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THE RENOVATION OF 5-9 CHURCH STREET

By Brendan and Emma Henry

Our journey started back in 2008 when we purchased No.9 and in 2016 had an opportunity to buy No.5&7 which had already been converted to one property by the previous owners Mr & Mrs Lewis. It was always our intention to return the house back to its original state and create an amazing family home, which has been achieved. 
I’ll share this journey with you, to hopefully give an idea of its complexity, and to some extent, justify why the scaffolding was up for so long!! 
I have broken it down into sections similar to the sequence of the project, starting with an assumed timeline of the property, explain the starting point and why the structure so desperately needed repairing. Then I’ll talk through each of the major restoration steps, namely: repairing the timber frame, repairing the walls and replastering. 
I have also included a kind of time lapse of the stair turret, as that was a fascinating process which tells the story quite well. And finally, ending off with some interesting discoveries and facts learned along the way.

5-9 Church Street: About

TIMELINE

I wish I could share with you the exact history of this interesting house, but our journey has involved a lot of research, many subject matter experts, professionals and genuinely interested people. And not everyone has the same opinion of why and how the property has evolved over time.  So I will share with you what we believe to be the most credible based on professional views,  census records  and the local community.

1634: The house, a timber framed vernacular building was built around 1634, and is likely to have been built as a farmhouse made from locally sourced materials. The timber frame is primarily oak, with wattle and daub in-fill panels under a clay tile roof. The house is divided into 3 structural bays, each approx. 13 x 13ft in size, including a ground floor room, middle parlour (room) on the 1st floor and an attic room at the top. There would have been a steep stair case to the east and west of the house, one of which remains to this day and is still used. 


Early 1800’s: Around this time, the house was likely to have been divided into 3 tenancies, with a central stair turret built at the back to access No.7. the divisions were made along the structural bays, providing a ground floor room, middle parlour, and attic room for each property. A central chimney would have served 4 open fires to No.5&7


1850: A lean-to style roof was extended to cover the open yard between No.7&9, creating a scullery. Outside toilets were likely to have been built around this time, although these are no longer there. By this time, the property would have multiple families living cheek-by-jowl, putting a lot of stress on the building’s fabric, and subsequent neglect. 


1871: An extension was added to No.9 which by now was operating as a butcher shop, run by Robert Slack and family. Separate families lived in No.5&7. A total of 16 people would have been living across all 3 properties.


1926: All 3 cottages as well as No.3 were purchased by a Charles Wallis who had grown up in No.5. It was around this time that No.9 was now operating as a sweet shop, and some people in the village have shared with us their experiences and told us of a small bell they used to ring to get the owners attention. The bell is still there, as well as all the little drawers that contained the stock. A bathroom was built to the rear of No.5 and all 3 properties were connected to the sewers. 

1946: No.5&7 were purchased by Peter & Joan Lewis, who joined the 2 together.  

2016: We purchased 5&7 and began planning its restoration to the original state. Work began in December 2019 and took 3½ years to complete. The house now has a modest 4 occupants and a dog. 

5-9 Church Street: Text

STRUCTURAL DAMAGE

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The overall condition of No.5&7 was very poor, as there had been many unsympathetic repairs made over time, using unsuitable materials. A thick layer of modern cement render and masonry paint had been applied externally, creating an impermeable layer which trapped moisture inside the building. This moisture would have been absorbed by the daub and also the timber frame, which were unable to dry out. Modern paint and gypsum plaster used internally exacerbated this problem, and the timber frame suffered severely. The sole plate had all but rotted away and in places, the posts had stared to disintegrate.

I am sure that as Church Street evolved over time, the outside ground level became higher than the internal floor level, which added to the moisture problems.  
If left to decay in this manner, the frame would have eventually failed resulting in serious damage to the structure. I can only assume those who applied the cement render felt they were doing good for the building by providing additional strength, although we know this is not correct.

