The philosophy of repair

by Declan Cahill

Over the past couple of weeks we have visited sites where we have been told about various approaches to the treatment of historic stonework. This has got us debating, discussing, agreeing and disagreeing about which approach would be the best one in each situation. As someone who believes that not one rule can be applied to all situations, I have found it very interesting to look at these approaches and to think if I would do the same, and if not what the alternatives might be. Since 1887 the Society and its members have been fighting for the timeless beauty of historic buildings that comes naturally with age. But what is important and sets each approach apart is what level of intervention is required to stave off decay, and that we do not lose this beauty by being too heavy handed in our intervention.

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Villa Saraceno

Recently we were very lucky to be invited to Villa Saraceno with the Landmark Trust. You can read more about our trip in a forthcoming blog post. Here I am going to touch on the approach they are taking towards the preservation of the stonework at the villa. The villa is predominantly brick built and rendered, with stone detailing to the windows and doors. The stone is a white limestone that was used in most of Palladio’s buildings. During our visit we got the chance to learn from Serse and Katrin from PT Color, who explained the methods they were using to preserve the stone and minimize the loss of flaking stone from a door jamb.

The conservators were using lime-based consolidants for flakes with larger openings and an acrylic resin on the finer flakes. The edges of the flakes were then closed using a lime-based mortar. On an annual basis the conservators visit the site and try to prolong the life of the worst delaminating stone. This painstaking process is very admirable, but on further discussion it’s important to think about the other factors that inform this decision.

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Stone consolidation at Villa Saraceno

Firstly the significance of the villa, it is an early incomplete example of Palladio’s design that incorporated the functionality of the farmstead with the grandeur and geometry of the country retreat. The white limestone of the area is inherently a softer limestone and the jamb that was being worked on faced the north west, thus exposing the stone to the worst weather conditions. The conservators’ argument against using shelter coats was that you would not see the original stone face. Do we let the stone age and decay, accepting that the stone will one day need replacing, or do we do our utmost to prolong the life of the stone? Are we preventing the stone from gracefully aging? And if we are to intervene at what stage do we begin this intervention?

Just seven days after standing in front of the door jamb at Villa Saraceno, we were back on English soil and visiting St. Leonard’s Middleton Parish Church to look at the south porch of this medieval church that has had minimum intervention since its conception in 1412. The parish’s website describes the porch as ‘romantically crumbling away’ and it is exactly this romanticism that the church is at risk of losing.

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‘Romantic’ south porch at St Leonard’s church

The parish has decided that now is the time for intervention, and the church architect’s proposal is to de-frass the stonework to give it a ‘carved’ face again. We were able to see a test panel that had been produced by a stonemason for discussion.

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Examples panels of de-frassed stonework

It is important to add that the present stonework is laminating but there isn’t any excessive loss of stone; it is in a state that is beautiful to look at due to the natural patina of age. By taking this approach the church’s aesthetic will be altered forever and layers will be lost from its history. We can only hope that the parish see what they will be losing and that a more respectful approach will be chosen.

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Natural patina to the south porch stonework

The case at Middleton reminded me of the origins of the SPAB when the Society was also known as the ‘Anti Scrape Society’. The Society was founded on a belief that we should approach the repair of historic fabric with minimum intervention and only act to prevent future damage. We must respect the original craftsperson’s work; that is currently in danger of being forgotten at Middleton but is being championed at Saraceno.

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Paint and plaster conservation at Gorton Monastery

Another site visit has taken us to Gorton Monastery, where Alan Gardener is applying these meticulous preservation and consolidation techniques to the consolidation of Victorian (and later) wall paintings, plaster and stone. Seeing similar techniques to those at Villa Saraceno being applied at Gorton is a timely reminder that we need to approach our work with respect and that historic fabric, no matter how old, has significance.

Scholars head north

by Gethin Harvey

Vernacular Buildings
Since the last post, the Scholars have headed north to Cumbria and into Scotland to study the effect of changing geology and wetter climates on vernacular buildings and the accompanying variations in construction techniques.

