Monday, 11 September 2017

MSc Historic Conservation: the 2017 field trips

Bricks and mortar (and stone and timber and thatch and plaster and…)
Good work in historic conservation requires both abstract knowledge and practical know-how: a firm grasp of architectural history and planning law, but also a trained eye for detail and a hands-on appreciation of traditional craft practice. The Oxford Brookes MSc Historic Conservation tries to instil both, with classroom teaching supplement by a varied programme of workshops, training days and site visits. Wielding a stone chisel, splitting a log, moulding a brick: the experience of doing these things fosters a level of insight that no lecture can produce. It's also good messy fun. Photos by David Garrard.

The dark days of early March found us at Hampton Court Palace in Surrey. Begun by Cardinal Wolsey in 1515, completed by Henry VIII and partly rebuilt in the 1690s to a Baroque design by Christopher Wren, the sprawling complex - more like a small town than a single building - is said to contain over 1,000 rooms and 26 million bricks.

Hampton Court Palace

Much of the responsibility for maintaining this colossal fabric falls upon conservation surveyor William Page, who was our guide for the day. Ranging from the palace's foundations right up to its bewilderingly complex roofscape, we examined the effects of several hundred years' worth of repairs to stone, timber, lead, plaster, terracotta, tile and, of course, brick. Wind, rain, frost and pollution constantly take their toll, especially on the building's vast array of extravagantly-shaped chimney stacks, which have to be rebuilt every few decades in specially hand-cut brickwork.

Roof-top detail

A week later, our brickish appetites unsated, we travelled deep into rural Buckinghamshire for a tour of HG Matthews' brickworks at Bellingdon, near Chesham. This part of the Chilterns is rich in good building clay, and used to support dozens of small brick-makers. Matthews are now the sole survivors; their hand-made red and grey bricks, still fired traditionally in open-topped Scotch kilns, have the same subtle texture and colour variegations as the historic local product, and are widely used on conservation projects.

HG Matthews' brickworks

The same trip also took us to the Chiltern Open-Air Museum at Chalfont St Giles. Director Sue Shave gave us a tour of the museum's collection of reconstructed local buildings, which range from a 15th-century cruck-framed barn to a set of Victorian cast-iron public toilets, and we discussed some of the unique challenges – both practical and conceptual – involved in the conservation of relocated structures.

Buildings at Chiltern Open-Air Museum

In the first warmth of spring we visited the premises of IJP Owlsworth at Mapledurham, near Reading, for the annual Lime Day event. Lime – a group of calcium compounds obtained by burning limestone, chalk or shells – is used in every aspect of traditional building work, and an understanding of the relevant properties and processes is essential to good conservation practice. Lime Day allows students to try out a range of lime-based crafts, including mortar mixing, bricklaying, plastering, rendering and daubing.

Lime Day at IJP Owlsworth

Back on campus, we received a practical training session in the ancient craft of thatching from Northamptonshire master thatcher Roger Scanlan. (He claims there's no such thing as a 'master thatcher', but he clearly is one.) British thatching embraces a range of methods and materials, each originally specific to particular regions of the country; we tried our hand at the water-reed, long-straw and combed-straw techniques.

Thatching demonstration

Towards the end of the semester we took a long drive down into West Sussex to visit the Weald and Downland Open Air Museum at Singleton, near Chichester. The oldest and largest of its kind in England, the museum boasts an unparalleled collection of vernacular timber-framed buildings drawn from across the region. After a visit to the Artefact Store – an extraordinary assortment of rural building components, tools and machinery – we attempted the surprisingly difficult art of making oak pegs, upon which all traditional wooden construction depends. Joe Thompson, the museum's head carpenter, then gave us an illuminating tour of the buildings collection, discussing the variety of ingenious methods used to treat, repair and replace decaying timber, along with the principles that determine their application.

At the Weald and Downland Open Air Museum

The year ended with a 3-day residential trip to Bath and environs. This exquisite 18th-century city is now a World Heritage Site, but faces ever-increasing pressure from tourism and new residential development. Amy Frost of the Bath Preservation Trust and Stephen George of the District Council both spoke to us about the challenges of preserving and sustaining its unique character. Bath is also famous, of course, for its golden Cotswold limestone; we visited Stoke Hill Mine, a vast underground quarry from which the stone continues to be extracted, and Wells Cathedral Masons, where it is cut and carved for use in both conservation and new-build projects, and where master mason Simon Armstrong kindly let us have a go with some chisels.

In the city of Bath

None of us, it seems, is on course to become the next Donatello. But the experience of trying out these activities, feeling their difficulty as well as something of their rewards, gives participants an enhanced respect for the skills involved, as well as a sense of the centrality of good craft practice to successful conservation. It isn’t everything – but it’s a start.

For more information about the MSc Historic Conservation, take a look at our website:

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