Stop. Look. Listen.

by Lilian Tuohy Main

As we enter the third month of our conservation tour, a theme that continues to arise is the importance of observing before acting.

A unifying trait of historic buildings is their numerous ‘unknowns’. It is this intangible mystery that often makes a place compelling. However, for carrying out repair works to such buildings, the importance of knowing their history, and as much as practically possible about their existing fabric and condition can not be underestimated. Without fail, investing time in the early stages of a project proves to be in the best interest of the building and also results in more economic and time-efficient outcomes, as on-site ‘surprises’ are greatly reduced.

As Scholars, we spent two days surveying 47-49 High Street, Eton, affectionately known by locals as ‘The Cock Pitt’. Here we were set the task of surveying the principal frontage to the High Street, which appears to have been constructed in the first half of the 15th century, and it has been altered and extended on numerous occasions since, most notably in the 19th century.

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West Elevation view of 47-49 High Street, Eton

 

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Drawing up of the High Street elevation, which retains much of its 15th century character

As with any building of it’s age, 47-49 has many interesting and unique features. One that has continued to evoke a reaction is that of the knuckle bone floor at the eastern end of the site. The building was leased by John Rayne, a butcher, before 1551, and another butcher, William Russell also occupied one of the cottages in 1660 (HER Monument Record MRM16551). The floor may have been laid by either of these men – the arrangement being a typical feature of butcheries where bones were not in short supply, and the gaps between bones allowed blood to drain away (The Cock Pitt’ 47-49 High Street Eton, Heritage Statement, August 2015, Built Heritage Consultancy). In the 1930s, nos. 47 and 48 High Street were tearooms called ‘The Cock Pitt’. Allegedly the name was inherited from speculations in the 20th century that the vertebrae floor was a survival from a medieval cockpit, i.e. a venue for cock-fighting.

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Knuckle bone floor – the floor of sheeps’ vertebrae in an outhouse at the eastern end of the site. (Image by Kristian Foster)

Spending time on the busy High Street with tape measures and sketch books in hand, we were greeted by countless interested locals, thrilled and intrigued to know of future happenings to the building, now dilapidated and in need of repair.

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Surveying the timber frame. (Image by Kristian Foster)

When surveying the timber frame, all measurements were taken in imperial. The investigations and recording showed that the building had been rebuilt after having a Georgian or Victorian shopfront added, and that there was a steel beam hidden behind the jetty and sections of contemporary, hard cement render.

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Scholars conducting the hand-measured survey on-site

Timber expert Daniel Miles, mentored us over the two days spent at the building. Through observation and survey we identified evidence of a previous arrangement of a pair of half-Wealdens (a typical medieval timber-framed hall plan). With time, similar discoveries will, no doubt, come to light.

To be granted this time to look with and listen to knowledgeable craftspeople and professionals is proving to be an invaluable experience. The process of taking the time to look carefully and considerately is something we will take forward with us, as we continue the fortunate task of caring for such interesting and treasured buildings.

Stone in Wales

by Thom Evans

Something I often hear is that Wales is a country full of hidden gems; I was born and raised in Cardigan Bay, and still live and work there as a stonemason, and cannot argue with this description. I can honestly say that rarely do a few months pass without me stumbling upon a little-known historic building full of delightfully untouched charm. However during my Fellowship year I am coming to realise it may not just be the buildings themselves whose fantastic value is underappreciated but also the people who serve them.
I began the third block of the Fellowship (a time of study away from the other Fellows to pursue our individual interests) by meeting with Dr Tim Palmer a retired senior lecturer at Aberystwyth University whose current charges include being a consultant in Architectural Geology, ex-secretary of the Welsh Stone Forum and enthusiast/font of knowledge on all things stone. The extent of the knowledge Tim was able to impart is far too large to do justice in this blog but I would like to concentrate on one revelation that has caused me to re-evaluate my thinking.

