Women in Conservation: Why I love my job

To mark International Women’s Day, we asked Heather Newton, a stonemason and head of conservation at Canterbury Cathedral, and Hannah Sedgwick, a building surveyor at Malcolm Hollis, what they love about their career in conservation.

Heather Newton


“There’s so much I love about what I do. It’s changed over the years, when I first started it was just working with the tools on the building. Since my job is more management now it’s working with people and helping with training. The building is glorious; every day I come into work to somewhere I love”



Hannah Sedgwick

“I like understanding how things work, so it’s curiosity mainly. I like the detective side of the job. Working out what’s gone wrong, how to fix it and what was going through the mind of those that built it in the first place”.


Celebrating Women in Conservation

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The SPAB will be celebrating International Women’s Day this week with blog posts and videos about some of the inspirational women working in the heritage and conservation sector.

We caught up with women on site, at their offices or in their workshops to find out why they love their jobs and what buildings inspire them. We talk to a stone mason, a building surveyor, a conservator, a SPAB caseworker, a writer, an architect and the head of conservation at Canterbury Cathedral.

The blog will also feature posts on some of the many women who were instrumental in furthering the conservation movement. Don’t miss a post, sign up the SPAB blog.

Coming in from the Cold War

Peter Jamieson, SPAB volunteer caseworker, and Chairman and Projects coordinator: Friends of Czech Heritage writes about a remarkable chateau conservation project deep in the Moravian countryside. This extract is taken from the SPAB Magazine, Winter 2015.

In 1938 our insular prime minister, who had barely crossed The Channel in his life uttered those famous words about a ‘quarrel in a far away country between people of whom we know nothing’. Tumultuous events followed, which affected both Czechoslovakia and Britain in widely different ways but often with a similar devastating affect upon the historic buildings of both countries. The War naturally took its toll but willful neglect often did more damage in the post War years.

In 1989 when the ‘Velvet Revolution’ brought Czechoslovakia in from the cold the situation was dire. The institutions responsible for historic buildings and their contents were starved of funds as the state adjusted to the new order. In 1992 the Czech Parliament passed a law that allowed ‘Czech’ citizens only to reclaim their property from the state but many estates, chateaus and other buildings were in very poor condition and had little or no income. It had been many years since they were occupied by family members, who had often been exiled and as a result contact with their past had been broken.

In those early days of opening-up contacts with the UK were established. For instance representatives from The National Trust hosted delegations from the Czech National Heritage Institute (NPU), the equivalent of English Heritage, to pass on their experience of displaying collections and running a commercial organization. Architectural history tours were organized to bring the wealth of what was on offer to a wider audience.

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View of the chateau Uhercice in Southern Moravia, 1833. Czech Heritage Institute, NPU

It was out of these events that one small initiative was born with the foundation in 2007 of The Friends of Czech Heritage; a UK charity devoted to providing small ‘pump priming’ grants and working parties it attempts to give grass roots stimulation to struggling local bodies trying to conserve or repair their heritage. The charity has been involved in a variety of projects but perhaps none so haunting as the chateau of Uhercice in Southern Moravia.


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Aerial view of Uhercice. Czech Heritage Institute, NPU

The chateau lies deep in the rolling Moravian countryside close to the Czech border with Austria. The implementation of borders across Europe has had a profound effect upon towns and buildings in the course of the 20th century. Originally merely part of the Czech lands of the Austrian Empire, Moravia and in particular Uhercice lay on the corridor that linked Vienna with Prague. This easygoing relationship was jeopardized by the founding of Czechoslovakia in 1918 and frozen solid when the Iron Curtain came down leaving Uhercice in the no mans land of a military border. During the great freeze it was used variously as a state farm, woman’s reformatory prison and barracks for frontier guards. One of the towers collapsed and much of the decorative work was left in a perilous state.


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The Gate Tower at Uhercice following demolition to allow access for farm vehicles in 1973. Czech Heritage Institute, NPU

Fortunately in the 1990s the quality and potential of Uhercice were recognized and in 1996 it passed into the care of the National Heritage Institute which has since undertaken a long term programme of restoration work. The roof coverings have been renewed and some of the interiors have been conserved. But progress has been slow partly on account of the ‘remoteness’ of the chateau and the limited number of visitors, which has given it a wistful Cinderella status.

