Written by Annika Kiehn, summer 2019
What if all historic houses would vanish? Can you imagine that?
Whenever an old house is being demolished – no matter how shabby it looked – I am grieving for the loss of history that has been buried. Would you recocnize if there’d be no more churches, no half-timbered houses, no brick barns, no cottages, no manor houses, no castles?
Being brought up in the rather rural part of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, the farthest Eastern part of Germany and former GDR-Territory, my eyes are familiar with villages dominated by red bricks and half-timbered houses. I mainly grew up in a WBS-70s Plattenbau. I was never specifically trained to pay attention to old buildings, I cannot recall someone pointing his finger and saying: Look at this beauty! Have you noticed the lovely stairs! And oh, that iron front doorknob, marvelous!
For as long as I remember I feel an inexplicable fondness of historic houses to an extent that could probably best compared to the love of distant but dear relatives – your fathers aunt or mothers funky uncle, someone for whom you feel this deep affection for. Those ones with an outstanding character, whom you will quote all of your life.
Old houses can have the quality of ancestors. If you take an interest in them, they tell you stories of times long gone – full of wonders, some of bitterness. Of hard work, of times which were shaped by humble attitudes towards life, that we as so-called modern people of the 21st century can hardly imagine.
They give us hints on how life was being lived in those days. Some techniques that live on, just like we continue to use clay and reed for the walls, but parts could be forever lost – for example you would never again find a contemporary house with ceilings charmed by stucco.
You might stand in front of one of these houses feeling a pleasant shiver and you start to think that the house wants you to admire it, or that it might even need you. But the truth is: Houses don’t care about people. It’s a one-sided love, unconditional, in a way. Maybe you just needed an excuse for the feeling, which seem to come out of the blue.
I guess it is no daring to say that the majestic appearance of a manor houses will never stop to impress us. And as your eyes wander around it you start to wonder, what the former owners were like, whose children were born under this roof, what fights might have been fought, what promises were made. You try to imagine the cheerful moments of peace and candlelight. You want to listen to the stories told around the fireplace. You try to imagine suffering refugees this house has sheltered, silent but firm during years of war.
To this day manor houses are wrapped up in this atmosphere of legends, of hidden secrets, which you want to find while you admire those old beaver tail shingles, who are covered with bits of moss, which have been lying up there for more than a hundred years. And you think of the strength of each single shingle which gave its best to protect the house against wetness and storms, so the those houses could resist the changes of times and seasons. Some of them for more than 400 years, other „only“ for 170.
And before you realize it, you fall in love. You start to care about the house which might be a ruin still. You want to protect it, you want to maintain it, you even imagine to live in it. Perhaps that’s their secret: Their unique beauty. It will never be found likewise in a new build house.
You can call me nostalgic, or old-school. I like vintage, I like antiques. I like the smell of a dusty attic, old wood. I like Vinyl, I like old VW-Kombis, I love books. I have too many of them yet unread (which makes me suffering from „bibliomania“, I guess). The way they hold words pressed into paper like tattoo they appear as an antidote to this ultimate loss of substance as the world turns faster and starts to move into a sphere where we start to mainly live on a screen.
I like to stress, though, that by all my fondness of the past, I consider myself as a modern person – I am a huge fan of Spotify, I even adapted to Online-Banking and to smartphones. I love Instagram. I spend way to much time on it but it’s a perfect source of inspiration for those like me, living in a rather remote area. Oh, an I recently I fell for an Austrian hipsterband.
So who am I?
Hi there! I am Annika. Freelance Journalist, countryside/big city-hybrid, Hinterland-explorer and official ambassador of Baltic manor houses due to this fantastic EU-Interreg-Project. I have the privilege to take you along on my trip and show you extracts of 21st-century „manorial Zeitgeist“ around the Baltic Sea.
What Hinterland, you might wonder? The term originates in the German language but has been adapted by several European fellow countries way back in the 19th century, as L’hinterland by our French neighbors or, even more fancy in Portuguese, as Hinterlândia. The Hinterland is characterized as a rather rural area with poor infrastructure, far away from cities and limited possibilities to make a living. These days, it is the place to be when it comes to vacation-adventures, which are meant to leave an impact on you.
The Hinterland might be poor of sea water but it’s rich of inspiring people who are bound to create a cultural and economic transition within these long neglected areas all over Denmark, Sweden, Poland, Lithuania and Germany. They do so by devoting themselves to a new kind of luxury and in finding everything where there is supposedly nothing.
Some contemporaries feel tempted to tease those Hinterland-explorers as a rather freakish kind of folk. How can you bear this non-existing comfort?
And even those, who grew up with this kind of rural lifestyle are part of the change, as they have noticed that change is inevitable. Their ancestors being farmers, they now start to organize operas and festivals in the middle of nowhere and hosting guests. Because these houses are not meant for one family alone anymore.
Manorial heritage might be still considered as a rather posh setting for countrylife-ambitions, but the new owners are nevertheless an example for a rather humble view of things in trying to make those houses economically worthy. This includes the appreciation of a work-life-balance, a longing for peace, for family activities, being less driven by money and seeking pleasure in things we cannot buy or make hold of: such as nature, silence and time.
Manor houses have become an icon of a long lost time, where there was an appreciation of what we might call a decent life in an agricultural microcosm, of hard work and commitment. However, some things might have change for the worse, some have changed for the better. No matter what condition these houses might be in today, some features will never be outdated: they delight, they remind, they astonish – each one in it‘s individual way.
With this project I not just want to travel back in time. I also want to turn to those modern manor-carer in order to find out how this topic relates to us, the „ordinary“ people? Those who will never be able to afford, probably better off never even wanting to own a manor house. How can we, the guests, share a bit of this manorial crazyness, nevertheless?
With my journey I want to take you with me to find the ones, who have managed the transition from past to present in giving those old houses a new life. Who like to get to know you likewise, who want you to come and visit them, to share the joy over this beauty and feel the vibes of past days. Let us explore the Baltic „manorscape“, as our Danish colleagues dubbed this vast field of historic heritage.
Old places, new life ! Get inspired and who knows – maybe you will even discover your new self within this historic setting. You wouldn’t be the first one to get attached.