amy azzaritoDIYpast & present

past & present: english country house + diy project

by Amy Azzarito

This column is not about the cozy little cottages that dot the English countryside. Instead we’re focusing on those grand English country homes that were the power houses for the country. When I was younger, in addition to devouring Jane Austen novels, I spent an absurd amount of time pouring through my parents’ copy of the 1978 book, Life in a Medieval Castle. But the ultimate was I Capture the Castle – a childhood favorite of my mom’s – written in 1948 by Dodie Smith about a young girl who lives in a rundown castle and dreams of being a writer (It was also adapted into a movie in 2003). I thought it would be fun to take a look at the history behind these grand homes!  After all, the custom of afternoon tea? Developed in an English country house. The American love affair with a green lawn? Imported from the English country house, of course!

great chalfield manor completed in 1480 has a moat, a gatehouse, oriel windows and a great hall. the manor is part of the national trust.

For centuries, the ownership of land was the only means to power. These ambitious land-owners were not farmers, but secured power and wealth as the ultimate landlords. Not only did they collect rent from their tenants, but they could also call on those tenants to, in the early days of the country house, fight for them, and to vote for them in the latter days. From the Middle Ages until the 19th century, anyone who acquired wealth built a country house to insure their power. The kind of house built was the absolute advertisement of that power and ambition.


As a nod to the tea drinking English, I have a mini tutorial on creating a rubberized tea set! Yep, those pretty pink handles have been rubberized!

CLICK HERE for the full post complete with a “books to read” and “facts to know”(and the rubberizing diy project!)

oakham castle, rutland. the great hall (c.1180-90). 240 horseshoes hang on the walls of the great hall. the 500 year-old custom at oakham is that, on their first visit, every aristocrat must give a horseshoe to the lord of the manor.

The Medieval Estate
A great medieval household would have been a familiar site on the roadways as households frequently moved from one castle to another. The castles were merely shells – the furniture, the tapestries, the kitchen equipment and all the necessities of life were moved from one home to another. The great household usually consisted of 100 – 500 people and only a handful of them were women. (A striking example is that in the Northumberland household the proportion of women to men was 9 to 166!).  In many ways, life in the medieval country house was more casual than it would be in later years. For example, all members of the household from the lowest servant to the master of the house ate together.

godmersham park, jane austen’s brother Edward’s home via austenquotes

The 18th Century Country House
The 18th century was the golden age of the English country house. It’s also the time period depicted in the novels of Jane Austen where we can get a sense of how important the great house was to the village life. One of the greatest differences between the 18th century country household and the medieval one was the separations between the classes. No longer did everyone eat together like one happy family.  Instead those in “polite society” would stay within their circle. Improved roadways meant that they could mingle together during the London season, before heading down to Bath and could travel to stay at the various country houses of friends or just to visit the country houses of strangers. (Don’t roll your eyes here, I’m about to bring up another Jane Austen connection. I promise – this will be the last. OK, not really. There’s one more. Remember when Elizabeth visits Mr. Darcy’s home? During the 18th century within the polite society clique, the grounds and interiors of all the country homes were open to view.)

chatsworth house

The Chatsworth House is one of the most visited country estates in the UK. It is also thought to be Jane Austen’s inspiration for Mr. Darcy’s home – Pemberley – in Pride and Prejudice. Chatsworth was used for the exterior scenes in 2005 film version of Pride and Prejudice, starring Keira Knightley. (OK, now that’s the last Jane Austen mention.) Chatsworth is the seat of the Duke of Devonshire, and has been home to their family, the Cavendish family, since Bess of Hardwick settled at Chatsworth in 1549.

House Party
The late 18th century was the era of the house-party. Between breakfast and dinner, guests were usually left to amuse themselves with the men usually out hunting. Everyone would assemble in the drawing room at 6:30 or 7 pm, and then proceed to the dining room. After a dinner served by footmen, the ladies would return to the drawing room, while the men smoked, drank and talked. The men would then return to the drawing room to join the ladies and perhaps play cards.