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The Baroque Chamber Theatre today, with stucco work by Baldassare Fontana. Czech Heritage Institute, NPU

Like many houses in the Czech lands Uhercice has passed through a succession of owners. Founded in the Middle Ages it was remodeled in the 1550s in the Renaissance style with extensive Baroque additions in the late 17th century. The Italian plasterwork of this period by Baldassare Fontana is truly spectacular. The chateau was acquired by the Collalto family, patrons of Mozart, from Northern Italy, an indication of the mobility of cultures within the Austrian Empire, who held it until they were dispossessed in 1945. Perhaps the most arresting sequence of rooms are those created in the early 19th century under the influence of Romantic Classicism, which include the Neo Classical Banqueting Hall with its extravaganza of trompe l’oeil pilaster and allegorical figures. It was this room that became a major project for the Friends of Czech Heritage mentioned above.


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The early 19th century Neo-Classical Banqueting Hall today. Josef Slavicek / Czech Heritage Institute, NPU

In 2010 attention was focused on securing the Banqueting Hall. The windows needed replacing, archaic electrics replaced but most importantly the vast decorated ceiling needed to be stabilized. Following a survey by an expert conservator it was clear that the ceiling was in danger of collapse and The Friends of Czech Heritage offered to try and raise a grant toward the cost of this work.

The ceiling was constructed of timber boarding fixed to ceiling joists with woven reed matts fixed to the boards with iron hooks. This formed the key for the two coat lime plaster, which had in many areas lost its key, become delaminated or simply fallen. The decoration had become degraded through exposure owing to the missing windows. The remedial work took a conservative approach, which generally conformed to the SPAB philosophy. The boarding and reed backing were secured using screws and washers and loose areas of plaster either fixed in the same way or by injection. Cracks were filled with lime putty and missing areas of plaster replaced to correspond to the original. The painted decoration was stabilized to prevent further deterioration but the ‘retouching’ has yet to be carried out when funds allow.

As the local guide book states : ‘We can only hope that the genius loci is stronger than time in Uhercice and the chateau will revive at least to an afterglow of its previous beauty’.

National Maintenance Week 2015

National Maintenance Week, the SPAB’s campaign to encourage owners of all sorts of buildings (not just ancient ones!) to be aware of the importance of regular care, begins today. This week aims to remind everyone of a few simple steps they can take to ensure their home is prepared for the cold, harsh winter weather.

Broadcaster, writer, historian and archaeologist Neil Oliver is leading this year’s campaign to make people aware of the importance of property maintenance. A familiar face from popular programmes including, Coast, The Vikings, A History of Ancient Britain and The One Show, Neil keenly aware of the changes that the passage of time can make to a building, but he knows that whatever the age or condition of a structure, good, regular maintenance can play a role in its future.

Neil Oliver at St Andrews, Holborn

Neil Oliver at St Andrews, Holborn

The SPAB took Neil to the beautifully maintained, Christopher Wren–designed church, St Andrews, Holborn to give him a bird’s-eye view of the tricky nooks and crannies that can cause problems if leaves, twigs, nests and other seasonal debris are left uncleared.

Neil said of St Andrews: “It’s a wonderful old building. Even though it’s relatively modern compared to many of the places I’ve visited and written about as part of my work, it’s easy to see how vital it is to make sure it’s maintained. As an archaeologist I’m very familiar with the care challenges faced by significant, historic buildings which don’t conform to a standard pattern. Planned and regular maintenance is vital to ensure that they have a future as well as a past. That message is equally applicable to buildings of all types and all ages.  When I travelled round the country for BBC’s Coast series, the importance of protecting a building against the ravages of the wind and the weather was very apparent. I could see it was a constant battle.

Neil adds: “ ‘Stave off decay by daily care… prop a perilous wall…  mend a leaky roof’  It’s amazing that what SPAB’s founder William Morris wrote nearly 140 years ago is still sound, practical advice. Faulty gutters and blocked drains don’t repair themselves – the longer you ignore a problem the more costly and difficult it becomes to put it right, and that’s true if the place you care for is an ancient ruined broch, a medieval church in a village, a Victorian terraced house or a modern apartment in a town or city. Maintenance makes a difference. Never put it off.”

