Wimpole Tower, the artificial ruin

Wimpole Tower was built to proclaim the grandeur of a noble landowner from a hilltop. How, after years of decay, it speaks out once again, writes Donald Insall.
To the observant viewer, every building speaks. Today indeed, many buildings even shout – especially those demanded as publicity for commercial organisations –  for that is the spirit of our age. “My creator…” some of them shriek ,” is bursting with originality, and will design and erect for you a magnet for every eye, crushing its competitors,  defying apparent gravity, trumpeting your name and products…”

An earlier eye-catcher, with specifically that function in mind but in an utterly different spirit, was the landscape feature of the 18th-century Picturesque Movement – notably the Artificial Ruin. Perhaps deceitful, yet more often rather witty and tongue-in-cheek, its aim and message were to delight the sensitivities of the educated visitor. And in doing so, also to commend the wealth, knowledge and scholarship of a noble landowner, hinting at his lineage and history, underlining the passage of time, and with it the continuity and tranquillity of his country seat.

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A 1777 engraving of the gothic tower at Wimnpole. Artist unknown.

Such a feature, set among trees on a hilltop and axially linked with its architectural parent, is the Gothic Tower at Wimpole, just outside Cambridge. Originally the inspiration of architect Sanderson Miller, who sketched the idea for Lord Hardwicke in 1749, this came to reality (or perhaps, a rather special variant of reality) a quarter of a century later in the hands of the ubiquitous Capability Brown and his friend James Essex, and rapidly took its place in the locality’s designed landscape.

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Wimpole Tower, before works. Credit: Malcolm Barrett

As in every building, life and change continued. In 1805 the Estate adapted the interior of the Tower to provide accommodation for a gamekeeper and his family, introducing additional floors and enclosed the wooden stair, while outside and within the curtilage some lean-to structures were added as home for farm stock. Meanwhile, the hand of real time and decay was now adding to the original theme of ruination – history was gradually taking over.

With changing fortunes in 1976, the Estate came into the hands of the National Trust. By then the little hilltop folly was overgrown, rabbit-riddled and in increasingly unsafe condition, demanding immediate emergency repairs. More recently still, and thanks in part to DEFRA’s Higher Level Stewardship Scheme (administered by Natural England) and to legacies and donations, it became possible to allocate more funds.  With these came an opportunity for increased care.

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Conservators from Cliveden Conservation working on the repair and consolidation of Wimpole’s north-east turret wall. Credit: Donald Insall Associates

A fresh study and conservation plan were commissioned, including archaeological and historical research and investigations into local social history, and into onsite technical aspects such as the design of lost elements, as well as practical matters like stonework decay and cleaning. All of these brought unusual challenges of both a philosophical and practical kind. For here we were dealing not with an ancient structure scarred by battle, but with a consciously-created and retrospectively-built image of a non-existent earlier history, itself gathering evidence of a life of its own.

Luckily, limited available archive material came to our aid, and was reinforced by the tangible evidence onsite. The walls of the Tower and its flanking lesser sisters and compound had been built mainly in red brickwork, but faced-up with ashlar in the soft chalky limestone known as clunch.  Typically, this had proved highly porous and vulnerable, and had suffered erosion and lamination of its outer weather-surfaces, and heavy losses in the remaining vestiges of the crenellated crown.

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Wimpole Tower after conservation. Credit: Malcolm Barrett

Practical cleaning trials were carried out, and led to a traditional solution of removing vegetation, brushing of loose and friable stonework, raking-out open joints and repointing.  In this, and using naturally hydraulic lime, four specified mortar mixes were employed, matching the respective requirements of deep  walling-voids,  the repointing of backing brickwork and of fine facing stonework, and lastly of wall-capping and rainwork run-off areas.

