by Niall Bird
So far on the Scholarship, we have visited an array of different historic buildings. Many of these have been of the secular type – a cottage, a mill perhaps or a large country house. But as 45% of all England’s Grade I Listed buildings are cathedrals and churches, a considerable number of visits have involved a Church of England or Catholic place of worship. These have ranged from the more modestly sized (the early 17th century Sexey’s Hospital chapel in Bruton for example, where we were grateful to the Warden for a very informative tour) to cathedrals of great scale such as Durham Cathedral, where we spent a week in May getting to grips with the various departments that contribute to the running of a cathedral foundation.
Whether large or small each ecclesiastical establishment requires a considerable amount of dedicated effort from clergy, lay members of staff and congregation to maintain, not just the building fabric, but also everything that takes place within, from church services to community events and charitable outreach. Church of England churches receive no direct funding from the state for their general upkeep and so rely on the generosity of the congregation and wider community as well as one-off grants to fund capital projects. A consistent theme emerged during our various visits about how churches remain engaged and relevant with society and crucially how this needs to be balanced with the often significant and historic fabric of the building.
As an introduction, we were grateful for the opportunity to shadow Catherine Cullis (the SPAB’s churches officer) on a series of visits to historic churches in north Kent in early April. Many of the churches were seeking to update their facilities in order to accommodate a more diverse range of uses. All were in the early stages of discussion about what additional amenities were needed to expand what the church offered, whether this required a physical addition to, or removal from, the existing fabric and finally in what form any new addition might take.
After visits and discussions at three churches it rapidly became clear that even a modest addition (whether internal or external) could have a potentially sizeable impact on the existing character of a historic church building and so requires careful consideration to ensure a compatible, sensitive and ultimately positive solution.
Maintenance and repair of what already exists was the theme of several instructive visits. One major area requiring regular maintenance and repair can often be the roof and a visit in late March with Andrew Townsend (Architect and SPAB Scholar) to St Mary’s in Barnsley, Gloucestershire presented an opportunity to view and discuss a re-roofing project in Cotswold stone slate. Existing slates were reused where possible and supplemented with new tiles from a local quarry all of which were secured with new aluminium nails. The new roof, carefully laid in diminishing courses, was fixed to oak batons, whilst oak counter batons provided a ventilation void above a breather membrane, with the original sarking boards retained below.
A more hands-on experience with Andrew Ziminski (SPAB Fellow) at Yarlington church in Somerset involved the removal of cementitious pointing from a 11th-century church tower (with later 14th-century additions) and replacement pointing in a carefully chosen lime mortar. Stone repair and replacement was also being carried out to the parapet.
Each year the Scholars are sent to a cathedral in the UK, either Church of England or Catholic. We spent time at Durham Cathedral, which is under the care of Chris Cotton (cathedral architect) whom kindly co-ordinated our visit in collaboration with Tom Billington (cathedral property and facilities manager). Over five days we benefitted from presentations from the various departments working behind the scenes to keep the Cathedral running smoothly. The role of the Chapter Clerk, finance, development, marketing, archaeology, architectural services and maintenance were all covered, providing a valuable insight into the complexities and challenges of co-ordinating a spiritual and commercial organisation of considerable size.
Continuing our introduction to the function of cathedrals, an afternoon of discussion about liturgical function with the Precentor of Hereford Cathedral Reverend Canon Andrew Piper provided a fascinating insight into the current workings of liturgy within the cathedral and how the building layout and detail all symbolically and practically contribute to specific rituals and process. This followed an earlier visit to Well’s Cathedral with former SPAB Scholar John Bucknall, who shed light on how the building was historically set-out in order to facilitate and provide a fitting setting for the liturgy; a ‘medieval powerhouse of mission’ as John described it.
Whilst many visits have focused on active churches it is invariably the case that, for various practical and financial reasons, churches sometimes fall out of use. The most significant and historically valuable (regardless of age) are often ‘vested’ or taken-on by the Churches Conservation Trust (CCT). A day spent in Surrey and Sussex with Nicola Westbury (architect and SPAB Scholar) provided a valuable overview of the vesting process as well as visits to churches in the care of the Trust, all of which remain consecrated. One church, St Botolph’s, had only recently been vested and repaired under the direction of Nicola. The Horsham stone roof had been sensitively renewed, removal of plant growth and repair of exterior flint and pointing undertaken, interior decoration in limewash and repair to interior joinery carried out, all to bring the church into the best possible condition prior to its new life under the care of the CCT. The project was deservedly awarded a RIBA South East Regional Conservation Award.
Overall, with all of the above experiences combined, the Scholarship so far has provided a rounded and invaluable in-sight to the function and care of churches and cathedrals large and small. We are all looking forward to further experiences and insights that we can ultimately apply during our future careers.