Scholars and Fellows in north Wales

by Elgan Jones

Our week in Snowdonia began with a visit to Ned Scharer, a conservator with a strong passion for conservation and sustainable technologies, who set up the Natural Building Centre beside Plas Tirion, a 16th-century manor house in the process of being repaired. We were joined for the day by Maggie Goodall , SPAB education & training manager, and my brother Osian Jones, an architecture student at Manchester University.

We began the day discussing the latest sustainable building products, which are compatible within the repair and thermal upgrading of historic structures, given their ‘breathability’ qualities. This was followed by a guided tour around Plas Tirion as Ned explained why certain types of plasters, screeds, mortars, natural insulation products and breathable paints were used in particular locations around the building.

For our practical afternoon session we joined Hefin Huws, a master waller who has been working with stone for the last 30 years, to help repair and rebuild a dry stone wall with the garden of Plas Tirion. Hefin explained the process of sorting the stone and techniques for setting out and rebuilding.

The hot Welsh weather was only surpassed by the even rarer sight of my brother getting his hands dirty!

The hot Welsh weather was only surpassed by the even rarer sight of my brother getting his hands dirty!

For the remainder of the week, we focused on slate and traditional roofing. We were kindly invited to Penrhyn Quarry were we met the team and Terry Hughes, a slate and stone roofing consultant. We were taken on a tour of the quarry to understand how slate was quarried from the mountain and manufactured into roofing slates, architectural products and aggregates.

None of us could quite anticipate the sheer scale of the quarry!

None of us could quite anticipate the sheer scale of the quarry!

Cores are drilled at perpendicular angles into the stone before diamond wires are chased through and cut out the slate. This process helps minimise waste by extracting larger sections of stone.

Cores are drilled at perpendicular angles into the stone before diamond wires are chased through and cut out the slate. This process helps minimise waste by extracting larger sections of stone.

The slate was then brought down to the quarry where it was cut down using modern machinery before being split and finished by hand

The slate was then brought down to the quarry where it was cut down using modern machinery before being split and finished by hand

The following day we met Terry and Richard Jordan, a roofer and SPAB Fellow, at Penmaen Cottage near Dolgellau where they were recording and repairing a traditional slate roof. Terry and Richard were working alongside Cadw recording and filming various stages of the project as an exemplar for other contactors undertaking similar types of work. Richard explained that the thickness of the standard roofing slate produced at Penrhyn was much thinner than the historic slates used on the building, therefore he would take off-cuts from the quarry to cut down and split by hand, the slates to the required thickness. Throughout the day we were also given the practical exercises such as cutting down the slates to size and bedding them on the roof.

Scholars and Fellows inspecting the stripped roof with Richard Jordan

Scholars and Fellows inspecting the stripped roof with Richard Jordan

  Scholars and Fellows cutting down the slates (with varying success!)

Scholars and Fellows cutting down the slates (with varying success!)


Glorious Mud!

By Alex Gibbons

I thought I’d take the opportunity to write about my favourite thing…mud! Last week SPAB ran the first ‘Glorious Mud’ courses in Slawston, Leics. The East Midlands has a rich cultural heritage of building with earth, which unfortunately goes relatively unnoticed compared with other clay-rich subsoil regions such as the South West and East Anglia. One reason for this, suggested by Anthony Goode who hosted the event, could be that the residents of the East Midlands continue to proudly refer to their earth building tradition as ‘mud’. Some might say that this is a less appealing name than ‘cob’ or ‘clay lump’, but I think it reflects the beautiful simplicity of the material and technique perfectly. The aim of the week was to get people interested, excited and educated in the mud building tradition of the East Midlands in the hope of bringing sexy back to mud. And I think we did a pretty good job!

After a couple of days setting up with Anthony, we were ahead of the game when the course delegates arrived on the Wednesday. There were about 25 of us in total, including local self builders, architects, conservation officers, Scholars, Fellows and a good group from the SPAB HQ in London.

We opened the bidding with tea (the only way to start any day of mud building) and several very interesting lectures on building with earth regionally and internationally by Jason Mordan and Stafford Holmes, as well as an introduction in the mud building tradition of technique of the East Midlands by Anthony.

After another quick cup of tea, it was time for course delegates to get their hands dirty! Guided by time-served mudman Derek, myself and Anthony, we began to make repairs to the bee damaged wall at Slawston. The wall had been a victim of masonry bees who had made their home in it – an all too common sight in earth buildings across the world. Mud has a great ability to store heat overnight in its thermal mass and is very easy to burrow in to, making it a perfect place for the bees to make their home.

P1110545Although the wall looks in a pretty sad state of repair, it is built so wide that really the bee damage is only superficial. Given enough time the bees will eventually burrow far enough to cause structural damage but with good maintenance this is unlikely to happen. Everyone got stuck in, mixing by foot and applying by hand. Mud building is a very labour intensive process but working together makes it great fun as well!


Course delegates also had the opportunity to make mud bricks and blocks, as well as a small rammed earth wall. Local school visits were run along side the main course, where participants had the chance to get their hands dirty and take their knowledge of making mud pies to the next level!