Solid earth wall construction

In such areas the detrimental effects of water ingress and damp can be exacerbated if not addressed; with increases in average annual rainfall over recent years, it also poses questions on how well equipped historic buildings are to deal with the amount of rainfall seen today and associated repair philosophies.

One vernacular tradition is the construction of buildings with solid earth wall structures which go by different names dependent on the regional variations in construction and local dialect. These are known locally in Cumbria as ‘clay dabbins’ and following a guided tour of Burgh by Sands by 2014 fellow Alex Gibbons it became apparent that they are often difficult to spot, hidden behind protective lime renders.

This not only leads to uncertainty in the exact amount surviving in the UK it also means that they may often not have the statutory protection they deserve. We subsequently joined local craftspeople and volunteers to progress the construction of a newbuild clay dabbin building in the RSPB sanctuary on the Solway Plain. The experience of working with the material revealed the practicalities which determine the methodology of construction; the walls are formed of lifts only a few inches in height, contrasting with, for instance, cob buildings in Devon where the drier material allows lifts of up to 2 ft. It was a great example of how traditional crafts may be used to provide sustainable opportunities for building using nothing outside the immediate context of a site. Surviving examples serve as great precedents for this and their maintenance is crucial, one of many topics which will be covered at Clay Fest 2016 which will provide opportunities for further explanation and hands-on experience at the RSPB Campfield Marsh Reserve in Bowness-on-Solway, Cumbria on 18 – 23 July 2016.

For more information please see the Earth Buildings UK website.

Scottish Working Party

Balmerino Abbey, Scotland Working Party

Despite predictions of thunderstorms, the weather was glorious (with a minor exception – the typically soggy British BBQ on the final evening).

The weather enabled the volunteers to throw themselves into the work at Balmerino Abbey, a ruinous masonry structure in Fife. This included raking out cement pointing in a boundary wall and repointing with lime mortar; soft capping trials and preparing the materials for repointing and soft capping.

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Lime has been a constant theme throughout our visits and it was a great asset to have Bill Revie, Andy Bradley and Duncan Strachan from the British Limes Forum to guide us. For the lime pointing a hybrid mix of quicklime gauged with NHL 5 was used with local sharp sand. This was a combination we had not previously seen and was designed to provide an initial chemical set to prevent the mortar being damaged by frost and/or wind before carbonation. Their interactive demonstration of the lime cycle and the ‘3-minute kiln’ (for construction, not burning!) was of great benefit to all present and provided us with a better understanding of its use in more severe climates.

Kiln at Scottish Working Party

With a similar range of repair methods as those proposed for the SPAB England Working Party which will be held at Greatham, Hampshire on 3 – 9 July 2016, it was great to have the experience of Alison Davie Construction Ltd to supervise the works. Aside from the practical experience it was a brilliant social meeting with many partaking in their first official ceilidh and we would like to convey our thanks to Historic Environment Scotland and National Trust for Scotland and all others involved in an incredible few days.

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The wonders of lime

By Declan Cahill

Since the last blog post the Scholars have spent two weeks in North Wales, a week on the SPAB’s bi-annual repair of old buildings course and a week in Somerset, the last four weeks have seen a focus on lime, both intentionally and unintentionally. Prior to the Scholarship, my involvement with the use of lime was project based, and my understanding of the historic use and characteristics of the material was fairly rudimentary. I thought I had a grasp on the different types of lime, however I still found myself questioning what I was specifying, the worry that seemed to hang over me was whether I was going to cause more damage through specifying a lime mortar that wasn’t cohesive with the existing building. After the last four weeks, I believe my apprehension was totally justified.

Plas Tirion, North Wales

Plas Tirion

Plas Tirion sits in the Conwy valley, and is home to the Natural Building Centre (NBC), we spent the day with Ned Scharer (owner of the NBC), who showed us how his use of lime to repair Plas Tirion underlies their philosophy of specifying the appropriate material for the location and the part of the building it is being used on. Therefore an understanding of the history of the building and its materials as well as an appreciation of the impact the weather has on these materials needs to sit at the beginning of the discussion regarding which is the correct lime to use when carrying out repair works. Knowing of our forthcoming trip to Italy, Ned was also able to introduce us to the art of fresco painting and gave us the opportunity to have a go ourselves.

