On Ruskin’s Birthday


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.


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.


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.


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.


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).


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.

National Treasure_Lindisfarne Castle

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.

History at Your Feet

An original historic floor contributes enormously to the character and the spirit of a place. Whether it’s humble cobbles or stately marble hall, the floor tells the story of the building. When people enter an old building, step onto a churchyard path or walk down a street in an ancient town or village their natural inclination is to look up – at the ceiling, at the windows, at the walls, at the buildings above and around.  That’s why the SPAB have launched the History at Your Feet Campaign. Tweet @SPAB1877 with your favourite historic floors. We hope this round up of the SPAB’s favourite floors will inspire you to #lookdown.
The Chapter House steps at Wells Cathedral, Somerset

Wells Cathedral  2 - from cathedral office Chapter House Steps from bottom
Also known as the ‘sea of steps’, (the self-explanatory name taken from an evocative 1903 photograph by Frederick H. Evans), the famous and beautifully worn stone  Chapter House steps of Wells Cathedral were built from 1286 and the upper flight in 1459-1460.
The staircase itself divides at the top with one branch leading through to Chain Gate (which in turn leads to Vicars Hall and Vicars’ Close) and the other branch leading to the Chapter House. Now, worn away by centuries of use, the wear and tear of tramping feet can be seen on the staircase. Image credit: Wells Cathedral.

The Cosmati Pavement at Westminster Abbey, London

Cosmati Pavement at Westminster Abbey

The great pavement in front of the High Altar of Westminster Abbey is remarkable. It was laid down in 1268 by order of Henry III who had started re-building Edward the Confessor’s Abbey in the new Gothic style in 1245. The workmen came from Rome. The pavement belongs to a type of inlaid stone decoration known as Cosmati work, after one of the families of craftsmen who specialized in it. The technique is called opus sectile, ‘cut work’. The great pavement is 24 feet 10 inches square and consists of geometrical patterns built up from pieces of stone of different colours and sizes cut into a variety of shapes: triangles, squares, circles, rectangles and many others. The central roundel is made of onyx and the pavement also includes purple porphyry, green serpentine and yellow limestone. Pieces of opaque coloured glass were also used. It lies on a bed of dark limestone known as Purbeck marble. Its uniqueness and completeness combine to make the pavement one of the pre-eminent works of art of medieval England. Its importance cannot be overstated.
Very few churches in medieval England are known to have possessed Cosmatesque floors.  Fragments from destroyed pavements have been found at St Augustine’s Abbey Canterbury and Old Sarum, Salisbury. There is a surviving floor fragment in the Trinity Chapel at Canterbury Cathedral (restored and re-laid), and historical evidence for one at old St Paul’s Cathedral.

The black and white marble floor of the chapel at the Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich, London

Old Royal Naval Chapel floor

The Chapel of St Peter and St Paul  at the Old Royal Naval College is a neo-classical masterpiece by James ‘Athenian’ Stuart and William Newton. It is one of the finest eighteenth century interiors in the UK. Naval motifs are depicted throughout the Chapel, reflecting the building’s original purpose as a place of worship for the inhabitants of the Royal Hospital for Seamen. This is a great place to #lookdown. In the centre of the black and white marble floor there is a ship’s anchor, and a rope design runs along the edge of the pews which is said to match exactly the diameter of an anchor cable of a ‘first-rate’ ship of the line. Image credit: Old Royal Naval College.

The wooden floor of the long gallery at Chastleton House, near Moreton in Marsh, Oxfordshire

Room view of the Long Gallery at Chastleton House. National Trust images/Nadia Mackenzie

In grand Elizabethan and Jacobean houses the long gallery was primarily a place to exercise in bad weather. It was also where a family on the rise might display a collection of art and ancestral portraits. Chastleton House in the Cotswolds, owned by the National Trust, was built by a rich wool merchant (or possibly lawyer). Nikolaus Pevsner described the decoration of Chastleton as “blatantly nouveau riche, even barbaric, uninhibited by any consideration of insipid good taste”, but now the long gallery has mellowed to a charming space of uneven boards and gentle patination. Rowan Moore says of it:  “What is particularly pleasurable is the way the stuff of the ceiling – ornamental plaster – descends, while the stuff of the floor – wood – rises in the form of panelling and the two meet at mid-height. It gives a boat-like sense of enclosure and protection.”

Dan Cruickshank says: “If the floor is right an historic room doesn’t need much else to make it work. The gnarled, wide, oak boards in the Long Gallery at Chastleton House are pretty good I think.” Image credit: National Trust images/Nadia Mackenzie.

