Tuesday, 14 September 2010

The rocking stones of Surrey

Regional variations in building methods are becoming rarer as uniform materials and techniques take hold. Of the three key cost variables in UK building - labour, materials and transport - it is now the first two that are the most expensive and the last that is relatively cheap, leading to a state of affairs where developers source the cheapest materials and put them up as quickly as possible in a way that is standardised across the whole country. In the Georgian period the opposite was broadly true: transport was hugely expensive but labour and materials were cheap, so for example local stone was used and numerous skilled craftsmen were employed to erect it.

And so it is now chiefly in historic buildings that regional variations are evident, as here in Albury Park near Guildford in Surrey, where a technique known as galletting, or the insertion of smaller stones into mortar, is shown to good effect. This can be purely ornamental but in the main its purpose was practical: it was used where the only stones available were hard and had irregular edges, so that when one was laid on another the stones were unsteady and a large gap was left between them. Because the stones were hard, it was easier to fill the gaps with mortar than reshape the stones to give them a flatter edge. But the mortar was less durable than the stone; and the stone was non-absorbent, meaning the mortar adhered badly. The result was weakness on two fronts. To help overcome this, small wedges (often chippings from the masons' workshops, but in this instance pellets of local ironstone) were inserted in the mortar to add strength and counteract the natural rocking between the stone courses.

The practice, which in England is confined to areas where it was structurally necessary (Norfolk and the Weald, which lacked building stone), became known as galletting, after the French word galet for water-worn pebble. The technique dates back to mediaeval times and continues even today for ornamental purposes. Here at Albury, a Tudor house, the present galletting dates from a substantial remodelling by Pugin in the 1840s.

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Restoring workaday service stairs

The principal stairs at 6 Fitzroy Square, running from the hall up to the second floor, are made of beautifully-cut, finely-finished Portland Stone: made to be seen, and to be seen on. The separate staircase down to the basement is in some ways a different proposition: a straightforward workaday route for servants with no pretensions to delicacy of design or construction. The stair rail has plain, black-painted iron balusters, ramrod-straight; the steps are cubes, unsmoothed and unshaped, left rough-hewn on the underside with tooling marks left open to view on the outer edge. This is very much below-stairs; yet the effect is impressive and pleasing, the honesty and lack of refinement giving a feeling of monumentality.

This effect had been lost, or hidden, until now, with the stairs boxed in to form a cleaning cupboard and the steps covered with glued linoleum fixed with plastic nosings nailed into the stone. We were expecting the steps underneath all this to be in poor repair, and indeed were advised by one or two stone specialists that the mess we were likely to uncover was such that it would be better to forget about restoration and carpet them. But in fact the nosings have left only small nail holes, easily filled with Portland stone dust; and the brittle lino on the horizontal treads has lifted to reveal well-preserved, clean stone. Only on the vertical risers, where far more glue was used to keep the lino in place, has any real residue been left. Here, a special poultice has been applied which, together with elbow grease, should ease the glue off to leave a reasonably clean step. The outer edges have been brushed to remove paint, leaving the patina of old distemper and the tooling ridges made by the original masons. The underside has been left open, the whitewashed stones with their rough quarry marks forming a spectacle in themselves.  


Monday, 6 September 2010

New backing for our Blackburn campaign

Our efforts to preserve the threatened former police house in King Street, Blackburn continue to receive backing and we are hopeful that a positive result will be achieved. A decision has yet to be reached by Blackburn and Darwen Council but councillors cannot have failed to be impressed by the comments left on this blog by local residents and others in favour of keeping the building. Support for the conservation campaign has now come from another Blackburn resident, Professor David Smalley, who says:

"I am writing to give my support for the retention of the Old Police Station in King Street, Blackburn. As one who was born in Blackburn I have seen a gradual dismantling of much that could and should have been saved in the town. The removal of the fine pipe organ in the public hall after a very minor fire was a public disgrace, as it was in part a memorial to the dead of World War 1, paid for largely by public donations.

