Saturday, April 07, 2012

Conservation work at Ashdown House

This season at Ashdown House we are offering tours up the scaffolding so that visitors can view the ongoing conservation work. Last week I had my training so that I can guide tour parties up to the 7th floor, which is a viewing platform above the roof. It was an exhilarating experience climbing so high above the outside of the house and looking down on the roof! Visitors are issued with hard hats and high visibility jackets and are well briefed before we start the climb up the outside staircase. No high-heeled shoes or flip-flops allowed!

The first stop on the tour is the 5th level to have a look at the work that is being done to replace the chalk stone blocks. Ashdown was built of chalk, the softest building material, and it has been melting away in the rain for the past 350 years! Last year the original quarry was re-opened in order to cut enough stone to replace the rain-damaged blocks. On one of these earlier stones the date 1756 is carved, evidence of repair work to the house in the Georgian period during the life of the 5th Baron Craven.

On the 7th floor visitors can walk all the way around the roof, looking down on the work to replace the Cotswold stone roof tiles and the 17th century cupola. This little octagonal dome originally had glass windows on four sides and painted trompe l’oeil scenes on the other four panels but it is being replaced with glass on all eight sides.

Lots of other fascinating bits of information have come to light during the conservation work and these illuminate the life of the house through 350 years of history. In peeling back the layers of paint on the interior walls of the staircase and landing we discovered that in the Restoration period they were painted a rich red colour that was very fashionable at the time. Similarly in the Victorian era the external bath stone quoins on the house were painted red. Not so tasteful!

We also know that repairs were made to the roof in 1927 because we found the odds on the Derby runners chalked up on a beam that was subsequently used in the repairs! Maybe the workmen had a sweepstake running on which horse would win.

Work on the house is still ongoing and I am sure there is much more to discover from the Restoration period through the Georgian and Regency to the Victorian and the 20th century. It’s a fascinating time to visit, not just to take the scaffolding tour but also to see the artefacts and hear about all the discoveries. If anyone is in the area and would like the tour, I’d love to show you round!


LizB said...

I only wish I was around your area, Nicola, so I could get shown round. Fascinating, especially about the chalk stones. Had no idea anyone built in chalk! Not really surprised it is wearing away..

Elizabeth Hawksley said...

Wow! The house in its scaffolding carapace looks like some avant garde art installation! But how wonderful to be able to go up to the top and see what exactly is being done and what's been uncovered.

Nicola Cornick said...

Around here they built a lot in chalk, Liz, as it was a cheap and available source of stone. Not in the least practical, though! There is another legend as to why they used chalk, though, and that is because the house was intended for Elizabeth of Bohemia, whose mother Anne of Denmark had a "white palace" at Greenwich. It's said that William Craven wanted Elizaberth to have a little white palace too!

Nicola Cornick said...

Yes, it is the most amazing bit of construction, Elizabeth. It's a fabulous opportunity to see the work in progress, I think. Not so great if you don't like heights, though!

Christina Courtenay said...

Not sure I could handle the heights, but I will definitely come and see the house when the work is finished! Love the fact that the Restoration owner had better taste than the Victorians :)

Nicola Cornick said...

Oh, please do, Christina! I'm always so happy to show people around. Yes, I'm afraid the Victorians made some additions to the house that were sadly lacking in taste! One visitor, looking at the old photos said: "They really didn't know when to stop, did they!"