Our editor-at-large has been stepping back in time to visit a collection of amazing restoration projects.
What defines us as a country? Our national food? Our style of dress? Or our famous sense of humour? Well, I for one don’t think it’s pies, warm beer or Harris Tweed track pants. I think much of our national identity comes from our attachment to the past, our fondness for the traditional, our love of the old. And nowhere is this more magnificently expressed than in our love of Britain’s historically-built environment, bound up in the word ‘heritage’.
Of course, none of our genteel old places are here by accident. Like the human elderly, they have been nurtured and cajoled into the present and many still end up vulnerable and need saving and looking after. But like our ageing relatives, these buildings bring perspective on our world and can have great stories to tell.
Every year the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors gets out and judges the finest conservation and restoration projects in the land, and this year Channel 4 decided to broadcast the competition.
You may be a little confused. If you replace ‘Restoration’ with ‘House’ and ‘RICS’ with ‘RIBA’, you have the Channel 4 RIBA House of the Year award. But there are now two series, which is good. More architecture on television, more exemplary projects and more work for me.
Due to the vagaries of both print journalism (long lead times for my copy, so I’m writing this at the beginning of December) and television scheduling (nobody knows what is going to get broadcast or when until the day after it’s gone out!), I’m in the compromised position of not knowing whether you’ve seen the series yet.
It is co-presented with the brilliant buildings historian Anna Keay together with Marianne Suhr, whom I know for her great work with the SPAB (Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings), and the redoubtable Jonathan Foyle, a great architectural historian who should be doing more on television, though he might disagree. I don’t care; he’s too good.
So, we’ve crafted the series and given you a front-row seat to Restoration of the Year. We’ve been able to take you behind the curtain and the roped-off area, through the security barrier and past the sniffer dogs. And what have we found? Each nominee building on the long list (we filmed 28 of them, dating from the 12th to the 20th century) is a labour of love, craftsmanship, time and lots of money, funded by us through the lottery and government grants or donations by charities and individuals. You and I have paid for these glorious restorations, so we should enjoy them.
We should really get out, visit them and see, smell and touch them. And even listen to – first hand – these testaments to the romance of history, to witness the jaw-dropping quality of replacement stone carvings or repaired joinery; we should witness these great declarations of love, repositories of human energy and embodiments of talent as diverse as Hampton Court Palace, Art Deco shops and revitalised relics of the Industrial Age, all of which can bring the additional benefits of regenerating an area with focus, confidence and tourism.
It’s almost impossible to think – and I have to repeatedly remind myself – that restoration projects on this scale, where millions of pounds get spent, almost always start with just one or two people. Individuals who want to make a difference, start a campaign, persuade others to join, shake those in charge of the purse strings to loosen them a little. Drive the project.
Why do they do it? Sometimes out of a connection ‘You and I have paid for these glorious restorations, so we should enjoy them’ with a place and a pride for what it could be. Though so often they are individuals who understand nothing quite matches the experience of walking into a building that has been gently reinterpreted for our age, seeing it as though for the first time, and enjoying the awakening of the imagination that follows.
These people are great. They allow the rest of us to delight in that same experience of architecture, the chance to touch history and shiver just a little at the connection with all that genius and dedication embodied as a building. It is an opportunity to marvel.
Images: Darren Chung; Mark Luscombe-Whyte; Matt Chisnall