Ballast

Some years ago in Norfolk, I wandered through the ‘piano nobile’ of Houghton Hall, built by the first prime minister of England, Robert Walpole, my thoughts warmed by the vibrant hue of mahogany furniture that soon was to become firmly out of fashion. The golden-toned wood came, I was told, from central America as ballast in ships returning from central America that had sailed out from the British Isles laden with manufactured goods from the Old World to trade in the new one.

My mind continues to wander through the suite of rooms on the first floor of the palatial country house built for England’s first ‘prime minister’, Robert Walpole. Bales of green velvet with a golden sheen were imported from Venice, luring one’s eyes into the imagined tactile delight of stroking them the wrong way to light up the gold, and then back flat to show the right side of green. Isn’t this just what such fabrics invite you to do? There are no corridors, just suites of rooms, with privacy provided by bed hangings and folding screens, many imported from the exotic lands of the East. Doors cut into wooden panelling and even the tapestries were opened by servants from the central passageway to remove breakfast trays or chamber pots, with motions of deep respect masking the unbridled outbursts relished in the servants’ quarters down in the basement. Voices resonated both above and below the stairs.

The generations that grew up in the inter-war years of the Thirties are memorialised in numerous upstairs-downstairs stories that still fascinate in Downton Abbey and similar sagas. History is safe armchair viewing – or is it? I have read somewhere that history begins fifty years ago and flows backwards in time until there are no more written records. This has ensured much ongoing debate. If these ancient written records are all lists of rulers, their dynasties, wars and conquests there is little chit chat to give a taste of the past. When wandering through the ruins of the Yorkshire monasteries that thrived before, on the orders of Henry VIII, Thomas Cromwell dismembered them in the late 1530s, I ponder what the monks sat when these religious settlements were prosperously exporting the best wool available to the luxury workshops in Florence. Suspended over a stream, there are still the remains of places where monks sat side by side to relieve themselves, convivially. Times change. I wonder what they chatted about then.

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