Throughout the summer of 2021 four builders have been visiting a host of projects and conservation specialists across the country as part of the William Morris Craft Fellowship. Professional Builder’s Lee Jones talks to the group about their experiences. Organised by the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, this unique educational opportunity allows the Fellows to undertake a six-month, nationwide tour.
On it they will gain hands-on experience of building conservation and repair across a diverse range of disciplines and locations, with the opportunity to subsequently focus on a particular trade. Last year, Covid-19 restrictions forced the cancellation of the annual SPAB (Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings) initiative for the first time since the Second World War. As a result, this chosen few have been waiting patiently for a full year to embark upon the life of an itinerant craftsman that the training programme demands.
Professional Builder caught up with the group at the annual SPAB summer working party, which has again brought SPAB Scholars and volunteers together at two sites: the SPAB’s Old House Project at St Andrews former chapel and Boxley Abbey both near Maidstone in Kent, where the repair of the site’s 15th century St Andrew’s Chapel is putting the charity’s principles into practice.
The Fellows themselves are from as varied a range of backgrounds as the sites they will visit but each are united by a passion for old buildings. “The main lesson we can learn from the craftsmen of the past is in utilising local materials,” argues Fellow and building conservator, Thom Taylor. “Today, sustainability is a central concern, and the way that most buildings of age were constructed does hold some of the answers. There’s no reason why we should be importing lime for abroad, for example, when it can be quarried on these shores or made on site in a lime kiln. That’s what’s given individual regions they’re local character over the centuries and it’s something to which I believe we need to return. The real craft is in knowing what material to use in that particular environment. There have been so many highlights on the tour from making stained glass from scratch to blacksmithing, and lime mortar work, whilst we also get the opportunity to specialise in a particular field in the final section.”
It’s an ethos and enthusiasm that is echoed by carpenter, Toby Slater, who specialises in timber frame repair. “The buildings we work on are a snapshot of a particular moment in history,” explains the proprietor of Slater Conservation. “When you’re working on them you can see marks from long gone craftsmen not just from the initial construction but all the subsequent repairs, and that tells a story of a journey through time. Unfortunately, the building industry of the 1970s and ‘80s, in particular, showed little respect for timber frame, and a lot of what we do is about mending the damage caused by inappropriate use of materials like concrete render.”
It’s that belief that the fabric of old buildings should be saved where possible that attracted the Essex-based craftsman to the Fellowship and the SPAB philosophy. “I’ve always tried to save us much of any old timber frame as possible, rather than replace whole sections, because you are saving a piece of history.”
Whilst taking time out from his successful business is a huge commitment, Toby has found the SPAB programme hugely rewarding. His many Fellowship highlights have include thatching, a visit to a slate quarry, and an introduction to brickwork conservation with Emma Simpson at Hampton Court Palace, whilst he will also be undertaking a three-month millwrighting course at the end of the SPAB Programme.
Carpenter, Oli Beatson is already well versed in using time honoured techniques to ply his trade and was demonstrating his rope access skills in the roof repairs of Boxley Abbey’s imposing medieval barn. The joiner works for Historic Environment Scotland, and also has the added pressure of being away from his family, and two-year-old son, during the Fellowship, but it is a sacrifice well worth making. Like Toby, he believes as much of the original timbers as possible should be preserved and it is an approach which is in step with SPAB values. “When you’re working on a building like this barn you feel you’re playing your part in keeping something alive for future generations. It’s a mark of respect for the craftsmen who did the work originally and, if you undertake an honest repair, your contribution can be read through the ages. The oldest part of a structure might not be the most significant because every layer is part of an on-going story, and you don’t want to be hiding where repairs have been made.”
“I’ve always been obsessed with historic buildings, and started working on them as young as 15,” adds Tom Skinner. “At the Old House Project we’ve been hewing timbers with handaxes and a saw horse in much the same way it would have been done when medieval barns were first raised and that’s a fascinating insight into some of the techniques of the past.” In addition to his carpentry skills, Tom is also experienced in lime plastering, stone and brick conservation, and across all those disciplines it is the use of simple, vernacular materials that he admires. “On the Fellowship, when we’re travelling the country, we’re privileged to experience the expression of regional variations in building styles and materials. There’s different types of stone, for instance, and techniques around timber framing all of which have evolved as an inherent part of that place.”
“For me the highlight of the Fellowship has been speaking to the craftspeople we’ve met. We’ve been exposed to an incredible pool of knowledge and skill and they teach you to look at old buildings in an entirely new way. Building elements will interact and complement each other and the more I can learn about different materials the better, because I can take back to my own projects, and hopefully pass on that knowledge to others.”
For further information on the Society for Protection of Ancient Buildings visit https://www.spab.org.uk/
Applications are now open for the 2022 SPAB Fellowship. Apply online by 14 September by visiting https://www.spab.org.uk/learning/fellowship