Three Georgian so-called ‘pavilions’ of no particular merit alongside the Cathedral escaped demolition and have been ‘restored’ at the cost of several million pounds. They are and were very plain cuboids - no priceless plaster ceilings or wall paintings or unusual features here - and yet vast amounts of public money have been lavished upon them. They actually interfere with the view of the cathedral from the north side, and as was predicted, the Council has had real trouble in letting them. Even now, after years of intensive marketing, they are still not fully leased. One is used for Council funded short exhibitions.

By contrast the Georgian Police Station is a building of real interest. As one of the few remaining Georgian buildings in Blackburn it is at least as worthy of retention as the three Georgian ‘boxes’ by the Cathedral. As a non-Blackburnian telling Blackburnians what they should and shouldn’t have, Mr. Straw needs to walk a few yards to the west of the building and he will see large areas of cleared land ripe for road building. This includes the former site of the old St. Peter’s School, latterly an annexe of St. Wilfrid’s C.of E. High School. Adjoining are some old neglected Victorian buildings that need to come down in any case. The bottom end of Montague Street on the west side consists largely of grassed areas and an abandoned residential home in ‘Sixties’ style (now boarded up).

Blackburn Council was ruled by one Party for almost half a century and knew exactly what it was doing when it planned the route to plough through this Georgian building in the first place. One cannot escape the opinion that from the beginning the plan has been a carefully calculated step by step affair leading to a position in which those who are against the demolition can be portrayed as objectors whereas the objectionable behaviour is that of those who hatched the plan. Has the neglect of the site in recent years been a deliberate attempt to make it look like a condemned building? As in many of these cases the aims and objectives of having an orbital route round the town are perhaps laudable in principle, but some of the ways in which it is achieved are questionable or even objectionable. Sensible cities like York, Lancaster, Edinburgh, Dublin, Bath, Cheltenham, etc. have kept their Georgian buildings and ‘redundant’ churches. Blackburn is now vigorously demolishing the ‘new’ model Blackburn of the 1960’s. I need say no more".

Impressive groundswell of support for threatened Georgian workhouse

The unlisted Georgian workhouse in Cleveland Street, London W1, is currently threatened with demolition but there's been an impressive groundswell of grassroots support for keeping it. The Georgian Group has objected to demolition and has repeated its request for listing, which was refused under the last Government despite an English Heritage recommendation to list. Local residents, concerned to prevent a distinctive historic building being replaced with identikit development, have orchestrated an impressive conservation campaign that has found widespread support, including from Westminster Councillor Glenys Roberts and Emeritus Professor David Watkin.

In a letter to the local authority, the London Borough of Camden, Cllr Roberts says:

"This distinguished building abuts my constituency. Its rich history as part of the social fabric of an area, which unlike some parts of London is still in touch with its roots, offers the perfect opportunity to update it whilst keeping the original structure. Many people think there is merit in listing such an evocative building with which Charles Dickens was familiar and which have him the subject matter which made him a world class author. But even the fact that it is not at present protected, offers the imaginative conservationist developer free rein in designing a future for it which preserves the best, whilst modernising those aspects which bear updating . There is a successful precedent for this sort of development in the warehouses of Docklands which has turned from a rundown area unto a desirable one precisely because of this philosophy. The Strand Union workhouse with its solid design and generous proportions deserves the same treatment. With a new internal configuration the workhouse could provide either social or private sector housing plus commercial use and still testify to the social conscience of our forebears by retaining its landmark looks. I would be very much opposed to demolishing it as a whole and would urge the Council to explore ways of doing justice to this site, which will preserve the workhouse".

David Watkin, Emeritus Professor of the History of Architecture at Cambridge and Vice-Chairman of The Georgian Group, says: 

"The proposed demolition of this building has recently been brought to my attention and I am writing to object to this as it is a monument of architectural and historical importance, originally part of the parish of St Paul, Covent Garden. As a late-eighteenth-century workhouse, it has naturally been subject to some alteration, but is still worthy of a three-line description in Sir Nikolaus Pevsner’s Buildings of England,
London, vol. 3, North West (1991). The Work House is capable of being further adapted as residential accommodation without compromising its character, while the proposed replacement is totally out of scale with its setting which has preserved much of its Georgian character".

A petition in favour of saving and converting the building is now being organised by local residents. If you are interested in signing it please email us at office@georgiangroup.org.uk.