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.


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.


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.


‘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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

Grottos and churches

by Dearbhail Keating

Week 6 brought us away from Wales and back to the south taking in Somerset and Dorset. Two days were spent with Andy Ziminski, Fellow and director of Minerva Conservation and two days with Philip Hughes, Scholar and director of Philip Hughes Associates.

At the Church of St Peter and St Paul in Kilmersdon Andy showed us conservation work that is about to begin. The works will involve cleaning and conserving stonework, replacing the lead roof to the tower and repairs to the inside of the tower where a bell had fallen during a ringing exercise earlier in the year.

We carried out a trial area of stone cleaning around the doorway in the forth bay of the north aisle. The staining on the stone is due to air pollution and acid rain; this reacts with the stone creating calcium sulphate which forms a hard surface crust leading to subsequent blistering as salts expand behind.

To repair and conserve, initially the stone is brushed with water and phosphor bronze brushes, this can remove the sulphate salts which are soluble and with them, a degree of staining. But further cleaning is often required using a poultice.

In this case the poultice was a mix of paper pulp, water and ammonium carbonate. This is mixed together and pressed on to the area of stone requiring cleaning. Once the poultice is applied a chemical reaction takes place reverting the calcium sulphate to calcium carbonate which is the original make-up of the stone, thus stabilising it and slowing down further erosion

Applying the poultice

Applying the poultice

The doorway following the poulticing

The doorway following the poulticing

Following the poulticing we carried out mortar repairs to help support fragile edges of existing stonework. This method of cleaning and stabilisation will be used on several areas of the churches façade when works commence.

Later in the week, during our time with Philip Hughes, we were fortunate enough to visit St Giles House in Wimborne St Giles, Dorset. Built in the 17th century the house has been occupied by the Earl of Shaftsbury for many generations. Works are being carried out to a grotto in the grounds by Sally Strachey Historic Conservation. We spent the day on site getting involved in a very unique type of building conservation.

St Giles

St Giles

The fabulous shell grotto, dating from the early 18th century, is located to the south-east of the house. Grade II* listed, the grotto is an important example of its kind and has unfortunately fallen into disrepair. A grant from Natural England has allowed work to commence on the conservation of the grotto and the works are well underway.

Comprising of two main compartments and two side wings the grotto sits over a spring that feeds water to the ornamental lake. The building is of random rubble and flint construction with a slate roof. Internally the walls and ceiling are adorned with shells, flint, coral and fossils fixed to the walls, and the lath and plaster ceiling. Timber branches encased with shells were also suspended decoratively from the walls and ceilings.

Inside the grotto

Inside the grotto

The condition of the grotto when works began was quite bad indeed. A huge amount of work was carried out to save as much of the existing fabric as possible. All shells, coral etc. that had fallen were carefully removed and stored. Photographic evidence of the grotto before it fell into disrepair is available and the various options for reinstatement of the internal finish were debated.

The roof covering of the grotto had been removed; there are a number of roof structures that have built up over the life of the building through previous repairs. It was possible to view the condition of the ceilings from both above and below. There were problems with decay of timber laths and this was resulting in the plaster and shells falling from the ceilings. Some of the walls were studded out and decay had set in here, again resulting in loss of historic fabric. The timber branches covered in shells were also in need of attention.

Guided by the site team, we removed damaged laths and a wire was put in its place. This wire was fixed to the timber rafters on either side of the lath and secured with screws and washers. The wire ran along the line of the old lath and was a few millimetres above the plaster work. Following installation of the wire a water based epoxy resin was applied along the full length of the removed lath and built up into a peak along the line of the wire encasing it fully.

Scholar Charlie applying the epoxy resin

Scholar Charlie applying the epoxy resin

This method ensured the plaster work would have the best chance of remaining in situ, limiting the risk of it falling. Discussion is ongoing as to how repairs to the studded walls and decorative shell covered branches are to be carried out – we certainly did not have all the answers!

Thank you to all at Minerva Stone and Philip Hughes Associates for being such fantastic hosts, allowing us get our hands dirty and tutoring us in the world of stone and shells!

