Cotswold interiors: An antique Christmas
- Credit: Archant
Dating back to at least the 17th century, the echoes of voices from Christmases past blend with the happy sounds of 21st-century family celebrations at the Shinns’ beautiful old country house [Words by Victoria Jenkins, photography by William Goddard]
Every Christmas Eve all members of the extensive Shinn family gather at Michael Shinn’s beautiful old country house to celebrate with a lavish supper.
“There are at least 20 of us every time,” says Michael. “And with its original 17th century panelling and old oak floors, the house lends itself to a traditional time like Christmas. And this year will be particularly special as my first great grand-child is expected to arrive just in time to come along too.”
One particular family tradition is to adorn the tree with lovely old hand-made German decorations. These come from daughter Kate’s Christmas shop in the basement of the Well Walk Tea Room in Cheltenham, and every year Kate goes to Germany to buy them.
It all began when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 and Michael and his wife Jenny went with a German friend to search for the traditional glass-blowers in East Germany.
There are hardly any of the old generation left now but the Shinns were able to buy a great many of the old hand-made and hand-painted ornaments dating from the 1930s which had been stored away during the Communist era.
“Back in England people loved them and bought so many that we went back to East Germany and asked the old glass-blowers if they could make more,” says Michael, now a widower. And so began a thriving business between the two countries with a new generation now taking over the tradition. “The work that goes into the decorations is extraordinary,” says Kate. “Take this one showing a bird on a nest - spun glass is used for the twigs, the bauble is hand-blown, the base silvered, the rest hand-painted… hours of work goes into each one.” Apparently the ancestors of the glass-blowers came from Venice 400 years before where the glass-blowing tradition still flourishes, especially on Murano Island.
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Even the makers of ITV’s Downton Abbey featured Kate’s old German ornaments for their Christmas scenes as did the makers of Parades End and other films. “Many have a meaning,” says Kate. “A teapot is hospitality, a basket of fruit fertility, a bell felicitations and so on.”
Another German tradition the Shinn family have embraced is making (and eating) a beautifully decorated gingerbread house, usually made by Isabelle, known as Belle and who runs the Well Walk Tea Room with husband Tom. They also like to play an old German game which involves melting lead in teaspoons over a candle and telling the future from the shapes the lead forms when dropped into water.
“We’ve always loved old and unusual things – in fact Jenny sold antiques from a stall in Portobello Road for years - but we didn’t realise what we were starting when we first went in search of the glass-blowers,” says Michael.
Michael and Jenny bought their house in 1971 when he was head of visual and performance arts at the University of Gloucestershire. By then they had their three children Catherine (or Kate), Isabelle and Lawrence, and the seven-bedroom house with its large gardens was a perfect backdrop to their childhood. It was once dower house to a big estate and parts of it date back to the 17th century if not before; in fact Domesday Book mentions a dwelling on the site nearly 1,000 years ago.
“But it’s difficult to know what’s original and what isn’t,” says Michael. “We know it has been extended over the years. At one time Lord Ellenborough, Viceroy of India, is meant to have installed one or two of his Indian mistresses here!”
When the family first moved in they repaired the roof, which meant taking off all the stone tiles then replacing them and adding more from a collapsed tythe barn nearby, and created four more bathrooms by borrowing from bedrooms and corridors. Over the years they have sorted out the drains, rewired, extended the gas central heating and put in damp-proofing –“which was difficult as the stone walls are a metre thick and filled with rubble,” says Michael. One solution was to add more panelling.
“There was already beautiful 17th century oak panelling in the entrance hall and we managed to buy some 18th century pine paneling for the Drawing Room,” says Michael. “It certainly keeps the damp out and the warmth in.”
When it came to furnishing the house the Shinns have some amazing finds. One such is the 1900s Arts & Crafts decorated steel bed which Michael found as head and foot ends in the attic of a removal firm. It was labelled ‘William Morris Factory’ and was covered in protective Vaseline and tissue paper. The impressive words ‘For So He Giveth His Beloved Sleep’ is inscribed along the bed head.
Another is the oak four-poster bed dating from 1680 which came from a Cotswold pub bedroom and had to be dismantled to get it out of the room.
And another is the old wooden chest which cost all of £2.50 from a junk shop years ago, bought by this far-seeing couple at a time when other people were throwing out old good quality brown furniture.
Michael also loves to tell the story of how Jenny’s very extensive collection of Coronation china, when sold at auction, raised enough money to pay for the new central heating. “She began buying it in the 1960s as she liked to drink from a big colourful mug and in those day all other mugs were not especially big or colourful,” he says. “Being a true collector she bought every Coronation piece she saw – no-one else seemed to want them so they were cheap - and I’m delighted she did so as they ultimately served a very good purpose.”
And does such a wonderful old house have a ghost? “Unfortunately we’ve never seen anything but we are supposed to have a ghostly rider escaping from the Battle of Tewkesbury by galloping across our land,” he says.
“Christmas is our favourite time together, nowhere else is quite the same,” adds Kate. “Our mother taught us how to enjoy this time of the year as it’s made up of so many things such as the glowing log fires, the patina of the ancient panelling, the festive evergreen swags and the reflection of light of the beautiful old hand-made glass decorations. All these things together create a wonderful atmosphere of warmth and well-being.”
Decorations by Catherine Shinn www.catherineshinn.com