ANCIENT historian Michael Scott is pleased his passion for the past was an influence when he and wife Alice were looking for a new home.
From the moment they entered their flat — which is the ballroom of a converted stately home — they were smitten and put an offer in immediately.
‘We both love a property with character, and this had loads of it,’ says Michael, 37, a professor who moved from Cambridge three years ago to work at the University of Warwick.
The former ballroom has such high ceilings that developers were able to install a mezzanine floor — which now accommodates two bedrooms with ensuite bathrooms. The rest of the flat consists of kitchen, entrance hall and large living-cum-dining room, with five double-height sash windows.
While the windows are an eye-catching feature, they did prove a challenge for the couple.
‘The previous owners had painted them shut,’ says Michael. ‘They’d never opened them, which we thought was crazy.’
But on closer inspection, opening the windows proved a bigger job than chipping the paint off.
‘We had to get specialists in. The weightings on the windows were all wrong, and the sliding mechanisms had decayed. The sills were rotten and needed replacing, and the restorers had to remove each window individually and recondition them all.
‘It was an investment, but one we were happy to make because it allows the property to fulfil its potential. There is tons of natural light coming in all day, which we love.’
Michael has presented a wide range of TV history programmes, and is back with a new series of Ancient Invisible Cities on BBC2, in which he uses 3D scanning and virtual reality technology to reconstruct lavish homes from the past.
His work has taken him to a wide range of countries, and he’s brought a number of items back with him, including the cheery number plate collection in the kitchen.
‘I started that in 2005, when I travelled across America and Canada, working with different museums. I’d visit bric-a-brac shops and number plates seemed to be particular collectors’ items.’
He now has 15, from places such as Cuba and Andorra, but his ‘pride and joy’ is a 1948 US hand-painted truck plate. Michael is also fond of his Sicilian fighting stick, presented to him by the Sicilian Stick Fighting Association when he was making a programme about the history of the island.
‘It’s a martial art dating from the 12th century involving a 1.2 metre-long stick,’ explains Michael. ‘It originated with shepherds using the stick they’d use to walk up mountains. It developed into a martial art, whirling the stick over your head, and then moving into attacking and defending positions.’
After giving it a go himself, the association presented him with the decorated ceremonial stick and made him an honorary member.
The living room features more objects Michael has picked up on his travels, including cushions from Jerusalem, Dubai and Istanbul, and a foot stool from Tunisia. ‘It’s a plain brown leather one. I spent hours in the souks of Tunis trying to find a plain one, as every one I was offered had a camel on it. I eventually found one in a dusty backroom of a shop, but the owner looked at me like I was bonkers for not wanting one with a camel on.’
Michael also has a rug he bought in Syria, in 2009. ‘I remember exactly where I bought it — from just outside the citadel in Aleppo.
‘When you see the pictures now, the whole souk area I bought this rug from is in ruins. It’s an incredible memory of a much more peaceful moment in time.. When I look at it, I think of the terrible things that have since happened to the people I was bargaining and joking with that day.’
Michael’s work desk also has sentimental meaning. It used to belong to Cambridge University history master Sir John Plumb and Michael bought it in an auction of his belongings following his death.
‘He was a big part in forming my ideas of what sort of academic I wanted to be,’ says Michael. ‘He was renowned for stressing the importance of writing history not just for academics but for the wider public.’
And as for the future? How long does he see himself living here?
‘We’re happy where we are,’ he says. ‘But if we do move it will be a tough job finding a place with such quirky character and history.’
■ Ancient Invisible Cities starts this Friday on BBC2