“The thing about front doors is that you never know quite what’s behind them,” the writer and historian Jonathan Glancey tells us. As a result, the door “plays on all sorts of parts of our imagination” – hence its powerful symbolism in literature. (He mentions Mole and Ratty stomping through snow to Badger’s panelled oak door in The Wind in the Willows.) Sonia Solicari, director of the Museum of the Home, notes the “tension” doors have, between being welcoming and protective.
Rachel Hurdley, a research fellow at Cardiff University, presents this history of the front door, and begins at Chepstow Castle, which overlooks the River Wye and boasts the oldest castle doors in Europe – approximately 800 years old, and enormous in size. Will Davies, who has the rather wonderful job title “Inspector of Ancient Monuments for Cadw”, points out that they were designed to keep outsiders out. James Wright, a “buildings archeologist”, shows Hurdley the late medieval manor house of Baddesley Clinton in Warwickshire, where the doors are adorned with protective carvings to ward off evil spirits: the letter “M” (a nod to the Virgin Mary), a pentagram and a mesh pattern.
Hurdley admires the grand Georgian door of the townhouse at No 1 Royal Crescent in Bath – a fine example of the front door as status symbol (in this period, she is told, the front door was the “focal point” of the house). Laura Wright, professor of English language at the University of Cambridge, explains how the coming of the railways in the 1840s and the rise of the suburbs increased the popularity of house names and created a number of trends that persist today: the Victorian passion for ferns means there are still many houses called Fernleigh or Ferncroft, and their love of Walter Scott is to blame for the number of houses still called Ivanhoe or Waverley. It would be another 100 years before most families would have their own front door, and their own ability to shut the world out – or invite it in.
The Hidden History of the Front Door
This article appears in the 08 Jun 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Marked Man