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Declan and Gethin trying fresco painting

The rest of this week was spent with Elgan Jones, an architect of Purcell and 2014 Scholar, and Elinor Gray Williams of Donald Insall Associates, a Scholar from 2006. Site visits over the three days included both the grandness of castles of North Wales as well as more modest vernacular buildings and churches. We visited St. Cwyfan Church which was repaired in 2005 by Ned Scharer and included the use of broken shells and saltwater in the mortar mix and limewashes respectively. Read more about the limework at St Cwyfan’s Church-in-the-sea.

In the heart of the Brecon Beacons, the historic farm of Ty Mawr is the home of Nigel and Joyce Gervis, and Ty Mawr Lime Ltd. The visit to Ty Mawr helped us understand their involvement in the resurrection of the use of lime in historic buildings since the company was founded in 1995.

Scholars and fellows with Stafford Holmes and the line kiln at CAT

Scholars and Fellows with Stafford Holmes and the lime kiln CAT

We then met up with the Fellows and Stafford Holmes to spend five days at the Centre of Alternative Technology (CAT) at Machlynlleth. The aim of our time at CAT was to carry out some maintenance works to the lime kiln, further our knowledge of lime and its uses, and to finally fire up the lime kiln to burn and slake lime. Our time with Stafford gave an insight into the wide range of uses of lime, and started to decipher how to approach the use of lime in conjunction with historic buildings. Stafford was able to teach us about the different types of lime and their appropriateness in different contexts, and by getting first hand experience of what is required in order to burn and slake lime has really helped me to understand the extensive and traditional use of lime in historic buildings. We also made a site visit to Portmeirion, which sparked interesting debate regarding pastiche and the relocation of historic buildings.

Scholars and fellows at Portmeirion

Scholars and Fellows in Portmeirion

The five day repair of old buildings course consists of three days of lectures and two days of site visits. I cannot start to communicate the amount of information that is gained through attending the course, but I can say that it is an extremely useful starting point for those involved in conservation of historic buildings. The lectures on the various aspects of historic building fabric are given by experts in their individual field, and the two days of site visits allow you to see how this is put into practice. The spring course this year included site visits to the Queens House at Greenwich, the longest medieval barn at Frindsbury, Knole House in Kent and St. Mary’s Church and Hadlow Tower at Hadlow.

During National Mills Weekend I volunteered at Bradwell Mill just north of Milton Keynes. National Mills weekend is arranged every year to open up the windmills and watermills of the country to the general public. This year the William Morris Craft Fellowship Trust led a weekend of demonstrations and fundraising at Charlecote Mill. This helped raise £930 for the Trust.

We then headed down to Somerset where we spent time with Jo Hibbert, Scholar from 2002, who showed us a variety of projects she has been working on, including defence posts in Plymouth. We were also lucky enough to visit Carpentry Oak in Totnes and try our hand at stone carving with Westcountry Stonemasons in Ivybridge. Following our time with Jo we then spent a great day with Shaun from Somerset Stone Conservation, this allowed us to get some more hands on experience through helping to consolidate and re-point a railing plinth. An information-packed day was then spent with Philip Hughes, who was the first building surveyor scholar and is the current chairman of the SPAB technical panel. We visited projects at St. Lukes Pastoral Church in Wincanton, as well as the ongoing works at Wimborne St. Giles, which has been praised for its various approaches to conservation.

We finished the week and the last four weeks of the Scholarship at Woburn Abbey, where we were given a tour of the abbey by the curator, Matthew Hirst, and were able to have a look at the works being administered by Nick Cox Associates. The visit was also used to discuss our ideas for the Plunkett part of the Scholarship where we will spend the last three months of the programme visiting country houses to study a research topic of our choice.

Hands-on Learning

The first block is racing by and the Fellows and Scholars have gone their separate ways. The Fellows travelled to central Scotland for a fortnight, where they visited Stirling Castle, Glasgow Cathedral, and the Kelvingrove Gallery amongst many others. From conversion to new use (Stirling Engine Shed) to petrography (with Bill Revie at Construction Materials Consultants) there were many different insights into the work currently going on in Scottish building conservation.

