My cottages are due to feature in Britain’s Empty Homes Revisited on BBC television this week (Monday 18 February on BBC 1 at 11.45am, repeated on BBC 2 at 7.50am the next day). This is a follow-up to last year’s programme. The camera crew came a few weeks ago to film the very recently conserved pargeting and their visit coincided with a tour of the cottages and town that I was hosting for post-graduate students from the University of Cambridge. Amongst the other buildings we saw was 1 Myddlyton Place (the old Youth Hostel), where we stopped for tea and heard about the renovation work not long completed by the Chapman family. Also grade I-listed, this is another property, like mine, that was once in the custodianship of the SPAB (www.onemyddlytonplace.co.uk).
The conservation of the pargeting on my cottages has been my most pressing task. Areas of the parge-work – which is of exceptional interest and highly unusual – were very weak and it was questionable whether they could all be saved. Huge credit is due to Torquil McNeilage and his team who have undertaken a once-in-a-generation programme of specialist repairs using state-of-the-art techniques. Future blogs will explain about this extensive work – all of which, to date, has been funded without any external grant aid. An abiding memory I have will be seeing the newly conserved pargeting bathed in gentle sunshine after the scaffolding was struck. The project had reached a major milestone and the church bells opposite were ringing as if to celebrate!
The two giant plasterwork figures on one of my gables have been sporting new hairdos lately, thanks to the messy deposits from pigeons that have taken to roosting beneath the barge boards. We’ve therefore resorted to blocking the points where the birds were perching with compressed wire mesh. If this works – and so far it seems to have done the trick, touch wood – we’ll use the same technique for the other gable.
My neighbours, the Reeds, kindly loaned us their ladder but due to the fragility of the decorative plasterwork (pargeting) I’m going to play safe in the future and use a mobile tower scaffold. As the front of the house abuts the pavement, though, I can only erect this outside normal working hours if I’m to avoid obtaining a scaffolding licence from the county council. I’m now looking into buying my own scaffolding, which will also be useful when I redecorate.
It is important that we all strive to cut our carbon dioxide emissions but I am taking the recommendations in the Energy Performance Certificate (EPC) that I received when purchasing my house (below) with a pinch of salt. Unfortunately, they are less than helpful and bear out concerns expressed by the SPAB (Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings) when EPCs were introduced as part of Home Information Packs (HIPs) in 2007.
No previous experience is necessary to train as a domestic energy assessor to produce EPCs and those who qualify frequently display a worrying lack of understanding when dealing with old buildings. This is compounded by the fact that the software used can discriminate against older, more complex properties. Consequently, the recommendations given in EPCs are too often for work that would not only be damaging to historic fabric but result in little, if any, environmental benefit.
Even so, I was aghast at the assessor’s recommendation that the thermal efficiency of one of my two cottages could be improved by applying external wall insulation and the claim that this “might improve the look of the house”. So much for the building’s grade I listing and the national significance of its pargeting! Fortunately, there are many other, more appropriate ways in which I could cut my energy use and I plan to incorporate a range of these into the forthcoming project.
Good advice on reducing energy consumption in old buildings can be found at www.climatechangeandyourhouse.org.uk and www.historic-scotland.gov.uk.
After some years of advising others on how to handle work on old buildings through my role at the SPAB, I’m thrilled to be taking on a major project of my own – updating, altering and repairing a 15th-century, grade-I-listed house, later part of an inn, at Saffron Walden in Essex.
The property is remarkable for the decorative render, or ‘pargeting’, that adorns its front walls, especially two large, folkish figures over the carriageway. There are also reputed links with Oliver Cromwell to investigate.
I spotted an advert by chance in a local newspaper. The agent, Cheffins (www.cheffins.co.uk), received great interest so the sale went to ‘best and final offer’, with the suspense of seeing how my sealed bid fared against others. Apparently, a friend’s tip to include a one-sided resume justifying my interest in the building helped greatly.
Now my challenge is to sympathetically return what are presently two cottages back into a single dwelling to provide myself with a home fit for the 21st century. To give you an idea of the scale of my task, there are only outside toilets and one cottage even lacks electricity. It’s a project that will keep me busy for the foreseeable future.