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.

National Treasure_Bluecoat2
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.

National Treasure_Bluecoat interior

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.


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 : If your piece is chosen then you will receive a free copy of The Old House Eco Handbook.

National Treasure: Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, London

Felicity Martin, SPAB’s membership and development officer, introduces the theatrical ‘reimagining’ that is the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse in London. From the summer 2015 SPAB Magazine.

The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse is probably my favourite new ‘old building’. It is certainly the most uncomfortable modern theatre that I’ve visited. Shakespeare’s Globe claim that it is not a reconstruction of a Jacobean playhouse but a ‘reimagining’ – what else would you expect from a theatre company?

It is a beautiful chamber, lit with almost a hundred candles in ‘branches’ (metal candelabras) and ‘wallers’ (sconces). The audience sits on three sides of a thrust stage within an oak timber frame, with a musicians’ gallery above. In the heavens, the goddess Luna is haloed with gold leaf, surrounded by pale chains of clouds, stars and cherubs. The design was inspired by a ceiling in Cullen House, Banffshire, now lost. I can reassure those wary of pastiche that there is no pretense that this is not an illusionary space – the fabric is unmistakably new and crisp, still smelling of cut wood and melting beeswax. It suits modern tastes in being quite restrained in its decoration and it was built using traditional methods with hand-carved details. Though the columns were turned with an electric lathe, its speed was slowed down making tooling marks similar to surviving Jacobean examples.

Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. The ceiling depicts the goddess Luna surrounded by chains of clouds and cherubs. Photo by Pete Le May, supplied by Shakespeare's Globe.

Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. The ceiling depicts the goddess Luna surrounded by chains of clouds and cherubs. Photo by Pete Le May, supplied by Shakespeare’s Globe.

At university the story I heard was that in 1960s some documents fell out of a book in the library at Worcester College, Oxford, found to be the earliest existing drawings of an indoor English theatre. At the time these were thought to be by Inigo Jones (Sam Wanamaker built the external brick shell based on this in the 1990s) but current thinking attributes them to one of Jones’ assistants, John Webb, from rather later in about 1660. The drawings do not illustrate technical plans but were probably a rough design of an indoor theatre, based on those of a generation earlier, well before the footlights of the Restoration. Jon Greenfield and Allies and Morrison drew their inspiration from these and surviving buildings of the period to complete the theatre, which opened in January 2014. The hope at the Globe is that this ‘reimagining’ is one that Shakespeare and his contemporaries might recognize.

As with the Globe, this theatre was designed and built to experiment with ‘authentic’ performance, not only of Shakespeare but also for staging the darker English genius present in the Jacobean revenge tragedies or the raucous satire of the City comedies. We know that moving indoors changed the structure of plays, introducing intervals to trim the candlewicks. For the dramatists it also posed possibilities of lighting and sound effects which must have influenced their writing: would the fury of The Tempest be heard outside or the dark shadows of The Duchess of Malfi be seen in daylight?

Photo by Pete Le May, supplied by Shakespeare's Globe.

Photo by Pete Le May, supplied by Shakespeare’s Globe.

I must admit that a great part of the magic of this theatre for me is the candlelight. In our electric world the warm glow is festive and evokes the rituals of religious practices. The flames are reflected in the sumptuous details: the ruffs, the pearlescent makeup, the creases in pale silk and the starry ceiling.

The intimacy of the space is deceptive; bodies are tightly packed, the actors brush past, candles sometimes drip and the darkness – when it is used – is startlingly complete. The acoustics are crisp and allows the more delicate period instruments to sing out.

The physical experience is at complete odds with our modern audience expectations – you are likely to enjoy a restricted view of the stage, limited space, relatively dim light and unchanging scenery. The actors are unencumbered with microphones or a curtain to hide behind and yet they are their own lighting technicians. All focus is on the words and music, on gesture and tone. While the performances might be more historically informed, the building suits our modern taste for the immersive, multi-sensory entertainment experience. Though the building is new, it helps us to imagine another time.


