October 2008: not the end but perhaps the beginning of the end?

It's odd how quickly you get used to the changing face of the house week by week. I glance at various old photos from time to time to remind me what a sorry state the place was in June last year. It's a comfort to think that there is no part of the house that does not look better today, even though much remains to be done. However - it is now possible in many areas to see what the finished product will look like and I am delighted to let you know that I think it will be better than any of us expected.

Things slowed down a bit in June and July but they have picked up again. What with holidays, problems with sub contractors, things still being uncovered (what Donald Rumsfeld might call the 'unexpected unexpected') the last 3 months have been a bit of a nightmare and we have lost about another 8 weeks. Contract completion is now going to be on 15 November. This is some 22 weeks later than the original completion date of 15 June. I have had a number of meetings with the top brass at Crispin and Borst to try to speed things up and these have been of some value but, we are where we are, and shouting and grumbling will not make it better.

However - good things are happening too.

At today's date (8 September 2008) progress is as follows:

  • Plastering is complete on the first floor and most of the ground floor - the plasterers should be off site in the next 10 days
  • Work has begun on the stained glass on the Venetian Window
  • The foul dark brown varnish on the main stair (panels, newells and spindles) is being stripped off and the oak beneath looks gorgeous
  • The oak floors in the Drawing Room, Dining Room and 1st floor gallery are being sanded and coming up a treat
  • The cleaning of the old plaster cornices has revealed the quality of the egg and dart moulding and the 'new' sections have been carefully matched in with the old
  • The decoration of the top floor is virtually complete
  • The first floor rooms are being primed and undercoated now that most of the joinery repairs are done
  • The 'new' servants' stair is in place
  • The stone floor specialists have started laying some of the new stone
  • The specialist paint stripping to the ornate plaster ceiling above the stair has brought out the sharp lines and contours of the original design.

Archaeology

I am now promised the first draft of the Archaeological Report by the end of this month (not the end of June as I was told in May). They must have run out of quill pens, I suppose.

The attic space

This now has a working lighting system and a new walkway (with handrail!) so it feels safer than at any time I can remember. It used to be a matter of staggering around in the dark with a torch trying not to fall through the ceilings.

The studios

The top floor is accessed, as it always was, by the old stair off the 1st floor corridor. The 2nd floor corridor is a nice colour scheme of Book Room Red and a sort of mushroom colour called Elephant's Breath. From this slightly gloomy space you walk into any of the studios and are hit by the lightness and airiness of the rooms. We have provided a good level of lighting and lots of electrical and data points. There is also a tea space looking out over the Dairy Wing and the Dovecote where the artists can gaze thinly from the window and pretend to be starving in a garret.

New work

We have quite deliberately gone for standard modern kitchen units and there is no attempt to pretend that these spaces are old. This is a general principle of conservation - new additions should look new so there is no mistaking what is actually old. The same applies to the new servants' stair where the joinery looks new and the balustrade is glass in an aluminium channel with a modern handrail. The new toilet areas are also unashamedly modern (for which I imagine many of our regular patrons will be more than a little thankful). However, all of the important historic areas have been treated with respect and are being restored faithfully using existing material where possible and modern reproductions where old material could not be saved.

Stone flooring

The vestibule floor was taken up to allow a ramp to be formed from the main entrance doors. Material from this was set aside to patch in areas of damaged slabs and several places where slabs had been replaced with concrete. The vestibule is being floored with new Portland Stone and black slate cabouchons so that it appears of a piece. New stone (no cabouchons) will be laid in the new toilet corridors and the Servant's Hall. The ramp from the Servants' Hall to the Kitchen will be surfaced in natural black slate since to comply with Building Regulations there must be a distinct colour difference between the level and the ramped areas.

Coloured glass

The specialist conservators have been busy measuring and trying to produce glass to match the colours and dimensions we need. The rosette and acanthus leaf panels have been fitted into the arch over the Balcony Doors and look like they have always been there. A new painting on glass has been produced to compliment the 'Scottish (?)' landscape in the right hand triangle of the fanlight. Once these works are finished both the fanlight and the Venetian window will look better than they've done for decades. The paint on the Venetian Window stone work has been cleaned off and this will be left unpainted.

Conservatory base

This has had to be rebuilt since its condition was so poor it could not be saved. Once completed it will look almost the same since we are re-using all the old materials.

Porte cochere paving

It is important that this looks right, since it is the first welcome for visitors to the Mansion. Some areas had sunk whilst in other places individual bricks were cracked or eroded. It has been careful and painstaking work to lift bricks without damaging surrounding areas and it remains to be seen how the repairs will look. However, the intention is to retain the charm of this area by not making it look new.

Money

Managing the money has been time consuming and complicated. The HLF require detailed quarterly reports and the Council requires monthly reports. I get a very detailed analysis from the external cost consultant and use this as the basis for my reports and my monitoring of all transactions. I shan't be altogether sorry when this stops.

The Park Project

The paths around the Mansion are being formed at the moment and new timber and metal edgings are being installed. Once all these are in place the base paths will be asphalted to give a level finish and they will all be covered with fine gravel rolled into tar to match the appearance of the new paths in the Wilderness.

The Park project is all but done with only the Dovecote remaining to be fitted out inside. The Gardener's Cottage will then be the subject of a separate contract to turn it into a small café with an office upstairs for the Valentines Park Manager. If all goes well (really, I don't know why I say these things) the café will be open for the Spring season in 2009.

And finally ...

By the time of the next Newsletter everything should be finished so my next update will be the last one. By God, though, it's been fun!

Valentines Mansion Project Director, Nigel Burch