Leaves blocking a gutter

Leaves blocking a gutter

Neil is right about maintenance making economic sense.  If you turn a blind eye to cracked pipes, faulty drains or broken/missing roof tiles you might as well throw hard earned cash to the winter wind.

Stay tuned for our top maintenance tips from our technical team.

SPAB and Historic Royal Palaces partnership turns 5

In 2016 we will celebrate the 5 year anniversary of our Masterclass partnership with Historic Royal Palaces. We kick-started celebrations this year with a competition for past delegates. They were invited to write a short piece on how a Masterclass influenced their work. Congratulations to James Crick, senior architect at Donald Insall Associates, for his winning entry describing how what he learnt on a ‘Conserving Historic Buildings: Repair of Gauged Arches’ masterclass helped him during a condition survey of the Crystal Palace Subway in south London.

The masterclasses are limited to a small group size to allow for the hands-on workshop element, and have so far reached over 120 delegates. Since 2012, we have run masterclasses to cover these popular topics of conservation and repair: gauged arches; cut and rubbed chimneys; free-standing walls; metalwork; stonework; timber; historic finishes. They offer a unique learning environment through case studies, demonstrations, hands-on workshops and access to live conservation projects. The masterclasses are delivered by experts in their fields and presented at the magnificent HRP sites – Hampton Court Palace, Tower of London and Banqueting House.

Hampton Court Palace

Hampton Court Palace

James Crick’s winning entry:

Courses, such as the Repair of Gauged Arches which I attended in 2014, offer a wonderful opportunity to engage with materials and the experts who work with them. Following a day of practical teaching by Emma Simpson, my zealously rubbed brick slotted into a perfectly formed gauged brick arch especially created for learners. It was clear to all that my brick was rubbed too small, demonstrated by the surrounding thick white putty lines. Not the perfect brick repair but my enjoyment was not diminished. The process and teaching was by far the greatest reward of the day.

James (left) at the Gauged Arches Masterclass

James (left) at the Gauged Arches Masterclass

Working as a young architect in conservation, I have often felt that university and subsequent practice can fail to unite designers with the process of ‘doing’. That is to say, we are prepared with a wealth of invaluable theory (supported by years of personal research and interest), which can assist us immeasurably in developing construction proposals, yet often this education fails to teach the on-site reality. There is an education gap between those that do and those who instruct, which is clearly no good for either party, nor for the poor buildings we work on.

In professional practice hands-on courses rapidly find relevance in daily work. The knowledge gained from my course was immensely useful during a condition survey of E. M. Barry’s Crystal Palace Subway in South London. Hidden under a main road, with little above ground presence, a startling array of columns and polychromatic brick vaults remains one of the last remnants of the the Crystal Palace High Level Station (circa. 1864).

Crystal Palce Subway

Crystal Palace Subway


Crystal Palace Subway

Crystal Palace Subway


Although long closed, the relatively good condition of the the brick vaults is a testament to the qual-ity of the original construction. Sadly, in various locations, localised decay of the brick has occurred due to water ingress. Damage ranges from minor spalling and efflorescence, to limited areas of deeply eroded brick.

Supported by the knowledge gained from hands-on experience, we were able to make informed judgments regarding the practical aspects of repairs. For instance, it was apparent that cutting out for brick replacement was likely to have a consequential impact upon surrounding undamaged masonry (either through disturbance, or necessity in enabling bedding of replacement brickwork). Understanding this was essential in appraising the financial cost of these repairs. Knowing that limited funds may restrict future repair options, it was important to identify damage that was likely to affect future structural stability, to enable these areas to be prioritised.

Working closely with a structural engineer, an assessment of the structural implications of brick loss was undertaken. This allowed repairs to be identified as ‘necessary’ or ‘preferable’. Due to the risk associated with repair methods, it was also identified that some areas could remain un-repaired (subject to resolution of the origin of the decay) in order to protect adjacent sound brick-work.

Crystal Palace Subway, James' survey notes

Crystal Palace Subway, James’ survey notes

I implore all professionals (perhaps especially those entering conservation, having just left university) to take the opportunity to engage with hands-on experiences such as the masterclasses. For myself the workshop not only reinforced and expanded upon previous experiences, but also offered a friendly forum in which to meet people from differing disciplines within the construction industry. Shared experience and knowledge between parties is, surely, essential if we are to successfully care for our historic environment.