The sloping wooden floor of St Mary’s Guildhall, Coventry

Upstairs in St Mary's Guildhall in Coventry

This ‘queasy’ floor was suggested by broadcaster and architectural historian, Jonathan Foyle, who says:Upstairs in St Mary’s Guildhall  in Coventry is a humble boarded floor that can’t be how its makers intended it six hundred years ago. The timber-framed building has warped so much that there’s no chance of playing marbles in there ever again. Toboggan, maybe. But that sloping room has gained the wonderful quality of having quietly witnessed the passage of time.”

Marcus Lynch General Manager of St Mary’s Guildhall adds:Some visitors emerge feeling rather disorientated, and even queasy as to some the room resembles the cabin of a (sinking) galleon.  The original function is not recorded, but it is most likely to have been an ancillary meeting chamber for the conduct of council or merchant guild business.” Image credit: St Mary’s Guildhall.

The brick paviour floor of St Agnes’ Church, Cawston, Norfolk

Tiles St Mary's Cawston Norfolk

SPAB’s head of Casework, Emma Lawrence says: “On a recent site visit to St Agnes’ Cawston (Norfolk) I was bowled over by this floor. The pew benches are medieval in date and the beautiful, simple unglazed bricks underneath may perhaps date from their installation. They are a great example of the way an apparently ordinary floor can contribute enormously to a sense of place.” Image credit: SPAB.

The tiled floors of the Victoria and Albert Museum created by female convicts at Woking Prison

‘Opus criminale’ of mosaic floors in the V&A Museum. Image belongs to the V&A Museum.

These were suggested by Olivia Horsfall Turner, Curator, Designs, Victoria and Albert Museum. She says:  “’My favourite V&A floors have to be the ‘opus criminale’ mosaic floors. The most spectacular example is located in the corridor between the cast courts, and we have the original design for it in the Designs collection as well. These mosaic floors were created by women convicts in Woking Prison, under the supervision of designers attached to the V&A. The Museum had a strong notion of its social role and the intention was that by making the mosaics, the prisoners would be morally improved. The designs were produced and sent to the prisoners, who made up tiles accordingly – the tiles were then sent back to the Museum and installed. Some of the mosaics were complex, others were simple geometric patterns in black and white. They are found in various places throughout the Museum, including just outside my office. Every time I walk over them I think about the women of Woking prison who made them – unnamed and unknown but who contributed to one of the most distinctive features of the V&A’s interior decoration.” Image credit: V&A Museum.

The tomb-lined floor of St Mary’s Church (the Ramblers’ Church), Lead, North Yorkshire

Tombs at St Mary Lead

This tiny rectangular building is very simple. It was probably built by the Tyas family, which numbered crusading knights whose massive 13th century grave slabs are set into the floor. Carved with heraldic symbols and inscriptions, they are an evocative and important collection, adding immeasurably to the church’s distinct atmosphere.
Since being rescued by a group of walkers in 1931, St Mary’s has been known as the Ramblers’ Church. Nearby is Towton, the site of the battle believed to be bloodiest in English history, which brought the Wars of the Roses to an end in 1461.Ten thousand men are said to have been killed and Cock Beck, the little stream which visitors have to cross to reach St Mary’s, is said to have run red with blood.

Despite its history, St Mary’s is a peaceful place. Today it is cared for by the Churches Conservation Trust. Image credit: Churches Conservation Trust.


The encaustic tiled floor of the retrochoir, Winchester Cathedral

Winchester Retrochoir & De Lucy tomb_credit Dr John Cook

SPAB supporter Kevin McCloud says: “I’m a big fan of looking down as well as up at buildings. My favourite international floor has to be the heroic mosaic floor of Otranto Cathedral (the departure place of worship for crusaders) that depicts Alexander, Noah, Adam and King Arthur, among a host of characters. In Britain, the retrochoir in Winchester Cathedral is a riot of encaustic tiles that is a destination in itself. I also photograph old manhole covers and street furniture; an odd hobby I know, that probably takes an interest in what lies beneath a little too far!” Image credit: Dr John Cook.

The painted wood floor of the Tyrconnel Room, Belton House, Lincolnshire

Tyrconnel Room at Belton House. National Trust Images/Graham Challifour

Old painted floors are relatively unusual. Their very nature makes them liable to wear and tear. They are said to have been more common in Scotland, and several instances are recorded in Edinburgh’s New Town. They would have been cheaper than marquetry, an alternative for such decoration.

