Professional Builder’s Lee Jones talks to a group of tradesmen who are in the midst of a unique tour of our nation’s built environment heritage.
Even today the construction industry is one of our economy’s most diverse, with a multiplicity of trades applying their hard-earned skill-set up and down the land on a daily basis.
Add to that centuries of history, with the likes of the ancient arts of flint knapping or cob building included in the mix, and that list of roles will widen still further.
Over the next six months four young tradesmen who have been selected for a unique educational initiative will experience some of those traditional crafts, through a scheme that is designed to promote the expertise that the repair and preservation of our historic buildings demand.
From the palatial to the dilapidated, and from the stately to the diminuitive, the William Morris Craft Fellows will be visiting dozens of sites. In the process, the recruits to the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings programme will meet craftspeople, contractors and architects whose business is building conservation, and get hands on with repairs themselves.
We caught up with the group at the extensive restoration of a farmhouse in the Bedfordshire village of Roxton, where lime plasterer, Anna Kettle was initiating the Fellows in the decorative art of pargetting.
“My company is called Just Lime, and all we undertake is historic work in lime plaster, but it’s an indication of just how many materials and techniques based on region and period there are that I’ve never done any pargetting,” declares Paul Walters, a plasterer from Gorslas, Carmarthenshire. “It’s strictly a south-east trade so this was always likely to be one of the highlights of the whole programme for me.”
It is that opportunity to explore so many of the building methods of days gone by that is the appeal of the Fellowship as Jack Clare, a stained glass conservator from Wells, Somerset explains: “We’re able to engage with other conservation disciplines close up and benefit from the experience of their expert practitioners.
“It gives you an understanding of conservation as a whole rather than just from your own trade. Most days we’ll visit more than one site at least, and have already met a huge range of industry professionals, so it’s very intense.”
The Fellowship consumes its participants’ time and, during the programme’s mid-March to December schedule, it would be impossible for the four to continue in employment for their companies, although they are entitled to a bursary to cover expenses. The practical training is divided into three blocks of two months.
For the first two blocks the Fellows experience traditional techniques and sympathetic repair in situ and will visit structures of every age, size and style. The third block of training is devoted to their individual needs and interests.
“The programme itself is fundamentally educational but you also have to consider that establishing contacts with other members of the conservation community around the country makes good business sense,” continues Jack, “and it will certainly do no harm in helping you to progress your career.”
We asked the Fellows why the restoration and repair of old buildings held such particular appeal for each of them? “Aside from the aesthetic appeal, it is nice to work on a building and know that your work is protected,” answers Paul. “If the owner sells the property it won’t be butchered by its next occupant. What we do becomes a part of that building’s history and we are linked to the tradesmen of the past as well as the future.”
“There is also a greater degree of problem solving in working with old buildings,” declares Shetland Stonemason, Gregor Alcorn. “You have to think about how it’s been altered over time, and how some modern interventions may well be wholly unsuited to that particular structure.”
“We also get unique behind the scenes access to amazing buildings and there’s no other schemes in the country that can give you that,” adds Dale Perrin, a carpenter from Halstead. “We’ve already been to sites that have blown our mind a little, like Charterhouse and Canterbury Cathedral, and that’s a real privilege for us.
“If you approach a company and ask if you could visit them for the day to see what they’re up to on a particular project you probably wouldn’t get many to agree but through the SPAB scheme we get just that experience from dozens of firms.”
The William Morris Craft Fellowship is designed to give its four young craftsmen the opportunity to pass on their knowledge to future generations, and secure the skills that are needed to preserve these ancient trades for posterity in the process. That’s a practice that requires communication, a competence which the experience itself also teaches.
“We’ve literally been thrown together so you need to be able to work as a team, to make this work” explains Gregor, “and you need to be prepared to spend long periods away from home. It’s a huge commitment but ultimately very rewarding.”
For further information on the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) click here.
The ancient art of pargeting was first pioneered in Britain by Henry VIII who used it to adorn his palatial projects, such as the now lost Nonsuch Palace. Today, the trade lives on thanks to skilled practitioners like Anna Kettle, who was acting as host for the day for the William Morris Craft Fellows.
The spiritual home of this decorative lime plastering practice is centered amongst the period properties of Suffolk and Essex but Anna has travelled far and wide to restore existing designs or create new ones for clients.
For more information on her work click here.