National Treasure: St Augustine’s Tower, Hackney

Sarah Freeman introduces us to a medieval gem – a freestanding former bell tower in east London. From the spring 2014 SPAB Magazine.

Tucked away in the secluded churchyard of St John at Hackney lies St Augustine’s Tower. This striking Grade I listed medieval former bell tower, located just behind a former Hackney Town Hall (now a betting shop) on the Narroway at the top of Mare Street in Hackney Central, holds the prestigious claim of being Hackney’s oldest building, dating to the late 13th century.

Whether sought out or stumbled upon, a visit to the tower is inspiring, due to the significance of its architecture, the story of the fortuitous series of events responsible for its survival as well as the experience of climbing up the spiral staircase. The invigorating ascent up the 135 steps reveals the Tower’s rugged character and is concluded by clambering out on to the open parapet where you are greeted by an unusual panorama of the London skyline. Whatever the weather there is nothing quite like spending an hour on top of this amazing structure, talking to the medley of local and not-so-local visitors.

Favourite Building_Tower exterior

Photo by Richard Allen

The Tower, constructed of Kentish ragstone with diagonal buttresses, is the only remnant of the former medieval parish church, which once extended to the east of the Tower, covering a large portion of what is now the churchyard of St John at Hackney. Wedge shaped stones in the churchyard show the extent of the former church. Unusually, the Tower gave out on to the south aisle of the medieval church; the remains of a connecting arch can just be seen externally on the east elevation. The likely construction date of the lower portions of the walls is circa 1275, the upper portions being the product of a later reconstruction circa 1520 carried out by Christopher Urswick, a courtier of Henry VII (and a minor character in Shakespeare’s Richard III).

In the late 18th century the medieval church was no longer big enough to cater for Hackney’s rapidly increasing population. When it was decided to construct the new parish church of St John at Hackney, designed by the architect James Spiller and built 1791-97, the £10,000 allocated did not stretch to a new bell tower. So when the medieval church was demolished, the Tower remained to serve as an ancillary bell tower to the new church.

A bell tower was in fact added to the main church around 1814, but, fortunately for the Tower, Spiller was not confident that it was sufficiently strong to bear the weight of the cast-iron bells. The church’s new tower was strengthened in 1854, after which the bells were relocated. But by this time the Tower had survived long enough for the Victorian sentiment for medieval buildings to be well established, and its long-term preservation was secured.

Once inside the Tower, the thickness of the stone walls is apparent, clearly shown by the depth of the window opening with its late Perpendicular tracery. The spiral staircase in the south-east corner leads to a series of rooms laid on top of one another, the first of which now houses a fantastic new permanent exhibition of the history of Hackney, curated by the Hackney Archives and Museum and the Hackney Historic Buildings Trust and largely funded by the Sainsbury Family Trusts.

The next room up houses the clock, which has been dated to the late 16th century. It was manually wound for over 400 years until mechanical winding was installed in 2006 to protect the mechanism. The former bell room is on the third floor, where there is a single bell that was installed in 1857, cast by Warner’s Bell Foundry in Cheapside. The bell openings have been restored with stone tracery.

Photo by Richard Allen

The Tower has been lovingly cared for by its custodians, the Hackney Historic Buildings Trust (HHBT), since 1990. As part of a wave of financial cuts in the late 1980s Hackney Council, who have owned the freehold of the Tower since the 1930s, stopped winding the 16th century clock and effectively shut up shop. Laurie Elks, the unofficial ‘Custodian of the Tower’ and a trustee of HHBT, recalls his early involvement with the Tower:

‘It was quite a job to get the Council to find the Tower keys; and a much bigger job to clear the accumulated debris of the countless pigeons who had made the Tower home. We managed to carry out some minor repairs but the Tower was a pretty treacherous visitor attraction at this time – with fenestration open to the elements, unguarded battlements, and very limited lighting.

My role as custodian of the Tower really took off when we got the old turret clock repaired and we needed someone to wind it each week. There was something irresistible about visiting the Tower each weekend, often at night, and slowly cranking up the huge weights to keep the clock running for the next week.’