One of the best surviving examples in England is located in the Tyroconnel Room at Belton House in Lincolnshire. Its heraldic design and use of only three colours is unusual. Incorporating the symbolic Belton greyhounds and the arms of the Brownlow family (former owners of the house) the floor is the subject of continuing controversy. Some believe it to date to the 17th century, others hold that the design places it in the 18th century. Present owners, The National Trust, does not believe it could have stayed intact for so long if it were the former. Since there is some evidence to support both claims, the longevity of Belton’s painted floor remains an enigma. Image credit: National Trust Images/Graham Challifour.

The 19th century encaustic floor tiles at the medieval church of St Jerome at Llangwm Uchaf in Monmouthshire, Wales

St Jerome's Church, Llangwm Uchaf, Monmouthshire

This strikingly colourful tiled floor of this Grade-1 medieval church is a Victorian work of art. The figure tiles were made by William Godwin of Lugwardine, one of the leading encaustic tile manufacturers of the 19th century, and the patterned tiles were made by the equally famous Maw and Co. John Newman in the Pevsner for the county refers to the “nave and chancel tiled throughout in a handsome and coherent pattern, also designed by Seddon” (J.P.Seddon, architect for the substantial rebuilding of the church in 1863-9) and deems them “deserving of close examination.” St Jerome is the newest vesting with charity The Friends of Friendless Churches. Image credit: Friends of Friendless Churches.

The medieval decorated tiles at Strata Florida Abbey, near Aberystwyth, Wales

Tiles floor at Strata Florida Abbey

Dating from the 12th century, the remains of the huge carved Romanesque west doorway give visitors a clue to how impressive this building must once have been. The plan of the church can still be clearly traced and, remarkably, some of its original richly decorated tiles are still intact. Two of the most well known tiles are ‘Man with the Mirror’ said to warn of vanity and a heraldic griffin.
Known as the Westminster Abbey of Wales, Strata Florida Abbey was once a site of huge religious significance.  Dafydd ap Gwilym, one of the best known of Wales’s medieval poets, is buried there under a yew tree and it is said to be the burial place of several Welsh princes. There are also intriguing links to the legend of the Holy Grail. Image credit: Kate Griffin.

The flagstone floor of the kitchen at Canons Ashby House near Daventry, Northamptonshire

Kitchen at Canons Ashby. National Trust Image / Andreas von Einsiedel

The beautifully worn flagstones of the kitchen at Canons Ashby House in Northamptonshire tell a story. They are a testament to the work (and feet!) of generations of servants. Today these mellow stones have a wonderfully smooth patchwork patina
Built by the Drydens using the remains of a medieval priory, the house and gardens have survived largely unaltered since 1710 and are today cared for by the National Trust. Image credit: National Trust Image / Andreas von Einsiedel.

The painted floor (underside!) of Gladstone’s Land, 477b Lawnmarket, Edinburgh

Gladstone's Land, Edinburgh.
This picture shows the underside of a floor, so it is quite permissible to look up as well as down.  In the 17th century voids were not built between ceiling and floors, so that in effect the ceiling was simply the floorboards of the rooms above – therefore this original and spectacularly painted ceiling at Gladstone’s Land, Edinburgh is actually spectacularly painted floorboards. The house of wealthy merchant and landlord Thomas Gledstanes showcases high-rise living, 17th-century style, at the heart of Edinburgh’s historic Royal Mile. Gladstones Land is owned by the National Trust for Scotland. Image credit: National Trust for Scotland.

The medieval tiles of All Saints’ Church, Icklingham, Suffolk

All Saints Icklingham

Loyd Grossman, outgoing chairman of the Churches Conservation Trust says:  “My favourite floor is to be found in All Saints’ church, Icklingham, Suffolk, which is looked after by the Churches Conservation Trust.  All Saints’ is a mediaeval church and areas of the chancel and sanctuary floors contain a large and very rare collection of early-14th century encaustic tiles.  Although now worn, you can see they form patterns with a variety of designs, including cinquefoils in circles, foliage, lions’ faces, pairs of little birds and a few human faces.” Image credit: Peter Emina.

The mosaic floors at Bignor Roman Villa, West Sussex

Mosaic at Bignor Roman Villa

The Roman mosaic of Venus and the Gladiators is one of several magnificent floors at Bignor Roman villa in West Sussex.

Roman buildings include floors of many types, but perhaps most strongly associated with the period are the mosaics formed from small tesserae.  These high status floors survive in reasonable numbers in this country and combine function with craftsmanship and great artistic skill. Many mosaics lay buried for centuries and the drama of rediscovery is illustrated by the case of Bignor Villa, West Sussex. Bignor was one of the earliest antiquarian finds when unearthed in the early 19th century and, in their book on the villa, David Rudling and Miles Russell, describe the amazing moment when the mosaic floor was first seen by farmer George Tupper after centuries in the soil.  This was not merely the exposure of a floor but the opening of a window onto another world:

“Grubbing around on his hands and knees, Tupper soon found himself staring down in amazement at the tessellated face of a young man.  Subsequent energetic spoil clearance revealed the larger mosaic depicting the figure of the man, naked except for a bright red cap and fur-trimmed boots, an immense eagle and, further afield, a series of scantily clad dancing girls’. Roman mosaics like that at Bignor represent the floor at its most artistic and extravagant. Image credit: Lisa Tupper.

