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!