Recclesia

Witley Court was once one of the great country houses of England, but since a devastating fire in 1937 it has become one of the country’s most spectacular ruins.

Recclesia has completed several phases of work at Witley Court for English Heritage. Here our Heritage Consultant Lee Bilson takes a look at what craftsmanship means to Recclesia and how it is sometimes overlooked when assessing significance.

Witley Court was once one of the great country houses of England, but since a devastating fire in 1937 it has become one of the country’s most spectacular ruins. However, it is still possible to gain a sense of the opulence and scale of the 19th-century interiors, and the skills of the craftsmen required in their creation. The role of craftsmen remains important today, as without them conservation works to our built heritage and sites like Witley Court would only preserve the aesthetic and not the intangible artisanry nature of their construction.

As UNESCO states ‘traditional craftsmanship is perhaps the most important tangible manifestation of intangible heritage.’ As such Recclesia believe that whilst it is vital we preserve and care for our built heritage, this is only truly successful through the continuation of the traditional skills and knowledge utilised in the construction of our much loved historic sites. These skills need to transcend generations and endure.

The building conservation industry offers considerable opportunities to preserve this intangible aspect of our heritage. Though, as with other forms of intangible cultural heritage, globalization and commercialisation is posing a significant challenge to the survival of traditional forms of craftsmanship. Whilst a reduction in skills and knowledge does allow many contractors to offer lower cost for projects, it is obviously detrimental and merely reduces the suitability, effectiveness, and sustainability of any conservation works.

As a result of this Recclesia has, as with many other building conservation firms, always sought to employ a qualified and practiced workforce, continually developing its team, and providing apprenticeships to a new generation of specialists. This approach helped Recclesia to be awarded the contract to carry out sensitive works to the Towers and Portico of Witley Court in 2014. Following condition surveys of Witley Court in 2013, it was evident that a targeted programme of skilled conservation works was required. The agents of decay including wind, rain and frost, had caused extensive loss of detail and significant deterioration to the structure. If these were not treated then it would result in the progressive collapse to areas of high level masonry. To help conserve these areas English Heritage outlined a detailed program of works for the consolidation, repair, and renewal of the historic masonry and plaster, which was then carried out by Recclesia’s specialist masonry team.

Great care was taken to preserve as much original masonry as possible, but some areas of stone had spalled away, so it was necessary for the team of masons to piece in new sections of stone, using a simple lime bedding mix and stainless steel dowels to provide extra security. In other areas masonry sections were being cramped internally with ferrous fixings utilised in the buildings construction, as such areas of stone were removed to gain access to the ferrous cramps which were then removed in the least invasive manner available. These were then replaced with stainless steel equivalents. New sections of stone, hand carved at Recclesia’s purpose-built masonry workshops to match the original profile, were then sensitively constructed ensuring the form and setting out of the original masonry was maintained.

However before these works were carried out, several samples of mortar mixes were made by the masons to ensure the colouration and performance best matched the mix originally used. The stone was also carefully sourced to ensure its composition and colouration was suitable and likewise matched that originally used in Witley’s construction. The knowledge of Geoff Moore, Recclesia’s Head of Masonry, having started his apprenticeship at 16 and since collecting over 50 years of experience, was key to successfully identifying the right mix and stone. It is not only the aesthetic qualities of mortars and masonry which must be considered, but also the compatibility. This ensures that any new masonry or mortar repairs do not cause future issues and potential failure. Otherwise, the wrong choice of stone or mortar can result in further deterioration of the structure, rendering any costly conservation works meaningless.

The goal of the project was to conserve the towers and portico with minimal new stone work, reducing the health and safety risk caused by failing masonry, and maintaining the readability and understanding of the highly important site. Yet it also offered a perfect platform for the continuation of traditional craftsmanship, an intangible aspect of the sites importance. The knowledge and skills associated with traditional artisanry of stone masonry to be maintained for future generations.

An historic ruin, building, site, or landscape which is not maintained will eventually be lost to time. But maintenance and conservation works carried out without the same knowledge and skill of those who built it, will still lose a significant essence of what helps define the importance and significance of an heritage asset such as Witley Court.