The tiled floor of the Dabbling Duck, Great Massingham, Norfolk

The floor at the Dabblin Duck pub, Norfolk

This simple and beautifully worn floor represents the thousands of old pubs throughout the country where centuries of custom and farm workers’ boots have left an indelible impression. With so many ancient pubs in towns and rural communities facing an uncertain future it’s important to acknowledge their place in the historic built landscape. The beamy, atmospheric Dabbling Duck overlooking the pond in one of North Norfolk’s most picturesque villages was threatened with closure until it was reopened in 2006. This was the result of a tireless community action group and a far-sighted local authority’s 6 year campaign to prevent the beautiful old building (previously the Rose and Crown pub) from being converted into housing. Image credit: Kate Griffin.

The bridge at Barton Farm, Bradford on Avon, Wiltshire

Bridge at Barton Farm Bradford on Avon MS

SPAB Director Matthew Slocombe nominates an unlikely exterior floor. He explains: “For some years my daily walk to school took me over the medieval bridge at Barton Farm in Bradford on Avon, Wilts.  The bridge is a wonderful ancient structure which formed part of a packhorse route over the river Avon and up the steep hillside nearby.  Part of the bridge was paved with beautiful, undulating stone setts, but other parts were nastily tarmaced.  This was remedied when SPAB Craft Fellow Andrew Ziminski and his firm replaced the tarmac with a lime concrete  – a bold and experimental move at the time.  The floor has performed extremely well, providing an attractive, durable and sympathetic surface,which is also safe and comfortable for pedestrians to use. Image credit: Matthew Slocombe.

The boarded wooden floor of explorer David Livingstone’s tenement birthplace at Shuttle Row, East Kilbride, Scotland

David Livingstones birthplace Historic Scotland

Shuttle Row is the birthplace of the most famous of Victorian explorers, David Livingstone. Livingstone’s early life was quite typical of the time. He was born in 1813 in a one-room flat in Shuttle Row, a tenement shared with 23 other families.His parents both worked at the nearby Blantyre Cotton Mill where, aged 10, David also started working 14 hours a day to bring in money. From these humble beginnings as a factory boy to becoming the first European to explore large areas of Africa was a long, hard journey. When he wasn’t working at the mill, he educated himself until he was accepted at Anderson’s College in Glasgow to study medicine and theology, where he studied for hours after a full day’s work. This allowed him to become a missionary doctor and he made his first trip to Africa in 1841. Image credit: Historic Scotland.

The black and white marble Central Hall at the National Trust’s Seaton Delaval, Hall Northumberland

The carrera marble and black limestone floor at Seaton Delaval Hall, credit National Trust Images-Dennis Gilbert

Chosen by Dame Helen Ghosh, Director General of the National Trust, who says: “This wonderful marble floor has taken all sorts of punishment – fire and flood, falling statues and falling 18th century party guests – and it survived!”

Built for the extraordinary Delaval family, Seaton Delaval was one of architect Sir John Vanbrugh’s smallest country houses. The house and surrounding landscape were in-keeping with restrained classical Georgian style, but behind the formality lies a story of theatrical excess.

Known as the ‘Gay Delavals’, in an age notorious for extremes of behaviour the family stood apart as the most notorious of all Georgian partygoers and pranksters. The Delavals loved a performance, staging events from rope dancers and sack races outdoors to masquerade balls and even their own theatrical productions. A devastating fire in 1822 left the Central Hall at Seaton Delaval Hall roofless and open to the elements for 40 years. Unfortunately the black and white tiled floor  – the scene of many wild parties – fell victim and became damaged. The slabs were unstable and loose, so much so that every time they were walked on there was risk of them moving against each other and chipping the edges.

The central hall is now something of a phoenix. Stone masons carefully numbered, plotted the position of and lifted every slab from the floor. Once lifted, all the numerous cracked and shattered slabs were painstakingly bonded together again using resin adhesives mixed with pigment, and stainless steel dowels have been added to give them strength. The original three layers of screed have been replaced where they had been weathered to nothing, and now, where possible, each slab has been returned to its original position.

Image credit: National Trust Images-Dennis Gilbert.

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