Thursday, 29 September 2011

The Roof Goes On!

I never thought I would get excited about a crane (at least not of the non-feathered variety) but this week the temporary roof was lifted on to the top of Ashdown House and it was a very impressive and exciting sight. The roof was designed to a special architect's plan and the two halves were lifted on separately and then the middle section was constructed over the top of the cupola. It was originally suggested that the cupola might be lifted off the top to enable conservation work but this is now going to take place on the roof with the cupola slightly raised to allow the work to be done. Work on the cupola is going to be very interesting; the copper panels on the sides will be replaced with lead ones to reflect the nature of the original building and the finial on the top will be re-gilded - and the bullets still lodged in it dug out! These date from the time the golden ball was used for target practice during the 2nd World War when US, Canadian and British troops were stationed at Ashdown. There will be updates here about the cupola conservation and maybe even some photos of the bullets!

Now that the roof is in place work can begin on removing the Cotswold slate, repairing those slates than can be re-used and replacing those that are too damaged. The flat roof will also be removed and re-leaded and the balustrade renewed. A large "jacket" will be put over the entire structure of the scaffolding to protect the ongoing conservation work from the weather. This will be thicker at the top and will hide the whole house, though when the National Trust "season" starts up again in April, hard hat tours of the exterior of the building will be available to show people the progress of the project. Exciting! (Unless you don't like heights in which case there will be an exhibition in the Information Centre.) In a short while the original quarry will be opened and chalk extracted to repair the external walls of the house. There's a lot going on!

The house closed yesterday and the portrait collection is being removed today. Whilst the renovation work is in progress the portraits will also be receiving some conservation care and again this will be reported here on the blog. During October the Information Centre remains open with a short presentation and garden tour on offer to update visitors on the project and show some of the aspects of the Ashdown Estate that don't normally get mentioned. So far the conservation project has proved very popular with visitors and we look forward to welcoming you to Ashdown and showing you what is going on!

There are more photographs of the ongoing renovation project here.

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Conservation Project Update

The cupola and viewing platform on the roof of Ashdown House will be closed from next week, 19th September. The scaffolding has reached the top of the house and work is about to start on the roof. The house and portrait collection will still be accessible until the end of September so if you are planning on visiting Ashdown and would like to see inside you need to get your visit in soon! The house will close at the end of September.

However, for those visiting up to the end of the season in October, we will be running garden tours and special talks in the Information Centre. More details to come so watch this space and our Facebook page and Twitter

At the top of the page is an arty photo taken in the Information Centre showing South Lodge's very attractive original beams. More on the history of South Lodge next time!

Thursday, 8 September 2011

Up and Down the Stairs

The staircase at Ashdown House is one of the great features of the house and a masterpiece of engineering. Taking up a quarter of the floor space of the entire house, it is built from elm with uprights of oak and individually hand-turned balusters. There are one hundred steps up to the roof. The staircase was constructed "green," with untreated wood, which means that over the three hundred years of its existence it has settled at slightly different rates, giving an uneven tread. When you stand at the top and look down you can see that the stairs are slightly askew! They are - of course - entirely safe, but for reasons of loading, no more than 25 visitors are permitted on the stair at any one time.

The elm stair is the only staircase in the house. There are no servants' stairs as the house is simply too small to accommodate them. Which means that family, visitors and servants were all obliged to use the same space, something that was considered extremely undesirable in an aristocratic Victorian household. If the servants had the misfortune to meet the family or guests on the stair they had to efface themselves against the wall and pretend to be invisible!

The stair is four foot wide and was built on such a grand scale for several reasons. Firstly Ashdown is a hunting lodge and so the main purpose is to get the guests up on to the roof to view the progress of the hunt. Ladies with wide skirts needed lots of room when ascending the stairs. It was also thought appropriate in the 17th century that noblemen of the stature of Lord Craven should have a servant on either side of them as they ascended, in case they needed anything on their way up to the roof! The width of the stair also allowed the more infirm members of the family to be assisted up and down. Another interesting reason for the width of the staircase was the fact that it was designed to allow Lord Craven to defend his property by force if required; the staircase is wide enough for a sword fight! It also turns in a clockwise direction because Lord Craven was a right-handed swordsman and this would give him the fighting advantage, descending the stair.

