Keeping your eyes open

by David Burdon

One of the unique features of the SPAB Lethaby Scholarship and a reason for its continuing appeal is the opportunity the Scholars and Fellows have each year to engage with traditional craftspeople across the UK and gain first-hand experience in the understanding and use of materials. An understanding of the material and its properties is an important starting point for anyone working with original fabric on historic buildings.

In a letter to A. H. Powell dated 28 March 1894, the architect Philip Webb wrote:

“If you can get the experience of twelve months or so in a live workshop, and the outlying buildings, you will be saved a constant series of troubles in your future work. It has only been by constantly keeping my eyes open, talking freely wherever possible with all kinds of workmen, and reasoning out the knowledge gained that I have had any professional piece of mind for the last forty years… You too must keep – if you would be wise in future – keep your eyes open. Keeping the eyes shut is just the trap into which regular workmen fall.”

In just the first two weeks of the program, the Scholars have been keeping their eyes open and talking freely with unique craftspeople across the UK.

Hall Conservation maintain a workshop near Greenwich in London. Established in 2009, the company are specialists in conservation particularly with regard to metals. The Scholars and Fellows were instructed on topics as wide-ranging as lead-based paints, lost wax methods of casting, the application of smalt (ground blue glass) coating to metalwork, and the application of protective wax to historic cannons. Under the direction of blacksmith Fellow Joe Coombes-Jackman, everyone also tried their hand at the forge and found a new respect for the ironwork that we will encounter over the coming months.

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Hampton Court Palace is known to many as the home of the most significant collection of Tudor chimneys in the world, their decorative brick spirals a clear display of wealth. What is less well known is that they are in fact all Victorian recreations of the originals, and even these are in constant need of careful repair. Masonry expert Emma Simpson allowed the Scholars and Fellows to get down and dusty in the Palace’s brick workshop as we learnt to cut and rub bricks.

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At the small parish church of St Mary the Virgin in Barnsley, 1985 SPAB Scholar and architect Andrew Townsend introduced the Scholars to roofer Colin Feltham who explained the intricacies of Cotswold stone “tile” roofing. As many of the original tiles are retained as possible, some just in need of re-dressing in order to find their way back onto the repaired roof. As is often the case, the tiles on this church were laid in diminishing courses, from 21-inch tiles at the bottom to 6-inch tiles at the ridge. In the re-roofing processes over the centuries, older tiles thus make their way to the top as they are reshaped each time.

The limestone stone tiles used on many roofs in the Cotswolds are known to those that use them as “presents”, owing to the way the bedding of the stone in the region is quarried, the ground virtually gifting those that search for it with exactly the right thickness of stone required. Scholars were able to quarry stone themselves under the instruction of David Carter from Goldhill Quarry in Crudwell. Using traditional methods still in use today, Scholars quarried and then shaped their very own piece of this 160 million year old “forest marble” into a stone tile.

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Past Scholars and Fellows: Where are they now?

Dave Watts, National Trust’s Area Clerk of Works for South Derbyshire and 1995 Fellow, tells the SPAB about his love affair with brickwork.

1995 SPAB Fellows, Dave Watts, Mark Fowler and Sarah Pennal

1995 SPAB Fellows, Dave Watts, Mark Fowler and Sarah Pennal

At school I only ever excelled at sport so after leaving at 15 with only two O Levels I embarked on a bricklaying apprenticeship at British Rail in Derby. It was a tough environment and what followed was rather a baptism of fire, the work was very demanding and initially I wasn’t spoken to for 3 weeks as they thought I was the son of a gaffer! Thankfully three older bricklayers who were nearing retirement took me under their wing. They had the skills I wanted to learn and they could see my eagerness, I owe them a lot. I soon started to develop. A significant and proud moment came about three months in when one of the older bricklayers announced to the whole depot that I was already the best at repointing.
After this I knew I could be really good and my love affair with brickwork took off.  As soon as I entered college (City and Guilds day release) I took off and ended up being fast-tracked. I achieved my advanced craft certificate in three years rather than four and won several awards for best apprentice.

Work at the railway was mostly station, bridge and tunnel repairs/skew back arches. Working under the older craftsmen I really started to thrive. I began researching brickwork and started my book and tool collection. After working on new-build projects, which I hated, I moved on to the National Trust. I become Area Clerk of Works for South Derbyshire (based on the Calke Abbey estate) by the time I was 28.

When a previous SPAB Fellow, Ray Stevens was recruited to the team I began to hear more about the SPAB. I applied to the Fellowship in 1995 and spent the next nine months travelling the country increasing my knowledge of traditional materials in ancient and period buildings.  It was invaluable to me and it has influenced my work ever since. Obviously we visited countless fantastic buildings but it is probably from speaking with other craftsmen, surveyors and architects that I learned the most. Special places for me were St Pancras and Hampton Court Palace for all the various carved, gauged and moulded brickwork from many periods. As a Derbyshire man I also love the ‘crooked spire’ at the Church of St Mary and All Saints in Chesterfield – surely one of the best landmarks in the country – and though I am not a religious person I think there is something wonderful about the Lady Chapel at Ely Cathedral.  Calke Abbey itself remains very special to me.

After the Fellowship I became heavily involved in the William Morris Craft Fellowship Trust (the Trust helps to fund the SPAB Fellowship programme) for a number of years, several spent as secretary, which was great for networking with other Fellows. I do miss it, especially Tom Flemons, Andy Johnson and Janet Darby.

Even though I now only rarely get the chance to use my tools, I am still mad about brickwork. I think it’s because it involves such a high level of artistry to create a true piece of work or repair from just a heap of bricks and mortar. My wife is often chastising me for suddenly slowing the car down to look at a section of wall and for pausing the TV to comment on some background brickwork!

I have never really sought a further promotion at the National Trust. My role there suits me well and it’s where I am most effective, I enjoy having a close link with the men actually carrying out the work.

In recent years, one of my jobs that stands out is the refurbishment of Stoneywell Cottage in Leicestershire. It is a Grade II* listed Arts and Crafts building owned by the National Trust and only recently opened to the public. I can thoroughly recommend a visit.

If you think the SPAB Fellowship could be for you find out more about our 2015 programme. Application deadline is 1 December.