The staircase at Mompesson House

The spectacular staircase at Mompesson House

Find out this month about the history and upkeep of our spectacular staircase at Mompesson House, including our homemade cleaning products.

" There is no part of a house where the eye is more naturally directed upwards than the stair-case…When we enter a room, the variety of objects calls the eye from place to place, and the furniture, as well as decoration, claim this divided share of attention; but in the passing up stairs, the eye is naturally directed to the side and top, and this justifies the finishing usually bestowed upon those parts of an edifice."
- Isaac Ware, A Complete Body of Architecture, 1735

The oak staircase is a central feature of the house here. It was installed by Charles Longueville – the brother-in-law of Charles Mompesson – in the 1740s along with the magnificent plasterwork that adorns the house’s interior. The stairs were carpeted when Denis Martineau lived in the house in the 1950s but when the Trust took over they were removed to put the staircase back as it was in Longueville’s time.

The entrance hall in 1958
The entrance hall in 1958

Looking after the stairs with their carved spirals and fluted column newel posts is a daily task. The stairs are first swept and then cleaned and buffed with a vinegar and paraffin cloth. This is a traditional method of collecting dust and, at the same time, redistributing the wax polish. This prevents wear marks developing from all the visitors that climb the stairs. With around 40,000 visitors to the house last year that is a lot of footsteps! Without this daily care you would soon see the loss of wax.

The carved spirals of the staircase
The carved spirals of the staircase

As you walk up the stairs you will be aware of how shallow the treads are. The plan and detail of the stairs at Mompesson derives from the late seventeenth century. In Longueville’s time they were probably seen as quite old-fashioned. The dresses of the time had wide skirts that were expanded with hoops called ‘panniers’; this meant the smaller treads were much more manageable for ladies wearing such gowns. The main stairs were reserved exclusively for the family; servants would have used the smaller backstairs which go all the way to the attic rooms. These are strictly functional and much smaller in scale.

I use several different brushes to clean the stairs. The first is a normal sweeping brush then every week I use a variety of different brushes to clean down the edge of the stairs. The first of these is called, oddly enough, a banister brush; another is a curved plate brush. Some of these have pieces of felt or electrical tape attached to stop scratching.

Brushes used to clean the stairs
Brushes used to clean the stairs

Finally, the handrail has special attention every month and is buffed with a chamois leather to bring back the shine.

We don’t use any commercial or household polishes. We do use things, however, that most people would recognise such as a variety of floor waxes. Perhaps the most surprising cleaning product that I do use every day – the paraffin and vinegar cloths – I also make myself.  Here’s one I prepared earlier.

A paraffin and vinegar cloth
A paraffin and vinegar cloth
" How to make a paraffin and vinegar cloth: Squares of wool blanket are soaked in a 50:50 mixture of paraffin and vinegar and allowed to drip until not quite dry. The cloths are then sealed in a screw top jar or polythene bag. These are changed when dirty and washed before soaking them again in the paraffin and vinegar mixture. Make in a well ventilated area. "
- Kate Vince