The New – Very New – Battlements For The North Wing

When the Abbey facades were gothicised two hundred years ago it was not done awfully well, at least in terms of the quality of the work, and the current restoration is intended to be more durable. That’s why the battlements at the Abbey are being replaced in – whisper it – glass fibre.

Innovative Composites in Sussex were given the job of making a hundred and twenty new pieces (plus a few spares, just in case) to replace the original stone crenellation. They made left and right moulds of a cleaned-up early-Nineteenth century original, plus a number of finials.

The notion of glass fibre battlements might sound like heresy, but in fact it makes very good sense – and is indicative of a major turning point in the thinking of English Heritage. Previously, with regard to Listen buildings, English Heritage has insisted – understandably, many would say – that during restoration work materials must be replaced like-for-like. Thus, as the battlements at the Abbey were originally made of stone, the replacements must be too.

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A first template goes into place, creating a line which the crenellation will follow

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The hollow forms are completed in wood (four photos above) . . .

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The GRP mouldings fit over the wooden formers; this is – as you can see – a right hand piece

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It will be an easy and quick job to secure the battlements in place

Making the point for this approach, the architectural conservator Douglas Kent has written, “To William Morris and the other founders of the SPAB [Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings], the value of an old building lay in its physical fabric. To them, an old building was more than simply the sum of its constituent parts. It had the ability to excite memory and anticipation, serving as a physical manifestation of the past and a potential source of influence on the future. The sheer antiquity of the building, the accumulated evidence of how it had changed over time and the patina of age and weathering of its surfaces were considered to be of the utmost importance. Surviving fabric was finite and, once destroyed, could never be retrieved.

“While, therefore, a whole variety of values needs to be taken into consideration, and some subjective judgements must be made when planning work to a building, it is the value of the fabric that should remain of primary significance. The retention of genuine historic fabric and the avoidance of misleading restoration will allow present and future generations to interpret the significance for themselves in their own way and on the basis of physical evidence.”

There were always subtle problems with the like-for-like philosophy though; some of the gothick details on the house which appeared to be stone never in fact were. Elements such as the ‘stone’ finials were in fact cheaply made in wood, and never had a good chance of passing the tests of time and the weather. Similarly, the exterior facing of the Abbey, which looked like stone, was far from it; it was a tiny wash of ashlar over a poor lath-and-plaster base. It was inscribed geometrically to make it look like stone blocks – and those incisions were in fact the best workmanship on the facades. It would have been ludicrous (and impossibly expensive) to have insisted that all the exterior walls been faced with new stone just because they looked as if they had been for two centuries.

It may also be that past builders simply got it wrong. The ashlar façade of the Abbey is not weight-supporting; all the structural weight is borne by the Tudor timber frame. Over the decades and centuries this has buckled, as one would expect, but the extra weight on its roof-line created by stone battlements and other details would simply have been too great a weight for the Sixteenth century timber-work. It could be argued that extra supports, intrusive and very certainly inappropriate would have been required. It is certainly true that less weight on the timber structure is a good thing.

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Stone or GRP?

The other important factor is the development of new materials and techniques. If the early-Nineteenth century builders had been able to make the battlements and other details in glass fibre then they most certainly would have done so. There was never any suggestion of them having a military and defensive role; having to withstand cannon fire and shelter musketeers!

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A GRP finial ready to go into place on the roof-line. In stone this would need several man to life it; in GRP you can put it under your arm and walk round with it

The fact that suppliers can make, colour and texture materials such as glass fibre as exactly as they can is an argument in itself. Even from close up (and they are about fifty feet off the ground) the glass fibre work on the Abbey will be indistinguishable from the original stone. It is now possible to restore even Grade I Listed buildings such as Combermere Abbey without the insistence on like-for-like materials, and without comprising either the authenticity or integrity of the structure and its setting.

Innovative Composites can boast of more than thirty years of experience in handling a massive range of such work; this might be the first time that they have re-created battlements (their nearest work to dare is probably new components for York Minster, the Tower of London, and Brighton Pier), but their range to date includes a lot of architectural work, as well as marine, automotive and furnishing commissions. They offer a complete consultancy service, initiating projects from scratch. Many items they manufacture are on-offs; in other cases they may create thousands.

Every aspect of their design and build process is in-house at their factory in Newhaven, between Brighton and Eastbourne on the Sussex coast. From on-screen design and design documentation all concepts can be visualised in 3-D. This is then followed by material selection, and a full costing, before the actual manufacturing of the components. Not exactly how the masons worked at Combermere two hundred years ago.

Glass Fibre – now known correctly as GRP, for Glass Reinforced Plastic – was developed by the War Ministry during the Second World War. It was light, strong, easily and cheaply moulded, and very durable, and it soon found a role in many industries. Designers loved it; it gave them the ability to make complex curves without ant loss or strength, and objects could be turned out singly or in huge numbers. Throughout the Sixties in particular it was very much seen as the material of the future, and on television it graced many editions of ‘Tomorrows’ World’.

A composite is a general term applied to reinforced plastics, but in the case of GRP it is glass fibres reinforcing a plastic layer, hence GRP (glass reinforced plastics). Different types of fibre can be used such as carbon and Aramid but the most common applications employ the use of glass fibre. The plastic is thermosetting, most often polyester or vinylester, but other plastics like epoxy are also used. Fibreglass can be applied to a multitude of uses due to its unique properties and is both stiff and strong in tension and compression.

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New GRP battlement cappings from Innovative Composites waiting to be unwrapped and put in place

One great advantage of fibreglass is that although it can be painted any colour, it can also be ‘self-coloured’, which means that the colour is introduced into the resin mix before the moulding is filled. Thus the colour goes all the way through the item in question, so if it is scratched the scratch doesn’t show because the colour does not change. The colour for the Abbey’s crenellation was “dirtied up a bit” to be a good match with the surrounding stone-work. GRP can be given any finish or texture to resemble almost any other material. The GRP can also be treated to almost completely avoid weathering or any other degradation.

The New Crockets Built by Mike Merrill

Mike Merrall of Innovative Composites with the crenellation toppings and finials for the Abbey’s roofline

The materials used at the Abbey over the last nine hundred years have included stone, wood, brick and ironwork – and now we can add Glass Reinforced Plastic to that list.

Combermere north wing archive 001

The original crenellation on the north wing (with the Wellington wing, now demolished, to the right of the photo – as seen in an Edwardian postcode