Professional Builder’s Lee Jones caught up with the three builders at a 14th century barn refurbishment.
The itinerant craftsmen, with bundled belongings slung over his shoulder, might be a more medieval than modern phenomenon, but it’s that traditional role that this year’s recruits to the William Morris Craft Fellowship have assumed.
This unique educational scheme, organised by the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB), has seen Eoin Madigan, Tom Massey, and Alex Gibbons undertake a grand tour of historic buildings sites, with a duty to nurture and develop the skills needed to preserve them for posterity.
“A passion for handcrafts is what’s motivated each of us to get involved,” declares Eoin Madigan, the team’s masonry expert. “The involvement with SPAB is a learning experience in traditional building techniques for us, but also a chance to pass on what skills we have to other people, and we’re incredibly lucky to have this opportunity”
Professional Builder caught up with the trio at a SPAB Working Group at Croxley Great Barn in Hertfordshire. The building, which is in dire need of restoration, sits beneath a magnificent example of 14th century timber frame roofing, and the society had tasked the fellows, as well as a host of volunteers from the local community, with the job of saving a site of historical significance.
“This barn has probably a year left before it’s passed the point of no return,” explains, timber framer, Tom Massey, “and it would be a shame to lose a 700-year-old structure of this quality from our landscape. What we need to do is get it into a state where it can have a use and then perhaps more private money will come in so it can be completely repaired. In that way it can be bequeathed to future generations.”
“It would be a shame to lose a 700-year-old structure of this quality from our landscape. What we need to do is get it into a state where it can have a use and then perhaps more private money will come in so it can be completely repaired. In that way it can be bequeathed to future generations.”
Tom eulogised with zeal on the SPAB way as he outlined the repair work: “Any old building is always full of surprises and this one’s no different,” he explains “In the very early stages they discovered a Victorian oak threshing floor that they didn’t know was here and, because of the holes in the roof, it had suffered quite a lot of water damage.
Only the timber that really can’t be saved has been removed and replaced with new boards because we want the repair itself to tell a story for future generations, and it’s that approach that’s at the forefront of what we’re taught on the Fellowship.”
The roof structure of a facility that was originally used to supply food to St Albans Abbey is particularly unusual; all the trusses have passing braces to the tie beams, but the central bay also has crown posts braced to a crown plate.
Each structural system in isolation would indicate a building of high status, but the combination of the two indicates one of the highest. Because they support the timbers above, the most vital part of the restoration work, however, is the repairs to the flint walls.
The ancient art of flint knapping, the process of splitting and shaping flint to produce more regular shapes, is in evidence on the site, together with the use of an original and authentic lime mortar mix.
The local Totternhoe Clunch Limestone seen in the quoins and sills has been used as a building material in these parts since Roman times but our conquerors from the south were also aware of its weaknesses.
Clunch is actually a vernacular terms in the area of the Chiltern Hills for hardened chalk, and the material is very porous and prone to erosion and weathering – the evidence of which could be seen in the wounds from centuries of wind and rain in what would have originally been finely dressed stone.
These have been repaired using a stone stitching method, with handmade clay roof tiles, whilst new sections of flint walling have been built in areas that have seen the most damage.
Although there might be a fight to keep these skills alive, Alex Gibbons, the group’s cob builder, argues that the skills needed to tackle a 14th century barn have a very real relevance in modern construction. “At the moment there’s an incredible synergy between eco building and traditional building methods,” he explains.
“The embodied energy in things like timber frame, and lime plaster is so much lower than many modern building solutions, which should put them at the top of the agenda in sustainable building practices. In that sense it’s actually ironic that these skills are under threat at the time when they are at their most need.”
“The William Morris Craft Fellowship has given me the chance to learn about so many other things as well. The six-month tour has also been a great opportunity to work with the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings because they are very well respected in their field, and their way of doing things is prized by the experts. We’ve met different people and been confronted with different challenges every day and that’s been priceless.
“We’ve met different people and been confronted with different challenges every day and that’s been priceless.”
“It also teaches you about the importance of gentle conservation, because when there’s a lot of money in a project there can be a tendency to do too much, and that runs the risk of losing the character of the building as a consequence.”
Each of the fellows already have successful businesses which specialise in the refurbishment of listed buildings.
The aim is for their professional roles to be developed further with invaluable practical experience and knowledge gained from a multitude of restoration projects across the country.
To find out more about The William Morris Craft Fellowship go to: www.wmcft.org.uk
For more info on the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) visit: www.spab.org.uk