When it comes to the repair and renovation of ancient buildings, former William Morris Craft Fellow, Tom Massey is definitely king of the castle.
Herstmonceux Castle stands tall as one of the earliest surviving examples of a brick building in England but, like so many of our ancient structures, its continued existence is thanks to the skilled craftsmen who possess the knowledge to maintain it for future generations.
Formerly a William Morris Craft Fellowship recruit, Tom Massey has taken the experience garnered from that Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) educational scheme, together with the tutelage from his tradesman father, and forged a career in the safeguarding of ancient buildings for posterity.
The Sussex-based carpenter’s company, Dolmen Building Conservation, specialises in the repair and renovation of old properties, as well as the construction of new oak buildings, and at the Sussex castle that is now home to a Canadian University Study Abroad Program he has been tasked with repairing the gates that serve as the main entrance to this imposing medieval monument.
“Although the main brickwork for the castle was built in the 1400s it later fell into disrepair, and in the early part of the twentieth century was effectively a ruin,” explains Tom.
“The oak gates actually date from the 1930s, when the castle was remodelled as a stately home for a wealthy individual, but, like much of the timber around the building, the wood has been sourced from various places, and was also subject to some very shoddy repairs in the 1990s.
“At that time the original hinges were replaced with old scaffold tubes, for instance, so all the door hardware had to be replaced and we had to erect a scaffold lifting tower with chain hoists to get the gates out of the frame.
“Old structures like these tend to be full of surprises so we didn’t really know what we were faced with until we got the gates laid out on the work benches.”
Rather than hide their repairs modern restorers are encouraged to allow their work to tell a story for future generations, always working on the basis of the bare minimum, and only replacing timber that can’t be saved.
It is that visible patchwork of building and repair that provides Tom with a direct link to the tradesmen of the past.
“The key is gentle conservation, because if you do too much, that will run the risk of losing the character of what’s already there,” he explains, “but in doing this kind of work you really do develop an appreciation for your predecessors.
“Around this castle you’ll find carpentry marks from 700 years ago, when everything was hand-cut with axes, and today, of course, our approach is very different. The Fein Multimaster I use has revolutionised the way you approach a job like this because you can cut out individual pieces of timber without having to chisel them away, and it’s a remarkable tool, but there’s still a place for the old techniques.”
Tom is following in the carpentry footsteps of his father, the founder of Dolmen Building Conservation, and many of the tools of his trade have been handed down from him. As a consequence, specialist woodworking implements that rival the gates themselves in antiquity also sit alongside those modern power tools.
“The Sorby chisels I use are from the 1890s and, in addition to what my father bequeathed to me, I source a lot of this stuff on eBay,” he explains. “They’re laminated steel with a very high carbon content on the face and really can’t be matched by modern equivalents for keeping their sharpness.”
In 2014 those tools travelled with Tom around the country with three companions on the William Morris Craft Fellowship.
The training scheme is spread over a year, and in that time the team takes on the role of itinerant tradesmen in the repair of old buildings the length and breadth of the country.
“I’ve been a carpenter for 20 years,” continues Tom but the SPAB education programme has certainly progressed my career. Because there are so many regional variations in building styles, and between historical periods, you’re always learning with every job and never really know what you’re going to be faced with.”
Herstmonceux Castle is open to the public until 30th October – for full details visit www.herstmonceux-castle.com
For further information on Dolmen Building Conservation visit www.dolmen-conservation.co.uk