The Victorians and the Country House
The largest force of change in the 19th century was money. Namely, the flood of money brought in by the industrial revolution. Families with newly acquired money built and remodeled country houses as a way to gain entry into an elite world. The old families built and remodeled to keep up with the new ones. The arrival of the middle class into the world of the elite had the effect of tempering the behavior of an upper-class that was criticized as arrogant, immoral and inefficient.

edwardian servants via english heritage

What was different for Victorian country living was the intense separation of the classes and the incorporation of children into the lives of the adults. Victorian country house owner expected a certain level of privacy. This meant that the servant relied on a warren of back stairways and passage ways. Housemaids in Suffolk had to flatten themselves, face to the wall, when they saw family or guests coming. (Some houses were a little less strict!)

minley manor, hampshire. the nursery in 1899 from life in the english country house

The family apartments for the Victorians were designed for a husband, wife and children. Prior to the 19th century, children hardly figured into the space configuration. The Victorians planned their country houses with great attention to the children. The family wing, usually on two or three floors, contained nurseries above the parents boudoir, study, bedroom and dressing room with a little private staircase for the mother to check on the children.

wakehurst place mansion tops the list of “most visited” national trust properties

The Decline
The slow decline of the country house began when middle class servants began to seek easier jobs in the cities. But the real blow dealt to the country house was World War I, when much of the staff in a country house went to work for the war effort and never came back. During World War II many country houses were requisitioned during the war and were returned to the owners in poor repair. The high rate of taxes meant that many estate owners were forced to auction off the contents of the house, and then demolish the house and sell its stone, fireplaces, and boiserie. Many other properties were donated to the National Trust in lieu of death duties. The Trust now owns two hundred historic houses that are open to the public.

rear view of Audley End House. the gardens were designed by lancelot “capability” brown around 1763.

Facts to Know

  • In 1944 Kathleen Kennedy, sister of John F. Kennedy, married William Cavendish, Marquess of Hartington, the elder son of the 10th Duke of Devonshire (The family home is Chatsworth House). The marriage was opposed by the Kennedy family because William wasn’t Catholic and only Kathleen’s elder brother Joseph attended the ceremony. William died in World War II only 4 months after the couple’s wedding, and Kathleen died in a plane crash in 1948.
  • English landscape architect Lancelot “Capability” Brown (1716 – 1783) was responsible for approximately 170 gardens surrounding many of the finest country houses in Britain. His trademark was a mass of smooth rolling grass that would run up straight to the house and replaced the more formal English garden. Grazing animals kept the lawns mowed and provided fertilizer. Americans who traveled to England in the 18th century returned home thoroughly inspired by the lawns at the greats houses.
  • Tea has been imported into Britain since the mid-17th century, but the custom of afternoon tea didn’t begin until the 1840s when gap between dinner and lunch widened. The ladies began to take a small meal of tea and cake in the afternoon to hold them over until 7:30 or 8:00pm.  Anna Maria Russell, Duchess of Bedford – close friend of Queen Victoria –  is thought to be the first person to have transformed afternoon tea in England into a late afternoon meal rather than a simple refreshment.

Books to Read
The English Country House is a popular topic so it was a little difficult to narrow down the list this week!

  • The English Country House from the Archives of Country Life – This huge glossy book looks at homes that had been featured in Country Life magazine. Although I loved the photographs, my favorite part of the book are the inserts that provide some historical context. If you have an Anglophile on your gift list, this is the book for you!
  • The Lawn: A History of an American Obsession – If the history of the lawn fascinates you, this is the book to put it all in context!
  • Life in the English Country House by Mark Girouard – It’s a little dense, but definitely a great book on the ins and outs of English country house living from the medieval through the 1940s.
  • Jane Austen in Style – If you want to dig a little more into the world of Jane Austen, this is a must-have! (Note: the book is out of print, but Amazon has plenty of used copies!)


diy project!
create a rubberized tea set! (warning! once you start rubberizing, you won’t want to stop! I’m already looking around the house for new things to rubberize!)