With stained glass conservator, Lizzy Hippisley-Cox, on the Fellowship this year, there has been the opportunity to visit several stained glass studios, including Mark Bambrough’s Scottish Glass Studios in Glasgow, Rainbow Glass in Prestwick, and the glazing team at Lincoln Cathedral works department. Lizzy was also able to attend the Society of Glass Technology and Association for Historic Glass conference at the Wallace Collection in London. This was an opportunity to learn more about post medieval glass production methods and to talk with glass scientists about current glass analysis techniques.

Bulmers Brick and Tile_Fellow Heather Griffith

Fellow Heather Griffith with Peter Minter, owner of Bulmer Brick and Tile Company

Bulmer Brick and Tile Company

Bulmer Brick and Tile Company

The Fellows were also delighted to get some hands-on experience of crafts such as blacksmithing (at Ratho Byres Forge), brick throwing (at Bulmer Brick and Tile Company), and thatching (with Kit Davis in Blewbury, Oxfordshire). The Fellows are currently in Lincoln, having had a fantastic few days with the works department staff at the Cathedral, exploring the turrets, triforia and roofspaces.

Lincoln Cathedral

Lincoln Cathedral

Meanwhile, the Scholars have been travelling around Oxfordshire and Leicestershire, learning about woodlands, timber framing and the dating of timber structures. They have also spent time learning about roofing with different types of stone, and how a roof is traditionally set out. They visited Norman and Underwood and saw lead being sand cast. They spent some time with SPAB Guardian, Nicholas Hobbs, a furniture designer and maker, to find out more about the work and care that goes into producing bespoke timber furniture. They’re currently enjoying exploring the vernacular buildings of north Wales and looking forward to seeing many more beautiful buildings in the weeks ahead.

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SPAB Scholars Triona Byrne and Gethin Harvey trying wattle and daub with Owlsworth IJP, a conservation construction company

Scholars and Fellows hit the conservation trail

by Triona Byrne

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Scholars and Fellows at SPAB HQ

It’s been an eventful first fortnight for the Scholars and Fellows as we hit the conservation trail, starting from SPAB HQ in Spital Square.

During the first two weeks, we spent time with SPAB Guardians Stephen Bull and Conor Meehan, learning about their careful repairs and conservation work at a Georgian building on Kennington Road, and the Union Chapel building in Islington. At Kennington Road, we learned how they are tackling the problem of differential settlement (up to 4 inches) across the building which makes for interesting sensations as one walks from one side of a room to another.

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Scholars and Fellows visit a repair project on Kennington Road, London

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Differential settlement at 285 Kennington Road

As well as visiting Kenwood House with Ian Angus, we travelled to Herstmonceux Castle in Sussex, where Tom Massey, 2014 Fellow, has carried out expert repairs to the castle gates (c. 1910) using a local English oak which will weather over time to seamlessly match the existing timber.

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Herstmonceux Castle gate repair by 2014 SPAB Fellow, Tom Massey

The Scholars were kindly invited to the V&A Museum to view a selection of architectural drawings in the Prints & Drawings Study Room. Along with drawings by Palladio, Sir John Soane and Eileen Gray, we got to look at original drawings and notes by Philip Webb, co-founder of the SPAB. These included his early drafts for text to be engraved on tombstones – like this one below for poor Charles who “fell asleep” on Good Friday 1879. We also viewed the free Philip Webb exhibition (ends 24 April 2016), which gives an interesting insight into his work with William Morris and his involvement in establishing the SPAB.

Philip Webb tombstone text

Tombstone text by Phillip Webb, part of the V&A Museum’s collection

Finally we spent a day learning the secrets of sketching with architect Mark Power. We wandered around the Southwark area, learning about light, shade, negative space and proportion. It concluded a very interesting and educational first fortnight.

George Courtyard_Heather Girffith

A sketch focussing on negative space by SPAB Fellow Heather Griffith

 

2016 Scholars and Fellows announced

This year’s Scholars are: Triona Byrne, an engineer from Co Kildare; Declan Cahill, a building surveyor from London/Manchester and Gethin Harvey, an architect based in Norwich.

