A chance visit to Blackburn in Lancashire inspired me to write this post, mainly because it evoked my love of historic buildings. The Mercure Blackburn Dunkenhalgh Hotel and Spa in Clayton Le Moors is such an example, described as ‘a converted 700-year-old country manor in a tranquil setting.’
Modern architecture has its place in today’s society where a progression of more efficient construction techniques and machinery has resulted a rapid turnaround and faster return, compared to the years of exhaustive toil endured by hundreds of labourers. Yet it is important that these older buildings are preserved, if for no other reason to honour the skill and craftsmanship that prevailed in years gone by.
The first sight of this building was breathtaking; a square construction of golden stone, two wings topped by crenelated battlements reminiscent of a castle. The interior was even more beautiful. The rooms feature panelled ceilings with decorative plasterwork (known as a cornice) as well as huge windows. They are adorned with pelmets and drapes of a heavy brocade and the furniture has a traditional feel that reminds you of a stately home.
So why this interest in traditional architecture? It was the sight of the fine staircase that prompted me to write this – allowing me to recapture memories of my second book Visions, the start of a long and absorbing research project into the restoration of older properties.
I was interested in period property before I wrote Visions; a subject that is extremely complex where I found myself hankering to express some of my passion into my novel.
The plot is equally complex. James Barton-Wells is the owner of a magnificent country hotel built in the 1700s and passed down through his family – but it is the fated visit of a property developer from London that sends his life plunging into chaos. The house is in need of extensive restoration and without it, James faces the agonising prospect of losing his ancestral home.
Little does he know that he is the unwitting victim of a scam and about to fall prey to the rapacious Perry Hampton. It is Perry’s lust for power that has drawn him to James’s property, thinking he can turn it into a corporate venue and a potential gold mine. First he must drive the current owner out by making him bankrupt. It is a scheme which involves some unscrupulous players of his own; from a chartered surveyor who issues the first damning survey – to a shady building firm. Their instructions from Perry, to delay the reconstruction of damaged staircase, is designed to keep the hotel closed for as long as possible, forcing James to lose valuable income. Yet this is just the start – Perry’s utter ruthlessness is guaranteed to keep his victims in a state of fear as the destiny of Westbourne House hangs in a veil of suspense…
And while I’m still thinking about that beautiful staircase, here is an extract:
James allowed his eyes to travel back down the staircase, where the tapering grace of the vase shaped balusters struck him as being particularly beautiful; the open string formation was punctuated at intervals by newel posts – the entire construction, built from dark wood, had retained its charm for over two centuries.
“It is lethally dangerous, Sir,” Edward added gravely.
“Dangerous…” James pondered, feeling the first chill of anxiety.
But Edward had not quite finished. “The woodwork has started to crumble. To be honest, I am surprised one of your guests hasn’t put a foot through it…”
James followed his gaze, observing the patterned carpet which trailed down the path of the stairs. Even those colours seemed faded – as if to betray the deterioration of the stairs underneath.
“This staircase must not be used until the damage is rectified,” Edward said bluntly. “Someone could injure themselves. Say, one of your older guests grabbed the handrail for support – any one of the balusters could shatter. The results could be disastrous!”
“Are you trying to scaremonger me?” James whispered in horror.
“Not at all,” the other man replied, unfazed, “though I must insist you close off this staircase.”
“But it’s the only access to the west wing,” James spluttered, “as well as the guest accommodation. If I close off this staircase, I might as well close the entire hotel!”
“I’m afraid that may well have to be the case,” Edward agreed, pinning him with his intense stare again. For several torturous moments, he was silent as he continued to scrawl his notes. But eventually, the tense silence was broken – where the next few words were more damning than James could have predicted.
“You cannot jeopardise the safety of your guests. The fact is, you could replace this entire staircase at a cost of around £2,000 but in its present state, you could be sued ten times that amount if, say, a healthy adult suffered an accident. In the event of this happening to someone elderly, it could be fatal. That figure could run into millions! Do you really want to run the risk?”
“Of course not,” James whispered in a voice which was drained of strength.