The structure of Taught Masters courses, offered at the University of York’s Archaeology department, incorporates ‘Research Skills’. These practical modules allow students to learn and obtain new skills for the Arts and Heritage Sector. For the beginning of this term I picked Practical Building Conservation and I was not disappointed – it was fantastic!
Over the last four weeks we have been learning the basics of hot lime mortars and plasters, earth mortars, traditional cob and rammed earth buildings, stone masonry, drystone walling and timber structures. There is a great emphasis on practical experience, so we’ve all been trying our hands at various techniques from building and plastering walls to squaring timber using axes the ‘old fashioned way’. These are skills that have sadly been in decline in recent years but, are thankfully starting to make a comeback!
Having learnt these basic skills I’m surprised to find so many buildings that make up the iconic landscape of York have received misguided ‘conservation’ in the past, which is subsequently leading to their destruction today!
Take this building for example:
Evidently a medieval timber framed building – do you think it looks in a good state of repair?
There are tell-tale cracks in what appears to be a cement render on the studding between the timber braces. The dark patches around the timber braces show evidence of trapped moisture – cement is not porous, so any water that is absorbed by the timbers is locked within the wall creating damp patches and cracks. This is also bad news for the timber itself. If water can’t escape then the timber is continually water-logged leaving it vulnerable to decay. If no action is taken, in time the original timbers in this building will rot and the walls will become unstable, to the point where they will crumble away.
Where is this building I hear you ask? The Shambles – York’s most famous street!
Inappropriate ‘conservation’ in the past has led to the acceleration in these buildings’ aging processes. While they have survived for hundreds of years, we could kill them off in just one.
Next time you’re taking a stroll around the city centre look up above the shop fronts to the upper part of the buildings – you’ll be surprised how many need urgent attention! Increased awareness of this problem is our only chance to actually save these historic and iconic buildings before they are lost to the mists of time and mere nostalgia. So if you get the chance to learn traditional building skills take up the opportunity – you might one day be able to save a building’s life!