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Keeping local old buildings in one piece

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September 2013

We are lucky in the South-West to be surrounded by some of the most beautiful old buildings; however, they are constantly under threat from pollution, nature, ignorance and decay. On 10 September, Liz Wild explained to the Thornbury Local History and Archaeology Society how some these threats have been managed at Tyntesfield and other local sites.

The damage that the Orangery at Tyntesfield had sustained was extraordinary. Roots had grown in through the stonework and a tree was growing out of the roof. The ornate capitals on the columns had smashed, and the building was barely recognizable as the architectural treasure that was commission in 1897 to celebrate Queen Victoria’s jubilee. The damage had been caused by poor design, poorly bedded stone, frost damage, rusting iron, root damage and a lack of funds to carry out maintenance over the last century. The team at Nimbus, Frome, which included Liz, were brought in to carry out the repairs, but also to run it as a study project for conservation students at Bath University. The job they had on their hands included: correcting the design, replacing doors, windows, the roof and a lot of the stone, recasting capitals for the columns and mortar repairs.

Protecting and conserving old buildings is no mean feat. It involves not only cleaning and repairing old stonework but also reviewing historical records and photographs; mortar analysis and heavy lifting. In fact, many of the methods now employed by specialists were developed in the south west during Prof. Robert Baker’s project to conserve Wells Cathedral. One of his key observations was using concrete to repair old buildings caused more harm than good. Concrete does not expand and contract with the original lime stone blocks, and once it inevitably cracks it lets in water. Therefore, all of the repairs are carried out with lime mortar.

Closer to home the Nimbus team recently repaired eleven table top tombs at St Arilda’s Church, Oldbury-on-Severn. Many of these monuments to past residents were in real danger of collapse thanks to the ivy, roots and rusting iron. The sides had started to subside away from each other and the tops of tombs were at risk of caving in. The tombs were held together with iron brackets, which inevitably rust, and so had to removed and replaced. Liz and her husband carefully removed each part of the tomb, replaced the foundation with thermalite blocks and then carefully re-built each tomb. The result is marvellous: the tombs still retain the aspect of venerable age, but give a real impression of their original grandeur.

The work is painstaking and intricate, and not easy to learn. Liz studied in Bournemouth and France and even worked on the Palace of Versailles. The students involved in the Tyntesfield were given an arch each to repoint: it took twenty days to complete each one. But this job is not all about artistic skill, the lime needs to kept damp while being worked so Liz and her colleagues often deal with heavy masonry in dark, damp and cramped conditions; not to limit the limited budgets that are available for conservation work. If we are lucky to have such fine old buildings in this area, we are equally lucky to have skilled individuals available not only to repair and maintain them, but also who are willing to pass their knowledge on the next generation.

The Thornbury Local History and Archaeology Society always welcomes new and occasional members. Details of our programme can be found on this website, the library or the Town Hall. Our meetings are on the second Tuesday of the month, held at St Mary's Church Hall beginning at 7.30pm. Visitors are always welcome at the society for the small charge of £2.50.

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