Finally a limewash mix was applied to individual stones, but without disturbing any which retained their protective surface and were lichen-covered. Where a minimum of replacement stone was needed and was unavailable on site local stone was selected from a quarry at Barrington (since alas, closed). Special care was taken in painstaking examination of faint archive photographs of the remaining  and exposed stonework at the tower top, where Chilmark stone from Chicksgrove has proved a happy neighbour for the clunch ashlar; and the weather is already assisting in a happy marriage. Throughout the works, a close liaison was maintained between client, curators and within the specialist team, the highly able contractors engaged being Cliveden Conservation. An active programme of works tours, arranged from an access scaffolding, attracted a great deal of public interest and involvement.

The Gothic Tower is now accessible to visitors and serves as a major landscape feature over a remarkable area, contributing in a very real way to the Grade I registered park and garden at Wimpole today. Thanks to a detailed entry by the National Trust, the project has been not only awarded a 2016 European Union Prize but also celebrated as a Grand Prix winner for the UK, announced in Madrid to an international audience by Europa Nostra’s President, Maestro Placido Domingo, who said: “At a time when the European Union is confronted with many political, economic and social challenges, this initiative has a very special meaning. Cultural heritage, indeed, connects people across generations and across borders, generates economic growth and fosters social inclusion.”

In the words of the jury:”Intellectually, this project raises interesting questions about the preservation of a designed ruin and inspires thoughts about the nature of conservation.  It is informed by detailed research and archaeological recordings and is a model of cooperative endeavour. This Grand Prix is awarded in recognition of this diligent work”
So, the Wimpole Tower now “speaks” again.

This article first appeared in the autumn 2016 SPAB Magazine. The magazine is one of the benefits of SPAB membership.

On Ruskin’s Birthday

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On this day 198 years ago John Ruskin was born. One hundred and forty years ago this March William Morris formed the SPAB. Ruskin’s influence was instrumental in the founding of the SPAB.

An innovative thinker, art critic and philosopher, John Ruskin’s writings laid the foundations for the conservation and Arts & Crafts movements. His writings on restoration profoundly affected William Morris. Morris took Ruskin’s passion and philosophies and turned them into action.

In Ruskin’s “Lamp of Memory” from the Seven Lamps of Architecture he writes: “Do not let us talk then of restoration. The thing is a Lie from beginning to end… Take proper care of your monuments, and you will not need to restore them. A few sheets of lead put in time upon the roof, a few dead leaves swept in time out of a water-course, will save both roof and walls from ruin. Watch over an old building with an anxious care; guard it as best you may, and at any cost, from every influence of dilapidation”

Of old buildings he said “We have no right whatever to touch them. They are not ours. They belong partly to those who built them, and partly to all the generation of mankind who are to follow us”

Launched by a letter to the Athenaeum in March 1877 the SPAB was set up to become Ruskin’s watchdog. With an impressive committee including leading artists and figures of national importance, including Ruskin himself, the Society began campaigning against restoration and demolition of old buildings. During the Society’s first year a campaign was launched to save Wren’s City churches. By autumn 1879 the SPAB was busily campaigning to save the west front of St Marks in Venice from harsh treatment.

Ruskin’s influence can be seen in the SPAB Manifesto written by William Morris and Philip Webb, in 1877:“put Protection in place of Restoration, to stave off decay by daily care, to prop a perilous wall or mend a leaky roof…show now pretence of other art.” Morris closes his Manifesto, which is still followed by the Society today, with an impassioned plea to protect our ancient buildings for those that come after us.

Mystery Bottles

After attending SPAB’s 2015 autumn lectures on curious things found in old buildings, Kelly Appleton-Swaine, building conservation officer, Heritage Lincolnshire, was inspired to find out more about the Old Kings Head, Kirton, a former coaching inn  with a story to tell. This story first appeared in the SPAB Magazine, a benefit of SPAB membership.

