The boot room is the overdraft facility of interior spaces. You don’t miss it until it’s gone, then you wonder how you ever lived without it. Boot rooms these days are more frequently associated with footballers – who rather daintily refer to them as “dressing-rooms” – rather than a drab, ill-lit chamber in the average stately or a Farrowed and Ballsed-up dumping-ground for the latest, soon outdated, rejected and neglected luxury toy in many a hedge-funded household.
To most of us, though, space is at a premium; we believe we are dab hands at utilising every inch, so people tend to assume a boot room can be combined with a utility room, or an oversized porch, or even a dank cupboard off the hall. No, no. The true-blue boot room echoes the days of Jorrocks, a job-specific zone when one had a plethora of servants who were mini-masters of their own realms. Some underling – the younger of a pair of “matched” footmen perhaps – had the responsibility of ensuring that steaming piles of hunting boots, soggy brogues and sodden stockings were whisked away, to reappear a day later laundered or gleaming with highly polished patination, usually achieved by boning, an archaic process of rubbing the horse sweat-encrusted leather with the shank bone of a deer. There is also the case of one Midlands master of the fox hounds divorcee whose ex insisted she buff his with apricot jam.
Now, having edged the dreaded conservatory off the must-have map, the boot room is having a revival in its own right. Not as we fondly remember it but as a veritable extension of the kitchen or sitting room, where overstuffed chairs and blanket chests blend with dogs’ dinners and kitty-litter staining the coir, the neutral walls given trendy cachet by quirky overpriced photographs of models, a miniature snooker table, and maybe a see-into booze fridge, filled with showy vintages only delved into on unusually special occasions.
The 21st-century boot room is a watered-down version of the hardcore Edwardiana we usually associate with the old-skool set-up of bats and whips, where fishing rods and old nets hung from beams and discarded toppers, their once-black silk turning green, or a Frinton beach’s bucket and spade flashed a splash of forgotten sunlight to a dim corner.
Very few houses have a boot room that has not evolved in some manner to accommodate today’s requirements. Some have become gun rooms, or rather rooms with a severely padlocked gun-cupboard. Others are pet-dorms, if you can call reptiles pets, let alone a macaw peppering one with peanut husks between blood-curdling shrieks. Others are simply a no-man’s-land of rooms, a dash from the outdoors to the Aga, where a collective heap of hideous flower-patterned wellies is entwined with those ridiculous extra-long dog-leads, Barbours and Barbie-pink nylon anoraks.
There can be a collection of sporting equipment to give the impression to visitors that the family are big tennis players, perhaps a treasured set of Jaques croquet things, or antique curling stones (when winters were cold and Grandpa used to leave the hose on by the rockery), and even consciously Ralph Lauren-style, well-fondled leather cricket and medicine balls, or lawn bowls, their splitting monogrammed ivory discs reglued with Uhu. But an unavoidable tumbleweed-like miasma of dog-hair and dead daddy long legs wafts on the draught across the stone floors – flagstones are favoured over tiles and heated flagstones are wildly spoiling, but probably only on when guests are expected. Wood floors get scuffed, and coir is, frankly, common, while leftover bits of carpet are a no-no unless you really enjoy doing the Shake ’n’ Vac.
Look closer and you may spot a bust of some glowering Victorian peer being used as a hat stand, often with forlorn Christmas decs draping his neck, or a set of antlers adorned with unworn promotional baseball caps. A half-heartedly organised stack of “drying” timber is indistinguishable from unmanageably complicated – hence the footman of old – wooden boot-trees, ancient rellies’ relics that Fiona keeps meaning to have made into a lamp. And seating is essential when wrestling with a wetsuit; the oak benches, settles or hall chairs that get dumped here are eminently suitable as they now look out of place “indoors” unless one has a vast entrance hall. Walking sticks and umbrellas bristle in the lower tier of a curlicue bent-wood coat-stand and, while there are enough coat hooks to land Moby Dick, these are confined only to oddments of clothing that no one wants anymore and are handed out to visitors who have come unprepared for a post Sunday lunch marathon.
All the above is how the room SHOULD be ... forget the tidy parqueted passage with a rough basket of identical logs bought at the local garage, and a glum row of Uggs and Crocs. If you are fortunate to have room for the real thing, appreciate it for whatever purpose it’s used for; what with space running out and building regulations becoming ever crushing, such rooms will soon be dead as the dodo, and yet another institution, a classic in the British interior canon, will be sacrificed to modernity, their romance lost in what Nancy Mitford succinctly called the “brumes d’antiquité”.