In the 19th century heavy elm and oak staircases such as the one at Ashdown were often ripped out to be replaced by something more light and fashionable. We are fortunate that the one at Ashdown was preserved and also that it survived the stationing of troops in the house during the Second World War when much of the panelling and other wooden features in the house was used for firewood. Originally the upright panels on the stair had carved swags of fruit and flowers, as shown in a photograph from Country Life. These were removed during the 20th century to leave the staircase looking somewhat austere as it does today.

Sunday, 4 September 2011

Ashdown visits the Hoydens and Firebrands!

Today Ashdown House is featured on the Hoydens and Firebrands blog. We're talking about the rise to prominence of the Craven family in the late 16th and early 17th century, the career of Sir William Craven and the way the family transformed itself from obscurity to becoming one of the most prominent noble families of the 17th century. Thank you to the Hoydens and Firebrands for hosting us. Visit the blog here!

Friday, 2 September 2011

The Great Fire of London

Today, 2nd September, is the anniversary of the Great Fire of London of 1666, which was the most devastating event in the history of the city. Both Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn, contemporary diarists, recorded the event in vivid detail. Evelyn wrote: “God grant my eyes may never behold the like, now seeing above 10,000 houses all in one flame; the noise and cracking and thunder of the impetuous flames, ye shrieking of women and children, the hurry of people, the fall of Towers, Houses and Churches, was like a hideous storme, and the air all about so hot and inflamed that at last one was not able to approach it. London was, but is no more!”

The death toll of the fire was considerably lower than the 75 000 who had been carried off by the Great Plague in the previous two years but many thousands were made homeless. The fire started in the house of a baker called Farryner, in Pudding Lane, near the Tower of London and, driven on by a high wind, it lasted for three days, spreading eastwards until it ended at a spot called Pye Corner in Giltspur Street. It destroyed St Pauls Cathedral, the Royal Exchange, hundreds of other public buildings and thousands of houses. The Great Fire is commemorated by a monument which stands 202ft tall near the bakery in Pudding Lane where it all began.

One aspect of the Great Fire of London that is not well known is the role played by William, First Earl of Craven, in the attempts to put the fire out. Whilst many of the nobility and courtiers fled the city, King Charles II remained and so did Craven. Craven had already demonstrated his courage and integrity in not deserting London the previous year during the outbreak of plague, commenting then that someone had to remain to preserve law and order. Now he was reported to be out night after night helping the firefighters. In fact it was said that ever after, when his horse smelled smoke it would turn in the direction of the fire. In 1666 there was no organised fire brigade and firefighting was fairly basic, using leather buckets and squirts of water. Against the force of a fire like this they were totally ineffective. The Navy recommended to the King that they needed to pull down the houses to make a fire break but the flames simply leapt the gap. Eventually it was agreed to blow up the houses in the path of the fire to create a greater fire break. The Navy used gunpowder to do this and by the following morning the fire had been stopped.

William Craven was honoured for his role as a London hero with a fresco on the side of Craven Buildings, off the Strand. He was painted in armour, mounted on a white horse, and with his truncheon in hand, and on each side an earl’s and a baron’s coronet, with the letters “W. C.” (William Craven). The painting was recoloured in oils several times but is now long gone although an engraving of it is preserved in Smith’s “Antiquities of London.”

Thursday, 1 September 2011

War and Crafts!

Whilst the scaffolding continues to rise on the house and the building work spreads across the lawns, the displays by members of the Sealed Knot and the traditional crafts on offer still make for a fun and interesting afternoon at Ashdown. When I visited last week the house looked like the picture on the left!

Meanwhile in the woods Ray was busy demonstrating wood turning techniques using locally sourced hazel. The magnificent 17th century oak and elm staircase in Ashdown House would have been made using these techniques and with each upright baluster hand-turned.

In the Information Centre we had lace-making and outside the main house members of the Sealed Knot were happy to demonstate techniques with sword and pikestaff!

Next week on the blog, a few more words about Ashdown's magnificent staircase as well as an update on the Conservation Project! (Apologies for the weird formatting of this post - Blogger does not make these things easy!)