The voyage of discovery begins

Hello all! I am pleased to meet you and hope we can try and shed some light on what the Lethaby Scholarship entails and is all about over the next few months. There has only been 151 Scholars since this unique training in the repair of ancient buildings first began in 1930. It is a great honour for me to be selected as a Scholar in 2012 and it is extra special to be the first from the Republic of Ireland. We have just begun our nine month trek around the United Kingdom in search of ancient buildings that are currently in need of conservative repairs while under the guidance of some of the leading conservation professionals and craftspeople in the country. This will be an intensive and highly educational year for us all. We have no set schedule and are lucky to get a week or two’s notice of our upcoming visits but this all adds to the excitement of the scholarship and means we can attend sites at short notice if necessary. Unlike other formal education programmes we will have no final exams, which is a great bonus but we are obliged to keep a notebook of sketches and information along the year of the work we are seeing. These notebooks will be dissected and discussed at our monthly meetings with the education committee at the SPAB HQ at No. 37 Spital Square in London.

Our first week in London was hectic to say the least, as we moved from Kenwood House on the Hampstead Heath with the architect Ian Angus, to architect Andrew Harris and building surveyor (and former SPAB Scholar) Susan Mc Donough at Windsor Castle, and on to Hampton Court Palace with conservation bricklayer, Emma Simpson and historic royal palaces surveyor William Page in the space of three days!

We even managed to squeeze in a visit to the amazing workshop of Rupert Harris Conservation. Established in 1982 they are the leading conservators of metalwork and sculpture in the United Kingdom. We watched as Rupert Harris examined the ‘Spirit of Liberty’ bronze statue that had been coated with two layers of 23.5 carat gold leaf gilding before it was loaded onto the transport van and moved to its elevated perch above the clock tower at Cliveden house in Taplow. The original statue had been lost for many years but Rupert Harris Conservation carried out research and were able to locate the original mould in a museum in Semur-en-Auxois in France. They were then able to recast the 1860s statue at their workshop.

Also, some early eighteenth century lead garden statues with corroded iron armatures from Trent Park were being repaired and copied by Rupert Harris with the originals being returned to Trent Park and the copies sent to Stowe Gardens in Buckinghamshire, where they had been removed in the 1920s. The lead statue of Samson defeating a Philistine is pictured and was designed by John Nost based on Giambolgna’s marble original of about 1562.

Leaving the Republic of Ireland to travel around the United Kingdom was something I should have, in hindsight, given more thought to. Having no fixed base to call home for the best part of a year and very little funds available to make use of rental accommodation it suddenly became lucid as the plane landed at Heathrow airport that one was entering into the unknown. The ecstasy which had been present during the previous couple of weeks, on hearing the news that I would be one of three who would hold the famous SPAB Lethaby Scholarship in 2012, soon began to dissipate rather quickly. Luckily my fears were dampened as I soon realised that the SPAB are a close family unit who have built up a network of contacts since 1930 who are willing to open their doors to complete strangers and treat them with such warm hospitality. The SPAB call these people the hosts and without them the Scholarship could simply not function.  Within the first three weeks we have stayed with many amazing people in some extraordinary homes. One such place was Manor Farm, somewhere that would suffer my presence more often than others. Owned by the artist, Julia Sorrell and sculptor, Ian Sanders  their award winning cottage, which could easily have been created by the magical mind of J.K. Rowling, is unique in every way with wonderful warmth and a welcoming atmosphere, provided us with much laughter, entertainment and many great feasts. Not only did we get to view the many fine pieces of art created by our hosts but also a fascinating account and insight into the renowned artist, Alan Sorrell (1904-1974). Alan, father to Julia, is best remembered for his marvellous reconstruction drawings of historic Roman sites and monuments around Britain and Rome.

Our trip to Norfolk, on the second week, staying with the conservation architect Nicholas Warns, located below the spire of the magnificent Norwich Cathedral, involved many visits to the beautiful flint churches of the county.

Exposure to the defects that one is met with on churches was the theme such as blocked and inadequate gutters, lead roof detailing and stained glass windows to name a few. If one is interested in the construction details of flint buildings it is worth taking a look at the SPAB Technical Pamphlet 16 Care and Repair of Flint Walls, which includes some well illustrated drawings.

Earlier in the week we had visited Peter Minter, managing director of the family firm, Bulmer Brick and Tile Company Ltd. Formed in 1936 it was set up on a site that had been producing tiles since 1450. We spent two days in the brickyard observing the process of hand-made brick production. We even got to get our hands dirty by having a go at making a few bricks ourselves. Most interesting however was the sight of early twentieth century brick kilns that were still being used to this day. I believe there are only four of these kilns in the country at present and Bulmer’s possess three of them. Getting time to carry out sketching can be difficult during the visits as you don’t want to be missing important information that is being passed down by your host but one did manage to pull away from the group for twenty minutes to try and understand, record these interesting structures.