Materials Needed

  1. Plasti Dip is the key to any and all rubberizing. This 22 oz can also come with 5 tints so that you can create any color!
  2. your  object of choice to be rubberized – I decided to dip a white ceramic teapot and a teacup that I already had on hand.
  3. dipping container – I used an old tupperware container that I no longer used for food

Then you follow the instructions on the back of the container! Your goal is to apply a relatively thin layer of rubber. If the layer you apply is too thick, the drips will bubble and you won’t get that smooth rubber surface. The best way to achieve the thin layer is to not hold the object in the rubber for too long. You should be dipping it slowly in and back out – one fluid motion. (Practice with something you don’t care about first!)

Be sure to think about how you’re going to let the rubber dry. Because I was only dipping half of the teacups, I could lay them down on the opposite side.

Time for tea!

Suggested For You


  • this is so cute! I have been wanting a funky tea set. Do you find the rubberizing stuff at any craft store?

    • tatiana – you can buy it online from the link above or it is carried by ace hardware. seriously, this stuff is FUN!

  • Wow! What a great post! Now I want to go re-read Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility! Thanks for an informative and fun column.

  • mason jars!!!!!!!!!!! for water glasses! i never heard of rubberizing but i’m instantly obsessed

  • Don’t be shy about the Jane Austen comments! She’s fantastic and is probably one of the biggest reasons we have such an affinity for British culture.

  • Awesome post and I love all the Jane Austen references but one thing – Jane did not visit Pemberley, Elizabeth did.

  • You should also check out Harlaxton Manor, which is a home in Lincolnshire, England. It is now a college that I was lucky enough to attend for a study-abroad semester; we lived on the fifth floor and had classes in the Great Rooms on the main floor.

    Here is their website:

    The site looks quite dated, but there is some amazing history there.

  • Great post! Mr Darcy and rubberising tea cups – what’s not to like? I spent a large portion of my childhood weekends and summer holidays scampering happily around the homes and gardens of the various stately homes that England has to offer (courtesy of my parents, and their National Trust season tickets) – especially Chatsworth, which I was very pleased to see on the list. I guess growing up over here, you kind of take these grand country houses for granted, so it’s lovely to read about them with a fresh perspective. Thanks, Amy and D*S!

  • Yes, fantastic post! I love this stuff, and it’s such good eye candy, too. AND, I am totally buying the Lawn book for my dad for Christmas. I wanted the Country Life one for my mom, too, but it’s a bit spendy, and I’m not sure she’d appreciate it enough–maybe I’ll just have to get it for myself instead, lol….

  • I love all your posts and projects. This one is very interesting and I’ve never really heard of it before. I’m sure it’ll be fun to do.

  • “I Capture the Castle” is one of the best books I have EVER read, and I just read it last year. And I really really love the movie, even though I can’t find it in the U.S. (I saw it on the BBC when I was in England a couple of years ago.) Loved all your pictures!

  • I just quickly scanned through the photos and didn’t even realize the teapot was rubberized. I can see how this would become addictive!

  • This post is intense, partly because I’m blinded that I’m seeing Oakham Castle again. I saw this place in the flesh back in 1996 on my first visit to the UK. It’s also the same place where my sister rewound all the film in our camera and lost every picture from our vacation. I’m liking Oakham better today.

  • I think this looks awesome, but I wonder about toxicity, if this comes off easy, and if it’s machine washable (not that big of a deal to handwash) but also if the rubber attracts any dirt or dust and gets dingy?

    Will have to research or if anyone has answers, please do tell!

  • Cat W – I Capture the Castle is on Netflix instant view right now…it’s been in my queue for a while, but I’m afraid to spoil my experience from the book. Love it!

  • I have always had a secret love for english country homes! I enjoyed reading your post and thanks for the great reading list!

