Written by the presenters of The House Detectives, the BBC2 series devoted to finding the truth behind the partition walls of six unusual homes around Britain, the book provides step-by-step instructions to aspiring amateur detectives.
It is pretty exhaustive stuff. Job one is to take a meticulous tour of your house, photographing it from several angles and recording every architectural detail - the authors recommend using a camcorder. Then comes the true gumshoe part: treading the corridors of the archives and libraries in the area looking for mentions of your property.
Some of the best information can be had from your title deeds, which will be lodged either with your solicitor or at the bank holding your mortgage. Wills of previous residents can also be particularly useful, and can be found dating back to 1858 at Somerset House, and possibly much further at your local County record office. Old maps of the area can also be revealing: the Ordnance Survey maps date back to at least the middle of the last century. Indeed, any scrap of information - census data, tax returns and Church documents - will provide clues.
Once this information has been amassed, the house detective can compare it to the visual clues - the type of architecture predominating in the house style, the types of windows, doors and fireplaces present. The answers may be confusing, because most properties have metamorphosed over time as successive generations did them up in the styles of the day.
Further inquiries can include getting timbers and trees surrounding the house dated, investigating the land and buildings surrounding the property (for which you will probably need the co-operation of the neighbours - the authors suggest this as a good way of getting to know them) removing plaster from walls and even excavation.
Of course all this digging (some of it literal) can become more trouble than it's worth. A speculative hunt for a hidden cellar might leave you with a just a hole in your front room floor; your reams of research may only prove that the delightful Victorian semi you now occupy was a hurriedly built collision of architectural styles thrown up by a rapacious 19th Century property speculator intent only on a fast profit; and you may not have wanted to meet the neighbours after all.
The book also warns of disappointments that may arise when the favourite myth or legend about the property (James I slept here etc) gets debunked by the facts. It argues that the old chestnut about the timber frame for the house coming from the timbers of Elizabethan warships is almost certainly untrue as such wood would have been far too hard and warped to be used in house construction. More likely is that beams with seemingly random holes were salvaged from other houses.
Of course uncovering a good story behind your house might be a good way of distinguishing it when it comes to selling, but this book is not for the property speculator, unless of course they enjoy a lengthy trawl through British social history and want to impress/bore friends at dinner parties with the story behind the Mansard roof. For the authors, and by extension the readers, the outcome of their inquiries is of only passing relevance. The fun is in the finding out.
Be Your Own House Detective, BBC Books, pounds 16.99Reuse content