This year’s Fellows are: Peter McCluskey, a slater/roughcaster from Glasgow; Thom Evans, a stonemason from Ceredigion; Lizzie Hippisley-Cox, a stained glass conservator from York and Heather Griffith, a stonemason from Stirling.

Subscribe to this blog to keep up to date with the Scholars’ and Fellows’ countrywide conservation tour, starting in mid-March.

Congratulations to our ‘graduating’ Fellows!

In November the SPAB, Fellows and their families were welcomed to the Carpenters’ Company Hall in London for this year’s Fellowship Presentation. Joe Coombes-Jackman (blacksmith), Ben Hornberger (carpenter) and Emma Teale (stone conservator) were awarded their certificates by the Chairman of the William Morris Craft Fellowship Founding Committee, Lord Cormack. After presenting their certificates and book prizes he noted that they were now part of the illustrious SPAB Fellowship alumni and assured them that “once a Fellow, always a Fellow”.

Fellows with Scholarship and Fellowship organiser, Pip Soodeen.

Fellows with Scholarship and Fellowship organiser, Pip Soodeen.

The Carpenters’ Company award was presented by the company’s Master, Michael Neal, to the SPAB’s 100th Fellow, Ben Hornberger. Ben thanked those that hosted the Fellows during their countrywide conservation tour, saying that they “pass on a lifetime of knowledge, they cook you meals and they welcome you into their home”. Unsurprisingly, Ben said, it was the carpentry-focussed visits that stood out the most for him.

Ben Hornberger, SPAB's 100th Fellow, giving his speech

Ben Hornberger, SPAB’s 100th Fellow, giving his speech.

Lord Cormack concluded the presentation by saying that the Fellowship “will flourish, our marvellous built heritage must endure for our children’s children”. The SPAB wishes this year’s Fellows the best of luck with their endeavours and looks forward to introducing 2016’s Fellows in the new year.

Lord Cormack giving his opening address at the Carpenters' Company Hall

Lord Cormack giving his opening address at the Carpenters’ Company Hall

 

Some of the SPAB Fellows from the last 29 years

Some of the SPAB Fellows from the last 29 years

Could you be a 2016 SPAB Scholar or Fellow?

The SPAB Scholarship and Fellowship programmes offer the very best in hands-on, conservation-focussed training. Every year our Scholars and Fellows embark on a country-wide conservation tour of the UK and further afield. These unique schemes offer access to some of the country’s most important historic sites and workshops. Scholars and Fellows travel together, learning from the leading experts on historic building conservation and vernacular crafts.

Scholarship
‘The Scholarship has been an amazing opportunity to learn about our built heritage and how we maintain it for future generations.’ – 2015 Scholar Joanna Daykin

The 2015 SPAB Scholars proudly leaning against a section of drystone wall we spent building in Yorkshire.

The 2015 SPAB Scholars proudly leaning against a section of drystone wall we spent building in Yorkshire.

The search is on for up to four architects, building surveyors or engineers to become part of the SPAB Lethaby Scholarship 2016. This is a training opportunity like no other. After completing the nine-month programme, previous SPAB Scholars have gone on to become experts in their field – some are cathedral architects, some look after palaces and National Trust houses.

The Scholarship is open to architects, building surveyors and structural engineers who have completed the college-based part of their courses (e.g. RIBA Parts I & II for architects), ideally with two or three years work experience. The programme is organised and administered by the SPAB and will be of particular interest to early career professionals with a passion for historic building conservation.

2013 Scholar and Fellow

2013 Scholar, Conor Meeham, and 2013 Fellow Johnnie Clark in 2013 in Transylvania, Romania for a workshop on sustainable building

Successful applicants will visit some of the country’s most fascinating built heritage projects to deepen their knowledge of historic buildings and explore the challenges surrounding their conservation. We aim to give our Scholars first-hand experience of conservative repair in action. For more information please visit the SPAB website.