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Where the daub had failed, it had been replaced with a mixture of inappropriate materials, such as bricks, blocks and plasterboard, further exacerbating the problem. There was a point in time, where parts of the structure was held up with Acro props, which were released slowly once the each new section had settled.

5-9 Church Street: Activities

STRUCTURAL REPAIRS

Repairs were carried out carefully by hand, bay at a time, to prevent unnecessary disruption or further damage to the house. We lived in No.9 throughout the works, which made it more challenging, particularly for Emma who worked from home. 

The cement render was removed to expose the framework, which was then cleaned up and assessed to determine where new oak needs to be spliced onto the original posts. Scissor joints or scarf joints were used to make these joints.  We endeavoured to retain the maximum amount of original timber, and it was surprising to see just how strong old oak is, within its core.  Where new timber was used, it was mainly green oak.

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A new brick plinth was laid to carry the new sole plate, to which each new section of post was joined using a mortise and tenon joint. 

As the ground level is still higher than the internal level, a French drain was installed to prevent surface water pooling and ensure trapped water is able to drain away without compromising the timber frame.

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5-9 Church Street: Activities

WALL REPAIRS & PLASTERING

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Where existing daub was still intact and sound,  every effort was made to keep this in position, but where it had failed or blown, typically because of wattle that had rotted as a result of the moist environment, this had to be removed. This old daub was eventually reinvigorated through the application of water and chopped straw, some more mud, clay and in our case a fair amount of Labrador hair, to create the replacement daub.

To support this daub when positioned within the timber frame as infill panels, freshly cut hazel sticks were used, while the sap was still present as this ensured it could be easily worked into a lattice position without cracking.

Timings didn’t always line up perfectly, which meant the hazel sticks had to be tied in place in a vertical position. The daub was then applied to each side of the panel, to create the wall. The entire project was messy, but this may be the messiest them all! 

For ceilings and attic rooms, we used reed as that provides better insulation and can be plastered over directly. When these materials started to arrive, I thought back to the traditional building techniques where I grew up, in South Africa, and they aren’t too dissimilar, apart from the costs!

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Internally, where the oak frame was to be plastered over, riven oak laths were attached to the frame using stainless steel fixings. Riven laths, as apposed to sawn laths, are traditional timber laths hand cut from oak, which facilitate a better key for the plaster to attach to.  

Three coats of lime plaster was then applied, one scratch coat, one float coat and a final top coat which was smoothed out as the final surface. Timing was everything here, as lime plaster requires much longer between coats to dry. It tales approximately 1 day per mm of plaster to dry, and in places, a single coat could be up to 30mm thick.

We needed to ensure the front elevation was the same texture and finish as it was, so we used a lime mortar, mixed with 5mm stone and small amounts of pozzolan. This was to be applied with a harling trowel to achieve the desired finish, known as a rough cast. This proved very difficult, and the first attempt didn’t quite work, as it was difficult to get a consistent application depth with the stone.

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So the plasterer, who is incredibly experienced with lime and its various methods of application, decided that desert spoons were needed. So, the entire front elevation was plastered with dessert spoons, in a flicking action! I thought this was a hard few days’ work, until it came to painting.  The plaster was protected with hessian which we wet-up a few times each day for about a week, to prevent it from drying out too quickly and to limit cracking. The plastering process took about 12 months to complete, although there is a fair amount of drying time built into that.

5-9 Church Street: Activities

THE STAIR TURRET

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The stair turret, not our terminology, but that of the architects and historians that have been involved, is an additional part of the building that houses a set of wooden stairs to each floor. 

We had naively thought this part of the house was structurally sound, but it became clear that the structure had failed in multiple places, again because of a thick layer of cement render and gypsum plaster board internally. There were iron ties which held the upper sections together, although hidden beneath layers of plasterboard.

We had to re-apply for listed building consent to carefully remove and repair the damaged areas but needed to support the remaining part of the timber frame. 

To do this safely, a set of steel goalposts was erected to take the weight of everything above the point of structurally sound framing, whilst work on the new sole plate and damaged timbers could be completed safely. The cement render was removed, along with the damaged daub panels and roof tiles to reduce weight.