A visit to the timber framed “Pip’s Cottage” in Suffolk on week three, the home of stuccodore Anna Kettle, gave us the opportunity to work with lime putty and allowed us to gain grounding in the art of stuccowork.

Jim Boutwood brought us to the wonderful Cressing Temple timber framed barn, the gardens of Easton Lodge and Thaxted Church where we held a discourse on the merits of the historic and modern repair techniques used in the past such as tile stitching and stone replacements.

Other visits were to Douglas Kent’s fifteenth century hall house known as the Sun Inn where he continues to methodically analyse the structure and finishes ensuring that he leaves no stone unturned in his noble crusade to uncover every last bit of history of this fine building. At Tonbridge, Kent we witnessed the work being carried out on the sixty-five metre high masonry Hadlow Tower which is rendered in Roman cement. This nineteenth century Grade 1 listed building is being converted into luxury holiday accommodation by the Vivat Trust. It was quite a modern structure compared to what we had seen previously and provided a useful contrast to our visits.

Finally our last visit was to Essex with the conservation builder David Lodge. What a fountain of knowledge he possesses on the defects and most successful repair techniques for churches. His view on the introduction of French drains as a way to deal with rising damp really intrigued me. I had assumed this was good practice but evidently not always as they are prone to clogging up and can augment the original defect. A soakaway at least five metres away from the building is likely to prove a better solution in the long term.

The first three weeks of the 2012 Scholarship were spent with the fellows but we shall now separate into two groups and go our separate ways. We have really gelled as a group and got to know each other pretty well. They will be missed but not to worry we will meet up again in a few weeks at the Spring Repair Course in London!

That is it for now and I hope it wasn’t too tedious for you!

Till next time, keep well, Justin


12 thoughts on “The voyage of discovery begins

  1. Pingback: Scholars and Fellows Blog | Dance Scholarship Trust

  2. Hi Justin,

    Well done on the scholarship, seems a really interesting subject! If your ever in Glasgow drop me a line!


    • Thank you Paul (and Tina!), we will definitely be moving up towards Scotland at some point in the year but it has not been finalised yet. I’m in London right now but heading to Somerset this evening for the week and North Wales the following week. Not sure after that. All the best, Justin

  3. Hello Henry, Charlie & Justin!

    Hope all is going well, where are you just now? I’ve just been trying to plan a few things for you with Rachel, I hope I get to show you round some of my projects at some point!

    If you find yourselves passing York, or need a bed for the night (well, floor) then please let me know, I’d be very happy to have you to stay. Likewise, I can offer accommodation assistance in the Yorkshire Dales (if you go to see James Innerdale) or in Dundee.

    Just say the word!

    Happy travels,

    • Hi Lucy,

      Thank you very much for that, it is very kind of you and I’m sure we will be up your way soon.

      We are in Devon right now with Kevin McCabe learning about cob building. We spent all day in the scorching sun constructing cob walls which will form part of Kevin’s innovative design for his future home. Kevin McCloud of Grand Design fame and his filming crew are due to visit the site next week actually, so it is something everyone can look forward to seeing! Quite outstanding.

      We are here for the weekend too so plenty of hard graft ahead!

      I apologise for the lack of blog posts but I’m waiting for my other two colleagues to write first (which they tell me they are working on), we have been assigned a rota system by the SPAB!ha

      Chat you soon,


  4. Hi Justin! Congratulations on your scholarship. All your old friends at TJ O’Connor’s in Dublin are following your journey with great interest. Best of luck with everything and don’t forget your roots 😉 Siobhan

    • Ha! Hi Siobhan! Its good to hear from you…everything is going great at the moment (apart from watching the European Championship that is!). I hope everyone in T.J.’s is well and in good form. Thanks for the message! Justin

  5. Justin, hows it going? Looks like a great experience. Give me a shout if you want to have a look at any railway structures/buildings around London and I’ll try and organise something with the asset managers. Maybe not what you’re looking for, but the offer’s there anyway if you spot something of interest. Hope alls good. Diarmuid

  6. Hi Justin

    I have been meaning to get in touch. I thoroughly enjoyed the time you all spent with me at Grenville Manor. I always enjoy such visits with the further knowledge they bring, the searching questions and shared answers.

    Of course the gable is now completed and will forward finsihed photographs to Spital Square to be passed to you.

    If you or any of the gang are in this area again, let us know. we would be happy for you to stay.

    All the best – Michael O’Reilly

    • Hi Michael,

      I’m glad you have completed the gable work on Grenville Manor. I look forward to seeing the finished gable in your photographs.

      Thank you very much for hosting us and I’ll be sure to drop into you if I’m passing your way again.

      Best Wishes,


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