The darkness of a cold, wintery night can set the mind imagining all sorts of horrors. Our senses are heightened and small sounds seem large and frightening. The noises of nocturnal animals -scratching, sniffing, scurrying –  mutate, conjuring monsters, witches and evil spirits. In the absence of light, the creaks, cracks and groans of the building around us moving and settling after the heat of the day sound more like someone (or something) knocking, tapping or scraping at the doors and windows trying to get in.
Terrifying! Then we flick the light switch and after blinking in the sudden brightness, everything returns to normal again. It’s only the cat prowling outside, sizzling sap from the cooling fire, a twig tapping against the window.

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It is no wonder that our 17th century counterparts were so superstitious when the fear of witches, evil spirits, spells and curses was very real. Warding off the supernatural was a powerful motive for actions which seem to us, in our light-filled, busy modern day world, decidedly odd and strange.

After attending the 2015 SPAB Autumn Lectures I understood this a little more, although some aspects did still seem baffling. I could understand why ritual and sacred marks were carved into windows, doors and fireplaces, but the reasons for hiding dead cats, shoes and skulls in walls or under floorboards still took an extra leap of the imagination. It was, however, fascinating and was made more so by Brian Hoggard whose lecture, ‘Shoes in the chimney, cats in the floor’ left me intrigued and wanting to know more. Afterwards as I stepped out into the busy October semi-darkness, I wanted nothing more than to race back to Lincolnshire, find a torch and start scouring Heritage Lincolnshire’s new building conservation project, The Old King’s Head, for signs of marks or buried felines.
Luckily I didn’t have too long to wait until something curious turned up.

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The Old King’s Head. Credit: Beverley Gormley

Heritage Lincolnshire is a Building Preservation Trust that works across the county to help protect, preserve and celebrate Lincolnshire’s rich heritage.  Purchased in early 2016, the Old King’s Head is a brick built former coaching inn, located in Kirton, on what was the main London road into Boston. After decades of neglect, the Grade II – Listed building has become at risk and in danger of being lost.

The Old Kings Head was built in two main phases. The first was completed  in 1599 and the second phase, in 1661, consisted of major remodelling. This second phase, as noted by Pevsner, is in the Fen Artisan Mannerist style, an architectural term coined by Sir John Summerson in the 1950s to describe a style of building which was designed and built by craftsmen rather than architects. There are several examples in the Fenland area such as Church House in Boston and Aslackby Hall near Bourne.

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The Old King’s Head stairs. Credit: Ian Moore

The building has a long and fascinating history as a coaching inn and was mentioned in the autobiography ‘The Life of John Rastrick’ (1650-1727). As a Lincolnshire non-conformist clergyman. Rastrick used his money to release fellow non-conformists and refused to baptise the local children if he felt their parents were ‘loose and scandalous’ people. This made him extremely unpopular with the Kirton locals who, by his own admission, all hated him and felt he was ‘too rigorous and cruell [sic] to make the Children suffer for the Parents faults’. This led to a near fatal incident in 1678 when Rastrick was locked in the dining room of the King’s Head with a Mr William Hunt (Rastrick would not give him communion due to Mr Hunt refusing to repent his ‘former ill life’) who flew into a rage shouting ‘We’ll die together in this room!’  Rastrick only survived due to a neighbour intervening. There were several other lively characters associated with the King’s Head, which remained as a pub until the late 1960’s when it was converted to residential use.

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The entrance room at The Old King’s Head. Credit: Ian Moore

Since purchasing the building, the Trust has been spending time investigating its construction and development and we are benefitting from expert advice on the historic timbers, thatch, paint and mortar. Due to the age of the building we suspected we might find marks or items of apotropaic interest and I attended the SPAB lectures to ensure that we would know what to look out for. We have also been talking to the local community, including previous occupants, and it was at a meeting with a former resident that I first heard of the bottles in the roof.

Up to this point we had not fully investigated the roof space apart from shining a torch into its gloomy depths. We knew that the pub had once been thatched and that a pantile roof had been built over the top of it. From what the torch illuminated, some if not all of the original thatch base survives.

