Wednesday 23 November 2016

MSc Historic Conservation: Derbyshire 2016

Report by David Garrard (more information behind the blue links)...

Who wouldn’t like to spend three golden October days swanning around a National Park, looking at old buildings and admiring the autumn foliage, all for £100? Students on the Oxford Brookes MSc Historic Conservation have all the luck. The residential field trip (in semester one) is a chance to study the historic environment of a particular region – this year, Derbyshire and the Peak District – in detail and at first hand. It’s also a chance for students and staff to bond in ways that are only possible whilst climbing up scaffolding in hi-vis and a hard hat. (Or if that doesn’t work, sitting by the fire in the pub.)

Our minibus set off from Oxford unfashionably early on Monday morning, and arrived in Derby in time for elevenses. The county town – a city since 1977 – achieved prosperity in the 17th and 18th centuries as a centre of textile and porcelain manufacture, and retained it in the 19th as a major transport hub and the headquarters of the Midland Railway. Despite industrial decline and some heavy-handed town planning in the post-war decades, the central conservation area still boasts a good stock of buildings of various periods, many now being revived as the city’s fortunes improve.

The city of Derby

Among Derby’s most notable monuments is the former Shire Hall, a red sandstone building in the Mannerist classical idiom of the 1650s, with additions of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. After a period of disuse and severe decay, it was repaired and extended just prior to the Millennium to form the new Derby Magistrates’ Courts. Penny McKnight, conservation officer at the City Council, showed us round as we discussed the thorny issue of how to graft new fabric onto an architecturally sensitive and physically fragile historic structure.

The Shire Hall

The Old Bell Hotel in Sadler Gate – our second visit – is another 17th century building retrieved from the brink of dereliction. Originally a coaching inn, it was given a heavy ‘Tudorbethan’ remodelling in the 1920s, which left it looking a bit like the set for Carry On Shakespeare. But its stuck-on half-timbering and faux heraldry (themselves now almost a century old) are viewed with affection by Derby citizens, and are now being lovingly repaired as part of a £1.2 million renovation scheme led by local entrepreneur Paul Hurst. Yesterday’s kitsch, tomorrow’s precious heritage…

The Old Bell Hotel

After lunch we drove north up the Derwent Valley. This corner of Derbyshire is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and has as good a claim as anywhere to call itself the ‘cradle of the Industrial Revolution’. It was here that, from the 1770s onwards, a group of engineer-entrepreneurs led by Richard Arkwright harnessed the power of the river and its tributaries (along with the latest developments in spinning technology) to establish the world’s first fully mechanised cotton mills, precursors of the great textile boom of the following century. Arkwright’s original group of mills survives at Cromford, where he also built a model town for his workers and a sprawling castellated mansion for himself. Almost demolished in the 1970s, the imposing 18th-century mills and warehouses have been laboriously cleaned up, stabilised and refitted by the Arkwright Society – whose head guide Peter South showed us round – to form a mixed-use complex incorporating offices, shops and a museum.

The mills at Cromford

Our base of operations was the YHA at Youlgreave, a small village nestled amid the limestone uplands of the White Peak. At dawn on Tuesday, a few hardy souls (those who hadn’t stayed too late at the Farmyard Inn) walked out to watch the sunrise from the Iron Age fort at Castle Ring, returning just in time for breakfast. Then – well, no field trip would be complete without a mildly embarrassing group exercise, preferably involving clipboards. Understanding the form and character of historic settlements is a key skill in conservation work, so each group of students was sent out around Youlgreave armed with maps and cameras, and asked to report back on a specific aspect of the village: its chronological development, layout and topography, architectural and townscape qualities, characteristic building materials and uses, and so on. We got some funny looks, but at least it didn’t rain.

Observing Youlgreave (with clipboards)

Next stop: Buxton. With its dramatic valley setting and lavish Neoclassical and Victorian architecture, this spa town resembles (as was very much the intention of its promoters, the Dukes of Devonshire) a miniature version of Bath. Its centrepiece is The Crescent, a grand semicircular terrace built in 1779-90 by the great north-country architect John Carr of York. Mothballed, neglected and riddled with dry rot, the huge Grade I-listed building has long been one of England’s biggest heritage headaches. After many failed schemes and abortive proposals, restoration works are now at last under way, with the intention of returning the Crescent to its original use: swish hotel accommodation on the upper floors and a reopened thermal spa below. The details of the scheme are frighteningly complex, making project architect John Ferguson (of Curious Architecture) an extremely busy man; so hats off to him for finding time to give us a behind-the-scenes tour, including a rare opportunity to visit Carr’s sumptuous Assembly Rooms.

The Assembly Rooms in Buxton

Wednesday morning found us in Wirksworth. Ancient capital of the Derbyshire lead-mining industry, this handsome market town with its fine 13th-century church and imposing Stuart and Georgian merchants’ houses had by the 1970s become a byword for deprivation and decay. Its revival began in 1977 with the launch of the ‘Wirksworth Project’, a pioneering heritage-led regeneration partnership between local interest groups, regional government and the Civic Trust. Funding was obtained for targeted public realm improvements and the renovation of key individual buildings, which in turn helped to stimulate further economic resurgence across the town. As Sally Barkley-Smith of the Wirksworth Heritage Centre explained, it is now one of the most desirable addresses in Derbyshire, something that has brought its own problems as locals are priced out in favour of well-to-do incomers: a useful reminder that the wider effects of regeneration are not inevitably benign.

In Wirksworth

Our final visit was to Hardwick Hall. This is probably Derbyshire’s most celebrated building: a many-towered Elizabethan fantasy, perched high on a bluff overlooking the River Doe Lea and (nowadays) the M1. Its founder was Elizabeth, dowager Countess of Shrewsbury, known to history as Bess of Hardwick, who in 1590-97 employed the architect Robert Smythson (and the enormous fortune that came to her on the death of her fourth husband) to develop the site of her modest ancestral manor into one of the great ‘prodigy houses’ of the age. The Hall’s exposed position leaves it particularly vulnerable to the effects of wind and weather, and – as our guide John Stubbs showed us – the National Trust is engaged in a continuous battle to preserve and repair the delicate external stonework. We returned to Oxford chastened but inspired by the magnitude of conservation’s neverending task.

And finally, Hardwick Hall.

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