Written by Annika Kiehn, summer 2019
What if all of the historic houses were to vanish? Could you fathom that?
I grieve for the buried history whenever an old house is demolished—regardless of how shabby it looks. Would you recognize churches, half-timbered houses, brick barns, cottages, manor houses, and castles if they were no longer present?
Being raised in the rather rural part of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, the farthest eastern part of Germany and former GDR-Territory, my eyes are accustomed to them. I grew up in a WBS-70s Plattenbau. I was never specifically taught to appreciate historic structures; I cannot recall someone pointing their finger and saying, “Look at this beauty!” “Have you noticed the lovely stairs?!” “And oh, that iron front doorknob is marvelous!”
For as long as I can remember, I have had an inexplicable fondness for historic houses on a par with the love of distant but dear relatives—your father’s aunt or mother’s funky uncle, someone for whom you feel this deep affection—those with exceptional character, whom you will quote all of your life.
Old houses can have the quality of ancestors. Besides, if you take an interest in them, they will tell you stories of bygone eras—some filled with wonder, others filled with bitterness. Of hard work, of times shaped by humble attitudes towards life, that we, as so-called modern people in the twenty-first century, can hardly imagine.
They provide insight into how life was lived in those days. While some techniques survive, just as we continue to use clay and reed for walls, others may be forever lost. For example, you will never again find a contemporary house with stucco ceilings.
You may experience a pleasant shiver when standing in front of one of these houses and begin to believe that the house wishes for you to admire it or even needs you. However, the reality is that houses do not care about people. It’s a one-sided, unconditional love in some ways. Perhaps you simply needed an excuse for the feelings that seem to come out of the blue.
I guess it is no daring to assert that the majestic appearance of manor houses will never cease to impress us. And as your eyes wander around it, you start to wonder about the former owners, whose children were born under this roof, what fights they may have fought, what promises they may have made. You try to imagine the cheerful moments of peace and candlelight. You may wish to listen to the stories they shared around the fireplace. And then you try to imagine the suffering of the refugees this house has sheltered silently but resolutely throughout years of war.
To this day, manor houses retain an aura of legends and hidden secrets that you may want to discover while admiring those old beaver tail shingles covered with bits of moss that have been lying up there for more than a century. And you think of the strength of every single shingle that did its best to protect the house against wetness and storms, allowing those houses to withstand the passage of time and seasons. Some have existed for over 400 years, while others have existed for “less than” 170.
And before you realize it, you fall in love. You start to care about the house, which may still be in shambles. You want to protect it, maintain it, and even imagine living in it. Perhaps that’s their secret: their unique beauty. It will never be found in the same way in a newly constructed house.
You may refer to me as nostalgic or old-school. I like vintage; I like antiques. I like the smell of old wood and a dusty attic. I love books, vinyl, and old VW-Kombis. Besides, I have too many unread books (which makes me suffer from “bibliomania,” I guess). The way they hold words pressed into paper like tattoos, they appear as an antidote to this ultimate loss of substance as the world turns faster and moves into a realm where we spend the majority of our time staring at a screen.
However, I would like to emphasize that, despite my nostalgia for the past, I consider myself a modern person—I am a huge fan of Spotify; I have even adapted to online banking and smartphones. I love Instagram. I spend too much time on it; however, it’s a perfect source of inspiration for those like me living in a remote area. Oh, and I recently developed an obsession with an Austrian hipster band.
So who am I?
Hi there! I am Annika. Freelance Journalist, countryside/big city-hybrid, Hinterland-explorer, and official ambassador for Baltic manor houses due to this fantastic EU-Interreg-Project. I would like to invite you to accompany me on my journey around the Baltic Sea, where I’ll show you extracts of 21st-century “manorial Zeitgeist.“
You might be wondering what Hinterland is. The term originates from the German language; however, it was adopted by several European countries 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, a remote location from cities, and limited opportunities to make a living. These days, it is the place to be when it comes to vacation adventures designed to leave an impression.
While the Hinterland lacks seawater, it’s rich in 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 accomplish this by committing to a new kind of luxury and by discovering everything where there is ostensibly nothing.
Moreover, some contemporaries feel tempted to tease those Hinterland-explorers as rather freakish kinds of folk. How can you bear this non-existing comfort?
And even those who grew up with this kind of rural lifestyle are now part of the change, having recognized that change is inevitable. Being farmers, their ancestors now started to organize operas and festivals in the middle of nowhere and host guests—because these houses are no longer meant for one family alone.
Furthermore, while manorial heritage may still be regarded as a rather posh setting for country life ambitions, the new owners demonstrate a more humble perspective in attempting to make those houses economically worthwhile. This includes the appreciation of a work-life balance, a longing for peace, for family activities, a distaste for material possessions, and a desire for pleasure in things we cannot buy or obtain, such as nature, silence, and time.
Manor houses have evolved into an icon of a long lost time when there was an appreciation for what we might call a decent life in an agricultural microcosm of hard work and commitment. However, while some things might have changed for the worse, others have changed for the better. Thus, no matter what condition these houses might be in today, certain features will never be outdated: they delight, they remind, and they astonish—each in their own unique way.
I not only want to travel back in time with this project, but I also want to turn to those modern manor-carers in order to find out how this topic relates to us, the “ordinary“ people. Those who will never be able to afford a manor house are probably better off never even wanting to own one. But how can we, the guests, share a bit of this manorial craziness?
With my journey, I hope to bring you along as I seek out those who have successfully transitioned from the past to the present by giving those old houses a new lease on life. I also seek out those who would like to get to know me as well, and those who want to come and visit them to share the joy of this beauty and feel the vibes of past days. Let us explore the Baltic “manorscape,” as our Danish colleagues dubbed this vast field of historical heritage.
Old places, new life! Get inspired, and who knows, maybe you will even discover your new self in this historic setting. You wouldn’t be the first one to get attached.