Congratulations William Morris Craft Fellows!

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Dame Helen Ghosh, Director General of the National Trust, was guest speaker at our 2014 William Morris Craft Fellowship ceremony at the Ironmongers’ Hall, London.

After presenting commemorative scrolls to this year’s Fellows – cob builder Alex Gibbons, stonemason Eoin Madigan and carpenter Tom Massey – Dame Helen spoke about growing concern at the shortage of building crafts workers in the heritage sector and the National Trust’s own commitment to apprenticeships in traditional building trades.

Describing The SPAB as “wise allies and supporters”, she congratulated the 2014 Fellows and reflected that conservation can never be about preservation in a steady state, but it is really about managing change – something that will play a central role in the developing careers of Alex, Eoin and Tom.

On behalf of the 2014 Fellows, Alex Gibbons thanked the Fellowship’s funders, donors and supporters. He also paid tribute to family and friends for their understanding. In the last nine months the trio have journeyed far from home, travelling from Cornwall to the Hebrides to learn, first hand, about building crafts from experts on project sites and in workshops across the country.

Alex said: “All three of us are self-employed and had to juggle our work with the Fellowship. We all made a conscious decision to make an investment in ourselves, our careers and our crafts. I know the knowledge and experience I’ve gained through this unique programme will stay with me throughout my career.”

Lord Patrick Cormack, Chairman of the William Morris Craft Fellowship Committee explained that the scheme had been established to celebrate and encourage traditional building crafts, noting that these increasingly rare skills should be recognised for “their own intrinsic importance.”

The application deadline for 2015’s Scholarship and Fellowship programme is 1 December 2014, apply now for this prestigious nine month training scheme.

Photo caption:  Left – right: Dame Helen Ghosh, Director General, National Trust, Matthew Slocombe, Director of SPAB, Fellows Alex Gibbons, Eoin Madigan and Tom Massey, Fellowship organiser Pip Soodeen and Fellowship Committee Chairman, Lord Patrick Cormack. (Credit: Ralph Hodgson)

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Kent Peg Tiles

By Tom Massey

Clay plain tiles, or peg tiles as they are known in Kent, have been produced since Saxon times. Peg tiles are the main roof covering of historic buildings in Kent and create the vernacular pattern of the medieval roofline. The usual size is of a peg tile is 9″ to 10” long and around 6” wide and hung with 3 1/2″ spacing. But  hand made tiles are not standardised and due to the shrinkage of clay these dimensions vary, adding to their random texture which is lost with machine made tiles. Traditionally hung with a riven wooden peg cleft from oak, and later pine imported from Europe, the peg was tapped into a square hole from below and hung on riven chestnut or oak. Iron pegs were then used in the 20th century. Today they are still hung, but with an aluminium peg, dropped in from above with sawn soft wood battens.

Example of Kent peg tiles in Canterbury

Example of Kent peg tiles in Canterbury

The market for second hand tiles in Kent is lucrative, with tiles fetching upwards of £1.00 each. The market is fed by theft and the dismantling of historic building. Many roofs have had to change from peg tiles to modern machine-made tiles or slates because of repeated theft. It has led to the decline of many historic buildings. This is often overlooked and it’s assumed that salvage yards buy their stock from reputable sources. When re-roofing a building, existing peg tiles should always go back on, assuming they are undamaged. There is always some loss and hard cement mixes add to this  because they adhere to the tiles and they become very hard to remove, especially on the hips and ridge tiles. These tiles should then be replaced and mixed in with the existing.

I visited Babylon Tiles in Kent on a rainy but mild November morning. Babylon Tiles do not import their materials but use Wealden clay dug from the field that adjoins their workshops making them the only producer of true Kent peg tiles. As with all modern methods an element of mechanical processing is used to produce the tiles but they are essentially hand made using a small tool to make the square peg holes. They use local sands to create a range of coloured tiles to replicate the weathered patina of existing tiles. Historically this would probably not have been done and the tiles’ colour would have represented the materials in the vicinity of their production but modern fashions prefer this texture to be recreated. The patina of algae and weathering comes quickly to modern peg tiles and they soon blend in with the historic environment. The tiles are dried in polytunnels before they enter the kiln. It is surprising how hard  they are before they are fired. The kilns are fired on gas.

new Kent peg tiles air drying before going into the kiln1

new Kent peg tiles air drying before going into the kiln

new Kent peg tiles air drying before going into the kiln

Babylon Tiles has a feeling of authenticity, people making a living from a local product, using local materials in small workshops, producing small batches of high quality products. If only more businesses could be run like this. I believe that the use of new peg tiles has to be encouraged. Not only to save buildings from theft, but to support small specialist  businesses like Babylon Tiles. Small local businesses need support to survive, without them more buildings are at risk and we will lose the role craftspeople play in the preservation of our historic buildings.

Past Scholars and Fellows: Where are they now?

As we receive applications for 2015’s programmes, Scholarship and Fellowship organiser, Pip Soodeen reminisces about her time as a Scholar in 1999.

Scholars and Fellows on tour in 1999

Scholars and Fellows on tour in 1999

I first heard about the SPAB when a clerk of works gave me some SPAB technical pamphlets on my year out. These remained buried for 10 years until I decided to find a job in building conservation. I dug them out, became a member and read about the Scholarship in the magazine.

The Scholarship was filled with many truly memorable moments but what really stuck with me was a visit to St Paul’s Cathedral. I remember looking down through little holes in the scaffolded dome of the roof space to see the visitors below and then looking across the Thames to see the pods for the Millennium Eye being delivered to site. The hands-on experiences were incredible too: lime harling at the Scottish Lime Centre and working with timber at Whitney Sawmills. I vividly remember making a lead shell by dressing a sheet of lead at Lodge & Sons. I thought I’d done a beautiful job but my co-Scholars thought it looked like a dustbin lid!

SPAB has always encouraged potential Scholars to meet other Scholars before applying so they would know exactly what they were letting themselves in for. I met up with Simon Cartlidge, his wife Sarah, and Marianne Suhr. I was encouraged by their enthusiasm; Simon said “it will change your life”. I thought he was exaggerating but the nine month programme really did! You gain contacts that are willing to share their knowledge of materials, techniques and suppliers. Anything you want to know someone you meet on the programme will have the answer for you.
After the Scholarship I returned to south Wales to spend an invaluable 9 months with Ty Mawr Lime in Brecon gaining an even greater love of lime before joining Alwyn Jones Penseiri Architects, in Taff’s Well. Here I was able to work on conservative repair projects on private and National Trust properties. I only stayed for 2 years as happily my first son Joe was born and two years later my second son Ben came along. In between sons I assisted the design officer and the conservation officer at Swansea City Council which is based in a lovely Art Deco Guildhall (later repaired by Fellow Tom Flemons).
S&F_where are they now_Pip Soodeen
In 2008 I took over the running of the Fellowship programme from Rachel Bower who had run both the Scholarship and the Fellowship programmes for the last 20 years. Upon Rachel’s retirement I took on the Scholarship programme too and I’m now in my second year of running both schemes. My time as a Scholar is obviously invaluable to me in my role now.
I am lucky enough to have already met many of the people who still host the Scholars and Fellows. I am mindful of how difficult it can be to get a group of 3 or 4 students around a site and hold their attention. I also appreciate that it can be difficult to park up at a site, grab your hard hat and be ready to absorb perhaps a year’s worth of study from an onsite host. But this is what the Scholarship and Fellowship programme teaches you to do!