On hearing about the bottles we investigated further and found three broken glass bottles covered in dust and cobwebs hanging from a roof beam. Our source told us that his grandmother ordered him and his siblings never to touch them but they were never told the reason why.  We decided to ask Brian Hoggard to visit to see if there was an explanation. Brian’s visit was enlightening and extremely interesting, and although we still don’t really know why the bottles were put there a few theories have been put forward. When we first saw the bottles the idea of them being ‘witch bottles’ was mooted. Witch bottles are normally buried; they contain items such as pins, nails and urine and are complete (upon burial).

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Our bottles are hanging, broken and it is believed that they date from between 1800 and 1850. One theory is that they were used as part of a game when coach men and stable boys would sleep in the roof space and throw stones at hanging bottles, scoring points whenever one was smashed. However the rope that the bottles are hung with appears to be the same age as the bottles and the way it is knotted shows they could only have been hung after they were broken.

If they are not witch bottles or the remnants of a game, what are they? The last and slightly speculative (or romantic) theory is that the bottles represent people who lived in the inn. Looking into historic records we found that a John and Elizabeth Pulford lived at the King’s Head in the mid 1800’s. They married in 1835 and had their first child, William, the following year. Sadly there is record of William’s burial aged 2 in July 1837 and later in the year Elizabeth was buried too, along with another child – Richard Pulford – who was only 25 weeks and three days old.

Could it be that in his grief John Pulford had hung the bottles in the roof as representations of Elizabeth, William and Richard? Choosing broken bottles because they had been tragically taken away from him? It is quite likely that we will never know, but the mystery is intriguing and it brings the building and former inhabitants to life.
Heritage Lincolnshire is only at the beginning of our journey exploring and renovating the Old King’s Head. Our hope is to return it back into a thriving centre of the community.  There is still a lot to discover so who knows what other mysteries we will find on the way?

If you would like to make a donation to the conservation of this historic building and/or to the work of Heritage Lincolnshire, you can do so online.

Loyd Grossman, man of taste

As Loyd Grossman comes to end of his time as Chairman of the Churches Conservation Trust, he talks to SPAB communications manager Kate Griffin.
Loyd Grossman is a pleasingly difficult man to pigeon hole. His diverse enthusiasms and commitments could almost be seen as the accomplishments of someone from earlier age when a person could be defined by their interests rather than their profession. Loyd’s distinctive swooping vowels made him instantly familiar as a broadcaster when he fronted several hugely popular television series in the 1980s and 90s, but it is perhaps another small screen appearance that gives the clue to his range and depth. In 2009, he won an edition of BBC’s Celebrity Mastermind and his specialist subject was 18th century art and artists, something that viewers of Through the Keyhole or MasterChef, might not have expected. Then again, they might also have found it surprising that Loyd has an ongoing parallel ‘career’ as a rock musician. In 1977 his punk band Jet Bronx and The Forbidden reached number 49 in the UK singles chart with “Ain’t Doin’ Nothing” and he returned to performing music in 2008 with a new version of the group.

The son of a Massachusetts art and antiques dealer, Loyd graduated from Boston University with a degree in history before arriving in the UK in the 1970s to study for a master’s in economic history. He subsequently read art history at Cambridge where he received his PhD. In addition to his television work, a lifelong interest in history and the arts has led to his involvement with a number of heritage organisations. In 2007, he was appointed Chairman of The Churches Conservation Trust (CCT) and in 2009 he was appointed Chairman of The Heritage Alliance, the UK membership organisation that represents more than 100 leading non-governmental organisations across the heritage sector.

Credit: Will Pascall Hudson

Credit: Will Pascall Hudson

You’ve enjoyed a very varied career, how would you describe yourself?
I try very hard not to describe myself. I’m very fortunate in that I try to pursue the things I’m interested in with a great deal of commitment, passion and love. It may be heritage, it may be higher education, and it may be playing the guitar. I am a great enthusiast and an optimist. I always believe that things can be made better if we try.  I don’t have a career, I have an attitude.

