The Manor Reborn – the experts’ stories

We talk to the skilled artisans doing up a neglected National Trust house in Wiltshire

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The woman who weaves bulrushes Felicity Irons  

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“A car accident in my 20s broke my back in several places,” says Felicity, 44, who made the rush matting for the Tudor parlour at Avebury Manor. “While I was convalescing, I needed something to keep busy. My mother was in antiques and suggested I try restoring some rush-seating. So I bought a book and found I had an aptitude.

“When the old chap I used to buy my rushes from died, his brother said: ‘Come on then girl, I’ll take you down the river.’ After two hours, he told me, ‘I’m off. It’s over to you.’ That was in 1984, and I’ve been harvesting rushes on the River Ouse every summer since. We have 17-foot punts, which I had specially made, and we cut with a knife that has a seven-foot handle and three-foot blade. It has to be incredibly sharp because sometimes we’re cutting five foot below the water line. We get on the river by half-eight and we’ll work for 12 hours if the weather holds; it’s literally make hay while the sun shines.

“The rushes are dried naturally back at our farm and become beautifully soft — it’s like working velvet or suede. In days gone by, wealthier houses had it woven into matting like the ones we made for Avebury, sewn from 400 metres of plaiting. “It’s a very slow, labour-intensive process but I love the variety. One month I can be out on the river on my punt; the next I’ll be designing hats and bags, weaving hundreds upon hundreds of tablemats or working at an extraordinary house like Avebury.” 

The brothers who add life to walls Corin, Ashley and Mark Sands  

“At Avebury, my brother Ashley and I worked on the gilding and marbling in the Georgian bedroom and Queen Anne suites and I painted an interpretation of a Paul Nash painting for the Art Deco room,” says artist and restorer Corin Sands, 40n (above left). “Another brother, Mark, has painted an Art Deco screen and a wonderful mural based on an interpretation of an early 18th-century wood-cut wallpaper from the V&A. We all have our own specialities.

“In lots of National Trust houses I’ve worked in, the gilding is glazed back so it looks old: this is all as fresh and new as when the house was in its prime. The decoration is inspired by interiors from other houses — the marbling in the Queen Anne suites, for example, is based on that at Dyrham Park, near Bath.

“I’ve wanted to follow in my father’s and older brothers’ footsteps since I was small. At secondary school, I would spend the holidays in my father’s studio helping out with his restoration projects. Yet at the same time I was dubious about only doing restoration because I thought it might be a little… I’d better not say dull! Let’s just say I thought it would be nice to be more creative. So I did a fine art degree and now I have the best of both worlds: restoring fantastic houses like Avebury and more imaginative projects that are often inspired by the art work I’ve restored in the past.

“Nowadays I live in Germany with my family, which has made me appreciate working with my father and brothers even more. My two-and-a-half-year-old son loves drawing with chalk so perhaps he’ll follow in the family footsteps one day!”

The Georgian furniture-maker Jonathan Sainsbury  

“Of the pieces that we made for Avebury, my favourite is this mechanical exercise chair on which the lord of the manor would have huffed and puffed,” says Jonathan Sainsbury, 44. “It’s a Georgian design that concertinas up and down to mimic the riding manoeuvre — as if you were having a little jolly across the park on your horse. It’s absolutely hysterical. I shouldn’t think one’s been made for a hundred years.

“My family has been in the timber trade since the early 18th century when we were timber merchants. We then turned to cabinet-making, antique furniture dealing and nowadays we make the very finest re-creations of interior furnishings.

“From as early as I can remember, my father carted me around wonderful English country houses to look at the contents. By the age of eight I probably would have been able to identify Queen Anne furniture of the sort we’ve re-created for Avebury. When I left school, all I wanted to do was make wonderful things and furnish wonderful houses. So I served my apprenticeship under one of our craftsmen who’s still here now aged 82, having joined us in 1957.

“My own house is a very eclectic mix. I always have my favourite models of mirrors and tables at home; I’m keen on the early English Georgian period. But I also possess a few unusual pieces: a great big stuffed pink flamingo in the drawing room and early human skulls.” 

The Manor Reborn is on Thursdays at 9pm on BBC1

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This is an edited version of an article from the issue of Radio Times magazine that went on sale 15 November.