We buy rust. We sell romance

Michael Cripps rescues and reconditions old brass bedsteads. Clive Fewins met him
Michael Cripps breathed heavily on to the brass knobs at the base of the large Victorian cast-iron bed with its ornate semi-circular headboard. "This one's not for sale," he declared.

Mr Cripps, who runs Once Upon a Time, has some 400 antique brass and iron bedsteads in 4,000 sq ft of old farm buildings in the village of Ripley, Surrey. He treats them like an extended family. "I put a high price on my favourite beds in the hope that they won't sell," he said "That way, I gain the pleasure of viewing them daily for a few years."

One of his favourites is an all-brass monolith, made in 1872 at the Birmingham factory of James Schoolbred and Co, retailers of Tottenham Court Road London - a company that eventually became Maples. Fully restored, the bed's price tag is pounds 4,750. It has been in the showroom a year.

"The problem is that many of the beds inside that we do want to sell and on which we have worked very hard, often don't sell, while the unrenovated ones outside sell well," Mr Cripps said.

He explained that customers would rather come and choose from the sad- looking unrestored specimens lying out in the cold.

"It's rather like visiting a dog's home. Customers like to select a really down-at-heel one and then see what we can do to bring it roaring back into life." Mr Cripps has devoted the last 18 years of his life to rescuing antique piles of rust and selling them for an average of pounds l,000-pounds 1,200 for a fully-restored Victorian cast-iron model.

He is one of half a dozen or so specialist restorers of Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian antique bedsteads. Companies like Once Upon a Time report steady sales over the past few years, with no more dips due to the recession than any other retailer might expect.

However, restorers believe the supply is drying up, meaning prices will inevitably rise and make bedsteads purchased now a good investment for the future. "The majority of my customers don't look at it this way, however," Mr Cripps said. "They are often young people who have set their hearts on a genuine antique metal bedstead and are prepared to save up for a couple of years for something different from a divan with a headboard."

According to Mr Cripps, the beds are virtually all different. "Nearly all manufacturers had their own designs, so there is a huge variety if you know where to look. The quality of the originals is usually so high that they come up beautifully - especially when they are taken back to the original metal and burnished. By comparison, modern reproductions are utterly feeble.

"The heyday of manufacturing was around the onset of the Crimean War in 1854, when Florence Nightingale focused the eyes of the nation on health issues as never before. Metal bedsteads, considered more healthy than the traditional rosewood and mahogany versions, rapidly found their ways into hospitals and schools. Before long, the general mass of the population made the change."

The other usual requirement from customers is that the bed should be "stretched". This means extending it from its likely 4ft 6ins width to the 5ft more acceptable to modern tastes. The usual means of doing this is by inserting extra decorative pieces within the additional iron or steel bars. It is a practice frowned upon in some sections of the trade because it means the bed is no longer authentic.

"I used to have misgivings, but we only find one 5ft bed to every 200 or so 4ft 6ins or 4ft beds that come our way," said Mr Cripps. "Extending beds helps to keep prices down and gives old beds a new life."

Most of the old bedsteads that end up in workshops come in via "runners" in the antique trade, who quite often bring them from Ireland, or from Spain, Portugal and Morocco, where modern divan beds are slowly replacing the metal ones.

According to Jonathan Tebbs, who runs A Barn Full of Brass Bedsin Lincolnshire, more than 90 per cent of them were originally made in Birmingham.

"By the 1870s, it is said 6,000 brass and iron bedsteads were being produced, vast numbers of which were exported," he said. "They were not only made for the well-to-do, with pearl inlays, faceted mirrors, scroll work and superior castings, but also for the ordinary folk.

"In Victorian times, the bed was almost a status symbol, like cars are regarded by some today. But the simple ones were in many ways the most elegant, and are often rarer, as they were the models that were more often thrown away."

While Mr Cripps either sells his beds in their original burnished and lacquered bare metal form, or paints them black, Mr Tebbs specialises in painting his beds in the range of National Trust colours - mainly French grey, sugar-bag blue, Cork green, fox red and Sudbury yellow. Most of his beds are restored to order, the customer coming to him to choose first.

"Generally, my clients, who come from throughout the country, prefer this approach," he said. "I tell them I buy rust and I sell romance."

Once Upon a Time, The Green Ripley, Surrey (01483 211330).

A Barn Full of Brass Beds, Abbey House, Eastfield Road, Louth, Lincs (01507 603173).

Manor Farm Antiques, Oxfordshire (01865 300303).

Bed Bazaar, Framlingham Suffolk (01728 723756).

The Antique Bedstead Company, Chelmsford (01245 471137).

Morpheus, Elgin House Antiques, Tetbury (01666 504068).

Seventh Heaven, Clwyd (01691 777622).

Reproduction brass and iron bedsteads available from: Enchanted House, St Blazey, Cornwall (01726 812213). Deptich Designs Ltd, London (0181- 687 0867) sell their reproduction metal bedsteads throughout the UK.