What’s beneath your feet…?

There are so many things to look at in the show rooms at Knole, Stuart furniture from the Royal Palaces, hundreds of portraits, including some by Reynolds, Van Dyck and Lely, rare carpets and tapestries, all housed in rooms with beautifully detailed wood panelling and fine Jacobean ceilings.  However, the one thing visitors probably never look at are the floors, which have a beauty all of their own, and are in fact as fragile as some of the Knole’s famous textiles.

The floor in the Brown Gallery. The vertical boards are 19th century oak, and the horizontal are pine, also 19th century. The change in direction and wood, shows where the gallery originally stopped and there was another room.
The oak boards are some of few in the show rooms in good condition, despite them receiving double the footfall of anywhere else as visitors walk over them twice along the visitor route.e

The show room floors are a mixture of oak and pine, some were laid much later in the 19th century and others are original 17th century floorboards, such as in the Cartoon Gallery.  They are affected by the agents of deterioration like the rest of the collection.  The uncontrollable levels of relative humidity cause the wood to swell and contract in the changing damp and dry conditions.

Floorboards in the Cartoon Gallery. When you stand at one end and look all the way down the floor you can see (although not very well in this photo) that the floor has been laid in a zigzag. There seems to be no reason for the zigzag effect, as the gallery was originally covered in rush matting, the zigzag would not have been seen. They are 17th century pine boards.

The floors aren’t safe from insect attack either.  Our wood-boring pest insects have had attacked the pine boards in particular, as it is softer than the later oak floors.  You can see the tunnels that the larvae of the Common Furniture Beetle (woodworm) have munched.  They wouldn’t have been visible at first but over the years with tens of thousands of feet walking over the floorboards the top layer of the wood has been worn away to reveal the tunnels.  Not all the damage is historic, we have active infestations too.  Fresh holes and frass were found in the Leicester Gallery just last week.

The tunnelling damage caused by woodworm in the Reynolds Room, 19th century oak boards.

95,000 pairs of feet walked over Knole’s floors last year, and over for 4000 visitors came over the Easter weekend this year.  Some of those feet were particularly wet and muddy thanks to April showers.  We vacuüm the floors every day before we open.  We do this to keep dust levels to a minimum, but also in adverse weather much more mud, grit and stones are brought in by visitor’s shoes.  If we don’t vacuum the mud etc up it will be trodden in to the floorboards causing dents and gauges in the wood, possibly leading to the board edges breaking up where they are already vulnerable.

Damage to the floorboards in the Leicester Gallery, the edge of the board has broken down, pine boards, probably 17th century.

Repairs to the Leicester Gallery floor. Broken edges are taken back and squared off to insert a new piece of wood. Some of the gaps in the floor where the boards have crumbled away are quite big.

Other physical damage is caused by different types of shoes.  Stiletto heels in particular are the worst offenders.  They leave pit marks in the floor, and will break down a weak part of the board, or even get stuck in one of the cracks between the boards.  We wax the floors regularly to give the top surface some protection against the repeated wear and tear.  In the open season we spend most of cleaning time in the mornings before we open caring for the floors.

Pit marks in the China Closet floor caused by stiletto heels.

We could protect the floor with the use of drugget carpets, but then we wouldn’t be presenting the rooms at Knole as they were historically.   However some of floors had some protection in the past.  We have evidence in our archives that show the Cartoon Gallery had rush matting, and a small fragment was found a couple of years ago by our PHD students.  19th Century photographs also show three large Persian carpets in the Gallery, perhaps something we could do again.

Persian carpets in the Cartoon Gallery.

New methods of floor protection are also an possible option.  We are currently trailing an eyemat at the top of the Great Stairs.  A high resolution photograph was taken of the area and printed on to a rubber backed mat.  It holds itself to the floorboards and merges in to the real floor as if it wasn’t there.  It protects the floor from heels and mud, and it a good dust collector too!

The floorboard eyemat at the top of the Great Stairs, protecting 19th century oak boards.

So when you visit Knole, take a moment and look down at floors in each room, you’ll see that every floor is completely different from the next, beautiful in their own right and fragile too!  But before you come in make sure you’ve wiped your feet and please don’t come in your best stiletto heels, you’ll leave a mark on Knole’s floors forever!

Lucy, Melinda, Emily and Sarah




11 thoughts on “What’s beneath your feet…?

  1. Brilliant story. Thank you ever so much for sharing… Indeed floors are often overlooked. They are amazing at solving mysteries, like how the floorplan used to be…
    Good luck with all the hard work!

  2. I remember once I had rather an embarrassing visit by some musicians – I’d forgotten to tell one of them about the “no stiletto heels” rule. She had to play in bare feet… I don’t think it affected her playing though, I’m pleased to say.

  3. Really interesting stuff. It’s accounts like this that really bring the place back to life. Thanks for sharing. And who visits a historic house in stilettos??

  4. Pingback: Don’t look down! | Nostell Priory Conservation Blog

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