A line of enthusiasts laden with treasures arrive at Layer Marney Tower hoping to hear good news from the experts on Antiques Roadshow.
A line of enthusiasts laden with treasures arrive at Layer Marney Tower hoping to hear good news from the experts on Antiques Roadshow. Jim Eagles

England: Blast from the past

WHEN we arrived at the lofty red Tudor gatehouse of the magnificent Layer Marney Tower - 500 years old and the tallest in England - all the antique experts were gathered for a pep talk before the start of that day's show.

There was Paul Atterbury, resplendent in a turquoise, navy and yellow striped blazer; the lion-maned Christopher Payne, already eyeing up a pair of beautifully carved chairs; Eric Knowles, immaculate in a dashing maroon shirt and dark suit; Paul Viney, in his trademark panama hat; Lars Tharp, clutching a large ceramic horse; the elegant Hilary Kay, admiring a giant dolls' house; and presenter Fiona Bruce, with a yellow cardy and ... skinned knees?

We were ecstatic. It was like a movie fan attending the Academy Awards or a football fan being allowed into the dressing room before the World Cup final. In fact it was even better because these stars were obviously delighted to talk to their fans and the atmosphere was amazingly friendly and relaxed.

The experts were clearly looking forward to a day exploring other people's treasures, the sun was shining, the tower's gardens were in full bloom, the stewards who make such days work were buzzing about happily in their blue silk sashes and the crowds of customers pouring in laden with everything from abstract art to zany zodiacs were all smiling cheerily in expectation of a great time.

It was a long, long drive, but we got to Colchester late in the afternoon, spent the night in the venerable Rose and Crown, the oldest pub in what claims to be the oldest town in Britain, and headed off early to Layer Marney Tower hoping to beat the queues.We've been fans ofAntiques Roadshow for years, so when we heard there was an episode being filmed near Colchester in Essex, even though we were going to be on the very opposite edge of England, at Boscastle in Cornwall, we just had to go.

There was already a procession of cars heading down the narrow lane to the tower, the field used as a car park was rapidly filling up and a long line of people laden with bags and boxes was spilling down the hedge-lined path leading to the main entrance and round the corner into the lane.

But luckily I had taken up the invitation on the Antiques Roadshowwebsite for people coming from overseas to let them know and in response they had sent me a couple of guest passes which enabled us to bypass the queue and go straight to the reception desk.

I had brought, from New Zealand, my christening robe, partly because it had an interesting story but also because it was easy to pack, and the reception team only needed a quick look to dispatch me to "miscellaneous" which turned out to be a couple of tables under beach umbrellas in the gardens in front of the tower.

There I met Paul Atterbury, his outfit made even more colourful by the addition of a straw hat with a red and white dotted hat band. He welcomed me like an old friend. "Welcome, welcome, you're our first customer, what can we do for you?"

But when I produced my christening robe he pointed at the next table and said, "Oh, Katherine would be the one to see. She's the expert on that."

As I stood up I must have looked disappointed because he added, "Sorry to push you on."

"That's all right," I said, unable to stop my smart mouth from adding, "She's better looking than you."

"Oh," he said. "Oh. I've nothing to say to that."

Katherine was Katherine Higgins, tall and flamboyantly dressed, with spectacular red hair and a glorious smile which grew even more radiant when I said I was from New Zealand. "You're our furthest visitor. That's wonderful. Sit down. What can I tell you?"

My christening robe's history, I explained, had its origin when my dad was serving overseas in World War II and shared a tent with my Uncle Harry. Because Dad got very few letters, Harry encouraged his sister, Molly, to write to him. The correspondence blossomed, they got engaged and then agreed to marry without having met.

When my Dad went back home on furlough after the successful North African campaign, they met, married - living happily ever after - and a year or so later I arrived. Meanwhile, his old unit had moved on to Italy and, learning that marriage and fatherhood was in the offing, his mates sent him a couple of christening robes, supposedly acquired in Monte Cassino.

Katherine was entranced. "Oh, that's so romantic," she said. "That's a wonderful story. It's so sweet."

Then she examined the robe. "Hmmm. 1920s. It's kimono style with none of that Edwardian puffiness in the sleeves so that gives us the timing.

"It's continental. Not British. Italian or possibly French. So it fits the story.

"It's home-made. Mostly hand sewn and cut with some machine finishing. Good quality without being the very finest."

Then we got to the crunch question: value. "Size is an issue here. It was made for a 3-month-old baby which is the age at which they used to be christened. But now 6 months is the norm so it would be too small. However, there are collectors who like this sort of thing. I think you could probably get £65-£70."

Needless to say the robe isn't for sale. It will go to our older daughter who was christened in it. But it was interesting - and surprising - to find out what it was worth.

Conscious that by now there was quite a queue for the miscellaneous tables I started to get up but Katherine pulled me back down. "Oh, no, you've come so far," she said. "Don't hurry away. What else can I tell you."

She looked again at the robe as I was packing it back into the plastic bag and her smile briefly faded. "You're not looking after that very well," she said, "and there are a few signs of deterioration. Plastic is probably the worst thing to pack it into. You really should wrap it in acid-free tissue paper." Suitably chastened we slunk away.

Having been among the first to be seen we now had plenty of time to wander round and see the experts at work. Much to our disappointment moustachioed ceramics man David Battie - probably our favourite expert - wasn't there but most of the others were.

We eavesdropped while clock expert Richard Price had a vigorous argument with a couple of old chaps who evidently thought their collection of pocket watches was worth much more than his estimate.

An Australian couple, who had brought with them a silver dish they knew nothing about, got Ian Pickford very excited. They were given a ticket to report later to be filmed and their dish was sent off for further study.

Fiona Bruce, who was wandering round with her personal cameraman, entertained the ever-lengthening queue by bottle-feeding some lambs from the estate.

Mark Poltimore clearly astounded a young couple when he gave them the value of the miniature portrait they had brought along.

The owner of Layer Marney Tower, Nicholas Corsellis, attracted a swarm of experts when he emerged from a side door carrying a painting and what looked to me like a silver champagne bucket.

A burly man in a yellow shirt folded his arms and tried to look unconcerned as Ian Pickford checked out his prized collection of silver bottles and cups.

It was ... exactly the way it looks when you watch Antiques Roadshow on television ... which for some reason was a marvellous surprise. We loved it all so much that I bought an AR sweatshirt and Chris bought a polo shirt plus a couple of fridge magnets for her friends ... and we never buy souvenirs.

Plus, of course, I'm watching the Antiques Roadshow programmes very careful so I don't miss the Layer Marney episode. Maybe I'll appear as one of those annoying people who gawk in the background. Wouldn't that be great?

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