 

Fellowship
“The unique opportunity to travel as a Fellow means I can learn from talented craftspeople and professionals with a diverse range of skills” – 2015 Fellow Ben Hornberger

Up to four successful candidates will travel together across the country to learn more about traditional building crafts from masters of the trades. We’re looking for craftspeople with a passion for old buildings and conservative repair. Applicants must have completed their apprenticeship and demonstrate a high level of competence.

2013 Fellow Johnnie Clark demonstrates stone carving

2013 Fellow Johnnie Clark demonstrates stone carving

The Fellowship is an advanced training programme, devised to encourage and nurture craftspeople at the beginning of their careers, who are employed in any trade relating to the repair of historic buildings. The programme is now more relevant than ever given the lack of skilled people needed to care for Britain’s historic buildings and structures. The six-month practical training is divided into three blocks of two months, enabling the Fellows to return to their employment between each block. During the first two blocks they travel as a group, making daily site visits, studying repair projects, and meeting professionals, contractors and craftsmen. The final block is devoted to the individual needs and interests of each Fellow in consultation with their employers. For more information please visit the SPAB website.

Architecture of Ireland

By David Burdon

With two international Scholars undertaking this year’s Lethaby Scholarship there was always a chance of an overseas visit as part of the program, and (with a quick visit to my native Sydney being a rather remote possibility) the Scholars recently headed to Ireland to meet with a number of conservation professionals.

Our first visit was to Queen’s University in Belfast, where we were met by former Scholar Roisin Donnelly to discuss some of the challenges faced in repurposing older educational buildings for current student requirements. The new “Graduate School” at Queen’s University has been inserted within an existing Victorian building originally designed by William Henry Lynn.

The building had suffered in the mid-twentieth century when the original double height space was compromised through the insertion of an additional floor at ground level. Although it doubled the effective floor area, this work obstructed a view to the splendid ceiling that greeted the visitor upon arrival. Through a series of careful interventions, the new work has met client requirements by providing a number of new spaces within the building, yet also returned a sense of the original wonder to this dramatic space.

A newly created opening in the twentieth century floor once again hints at the original majesty of the building, with the spiral stair helping the visitor to appreciate the totality of the space as they ascend.

A newly created opening in the twentieth century floor once again hints at the original majesty of the building, with the spiral stair helping the visitor to appreciate the totality of the space as they ascend.

 

The upper level has become a new student lounge and resource centre. The almost invisible glass division is masterfully done, and ensures acoustic separation for the quiet study area.

The upper level has become a new student lounge and resource centre. The almost invisible glass division is masterfully done, and ensures acoustic separation for the quiet study area.

Moving south, our focus soon turned to one of the chief glories of Irish architecture – plasterwork – under the tutelage of one of the modern masters of this trade, George O’Malley. In Dublin we were fortunate to inspect some of the fine neoclassical plasterwork by Michael Stapleton that had been repaired at Belvedere College, one of the city’s finest interiors, and in Longford we were treated to a full inspection of the incredible plasterwork in the rebuilt cathedral after a devastating fire in 2009. Longford cathedral is a testament to the skill of the modern craftsman using traditional techniques and it was a real pleasure for the Scholars to meet some of the people whose skill had a hand in this work.

 

The refined elegance of Dublin’s Georgian streetscape can only hint at the opulent interiors that lay beyond the façade.

The refined elegance of Dublin’s Georgian streetscape can only hint at the opulent interiors that lay beyond the façade.

Belvedere College

Belvedere College is one of Dublin’s finest buildings, its chief glory being the exceptional Michael Stapleton plasterwork which covers almost every surface.

 

Scholars were able to meet with Master Plasterer George O’Malley who was responsible for the new plasterwork at Longford Cathedral after a devastating fire in 2009.

Scholars were able to meet with Master Plasterer George O’Malley who was responsible for the new plasterwork at Longford Cathedral after a devastating fire in 2009.

One of the key features of the Scholarship is the breadth of experience that it affords, from small individual details of buildings right through to the challenges facing entire historic cities. An important visit during our trip to Ireland was to Londonderry (colloquially known as Derry, or “the Maiden City”), where we were able to meet with a representative from the Walled City Partnership, an organisation that focuses on Heritage-led regeneration by preserving and enhancing the architectural and historical character of the city. This work recognises the role of an individual building as part of a wider streetscape, and as such the conservation and restoration efforts have been beneficial not just in relation to architectural quality but also in terms of economic and social regeneration and crime prevention.