Strata Florida

Strata Florida

Many surviving medieval buildings, whether fortified or ecclesiastical, along the south and west coast of Wales (as well as the east coast of Ireland) appear to contain a certain amount of Jurassic limestone that to the untrained eye could be described as Bath stone. I have encountered this stone, often used for carved detailing, and it had left me somewhat perplexed. Whilst I was often able to discount it as being Bath stone, I had regularly considered it to be Doulting- a hardier more crystalline limestone from Somerset still used today. I often questioned whether this out of place limestone was contemporary to the original medieval fabric, as it appeared not to have weathered as much as one might expect after the ravages of time in excess of 600 years. I suppose, also, I associated the widespread use of the Jurassic limestone in Wales with the Georgian and Victorian era and wondered whether these apparent anachronisms were interventions at this stage. The work of Tim and the Welsh Stone Forum has however been able to settle this little riddle for me.
They have identified this esoteric stone as being Dundry. A non-oolitic Jurassic limestone quarried from Dundry-Hill, just south of Bristol. Whilst it shares many similarities with Doulting such as its age and non-oolitic formation it appears to be significantly more durable. The geological reason for this is explained in detail by Dr Palmer in various papers, but in simple terms the sea lilies whose decaying matter make up the sediment of this stone are Echinoderms and define the dense granular quality of the stone.

Strata Florida

Strata Florida

It is believed that quarrying for Dundry had reached natural conclusion around 1540 when the supply of the best quality beds was exhausted, although a brief revival between 1850-1910 yielded some inferior quality stone. As well as being used extensively for external masonry it was used for numerous fonts, which were often carved in a generic style and shipped across the south west.
So it is easy to understand why this durable freestone which was close to the river Avon, and therefore the Channel, coastline and trade routes achieved ubiquity in its heyday and can still be found now at sites such as Llandaff Cathedral, Chepstow and Newport castles, round to the Bishops Palace in St David’s and as far north as Strata Florida and Aberystwyth Castle. The extensive research and investigation that Dr Palmer and his colleagues at the Welsh Stone Forum have undertaken to highlight the importance of Dundry to medieval masonry should be lauded.

Strata Florida

Strata Florida

The Fellowship has really made me realise that conservation is a collaborative effort. Whether it’s the communities that campaign for funding to protect their beloved landmark, the volunteers that brave the elements to maintain their churches, or the enthusiasts who help us better understand the materials we use.  Many people work away at their own personal interest or profession and rarely get the recognition they deserve. Without them the work we practitioners carry out on site lacks cohesion, and we should be thankful.

The philosophy of repair

by Declan Cahill

Over the past couple of weeks we have visited sites where we have been told about various approaches to the treatment of historic stonework. This has got us debating, discussing, agreeing and disagreeing about which approach would be the best one in each situation. As someone who believes that not one rule can be applied to all situations, I have found it very interesting to look at these approaches and to think if I would do the same, and if not what the alternatives might be. Since 1887 the Society and its members have been fighting for the timeless beauty of historic buildings that comes naturally with age. But what is important and sets each approach apart is what level of intervention is required to stave off decay, and that we do not lose this beauty by being too heavy handed in our intervention.

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Villa Saraceno

Recently we were very lucky to be invited to Villa Saraceno with the Landmark Trust. You can read more about our trip in a forthcoming blog post. Here I am going to touch on the approach they are taking towards the preservation of the stonework at the villa. The villa is predominantly brick built and rendered, with stone detailing to the windows and doors. The stone is a white limestone that was used in most of Palladio’s buildings. During our visit we got the chance to learn from Serse and Katrin from PT Color, who explained the methods they were using to preserve the stone and minimize the loss of flaking stone from a door jamb.

The conservators were using lime-based consolidants for flakes with larger openings and an acrylic resin on the finer flakes. The edges of the flakes were then closed using a lime-based mortar. On an annual basis the conservators visit the site and try to prolong the life of the worst delaminating stone. This painstaking process is very admirable, but on further discussion it’s important to think about the other factors that inform this decision.

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Stone consolidation at Villa Saraceno

Firstly the significance of the villa, it is an early incomplete example of Palladio’s design that incorporated the functionality of the farmstead with the grandeur and geometry of the country retreat. The white limestone of the area is inherently a softer limestone and the jamb that was being worked on faced the north west, thus exposing the stone to the worst weather conditions. The conservators’ argument against using shelter coats was that you would not see the original stone face. Do we let the stone age and decay, accepting that the stone will one day need replacing, or do we do our utmost to prolong the life of the stone? Are we preventing the stone from gracefully aging? And if we are to intervene at what stage do we begin this intervention?

