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.
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.
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.
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.
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.