A building in Waterloo Street both before and after intervention.

Heritage-led regeneration has also had positive social and economic outcomes. A building in Waterloo Street both before and after intervention.

Meeting also with former scholar Mary Kerrigan, we were able to have a tour around the whole city and learn about its history right up to the present day. It was thus a fitting way for us to finish our visit with a walk across the new Peace Bridge, built in 2011. This bold new structure is helping a city to rediscover itself and embrace a waterfront that has previously been home to loading docks and carparks.

The Peace Bridge connects Ebrington Square with the rest of the city centre

The Peace Bridge connects Ebrington Square with the rest of the city centre

Driving over 1000 miles in just over a week, we managed to experience a great deal of both Northern Ireland and the Republic, from the Giant’s Causeway to a Guinness. A real highlight however was a visit to the incredible Newgrange, probably the best known Irish passage tomb. This large mound structure is approximately 80m in diameter, and dates to c.3200BC, making it older than both Stonehenge and the Egyptian Pyramids. For SPAB Scholars, this truly was an ancient  building!

Newgrange prehistoric monument

Newgrange prehistoric monument in County Meath.

Scholars and Fellows: Where are they now?

We recently caught up with 2012 Fellow and stonemason, Samantha Peacock. She talks about the survival of traditional craft techniques and their important place in conservation.

I currently work as a conservation stonemason in the south west. Having worked and trained as a banker mason (mostly workshop-based), I increasingly found the philosophies and complexities of the issues surrounding the conservation of historic buildings more challenging and appealing than the new-build industry. I was encouraged to apply for the Fellowship by my then employer, Simon Armstrong of Wells Cathedral Stonemasons, and was awarded the William Morris Craft Fellowship in 2012.

The Fellowship was fantastic. As a group of 6, three Fellows and three Scholars, we travelled the country, learning about the many building materials involved in historic building conservation –from dry stone walling in the Lake District to wood carving in Stirling, Scotland; we visited forges, threw bricks, split roofing slates, cut mortise and tenons at a timber framers and even thatched a cottage. We visited many historic buildings where we could discuss their conservation and repair with the architect or engineer.

Samantha helping to conserve the 14th-century statue of St Peter at York Minster

Samantha helping to conserve the 14th-century statue of St Peter at York Minster

My favourite part of the Fellowship was spending a summer evening in the Welsh countryside burning limestone to make lime with the architect Stafford Holmes. Not only was it great fun, but I got to really understand a material that I use frequently in my work.

After the Fellowship I worked at York Minster, experiencing the issues of historic building conservation first hand. I was part of the team of masons repairing the Great East Window and conserving the original 14th century statue of Saint Peter.

Conservation is not just the physical act of repairing the historical fabric of a building but it’s also about preserving our built heritage for future generations. The issues of conservation can also be found in a form of intangible heritage, such as in the arguments of authenticity and significance, and how these are interwoven into the tradition, continuation and re-enactment of traditional craft skills. These skills can only be passed on if building material is replaced and opportunities are created for craftsmen to practice their trade. Balancing both these concerns often creates a conflict of interest between the replacement and retention of the fabric of a building. Wanting to explore these arguments further I undertook a master’s degree in the Archaeology of buildings at the University of York.

I am now self-employed and I have worked with a small conservation company, Minerva Stone, on a number of churches such as St Peter and Paul in Kilmersdon and St Mary the Virgin at Yarlington, combining both conservation and replacement of stonework. Over the summer of 2015 I have been back working with Wells Cathedral Stonemasons on the 18th century coade stone panels of the Radcliffe observatory in Oxford. The work I do is often varied from banker work, letter cutting and conservation, to setting out and carving pinnacles, but it will be difficult to beat working at York Minster.

The Fellowship has shaped my career immeasurably. It directly influenced the direction that my career has taken and given me the confidence to be assertive and confident in my craft.