Sunday, 24 June 2012

My back passage

I thought I'd give you an update on the nearby development of the complex of buildings and the developer's plans, recently submitted to the planning department here in Bath.

In the old days, I would have had to wander over to a council office to look at the drawings, but now, of course, I can just bring them up on the screen - one of the truly beneficial results of the digital age.

There would seem to be many potential benefits to the development too, which - as the archaeological report on the site which has been commissioned and published - far outweigh any negative impact.  I am impressed with the thoroughness of the reports - which include a bat-survey - and reading them has actually enlightened me about the historical significance of my own back yard, helped by the reproduction of medieval maps etc. which I have been trying to get hold of for some time.

This post may seem irrelevant to anyone not living in the area (or even in this area of Bath) but I am trying to make it count to anyone who is faced with the prospect of how to deal with the potential destruction or mindless alteration of their historical architectural environment and, after all, Bath - being a World Heritage Site - sort of belongs to everyone, and it's Council are simply stewards whilst in office.

This post boils down to one major point:  that the old things which survive, survive for two reasons only - from simple neglect because nobody actually cares about them, and from the right sort of attention when people do.

The above photograph of the medieval lane which goes down to the river behind our gaff - the walls of which are made up of blocked-in 17th century dwellings - absolutely reeks of neglect, and this is why it has survived almost intact for over 300 years.  The lane itself used to lead down to a ferry (?) across the river, but was blocked off by the Georgians who built the nearby Pulteney Bridge and no longer had the need for a ferry - or so the archaeologists say in their report.  Everyone refers to this lane (even in the drawings) as 'Slippery Lane', because the original pennant slabs of the pathway have built up a thick layer of algae as a result of being virtually untrodden and hidden from the sunlight for about 300 years.  The lane goes nowhere, now that all the doors and windows are blocked off and the doors which still work and back onto it remain locked and unopened, even in dire emergency.

The real name of this passage (which follows the line to the outside of the original medieval city wall) is 'Ducking-Stool Lane', but this has been all but forgotten since A: access to the river has been blocked; and B: we are no longer permitted to half-drown witches and cuckolds unless they are suspected of unspecified crimes which fall within the area covered by the Terrorism Act.

Anyway, the lane is about to get a make-over, and I am deeply relieved to find out that this doesn't include a heightening of the 19th century roof-line which is only a matter of feet from our kitchen window.  We have lived in the compact but adorable city apartment for about 40 years now without being directly overlooked by anyone, and I would hate to start having to draw curtains at our time of life.

You may remember when - a couple of years ago - the original owners of the buildings put up scaffold around the exposed gable-end of a 17th century building which forms the abutment to a large, flat roof, and I alerted the conservation department of the council to the possibility that the 'roofers' where just about to bugger up the 300 year-old stonework with Ordinary Portland Cement.

A visit was made to the site, and I received an email from a council official who informed me that the workers were simply repairing the slate roof, and were not doing anything wrong.  One day later, one of the roofers 're-pointed' the entire structure of stonework with virtually neat, grey Portland Cement which was so liquid that it actually ran down the walls in rivulets.  I actually witnessed him using a paint-brush at one stage.

I sent a set of 'before and after' photos to the official, telling him that this was precisely what I had warned him about, but now it was too late to stop it.  I received no reply.

The company that is now developing the site is called 'Future Heritage' and they are - by far - the best property development business to have ever worked in the Bath area, and have carried out many sympathetic developments on key sites in the city, whilst remaining highly successful in their field.  The other advantage is that they are actually based in Bath, so take great care in preserving what is - after all - their own home environment, unlike many London based companies in the past, who have tried to make a quick buck, then buck off back to London leaving us with some ghastly eye-sores which are so notorious that they have come close to losing the prestigious 'World Heritage' status which was hard-won by the likes of characters such as Charlie Ware, etc. in the early 1970s, when the then council was finally stopped in the middle of a spree of demolition which began in the mid-1960s.

So all I am going to say Future Heritage is 'good luck' and PLEASE make sure you employ a team of people who understand and know how to use proper lime-mortar when repairing and conserving the little bit of 17th century architecture that the Georgians left behind.

Having been in the business for about 35 years, I can point them in the right direction if they ask me to...


  1. Start a 'Consultancy'. T S & Co; Architectural and Heritage Consultancy. You'd make a fortune!

    1. Believe me, I have thought about it Cro, but I think I would encounter some stiff opposition from the likes of the UKIC and major developers - not to mention Bath City Council, whose heads are permanently rammed up the fundaments of anyone who is willing to contribute to their already over-flowing chamber-pot of gold.

  2. Quite agree about old things surviving because of neglect...we found a renaissance house in a back alley of a French country town that was totally neglected but, apart from the uusual vandalism, pretty intact.

    The problems came when wanting to restore it!

    We'd researched the history, presented our plans to the Architect de Batiments de France and then had an eighteen month battle to show that the crepi and ton pierre paint he insisted upon had been the idea of nineteenth century Italian masons who had migrated to the town and would not have been the facade of choice of the original builders.

    Won't say it turned my hair white but it didn't do much for my blood pressure.

    1. In this town, if someone is foolish enough to ask advice about taking out a 1960s green-tiled fire-surround and replacing it with a genuinely period 18th century marble one (at great personal expense), they instantly slap a preservation order on the 60s monstrosity and tell you that it must never be touched again - forever.

      In plain and simple terms, the conservation officers in Bath (and most other areas) are a bunch of ill-educated and power-crazed arseholes, and I don't mind if you quote me on that.

  3. Having read the title of your post today on my side bar, I was mightily relieved when the photograph appeared on your blog Tom I can tell you.
    Yes, planners have a lot to answer for and some of the so-called updating and alterations which are in keeping are far from it when they are finished. Glad that in this instance all seems to be well.

    1. I was just trying to compete with John in the 'attractive title' stakes, Weave.

      There are many other outside developers who deliberately flout the plans that have been approved, then wait for the inevitable 'retrospective' permission to be granted after it has all been done.

      The planners do, of course, have the powers to demand that the new work be demolished and re-done as per drawings, but - for some mysterious reason - hardly ever do.

      Changing the subject, have you noticed how expensive it is becoming to maintain your second home in southern Spain?

    2. Re the third paragraph in the above comment, a building company recently put up a sample-board of natural stone panels which they said they were going to use in a sensitive part of of the town.

      When the time came, they used concrete blocks, and when objections were made to the council, the council said that they had the power to change their mind on the choice of material by granting retrospective permission.

      See my next post for an absolutely perfect example of how our city elders treat this World Heritage Site. I was going to leave it till later, but I am so angry, I'm posting it tonight.