Just seven days after standing in front of the door jamb at Villa Saraceno, we were back on English soil and visiting St. Leonard’s Middleton Parish Church to look at the south porch of this medieval church that has had minimum intervention since its conception in 1412. The parish’s website describes the porch as ‘romantically crumbling away’ and it is exactly this romanticism that the church is at risk of losing.

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‘Romantic’ south porch at St Leonard’s church

The parish has decided that now is the time for intervention, and the church architect’s proposal is to de-frass the stonework to give it a ‘carved’ face again. We were able to see a test panel that had been produced by a stonemason for discussion.

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Examples panels of de-frassed stonework

It is important to add that the present stonework is laminating but there isn’t any excessive loss of stone; it is in a state that is beautiful to look at due to the natural patina of age. By taking this approach the church’s aesthetic will be altered forever and layers will be lost from its history. We can only hope that the parish see what they will be losing and that a more respectful approach will be chosen.

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Natural patina to the south porch stonework

The case at Middleton reminded me of the origins of the SPAB when the Society was also known as the ‘Anti Scrape Society’. The Society was founded on a belief that we should approach the repair of historic fabric with minimum intervention and only act to prevent future damage. We must respect the original craftsperson’s work; that is currently in danger of being forgotten at Middleton but is being championed at Saraceno.

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Paint and plaster conservation at Gorton Monastery

Another site visit has taken us to Gorton Monastery, where Alan Gardener is applying these meticulous preservation and consolidation techniques to the consolidation of Victorian (and later) wall paintings, plaster and stone. Seeing similar techniques to those at Villa Saraceno being applied at Gorton is a timely reminder that we need to approach our work with respect and that historic fabric, no matter how old, has significance.

Could you be a 2016 SPAB Scholar or Fellow?

The SPAB Scholarship and Fellowship programmes offer the very best in hands-on, conservation-focussed training. Every year our Scholars and Fellows embark on a country-wide conservation tour of the UK and further afield. These unique schemes offer access to some of the country’s most important historic sites and workshops. Scholars and Fellows travel together, learning from the leading experts on historic building conservation and vernacular crafts.

Scholarship
‘The Scholarship has been an amazing opportunity to learn about our built heritage and how we maintain it for future generations.’ – 2015 Scholar Joanna Daykin

The 2015 SPAB Scholars proudly leaning against a section of drystone wall we spent building in Yorkshire.

The 2015 SPAB Scholars proudly leaning against a section of drystone wall we spent building in Yorkshire.

The search is on for up to four architects, building surveyors or engineers to become part of the SPAB Lethaby Scholarship 2016. This is a training opportunity like no other. After completing the nine-month programme, previous SPAB Scholars have gone on to become experts in their field – some are cathedral architects, some look after palaces and National Trust houses.

The Scholarship is open to architects, building surveyors and structural engineers who have completed the college-based part of their courses (e.g. RIBA Parts I & II for architects), ideally with two or three years work experience. The programme is organised and administered by the SPAB and will be of particular interest to early career professionals with a passion for historic building conservation.

2013 Scholar and Fellow

2013 Scholar, Conor Meeham, and 2013 Fellow Johnnie Clark in 2013 in Transylvania, Romania for a workshop on sustainable building

Successful applicants will visit some of the country’s most fascinating built heritage projects to deepen their knowledge of historic buildings and explore the challenges surrounding their conservation. We aim to give our Scholars first-hand experience of conservative repair in action. For more information please visit the SPAB website.

 

Fellowship
“The unique opportunity to travel as a Fellow means I can learn from talented craftspeople and professionals with a diverse range of skills” – 2015 Fellow Ben Hornberger

Up to four successful candidates will travel together across the country to learn more about traditional building crafts from masters of the trades. We’re looking for craftspeople with a passion for old buildings and conservative repair. Applicants must have completed their apprenticeship and demonstrate a high level of competence.

