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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Scholars and Fellows in north Wales

by Elgan Jones

Our week in Snowdonia began with a visit to Ned Scharer, a conservator with a strong passion for conservation and sustainable technologies, who set up the Natural Building Centre beside Plas Tirion, a 16th-century manor house in the process of being repaired. We were joined for the day by Maggie Goodall , SPAB education & training manager, and my brother Osian Jones, an architecture student at Manchester University.

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We began the day discussing the latest sustainable building products, which are compatible within the repair and thermal upgrading of historic structures, given their ‘breathability’ qualities. This was followed by a guided tour around Plas Tirion as Ned explained why certain types of plasters, screeds, mortars, natural insulation products and breathable paints were used in particular locations around the building.

For our practical afternoon session we joined Hefin Huws, a master waller who has been working with stone for the last 30 years, to help repair and rebuild a dry stone wall with the garden of Plas Tirion. Hefin explained the process of sorting the stone and techniques for setting out and rebuilding.

The hot Welsh weather was only surpassed by the even rarer sight of my brother getting his hands dirty!

The hot Welsh weather was only surpassed by the even rarer sight of my brother getting his hands dirty!

For the remainder of the week, we focused on slate and traditional roofing. We were kindly invited to Penrhyn Quarry were we met the team and Terry Hughes, a slate and stone roofing consultant. We were taken on a tour of the quarry to understand how slate was quarried from the mountain and manufactured into roofing slates, architectural products and aggregates.

None of us could quite anticipate the sheer scale of the quarry!

None of us could quite anticipate the sheer scale of the quarry!

Cores are drilled at perpendicular angles into the stone before diamond wires are chased through and cut out the slate. This process helps minimise waste by extracting larger sections of stone.

Cores are drilled at perpendicular angles into the stone before diamond wires are chased through and cut out the slate. This process helps minimise waste by extracting larger sections of stone.

The slate was then brought down to the quarry where it was cut down using modern machinery before being split and finished by hand

The slate was then brought down to the quarry where it was cut down using modern machinery before being split and finished by hand

The following day we met Terry and Richard Jordan, a roofer and SPAB Fellow, at Penmaen Cottage near Dolgellau where they were recording and repairing a traditional slate roof. Terry and Richard were working alongside Cadw recording and filming various stages of the project as an exemplar for other contactors undertaking similar types of work. Richard explained that the thickness of the standard roofing slate produced at Penrhyn was much thinner than the historic slates used on the building, therefore he would take off-cuts from the quarry to cut down and split by hand, the slates to the required thickness. Throughout the day we were also given the practical exercises such as cutting down the slates to size and bedding them on the roof.

Scholars and Fellows inspecting the stripped roof with Richard Jordan

Scholars and Fellows inspecting the stripped roof with Richard Jordan

  Scholars and Fellows cutting down the slates (with varying success!)


Scholars and Fellows cutting down the slates (with varying success!)