You are clearly an anglophile, how did your enthusiasm for Britain and its heritage begin?
I love this country. I came to London in 1974 to do a post graduate degree at the London School of Economics. And I’m still here. My academic discipline has always been history. I grew up in Marblehead, a famously beautiful part of New England with a very strong sense of history. From childhood, thanks to my parents and my environment, I was always interested in history, and architectural and art history. Really, I think it was inevitable – for someone like me who grew up in New England and who was interested in history – that Britain would have an appeal. For Americans, the Revolution of 1776 is an extraordinarily evocative and romantic thing – it’s the moment at which American history and British history seem to be on a threshold. You can’t understand one without understanding the other.

Why is the past relevant?
I think it sets us in the context of all those who’ve come before and makes us think about the future. I’m very clear that it’s not just about us and it’s not just about us feeling good, productive or aesthetically satisfied. It’s about us as inheritors of this incredible history and wanting to pass it on to future generations – wanting our children and grandchildren and so on, to grow up in a beautiful, inspiring, historically rich and meaningful environment.

How did you become involved with the Churches Conservation Trust?
In 2007 I’d finished six wonderful years as a commissioner for English Heritage and I knew I wanted to stay in the heritage field. Everything is a matter of timing. Miraculously, the Chairmanship of the CCT was available. I had met, and greatly admired, the two previous Chairs – namely Liz Forgan and Frank Field – so I knew what a great organisation it was. I thought, what the heck, I should try for it. I must add I never expected to get it. In those days ‘celebrity’ wasn’t in any way a necessary part of the criteria for the chairmanship. Oddly enough, at that stage I don’t think the fact that I was in some way well known played a part in the process.

You are stepping down from the role of Chairman of the Churches Conservation Trust in 2016, looking back what do you consider to be the most satisfying achievements during that time?
It’s been nine years and it’s been amazing experience – a really incredible part of my life. I’ve worked with so many interesting people who share a real passion. It’s an organisation that punches way above its weight because we all love the mission. I’m pleased that during my time as Chairman the size of the charity has increased by more than threefold, which means we are doing and are able to do more and more and more wonderful stuff. Of course, there’s still a huge amount to tackle, but I think, modestly, I’ve helped to play a part in creating a framework or platform to enable it to go on doing and achieving great things in the future.

There are thousands of ancient churches across the UK. With diminishing congregations and huge care challenges, what does the future hold?
Nationally, I believe there are around 16,000 listed churches. The CCT is a smallish charity and we only look after 350 of them, which, actually, still puts us in the same category in terms of the number of properties in our care as, say, English Heritage or the National Trust.

It’s a huge challenge, but I am full of optimism.  I hope that the CCT leads by example. I think we have created very innovative models which show the extraordinary and imaginative things you can do with listed churches, while remaining consistent with their consecrated status.  We try very hard to exercise a pastoral role and we’ve shown that one can be creative and full of hope and full of commitment to do the best things for the communities that surround our churches. Of course, it’s not a uniquely British challenge. We’ve exported our model to other countries. We’ve taken a leadership role in something called Future Religious Heritage Europe which is trying to help others deal with the similar issues facing their own historic buildings.

What will never change – and this is true for everyone in the heritage world – is that our aspirations, which are so great and so beneficial, will always outstrip our resources, but nonetheless we will keep moving forward and keep improving things.

The challenges and difficulties are great, but so are the opportunities. Do we believe that historic buildings have the ability to inspire people and make them more creative, more entrepreneurial and more complete? 

The answer to all those questions for me – for all of us – has to be ‘yes’. We are all nuts to be doing this, but we believe it will help people now and in the future, and we will keep on doing it. We will triumph.
Is it about people or buildings?
It’s about people. It has to be.  It’s about saving buildings to help people have better, more interesting, more fulfilled lives.