In the evening we were joined by building archaeologist, David Smith who gave an extremely interesting presentation on local mud buildings, rafterless thatch and much more.

The following day the weather was looking a little threatening so we ‘made hay while the sun shone’ and began by finishing the repair of the wall and wrapping up the practical element of the ‘Glorious Mud’ course.

Glorious Mud_8

When the rain started coming down again, we retreated inside for more lectures (and tea!), this time from architect Chris Granger, who had built a community centre in Bolivia with his wife, architect Scholar Chloe, using adobe blocks last year. After this, we handed over to Earth Building UK. I gave a presentation on modern buildings using earth as the main structural element and Dr. Paul Jaquin spoke about rammed earth buildings and the structural performance of earth. Earth Building UK is a not-for-profit organisation that fosters the conservation, understanding and development of building with earth in the UK.


After this it was back to architect Stafford Holmes, who gave presentation on a project he has lead in Pakistan, using lime to stabilise earth blocks in flood zones, so people can re-house themselves relatively cheaply in buildings that won’t wash away when the next floods come.

All in all, an extremely enjoyable and informative week, and I hope the first of many more to come! I think it really gave everyone a respect for the physical work that’s involved in building with earth, and how much easier they are to repair than to re-build.

I’d like to say a massive thank you to Anthony Goode for inspiring and arranging the course, to everyone at SPAB for organising, to all the speakers and to Derek for the practical sessions. May the East Midland mud buildings enjoy a resurgence of interest and sympathetic repair!

If you would like to find out more about building with earth, please visit


Looking and listening

by Charlie Wellingham

As part of a whirlwind tour through Tewkesbury and Worcestershire (taking in churches, abbeys, bridges, barns, and even a particularly historic Wetherspoons pub), the Scholars were privileged to spend a day learning about medieval timber framed structures with Nick Joyce of Nick Joyce Architects; an expert who has spent his career developing an analytical eye for assessing their condition and required repairs. Nick explained that the traditional methods of constructing timber frames is very much like a language – daunting if you don’t know the dialect but significantly simplified when you establish the rules of the grammar and a few key bits of vocabulary.

The first thing to remember is that every cut made by the carpenter’s chisel has a purpose. Framers were not in the habit of carving additional mortices just to amuse their idle hands. Any vacant pocket or open slot is evidence of an adaptation; be it a loss or addition, demolition or extension. Similarly there has been much academic research undertaken about the evolution of timber framing design and technology and as such the crudeness or sophistication of a particular joint can usually give a good clue to the century in which the carpentry was undertaken. After briefing us on some of these ground rules, and a few other tell-tale signs of aging timber structures, we were taken out to the Worcestershire countryside and introduced to a classic example of a well-used and well-loved timber frame building, and invited to tease out its seemingly incomprehensible former lives.

St Cuthbert's Chapel

St Cuthbert’s Chapel

The original structure on this site was in fact religious – note the low masonry walls of St.Cuthbert’s Chapel, most likely erected in the 13th century, but recorded as being deconsecrated in the 1380s (when the population it supported re-located to a newly constructed river crossing nearby). The only surviving remnant that explicitly indicates this phase of life is easily overlooked; the moulded jamb of a former east window, hidden in a lean-to store room and long since blocked up.

St Cuthberts Chapel east window

St Cuthbert’s Chapel east window

Agricultural use occupied the barn for the next 400 years as farmland engulfed the isolated structure. Adaptations included the removal of the original roof and the construction of the timber framed upper stories directly off of the chapel masonry walls (Dendro dating of the timbers indicating they were felled in the 1520s). Many windows and openings were added and removed, and animal stalls were laid out in what would once have been the nave. Carpenter’s marks in the exposed trusses indicate which were original to this period and which have since been modified; they also indicate the order in which they would have been erected and the way they were temporarily supported as they were raised – having first been joined with oak pegs laid out flat on the surrounding fields.

The final use of the former chapel came in the mid-19th century, when the barn was overhauled to create a drying house for the hops that were being cultivated at the farm. The roofline was altered to accommodate the ventilation cowls, and a magnificent rolling first floor structure on iron casters was installed to allow the crop to be loaded and unloaded, sliding back and forth across the ovens below. Further lean-tos and openings were added, providing covered space for the sacking of the hops and loading directly onto carts.

Rolling floor at St Cuthbert's Chapel

Rolling floor at St Cuthbert’s Chapel

The resultant structure that has survived these adaptations is so rich with history and character that it is almost overwhelming. The decision to reuse rather than rebuild has resulted in a unique building alive with the documentary evidence of over 600 years of the working countryside’s society and culture in its fabric. Reading these clues and interrogating those former lives is an aspect of conserving historic architecture that I find endlessly fascinating. Thanks very much to Nick for introducing us to this hidden gem and for sharing his extensive expertise that gave us the language to understand and appreciate it fully – rather than being deaf to its quiet secrets.

St Cuthbert's by Dearbhail Keating

St Cuthbert’s by Dearbhail Keating