Wimpole Hall’s Gothic Tower in Wimpole

David Adshead

Director, The Attingham Trust

National Trust East of England Office

National Trust East of England Regional Office Westley Bottom Bury St Edmunds Suffolk IP33 3WD United Kingdom

https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/

Cambridgeshire, United Kingdom
European Union Prize for Cultural Heritage / Europa Nostra Award 2016

 

‘Precision Ruination: Rescuing Wimpole’s Gothic Tower’

 

 

 

The National Trust is a not-for-profit conservation organisation, independent of government, which owns and manages for public benefit sites of cultural and natural significance in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Founded in 1895, it now has some 4.5 million members and is the largest conservation charity in the United Kingdom.

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The subject of the awarded project was an 18th century sham castle, referred to as the Gothic Tower, which stands at the heart of the Trust’s Wimpole Hall es-tate in the East of England, and which is rich with historical allusions. It was built, under the supervision of the pioneering Gothic Revival architect James Essex, as part of Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown’s landscaping works at Wimpole in the 1770s, but had been conceived by an amateur architect, Sanderson Miller as a jeu d’esprit some 25 years earlier. The conceit was that an apparently ruin-ous castle, with three towers, joined by fragments of curtain wall, pierced by gateways, would inspire in all who viewed and visited it, associative thoughts - not least of Magna Carta and imagined ideas of Anglo-Saxon liberty and, by implication, freedom from the potential tyranny of the monarch.

The aims and objectives of the project were to stabilise this complex, respecting its time-worn beauty, using appropriate materials, and to restore its immediate landscape setting. Though it was designed as a pseudo-medieval ruin it had it-self become dangerously and disfiguringly ruinous, and its landscape degraded and overgrown. The intellectual and practical challenge at the heart of the project was to distinguish artful ruination from real and deleterious ruination. The project enabled missing elements to be reinstated and the structure to be put into good repair, whilst preserving the picturesque aesthetic of the design intention.

The idea of conserving the Gothic Folly at Wimpole had been in gestation for many years. A number of factors had conspired to create real ruination: the soft chalky limestone used in the construction of the folly; its exposed site; the effects of rain, time, ivy, pigeons and rabbits; and its de facto abandonment as a ruin. As a result of this decay, in the 1920s the tower’s distinctive battlements had to be removed and replaced with a brick capping, and in the 1970s a new lead roof was added in order to protect its interior; for many years it, therefore, looked more like an industrial water-tower than a parkland ornament. In recent years the danger of falling masonry from the castle’s curtain walls has prevented public access to the site.

Financial support, in the form of a ‘Higher Level Stewardship’ grant, was provided by Natural England, which administers environmental stewardship schemes on behalf of the governmental Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and which has enabled both wildlife conservation work and parkland restoration work on the Wimpole Estate. Additional funding was provided by a bequest from the celebrated architectural historian and broadcaster Alec Clifton Taylor (1907-1985) and from other sources held by the National Trust. Support in terms of technical advice and approvals for the work came from the local authority and Historic England.

The historic landscape park at Wimpole, within a 9,888 hectare agricultural es-tate, is a popular ‘green lung’ for residents of Cambridge and surrounding set-tlements. The Gothic Folly is a prominent and much loved landmark at the centre of the estate, and of national as well as local significance. It was consi-dered particularly important that Wimpole’s wider community of visitors and parkland walkers were engaged in the conservation project. Indeed new ground was broken by involving large numbers of volunteers in bringing im-aginatively to the public’s attention each element of the works. A customized visitor scaffold was erected to allow public access during the works and a cadre of volunteer tour-guides was trained to communicate the fascination and excitement of the project

Its contribution to conservation policy and practice is: as an outstanding example of integrated conservation and public engagement; of minimal intervention and the sensitive and appropriate treatment of degrading stone surfaces, and retaining lichens, and using reclaimed stone wherever possible; of the reinstatement of lost elements, such as the crenellations and the timber stair to the rear of the building, developed from historic research and building pathology; and of an intellectual approach to the challenge of conserving a building designed as a ruin.

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The project was led by the Senior Buildings Surveyor in the National Trust’s East of England region, with support and advice from colleagues on curatorial matters, on archaeology, wildlife, and interpretation. Additional research - on archaeology, building and social history, decorative surfaces and ecology was undertaken by external consultants, while the principal consultant/contractors were the conservation architects Donald Insall Associates Ltd, the Structural Engineers Peter Dann Ltd, and the stone and plaster specialists Cliveden Con-servation Workshop.

Cliveden Conservation with the support of Historic England took on the diffi-cult challenge of researching the most effective and suitable methods of con-serving the stone used in the construction of the Gothic Tower, undertaking pe-trological and permeability analysis and sampling the original and later lime mortars. This informed our understanding of the patterns of deterioration and decay of the walls, and why the stone, a local ‘clunch' had de-laminated in cer-tain areas, before the trial of new mortars and lime-washes.

Saving a building, designed as a mock-ruin, from real and damaging ruination necessitates complex decision making and great sensitivity, which we consi-dered could only be achieved by adopting a holistic, interdisciplinary approach, balancing the site’s multiple significances. Archaeology, architectural history, ecology, petrology, scientific fabric analysis, landscape assessment, and social history were all harnessed in the business of understanding the folly and devis-ing conservation solutions, and achieving professional excellence. It is the value of this holistic, interdisciplinary approach that we would recommend to others faced with a similar challenge. The Gothic Tower, once a neglected looking structure has once more become a meaningful focal point, as it was in the 18th century, to a designed landscape. Visitors are intrigued by it, and are led there, not directly, but via a reinstated circuit path, enabled by the removal of agricultural fences. The National Trust and all those involved in the project are very honoured that it won a Europa Nostra Grand Prix.