Location, location, location may be the estate agent’s mantra but when you buy an old house research is just as important – it helps you understand what you’re buying and will make a renovation project more successful. What’s more, much of the fun of working on an old property is finding out more about its history and the way it’s built, the materials used and the skills needed to make repairs.
Talking to local residents, finding the local history society and visiting the local studies centre or library are all good way of discovering a building’s past. The Frith Collection has remarkable images of many villages and towns and you might spot your home amongst them.
A number of organisations specialise in particular periods. The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) offers courses and publications while it’s free telephone advice line is an invaluable resource whether you need help with a damp patch or finding a craftsperson – the experts on the line deal with most buildings built before around 1919. The SPAB also has a Mills Section. Other useful reference points are the Georgian Group, Victorian Society and Twentieth Century Society.
A visit to an historic property gives a wonderful insight into the past and the National Trust, English Heritage, Historic Scotland and CADW in Wales are good starting points. Some private properties that open can be found through the Historic Houses Association or are listed at local libraries and tourist information centres. Heritage Open Days and Open House London give the chance to see buildings not normally open.
Museums, such as the Weald and Downland Open Air Museum, the Chiltern Open Air Museum and the Avoncroft Museum of Historic Buildings, provide a broad and fascinating insight into a variety of building types and run useful courses.
For those interested in the Georgian period, the Building of Bath Collection tells the story of the creation of the city and explains the building techniques employed. At London’s Geffrye Museum English domestic interiors from 1600-2000 are displayed in a chronological series of period rooms. To understand windows, doors and other architectural features the Brooking National Collection is a vital resource. It includes everything from sash boxes to rainwater goods and gives insights into the craft of the artisan and the social layering of British society.
If you live in England you can find out whether your property is listed by visiting the National Heritage List for England. Meanwhile, Images of England allows you to view over 300,000 images of England’s built heritage. Last but not least, the Planning Portal is an excellent resource for information on listing, planning and building regulations.