Laurie and the Hackney Historic Buildings Trust oversaw works to the building in 2005-6, enabled by grant funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund, to make the Tower into a safe and welcoming visitor attraction for members of the public. It is also increasingly being sought out by local artists and story-tellers as a venue and exhibition space, and even serves as a particularly entrancing Santa’s Grotto once a year!

The Tower is open to the public on the last Sunday of every month and annually during Open House weekend. Please visit the Hackney Historic Building Trust website for details.

National Treasure: St Leonard’s Tower

Richard Byatt, freelance writer and editor, celebrates the romance and mystery of a Norman tower in Kent.

National treasure_St Leonards Tower2_Richard Byatt

The squat, square, stone tower sits on a rise watching over the southern approach to the village. If we were in the Borders it might be the remnants of a castle keep. In Cornwall it could be the ruined engine house of a tin mine.

But we’re in Kent and this is the mysterious St Leonard’s Tower. Since we moved to West Malling, near Maidstone, from London over 28 years ago, the tower has been our favourite spot to walk. Sitting on the steps below the big oak door, looking over the fields is a great place to unwind and put the world to rights.

What makes the place even more special is that no-one is quite sure who built the tower and why. One fact seems clear, the tower takes its name from a chapel dedicated to St Leonard that stood nearby. The most popular theory is that the tower was once part of a castle, built between 1077 and 1108 by Gundulf, Bishop of Rochester.

This would give our humble tower very grand connections as Gundulf, a Norman monk who came to England after the Conquest, built several castles, including Rochester, Colchester and the White Tower of the Tower of London. He also founded St Mary’s Abbey in the centre of West Malling, now occupied by a community of Anglican Benedictine nuns offering hospitality to those seeking a peaceful retreat from the pressures of the world.

National treasure_St Leonards Tower3_Richard Byatt

In A Short History of West Malling (1951) Anthony Cronk says: “When we see how St Leonards Tower still dominates the road into West Malling, it is easy to understand that it was built to defend Gundulf’s lands and abbey from the maraudings of the wild Saxons from the Weald.”

An alternative theory says the tower’s builder was Bishop Odo of Bayeux, half brother of William the Conqueror and thought to have commissioned the famous tapestry.

The sides of St Leonard’s Tower are around 33 ft and it stands about twice as high, pretty much its original height. The 6ft thick walls are built of coursed rubble (roughly shaped stones on level beds) but with dressed stones quoins.

The tower is in the care of English Heritage which says it originally had a basement and two floors. Joist holes showing the level of the wooden floor of the first-floor chamber can still be seen. A spiral staircase in the north-west turret connected the floors. The turret has narrow openings through which arrows could be fired.

The original entrance, in the east face, was reached by a wooden staircase. This was later blocked, and a new round-headed archway formed on the west side at ground level. The tower is lit by round-headed windows.

National treasure_St Leonards Tower1_Richard Byatt

Below the tower is a small field and a huge wall on a medieval base runs down to St Leonards Street. The wall may have formed part of an enclosure attached to the tower. At the end of the wall the Ewell spring emerges, with the stream flowing under the road and into a lake, now part of Manor Country Park but previously within the estate of the Grade II listed II 18th century Douces Manor, now converted to apartments. Roman burial urns were discovered beside the road near the spring in 1892.

At the far end of the lake the stream is channelled under another lane and through the grounds of St Mary’s Abbey, to emerge in the village once more as a beautiful cascade. Turner captured it in a watercolour held by Tate Britain – the subject only recently identified by a local resident.

The stream links the tower to the manor house, the abbey and the village, a reminder of another age. You catch glimpses of St Leonard’s Tower as you walk or cycle around West Malling. It’s a true landmark, seemingly unchanging as the years roll by yet in need of protection and care if it is to endure. I shall be raising a glass to Bishop Gundulf (and to Odo just in case) on 6th November, the feast day of St Leonard.

This article appeared in the autumn 2014 issue of the SPAB Magazine. The magazine is one of the benefits of SPAB membership.