From dereliction to destination
Alice Yates looks at the restoration and renaissance of Clavell Tower and the Chantry
Published in October ’11
Dorset’s architecture is centred on domesticity; its modest manor houses designed for genteel living rather than ostentatious grandeur. Its towns host abbeys and churches rather than soaring cathedrals. Many of these historic buildings are either privately owned, or in the care of English Heritage, the National Trust or the Church of England. Two of Dorset’s most iconic buildings though, The Chantry in Bridport and Clavell Tower, which overlooks Kimmeridge Bay, are cared for by a very different sort of custodian. Clavell Tower was rescued by the Landmark Trust, and the Chantry was restored by the Vivat Trust.
Yet Clavell Tower’s perilous position next to the cliff edge and with crumbling Kimmeridge shale beneath it, made even the Landmark Trust think twice. The three-storey tower has stood prominently on the Smedmore Estate, overlooking the jagged cliffs of Kimmeridge Bay since 1830. It was originally built as an observatory and folly by the Rev. John Richards Clavell and fell into disrepair in the 1930s after it ceased to be used by coast guards as a lookout post. As the Dorset folly chosen to illustrate one of Shell’s great British landmark posters, designed by Paul Nash in 1937, it would have been a tragedy to have lost it to the sea.
The Landmark Trust was approached by the Smedmore Estate, who still retain the freehold, and the Clavell Tower Trust, in a desperate bid to help them save the tower. The only way to make it safe was to move it, a practice the conservation field has never been confident about. (Despite the recent success of the relocation of the Belle Tout lighthouse on Beachy Head in 1989, English Heritage were nervous about allowing the relocation.) Permission was finally granted, as long as every piece of the building was numbered. The relocation, 25 metres back from the cliff edge, was a success, and the tower’s romantic composition – a colonnade of Tuscan columns with a parapet punctured by quatrefoils and external cantilevered steps – was secured.
The approach to the restoration was conservative; stonework was reused as found and replaced only where absolutely necessary. Lost joinery details were reconstructed based on remnants in the tower, on the building accounts that survive at Smedmore House, or on details of pieces from the same period found in the Brooking’s architectural collection. Domestic accommodation for two has been cleverly shoe-horned into the tower, offering an atmospheric retreat with fabulous views of the jagged coastline and sinewy hills. Its unmanicured setting is completely appropriate, the sheep one’s only companions.
The Chantry in contrast stands proud on the south side of Bridport, enveloped by recent developments. Its restoration and re-use is the triumphant result of a partnership between the Vivat Trust and West Dorset District Council. And, as the oldest secular building in the town, it is one that inspires great local pride in those who live near it. The building dates from the 13th century, and its unusual height, along with the presence of a projecting stone on the south side of the building, thought to have supported a flaming torch, has made some think it could have been a lighthouse. It became a domestic dwelling in the mid-14th century, when it housed a priest who sang masses for the inhabitants. The top floor was used as a pigeon loft at one time and the perching holes can still be seen.
The last tenant moved out in the 1970s and apart from repairs to the roof, no maintenance work had been carried out since the late 19th century. The Vivat Trust took a lease from the council in 1986, by which time it was in a severe state of disrepair. The council continued to operate a museum on the ground floor until 2002, when Vivat installed a kitchen on this level within the 14th-century fireplace, and made extra bedroom space on the first floor. Here too, the approach to the repair and conversion of the building was conservative; the building’s plan and fabric being left completely intact whilst providing comfortable accommodation for five, with two modern bathrooms.
Both the Landmark Trust and the Vivat Trust operate as building preservation trusts, often known as trusts of last resort. They convert derelict old buildings, stepping in when a commercial developer or a private owner might be deterred by the market value of the saved building after the high costs of restoring it. The Landmark Trust was set up in 1965 by Sir John Smith and now has 190 buildings in its portfolio, including four in Italy and three in France. It was set up with an endowment although it now raises money for each project from the Heritage Lottery Fund, English Heritage and grant giving trusts and foundations. Today, it employs approximately 70 members of staff, excluding housekeepers.
The Vivat Trust is much smaller and was set up by two young scholars from the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB), and without a penny to its name, in 1977. It too raises money for the properties it rescues, from grant-giving trusts and foundations, and from English Heritage and the Heritage Lottery Fund. It has just three full-time members of staff, one part-time and a team of housekeepers and gardeners. Its portfolio consists of just 25 buildings. Historically, the main difference between the two organisations is that Vivat negotiates a lease from a private owner. It was the first charity to be given permission by the charity commissioners to do so, whilst the Landmark Trust prefers to purchase a property. There are exceptions to the rule though, and increasingly Landmark is entering into leasehold arrangements. And rather than compete against each other, both charities remain certain that there are enough architecturally intriguing buildings ripe for rescue, and even pass buildings on to each other.
There are about 300 building preservation trusts across the UK, all working to find new uses for derelict historic buildings. Their work is usually firmly rooted in their community, often founded by volunteers concerned about a local building. The Vivat Trust and the Landmark Trust are different in that they work across the UK and operate with paid conservation professionals at the helm. And both Trusts specialise in providing holiday accommodation.
Holiday use provides everyone with the opportunity to stay in these buildings, and to experience their historic atmosphere. What could be perceived as inconvenient features in an old building – lack of storage, tight staircases, small windows – become charming quirks rather than the irritant they might, if one were to live in them year round. The income generated from the lettings is used to cover running costs and maintenance expenses, preventing the building from falling into disrepair again. The properties also create part-time local jobs, with the housekeepers providing an essential link between the building and the head offices. Open Days are held at the properties every year, and at Clavell Tower, an imaginative schools project was developed with the tower and its history as the focus.
Staying in a historic holiday property is a fun way to learn about the past, and crucially, it provides an income to ensure that future repairs can be paid for. It makes a building accessible, not just as a holiday destination but to all members of the public. The conversion of these buildings enhances the tourist industry and enriches the lives of those who live near them. Clavell Tower and the Chantry might be modest buildings but it only takes a quick flick through the visitor’s book to be reminded that their rescue is deeply appreciated and that the impact is far-reaching.
pic 1 W Sweeney/Landmark Trust
pic 2 J Miller/Landmark Trust
pic 3 T Richards
pic 4 T Richards
pic 5 T Richards