  • Rachel – Good catch!

    Stephy – The rubber does not come off easily. Once it’s on, it’s there to stay. (The product is intended to rubberize tools handles for better grip) I’ll probably hand wash the dishes. But It’s not a super sticky rubber so I don’t expect it to get too dingy.

    Jenna – I got the roses in Brooklyn at Sprout Home and they were just labeled as garden roses.

  • lovely post! as a british ex pat who hasn’t been home in 3 yrs it definitely helped my home-sickness a little!

    i hate to be picky though but technically your dates are wrong: jane austen wrote about the regency era which was the very early 19th century (1810-1830 ish) not the 18th… otherwise awesome job!

  • I loved this article. I love all things English. I am a Jane Austen fan.I have 4 different copies of Pride and Prejudice, one being a antique pocket version.
    A&E version of the book is my favorite. I watched the preview of I Captured the Castle and I will watch it after I read the book. Thank-you for this article it made my morning.

  • LOOOOVE the rubberizing diy project! I’m all over that this weekend. And I’ll be picking up a few Jane Austen novels as well. I can’t believe I’ve gotten away without reading any of them so far. This post has inspired me to finally pick one up.

  • I LOVE living in North Yorkshire at the moment (originally from Cleveland!)— and drinking lots of tea! I greatly appreciate this article! Thanks so much!

  • An interesting fact about Great Chalfield Manor is that its garden and some of the architecture date from the beginning of the twentieth century. It was all done so sensitively that it is now very difficult to spot the joins. It is a fascinating example of the Edwardian tendency to use new money to make old buildings look even older.

  • I have loved your blog forever, Grace, though I’ve never commented. But I have to say that this is one of the all time greatest posts ever! Thanks for doing all this research for us to enjoy. Lovely.

  • Great article and interesting read too. Just thought I’d point out a minor typo… but it’s Wakehurst Place not Wakhurst. I only noticed it, because I live down the road from it! So nice to see a bit of my neck of the woods on Design*Sponge. Thank you.

  • I Capture the Castle is a wonderful book – one to read over and over – lots of fun – with quirky characters – a 20th c pride & prejudice

  • what a fun and great post…..Ive always had two dreams, one was to own an english country estate, the other was to own a french chateaux, whichever comes first would be fine with me lol.

    …and then you show me rubberizing…omg, Why oh why did you show this? I now have a need to rubberize everything in my house. You are such a craft trouble maker! everything you suggest, I now have to do. Im just a sucker for crafts.
    Rubberizing is the new Decoupage…
    I think I will rubberize the handle of my wooden hairbrush, and then all of my round ceramic white drawer pulls, and then I will cover all the tea cup plates, and just the bottom of my teacups, and then the tips of my shoelaces…Thats just to start…

  • Plasti Dip is great, but it is fairly toxic and smelly. Make sure you work in a well-ventilated area, and make sure to let your project dry in a well-ventilated area. The handles of a teacup will be fine, but don’t rubberize anything that will go in your mouth, or have food on it.
    The project I’ve had in my head forever is to dip the bottoms of wooden chair legs. No slip!

  • I’ve just recently found Design*Sponge and I think I’ll be spending alot of time here! What a wonderful article on English Manor houses. Rubberizing?? I can’t wait to get started!

  • hello how much were those houses they are huge? and where canyou find that plasti dip that looks amazing do you have any horses at any of the houses i just recently found you guys how long ago did you start the blog?

    • elizabeth

      you can find the plastic dip at most local hardware stores, or you can order it online.

      d*s was started in august of 2004, so we’ve been doing this for a little over 5 years now :)


  • How did you mix the lovely pink color for the tea set? It is just a mix of white and red Plastidip, or did you add some sort of pigment?

    Also, does the the dry color closely resemble the pre-applied mixture?

  • Why you would rubberise classic beautiful objects with cheap plastic is beyond me,but thanks for an article on English country houses.