From Spence House to Heritage Trust for the North West

Spence House and St. Mark’s Church, Natland

Spence House is a beautiful Arts & Crafts house in Natland nr. Kendal. It has a special significance to the present day which I outline below.

The house lies close to St. Mark’s Church which was built in 1909-10 by the Lancaster architects, Austin & Paley. St. Mark’s is one of  Hubert Austin’s last designs and is listed Grade II*, i.e. it is an outstanding listed building.

St. Mark’s Church, Natland, Mr. Kendal, Cumbria – Photo: Alexander P. Kapp

Rev’d Canon Edward Miller

A young Rev’d Edward Miller commissioned the church in 1908. He subsequently spent the rest of his ministry there, an incredible 44 years altogether.

He built Spence House in 1948 as his retirement home. It was designed by Michael Bottomley, then working for Donald Haigh Architects. As the house was being built, Edward Miller invited his young grandson, John, to see it going up. The child was entranced by the wonder of the building.

Spence House – Google Street View

John MIller

This was the beginning of John Miller’s love of buildings, which was shaped by the Gothic of the church and the vernacular of the house. As John got older, Michael Bottomley taught him the fundamentals of architecture and John was to become one of the first building conservationists.

Two decades on from that childhood visit, Michael Bottomley and John worked together on John’s first conservation scheme. This involved restoring three vernacular structures at Twisleton’s Yard in Settle, North Yorkshire, something almost unheard of at the time. Twisleton’s Yard was one of the first conservation schemes in the country and all three buildings are now listed Grade II.

After Twisleton’s Yard, John threw himself full time into saving historic buildings. This was the time of the Civic Amenities Act 1967, which created conservation areas, and the public’s increasing rejection of wholesale redevelopment. From the 1970s to the present day, John set up a series of building preservation trusts and heritage centres across the North West. He established charitable trusts in Cumbria, Lancashire and Greater Manchester, as well as another in North Yorkshire. He was awarded the MBE for this pioneering work.

Saving the derelict Bank Hall, now completed, is John Miller’s most recent restoration project

Fifty years later, and with well over fifty buildings saved, John Miller continues to lead Heritage Trust for the North West, the amalgamation of his earlier trusts. It has been a privilege to volunteer alongside him and to learn something of how he operates. With Covid-19 severely hitting the Trust’s finances, John has raised over £1 million this year to address the fallout of the pandemic.

John Miller (centre) advising on the restoration of Bank Hall walled garden

Over the years, John has guided and defended the Trust as it’s leader and patron. He recently donated the Twisletons Yard properties to the Trust to mark the beginning of his life’s work. However, as this post reveals, the story goes back much further to when a small child visited his grandfather in Cumbria.

Victorian Society Visits Accrington

Yesterday, Gillian Berry, of Haworth Art Gallery, and I hosted the annual tour of the Victorian Society Northern Building Committee, which this year came to Accrington.

At Haworth Art Gallery

On the morning, Gillian showed our visitors around the Haworth Art Gallery which is located at Hollins Hill, a large Walter Brierley designed Arts & Crafts house. It has a super collection of nineteenth century paintings and the finest museum of Tiffany glassware in Europe.


One of the Tiffany vases on show

On the afternoon, we toured Accrington town centre which has a wonderfully coherent townscape and some great Regency, Victorian, Edwardian and Modern era architecture. Highlights were the Red Lion Coaching Inn, Accrington Market House, Riley’s Arcade, Peel Institute, now the Town Hall, and Accrington Carnegie Library.

H. G. Hillier designed Arts & Crafts stair window, J. & M. Wade designed art nouveau tiles and staircase ironwork at Accrington Carnegie Library.

We then looked around the just completed projects of the Accrington THI, where architects Dominic Roberts and Dino Kotlar showed off their wonderful restoration of The Exchange, with its extravagant two-storey shop front.

Francis Roberts Architects’ drawing of the restored Exchange

Everyone had a wonderful time!

Conserving a Great Building – Unusual heritage values

There are three earlier posts in this series. See…

Sometimes one needs courage in conservation because great buildings can lead those who conserve them to uncomfortable places.