The full interview was published in the summer 2016 SPAB Magazine. The magazine is just one of the benefits of SPAB membership.

National Treasure: Dowlais Ironworks, South Wales

SPAB member Warren Williams’ favourite building is a splendid example of our industrial heritage.

Wandering through the South Wales town of Merthyr Tydfil one encounters many relics of its industrial past. Particularly well situated for the establishment of iron works with its natural reserves of coal, limestone and water from the River Taff, Merthyr grew to be one of the most important producers of iron during the Industrial Revolution.

Both the social and physical landscape were subsumed by the industry, spawning innovations in engineering, transport and radical socialism. In 1804 Merthyr bore witness to the world’s first steam locomotive, designed by Richard Trevithick. Isambard Kingdom Brunel created Wales’ first working railway between Merthyr and Cardiff docks in 1840. Chartism flourished along with early trade unionism and the first workers movement.

Alas, the industry sank into decline during the early years of the 20th century and the town has struggled to recover ever since. Much of what remains of the architectural and civic grandeur lies within a miasma of nondescript post war development. Ill-considered demolition has further eroded the urban character of a dense network of streets punctuated by public and communal buildings into a more open and suburban appearance.

One surviving building which has personal significance for me, is the former stable range for the Dowlais Ironworks, built in 1820 for the Iron master Josiah Guest. I became acquainted with it in my youth as a forlorn ruin, where it was unceremoniously used to store wood for bonfire night. Amongst its rather more auspicious past uses were as a barracks for soldiers sent to quash the ironworkers’ riots of the “Merthyr Rising” in the 1830s (I mentioned the town was a hotbed of radical politics) and as a boys school in 1854.

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Perched at the top of a hill above my home, its melancholic presence filled me equally with awe and curiosity, a product of a bygone era which was referenced fleetingly in my schooling. Happily its derelict state was not to be permanent. The Merthyr Tydfil Heritage Trust narrowly saved it from demolition, converting it to sheltered homes for the elderly in the 1980s and at one stage it housed my grandmother.

Originally the building was a rectangular form of ranges set around a railway served courtyard. Architecturally all that remains is the primary frontage and the stable house at the rear of the court. The building is a linear two storey symmetrical block comprising nine bay ranges arranged around a central entrance and two end pavilions.

Decoration is used sparingly with tooled grey limestone dressings and quoins. Each of the end pavilions are articulated through recessed blind arches, roundels and are surmounted by coped pediments. A tall broad depressed arch provides access to the courtyard through the central pavilion. Its hierarchical importance in the facade is further reinforced through the circular clock face, dated stone plaque, star shaped tie rods and an octagonal cupola perched on the roof. Warmth and textural interest is provided by the brown hues of the rubble facing stone, indigenous to South Wales.

Warren Williams Dowlais stables detail

It would be disingenuous of me to claim that all the fabric of the conserved building is original; the roof was replaced, the windows are new and the rear wall was rebuilt with the addition of a timber deck access to the first floor. However, I feel that such a pragmatic approach to conservation is justified; the new fabric was sourced and worked to match the existing and the contemporary deck access is located to the rear subservient elevation.

As my first encounter with historic architecture, it has instilled in me the importance of the simplicity of form, the use of elegant proportions and a delight in natural tactile materials.
Perhaps its most significant lesson is that if we are to retain our built heritage one must find viable and practical new uses. Indeed, my admiration of the former stables was further cemented when I revisited it as part of a field trip as an architectural student. It was held up as a fine example of resurrecting a ruinous building; the flats are generously planned, filled with light and most importantly loved by the residents.

We publish a National Treasure feature in every quarterly SPAB Magazine. Do you have a favourite ‘ancient’ building you would like to tell SPAB members about? If so, get in touch with Kate Griffin at the SPAB : kate@spab.org.uk. If your piece is chosen then you will receive a free copy of The Old House Eco Handbook.