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.

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.