The post-construction stories of great historic buildings usually involve the gradual removal of distinction and the slow erosion of individuality. The mundane begins to take over. Relatively recent buildings consciously created as works of art, such as those by the Arts & Crafts Movement or the Classical or Gothic Revival can suffer the most. Older structures have much more complex histories with many phases and are therefore somewhat different. Continue reading “Conserving a Great Building – Unusual heritage values”

Conserving a Great Building, Heritage statements

Originally a house called Hollins Hill, Haworth Art Gallery, Accrington was designed by the Arts & Crafts architect Walter Brierley (Photograph by Peter Graham)

Heritage statements, appraisals and significance studies when properly done are meant to guide architectural and conservation schemes of all types. Unfortunately, they are often researched and written after the designers have already designed the scheme! Getting clients and architects to hold back while the research is being done can be difficult. This is particularly true where a new use is involved and everyone rushes to the ‘end game’ of designing the alterations.

Some designers trust their instinct with historic buildings but I have found that a carefully researched heritage statement almost always adds to the appreciation of the heritage asset and sometimes can turn instinct on its head. Whether the case or not, undertaking a significance study after the key decisions have already been taken makes a nonsense of the significance led process.

By way of example, with one great building I worked on in Merseyside, the designers had instinctively decided that the significance lay in the building’s internal aesthetic value and the design was worked up accordingly. Later, when the significance statement was produced, it could be seen that the building’s true significance lay in its evidential values and very specific and pioneering layout. As a consequence, a less expensive more interesting intervention with less harm could have been created. By then it was too late… the design fee had been spent. On reflection, the design team had merely imposed their own prexisting opinions onto the historic building.

Appraisals require rigour, dedication and an open mind. The time-served procedure of three phases of work, ‘survey, analysis, plan’, is the right approach, perhaps rephrased as ‘research, appraise, conserve’. In the heyday of town planning and the creation of New Towns etc, great store was placed on orderly and somewhat mundane survey and analysis phases to guide the actual design. The late town planner, Nathaniel Lichfield, produced a whole book just on a sub-stage of this process, evaluating information, which became a standard text of the time. In present day architectural conservation, ‘conviction’ so often has the upper hand but a problem is that conviction is simply a mirror of the experience and prejudices of the persons involved. Conserving great buildings requires more than this. Despite my own personal experience and convictions, I generally come out of writing an appraisal with a different opinion than when I went into it.

Great buildings are multi-faceted and normally need several minds to fully understand them. The creators of great architecture were almost always of a greater stature than the conservators which caring for them (let us remember our place!). Conservation is therefore a team game involving study, sensitivity and a reflection on both the particular building and the artists who created it. Strong opinions based on poor research and analysis will obviously stymie intelligent and bespoke conservation, as will the imposition of generic responses such as, ‘The Victorians always did it this way’.

It takes time for the true significance of a building to grow in someone’s mind. On major buildings, there needs to be discussion and feedback of the team’s ideas into both the appraisal and conservation stages. It sounds structured but it often happens in a very organic way.

Previous post in this series – Conserving a Great Building, Restoration

Accrington THI – first shop restoration on site

Today, Accrington Townscape Heritage Initiative began conserving the town’s historic shops. This shop on Blackburn Road was built as a printers a few years after 1900 and now houses AYA, a firm of accountants.

As seen in the old photo, there was originally a sunblind which pulled out from behind the shop sign. The sign was rounded to accommodate the roller and the result cleverly emulates a classical pulvinated or ‘cushion’ frieze.

When the modern box sign was removed, we were delighted to find the timber frieze was still intact. It is beautifully joined to stone cushion friezes atop the pilasters at each end of the shop.

We exposed Edwardian paint layers which will be sampled before overpainting. By doing so on each THI project, we can build up a record of the various historic colours used on Accrington shops. The stone pilasters were overpainted brown followed by red and other colours. However, we could see smoke blackening beneath the brown paint indicating that the stone was not originally painted. We will therefore clean back to restore the original stone surface using Torc equipment.

Unfortunately, the underside of the cornice has almost completely eroded but there is just enough of the original moulding to create a template for new stone indents.

Other work includes further stone repair and a traditional styled replacement shop front.

The contract administrator is Craig Buck, IDC Architects, and the contractor is Rosslee Construction. Both are local Accrington firms.