National Treasures: The South Gate, King’s Lynn, Norfolk

Ken Hill, a retired journalist and King’s Lynn resident since 1975 writes about a ‘Lynn’ landmark.  He was a South Gate volunteer for a many years. 

The South Gate at Bishop’s Lynn, Norfolk, had been welcoming travellers into the town for many years before the Mayor and Burgesses decided it needing repairing yet again in 1437. In that year, the town was prosperous from its sea-borne trade around England and with Europe – particularly through the Hanseatic League.  So the Mayor had a mind to impress visitors arriving by road with a grand entrance gate.

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Well-known builders were invited to come up with ideas.  Robert Hertanger of London got the job.  His design used bricks (200,000 of them) and stones rather than wood.  He suggested a 20ft high arch with a fan vaulted ceiling, plus a grand room above where the Mayor could welcome important guests.  He also suggested extra chambers for staff and even an inside toilet with a chute into a convenient rivulet.  He pocketed a good advance and set to.

But as well as his reputation for buildings, Lynn soon realised their new contractor was very fond of alehouses.  The allocated money eventually ran out before the building was completed.  Robert Hertanger’s contract was ended “by reason of his poverty”.  The South Gate was topped off with a temporary roof.  The Mayor and Burgesses licked their wounds, and their successors decided to live with the unfinished job.  At least the gates worked, keeping out the sick, the robbers and the beggars. These were medieval times.  Plagues were still about.

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Margery Kempe, the Lynn mystic, might have seen the re-building started.  But Christopher Columbus, Henry VIII, William Shakespeare and Cardinal Wolsey weren’t even born. It took a visit by Cardinal Wolsey in August 1520 to get the building finished.  He called in at Bishop’s Lynn that year, no doubt accompanied by the Bishop of Norwich, Richard Nykke.  Lynn was on his patch. The Cardinal had just leased Hampton Court Palace in Surrey, and was starting a lavish five-year improvement programme there.  He would have been impressed by Lynn’s two huge catholic churches, the five monasteries, the Mayor’s Town Hall plus civic buildings, and the merchants’ houses and guildhalls. But what would he have thought of the half-finished South Gate?  And how would the Bishop of Norwich have answered the Cardinal’s inevitable question: “What’s happening here then?”  We don’t know. But we do know that Mayor Thomas Myller commissioned two local builders on 5 October 1520 “to make up the South Gates as good and cheap as they can get them…. so that the same be finished about the XXIst September next following.”  Perhaps the Cardinal had said he’d be back in October next year? The new builders abandoned the fan vaulting in favour of cheaper barrel vaulting.  Look carefully and you can still see the beginnings of the fan vaulting under the arch.  Plus grotesques keeping an eye on the traffic.

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Seven years later, Bishop’s Lynn was re-named King’s Lynn as part of Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries. The South Gate did good service to the town – though it couldn’t keep out the Parliamentarians in 1643 during the Civil War. Nowadays, more than 1,200 vehicles a day (Norfolk County Council survey 2007) come into King’s Lynn through this 580-year-old gate: double-decker buses, HGVs, cars, even a few brave cyclists.  Volunteers open it up twice a week during the summer. But it deserves better.  The volunteers and many others are promoting a scheme to divert traffic through a small adjacent park, and make a new park round the South Gate.  It would improve traffic flow.  This is a landmark building, Grade I listed and a Scheduled Ancient Monument.  It deserves to play a major role in a town that is proud of its architectural heritage. And looks after most of it fairly well.

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SPAB Ireland Working Party 2017

by Tríona Byrne, 2016 SPAB Scholar

In February this year, a group of Irish Scholars, Fellows and Guardians banded together to found an Irish branch of the SPAB. Shortly afterwards, we were fortunate enough to secure funding from the Heritage Council to host the first Irish Working Party as part of Heritage Week, which takes place in August every year.

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Our Working Party was scheduled to run over 4 days, from 24-27 August. From early June, we began planning in earnest. We knew we would need to raise an amount of match funding in order to claim the Heritage Council funding. Our newly-formed Events Committee rose to the challenge, organising both a social event and a fundraiser in the form of a table quiz. This event was a resounding success – over 20 teams such as ‘The Coarse Aggregates’ and ‘Cobbled Together’ battled it out over the evening to answer questions on a range of topics, including several built heritage rounds, of course. We raised more than enough money to cover our funding shortfall and it was a brilliant social gathering of conservation enthusiasts in Dublin too.

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From there, the preparation continued with gusto – our wonderful committee, led by SPAB Scholar and project manager for the event, Mary Kerrigan, put in hours and hours of time organising every last detail. Eventually on 23 August, we decamped to Derry-Londonderry to begin.

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As this was our first time hosting a Working Party, and we had little to no event organisation experience, we started small; the focus of the work for the four days was the repair of a rubble stone garden wall running alongside an end-of-terrace house on the beautiful De Burgh Terrace. We had 12 participants on each of the 4 days, two different sets of 12 people for two days each, plus lots of SPAB Ireland committee members, local neighbours and volunteers taking part so we were full to capacity for the small site.