2013 Fellow Johnnie Clark demonstrates stone carving

2013 Fellow Johnnie Clark demonstrates stone carving

The Fellowship is an advanced training programme, devised to encourage and nurture craftspeople at the beginning of their careers, who are employed in any trade relating to the repair of historic buildings. The programme is now more relevant than ever given the lack of skilled people needed to care for Britain’s historic buildings and structures. The six-month practical training is divided into three blocks of two months, enabling the Fellows to return to their employment between each block. During the first two blocks they travel as a group, making daily site visits, studying repair projects, and meeting professionals, contractors and craftsmen. The final block is devoted to the individual needs and interests of each Fellow in consultation with their employers. For more information please visit the SPAB website.

Scholars and Fellows: Where are they now?

We recently caught up with 2012 Fellow and stonemason, Samantha Peacock. She talks about the survival of traditional craft techniques and their important place in conservation.

I currently work as a conservation stonemason in the south west. Having worked and trained as a banker mason (mostly workshop-based), I increasingly found the philosophies and complexities of the issues surrounding the conservation of historic buildings more challenging and appealing than the new-build industry. I was encouraged to apply for the Fellowship by my then employer, Simon Armstrong of Wells Cathedral Stonemasons, and was awarded the William Morris Craft Fellowship in 2012.

The Fellowship was fantastic. As a group of 6, three Fellows and three Scholars, we travelled the country, learning about the many building materials involved in historic building conservation –from dry stone walling in the Lake District to wood carving in Stirling, Scotland; we visited forges, threw bricks, split roofing slates, cut mortise and tenons at a timber framers and even thatched a cottage. We visited many historic buildings where we could discuss their conservation and repair with the architect or engineer.

Samantha helping to conserve the 14th-century statue of St Peter at York Minster

Samantha helping to conserve the 14th-century statue of St Peter at York Minster

My favourite part of the Fellowship was spending a summer evening in the Welsh countryside burning limestone to make lime with the architect Stafford Holmes. Not only was it great fun, but I got to really understand a material that I use frequently in my work.

After the Fellowship I worked at York Minster, experiencing the issues of historic building conservation first hand. I was part of the team of masons repairing the Great East Window and conserving the original 14th century statue of Saint Peter.

Conservation is not just the physical act of repairing the historical fabric of a building but it’s also about preserving our built heritage for future generations. The issues of conservation can also be found in a form of intangible heritage, such as in the arguments of authenticity and significance, and how these are interwoven into the tradition, continuation and re-enactment of traditional craft skills. These skills can only be passed on if building material is replaced and opportunities are created for craftsmen to practice their trade. Balancing both these concerns often creates a conflict of interest between the replacement and retention of the fabric of a building. Wanting to explore these arguments further I undertook a master’s degree in the Archaeology of buildings at the University of York.

I am now self-employed and I have worked with a small conservation company, Minerva Stone, on a number of churches such as St Peter and Paul in Kilmersdon and St Mary the Virgin at Yarlington, combining both conservation and replacement of stonework. Over the summer of 2015 I have been back working with Wells Cathedral Stonemasons on the 18th century coade stone panels of the Radcliffe observatory in Oxford. The work I do is often varied from banker work, letter cutting and conservation, to setting out and carving pinnacles, but it will be difficult to beat working at York Minster.

The Fellowship has shaped my career immeasurably. It directly influenced the direction that my career has taken and given me the confidence to be assertive and confident in my craft.

Scholars and Fellows hit the conservation trail

Scholars and Fellows on the scaffolding at Hampton Court Palace

Scholars and Fellows on the scaffolding at Hampton Court Palace

This year’s Scholars and Fellows have started their countrywide tour. They have a packed programme to look forward to that will run from March to December.

The group have already visited the Tower of London and Hampton Court Palace, where they have had a practical bricklaying session. In the next few weeks they can look forward to lead welding at Norman and Underwood, the lead-casters who made the King Richard III ossuary and the kind sponsors of the Scholars’ car this year, an introduction to milling at Charlecote Mill in Warwick and timber framing at the Kent Woodland Centre.

In the coming months their travels will take them to significant conservation projects, workshops and studios in all parts of the country where they will  learn about traditional building techniques from skilled craftspeople who have already established careers in the field. Don’t miss out on any blog posts, sign up for email updates from the Scholars and Fellows blog.

Image from left to right: Niall Bird, David Burdon, Oliver Wilson, Emma Teale, Joe Coombes-Jackman, Ben Hornberger and Joanna Daykin.