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.

SPAB Ireland Working Party

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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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.

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.

Hands-on History at the Working Party

Sullington Manor Farm

Historic Sullington Manor Farm near Storrington in West Sussex is the destination for our Working Party. Each year the SPAB decamps from its London HQ to put its advice and expertise into practice at a building in need. Conservation experts and volunteer heritage enthusiasts from all walks of life will descend on site for one week (Monday 6 July – Friday 10 July) to carry out vital maintenance and repair work on this important medieval survivor. We will be blogging everyday of the Working Party, subscribe for updates so you can keep up with the news on site.

Sullington Manor Farm is an ancient hillside farm settlement clustered around a Saxon church on the South Downs. The farmstead is a rare example of a once-frequent settlement model along the spring line on the north slope of the South Downs.  ‘Sullington’ is a Saxon word meaning ‘muddy place’ and the church, which forms part of the complex of buildings, has Saxon origins.

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The SPAB team will be carrying out low-level repairs on several buildings during the week, including cart sheds, barns, a granary and a church. There will be a free public open day on Wednesday 8 July, 10am-5pm. It will be a chance to see conservation in action, tour the ancient site and have a go at hands-on activities. There will be a day-long programme of talks and walks about old buildings, old farms, bats and butterflies and about historic Sullington. You can have a go at brick making, peg making and much more.

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