dogs, flowers, fruit and people all tend to get tangled in the confusion. "Keep it simple," she advises.

"Most people like flowers; 70 per cent of our sales are for those. Americans love them, especially the foxgloves. One of the biggest sellers is the grey squirrel; it drives the artists crazy having to paint so many. We also have to do a lot of robins and blue tits."

Unsurprisingly, in pet-mad Britain, cats and dogs come high on the must- have list. "We do 50 dogs in the range," she says, "but people complain that although it's the right breed, it doesn't look exactly like their dog. My biggest nightmare would be to have a stand at Cruft's."

Signs of the Times in Bedfordshire says that foxes, owls, kingfishers and cornfields feature strongly among requests, although they also make one-off designs. One customer - plainly an Aussie far from home - commissioned a house sign of a wombat wielding a cricket bat. Prices range from pounds 23, depending on size and artwork.

Village Green Signs, 0181-568 1831. Good Directions, 01489 577828. Signs of the Times, 01525 874185.