Wrack and ruin, revival and reuse

by Charlie Wellingham

All Souls Church in Bolton was consecrated in 1881, built for local textile mill owners Thomas and Nathaniel Greenhalgh, and is a classic example of the neo-Gothic style fashionable in this period of Victorian England. It was designed by Paley and Austin to dominate the townscape for miles around with its remarkable size, owing to the fact that it was required to seat a congregation of 800 worshippers at maximum occupancy. Sadly the industry that supported the workers of the congregation suffered badly throughout the late-20th century, and by the 1960s the Anglican Church was struggling to support such a large and underused building – finally the church was closed in 1986 and remained derelict for 25 years. An entire generation grew up in the shadows of this local landmark building having never seen its amazing interior.
Conservation 01
The 2014 SPAB Scholars and Fellows were very lucky to visit All Souls Bolton to discuss the ambitious reuse plans that have been developed in partnership by the Churches Conservation Trust and the Heritage Lottery Fund; converting the nave of the church into a mixed-use community centre via the insertion of free-standing ‘pods’ to a contemporary design, whilst retaining the chancel intact for smaller scale Christian worship. The new pods have been devised to respect the original fabric (they do not touch the surrounding walls or ceiling at all), whilst creating a bold counterpoint to the historic building in both form and materiality.

Pods 02
The most significant loss suffered in this adaptation is the removal of the original pews – and it was interesting to debate the impact of this on the character of the church. It clearly has a vast implication on the understanding of the space as it was designed for worship – but as this is agreed to no longer be a realistic future for the building, I would argue that their removal is justified; this one sacrifice paves the way for a new chapter of utility for this structure in the neighbourhood it was built to serve. I am a firm believer in the day-to-day use of our heritage buildings as the most enriching way for us to connect to our culture and history – rather than merely viewing them as an academically or aesthetically interesting artefact of a bygone age. It was fantastic to meet the design and construction teams who share these philosophies, and are working hard to realise them with such ambitious proposals.

Beyond the pods, an incredible team of craftspeople from Lambert & Walker conservation contractors are undertaking a full suite of repair works to ensure the derelict Victorian fabric is fit for 100 more years of service in its new community role. This includes re-laying the slate roof and lead gutters, and extensive conservation of the brick, stone and glass of the elevations in accordance with best practice principles. Alan Gardner, the highly experienced conservation surveyor overseeing the works to the historic fabric, explained to us that the project also sought to maximise the educational and outreach potential that the works could have within Bolton – establishing a sense of ownership within the community that would create true ‘sustainability’ and success. This ranges from open days for the public to technical days for professionals and a number of bursaries for young workers that have evolved into full apprenticeships and potential employment.

Conservation 02
Happily this atmosphere of collaboration and knowledge-sharing meant we Scholars and Fellows were able to muck in and learn some new skills as well! Thanks to Gareth for the joinery instruction, thanks to Ian for the lime mortar pointing guidance, and thanks to James for sharing his amazing stone carving skills. We look forward to visiting the finished project in future to see the local community enjoying their new facilities, and enjoying a new way to appreciate and connect with the built heritage and history that has stood silently amongst them for so long.
Hands On 01

Craftsmanship in Cambridgeshire

by Hannah Reynolds

Week 11 saw the Scholars travel to Cambridgeshire, my local stomping ground. The week began with an interesting day at CEL Roofing just outside of Peterborough. We were hosted by their enthusiastic and knowledgeable Managing Director, Carl Edwards. We were able to build on existing knowledge of the lead casting process, hand pour some cast embellishments and try our hand at lead welding before going out on a site visit.

Leadcasting at CELWe were able to see re-roofing and stone repair being carried out by CEL’s building repair section at All Saints Church, Elton. We then spent two days with members of the SPAB Mills section, millwright consultant, Luke Bonwick; Chair of Trustees for Burwell Mill and Museum, Paul Hawes; owner of Histon Mill, Steven Temple and architect and previous Scholar, Philip Orchard.

We visited both Burwell Mill and Soham Mill where conservation projects are currently underway. This was an eye-opening insight into the intricate workings of our historic mills, as well as the challenges faced by those fighting to ensure this industrial knowledge and heritage is not lost.

Paul Hawes is also owner of Cambridge Brick and Tile Company in Burwell; they still produce hand made bricks and tiles using local Burwell clay, which Paul’s family have been doing since the 1840s. We were lucky enough to be invited to try our hands at tile-making. It is safe to say, despite our valiant efforts, more practice is needed before we match the 450 tiles produced a day by Paul’s craftsmen!

Ely CathedralThe week closed with a visit to the historic town of Ely where we were kindly invited to sit in on the meeting of the Diocesan Advisory Committee for the Diocese of Ely, a committee on which Philip Orchard sits. The Committee makes decisions regarding current faculty applications, the church’s equivalent to the planning application process. This was followed by a lecture from Dr Tim Reynolds (Diocesan Archaeological Advisor to Ely Diocese) regarding the correct engagement and importance of archaeology within church projects. Stuart Hobley, East of England Development Officer for the Heritage Lottery Fund, gave an overview of the available grants for places of worship from the Heritage Lottery Fund and explained the application process. We ended the week with a visit to the outstanding Ely Cathedral.