Our principal goal for the Working Party was for people to learn how to prepare and work with hot-mixed lime mortars, and to feel confident using and specifying the material in future. It was also an excellent opportunity to spread the SPAB philosophy, which has thus far been relatively unknown in Ireland.

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We were led by SPAB Fellow Eoin Madigan, a sixth generation stonemason, and SPAB Scholar & Guardian Conor Meehan, who shared their expertise with the enthusiastic volunteers. We were well looked after by the lovely local community who provided delicious meals and roofs over our heads, and everyone took part with great spirit in our evening activities. These included a tapas dinner one night and a garden BBQ another night provided by the owner of the garden wall, walking tours of the both the Clarendon Street Conservation Area and the City Walls, along with a BBQ on the final night in the beautiful Dunmore Gardens, Co. Donegal. The great community spirit of the local neighbourhood was so evident and the fact that they welcomed us with open arms made sure the event exceeded our expectations.

Overall, we are delighted with how well the Working Party went and was received by everyone who took part, and it has proved to us that there is a great appetite for the work we are doing with the SPAB in Ireland, which is hugely encouraging. Watch this space!

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National Treasure: The Old Bluecoat School, Thatcham

SPAB member Mark Thomas writes about a local Berkshire landmark. This article first appeared in the summer 2017 edition of the SPAB Magazine. The magazine is only available to members of the SPAB.

Alongside the A4 in Thatcham, Berkshire, is a small building now known as the Old Bluecoat School. Although it was a school in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the building’s history is much longer than that. The style of the east window shows that it was once a chapel and it is believed to have been built in 1304 as the Chapel of the medieval Borough of Thatcham.

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Living in Thatcham for over 30 years, I could not avoid noticing the rather tired old building by the side of the main road. Having a background in construction I volunteered to help the trustees during the refurbishment in 2014 and quickly got co-opted onto the committee. Like others before me, I started to investigate the history of the building and became fascinated by how the ancient building had survived through cycles of decay and repair.

A Victorian historian, Samuel Barfield, discovered the original licence from the Bishop of Salisbury dated 3rd May 1304 granting a local landowner and later Lord of the Manor, Sir Richard de Fockenham, and the parishioners of Thatcham the right to hold chantry services in the chapel which they had already built at their own expense.
Later authors speculated about why the chapel was built, although, from its location adjacent to the historic London to Bath road, one likely use could have been as a wayside chapel situated at the boundary of the newly created Borough. The promotion of Thatcham town to Borough status appears contemporary with building of the chapel and it is tempting to see the new chapel as a prominent civic status symbol for the new Borough. The national rarity of a surviving free-standing wayside chapel accounts for the building’s Grade 1 listing in 1983.

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Interior of the Old Bluecoat School, date unknown

Between 1304 and 1707 little is known about the chapel other than that, somehow, it survived. There is a single reference from 1446 saying that it is dedicated to St Thomas the Martyr. Another mystery is that there is supposedly no record of it at the 1547 Abolition of the Chantries during the Reformation. It appears in the records again in 1661 as “the Chapel of this Borough” almost as if it was still in use.
From 1707 we are on firmer historical ground. Lady Frances Winchcombe bought the “old decayed chapel” to convert into a charity school for 30 local poor boys, although it didn’t properly open until 1794. The charity’s surviving account books from that year record the clothing bought for the boys, but do not specifically describe the coats as blue until 1900. (A “Blue Coat” school was a popular unofficial name for one of many similar charity schools.)

The school closed in 1914 when the master was called up for military service. From the end of the First World War until 1964, Berkshire County Council rented the building for school cookery lessons. After 1964 the trustees of Lady Winchcombe’s charity could not find a new use for the building and its upkeep was unsustainable. It was sold to Newbury District Council in 1969 for £2500. The building was used as an antiques shop during the 1990s but fell empty again. In 2003, local Councillor Barbara Collins-Wootton, saw that the Council was proposing to sell the building by public auction as surplus to requirements. Mrs Collins-Wootton set up a committee with other Thatcham residents and succeeded in transferring the building to a new charity with a long lease from the Council to manage it for community use.

After ten years of fundraising, and thanks to the generosity of local businesses, a start was made on refurbishing the exterior of the building in 2014. Modern cement render was removed from the flint walls and replaced with lime render and limewash. Temporary acrylic window panes, which had been there for over 30 years, were replaced with leaded lights in the original wooden frames and were based on an old photograph from 1897. The roof was re-laid, while saving 75% of the old tiles.
Currently the interior is suffering from the 1973 refurbishment of cement rendered walls, a concrete floor slab and varnished plywood dado panels that cover up damp. The most striking feature is the attractive scissor-beamed roof. Described by some as Victorian or Tudor or, more credibly, as 15th century with an older tie-beam, the roof structure is an obvious candidate for more scientific dating.

The building is now in daily use by local clubs and societies. Classical music concerts have been very successful, with many performers commenting on the excellent acoustics. Longer term plans, money and permissions permitting, are to refurbish the interior by removing the concrete floor and cement render and replace them with more appropriate materials. The challenge for a historic building in daily use will be to include sympathetic modern facilities, such as a catering area, so that the building is attractive to hirers and will continue in community use for the foreseeable future.

For more information about the Old Bluecoat School pleases visit the website.

 

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.