Thursday, 8 September 2011

Up and Down the Stairs

The staircase at Ashdown House is one of the great features of the house and a masterpiece of engineering. Taking up a quarter of the floor space of the entire house, it is built from elm with uprights of oak and individually hand-turned balusters. There are one hundred steps up to the roof. The staircase was constructed "green," with untreated wood, which means that over the three hundred years of its existence it has settled at slightly different rates, giving an uneven tread. When you stand at the top and look down you can see that the stairs are slightly askew! They are - of course - entirely safe, but for reasons of loading, no more than 25 visitors are permitted on the stair at any one time.

The elm stair is the only staircase in the house. There are no servants' stairs as the house is simply too small to accommodate them. Which means that family, visitors and servants were all obliged to use the same space, something that was considered extremely undesirable in an aristocratic Victorian household. If the servants had the misfortune to meet the family or guests on the stair they had to efface themselves against the wall and pretend to be invisible!

The stair is four foot wide and was built on such a grand scale for several reasons. Firstly Ashdown is a hunting lodge and so the main purpose is to get the guests up on to the roof to view the progress of the hunt. Ladies with wide skirts needed lots of room when ascending the stairs. It was also thought appropriate in the 17th century that noblemen of the stature of Lord Craven should have a servant on either side of them as they ascended, in case they needed anything on their way up to the roof! The width of the stair also allowed the more infirm members of the family to be assisted up and down. Another interesting reason for the width of the staircase was the fact that it was designed to allow Lord Craven to defend his property by force if required; the staircase is wide enough for a sword fight! It also turns in a clockwise direction because Lord Craven was a right-handed swordsman and this would give him the fighting advantage, descending the stair.

In the 19th century heavy elm and oak staircases such as the one at Ashdown were often ripped out to be replaced by something more light and fashionable. We are fortunate that the one at Ashdown was preserved and also that it survived the stationing of troops in the house during the Second World War when much of the panelling and other wooden features in the house was used for firewood. Originally the upright panels on the stair had carved swags of fruit and flowers, as shown in a photograph from Country Life. These were removed during the 20th century to leave the staircase looking somewhat austere as it does today.

1 comment:

lostpastremembered said...

I love that stair, for all its quirkiness, or maybe because of it. The house is one of the real gems of individual style... peculiar yet on such a human scale when Craven could have afforded something enormous... he chose to build Ashdown. I love that too.