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We also decided to get the year of restoration pargeted into the internal plaster. From that moment on, the clock was counting down!

During this time, a section of the lean-to roof was repaired and adjusted to accommodate 2 roof lights. The walls were then rebuilt and plastered, leaving the timber frame exposed internally.

5-9 Church Street: Activities

WINDOWS & DOORS

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The front facing fenestration has remained as it has been for the last few centuries, although it’s likely the glazing and windows would have changed over time. We know this because we have uncovered 2 windows which we believe to be original. One of which still has the wrought iron casement with leaded lights, set within an oak, and traditional ironmongery that resembles monkey-tail window furniture.

The other window only has the oak frame with iron mullions but is very solid in its build. We had considered restoring this and using it at the rear of the property, where one window was irreparably damaged. But it would have been a disproportionate amount of money and ultimately, the original character would have been lost.

For the new window at the rear, the exact dimensions were used from those at the front of the house, to recreate a like for like match. This was glazed with mouth blown cylinder glass, which provides a warm, refracted light and is beautiful to look at

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All the internal doors are traditional brace and ledge style cottage doors, of planked construction. Some of which appear to be original but modified over time, as the property has evolved.  Many layers of lead-based paints had to be stripped back, but they have come up really well and the different types of wood can now be seen on every door. These are mainly pine, but the older doors appear to be oak and elm.

For the sunroom, which was a modern extension, a set of hardwood bi-fold doors has been installed – these were supplied by Kloeber and fortunately, offer excellent U-values. Which cant be said for the rest of the doors and windows!

The sunroom with the bi-fold doors open.

5-9 Church Street: Activities

INTERESTING DISCOVERIES & FACTS

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Whilst restoring the fireplaces, the builders came across 3 large stone pieces above each mantle, that were being used as structural support for the chimney. These rubble stones could be seen very clearly inside the chimney space and externally, where the plaster had failed. This was possibly our favourite discovery as the stonework had some really intricate carvings of oak leaves, which were definitely not meant to be displayed – it was clear they were purely for structural purposes because of how they were positioned. 

This led to much speculation, but our conclusion is that these were rescued from Buckden Palace, which was being refurbished between 1625 – 1642. What is really fascinating though, is that there is still a pile of stone rubble between the Church and the Towers, as there is in most larger historical building, and we could identify some of the same stone with very similar carvings!

Another discovery was some wall art and a few of the rooms. It is not in good condition and had been damaged over time by various layer of paint and / or repair work. The art was a painted decoration, possibly from the 17th century and the only remaining evidence is a blue/black plain scheme, which incorporates a type of drop pendant in the design. This type of wall art could often help establish room hierarchy, but in our case, there was insufficient evidence to support any theories. It is however, protected for future generations behind a lime plastered wall, which was off set so as not to come into contact with the original daub wall.

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There are many examples of taper-burn marks on the wooden frame, thought to have been caused by candles. Intentionally or by accident, I think there is much debate on this subject, but they are commonplace in old buildings and can be found in many places too, in the Towers.

When the BLHS group came round last year, Barry Jobbling noted the wooden cover of the old copper – which is a traditional washing space that would offer constant hot water by using hot embers from an adjacent fire, heating up the copper basin above. 
There were some really faint markings on this wooden cover, but when wiped with a wet cloth, became more visible. Barry went away and did some research, which confirmed this cover was likely to have been a wedding cake base, made by W&G Buszard, est. 1840 of 197 & 199 Oxford Street, London.

5-9 Church Street: Activities

SUMMARY

Whilst it has been incredibly frustrating at times, we have all learned such a lot about traditional building techniques and now have a much better appreciation of these methods, and history in general. We have picked up many new skills along the way, which will be helpful as we continue to improve and maintain our beautiful house. 

If I can, a final word of thanks to our children Cara and Zack, who have put up with building works for the best part of 3 years. I wish I could say they were very supportive, but that just wouldn’t be true! And our neighbours, Maggie and Ian, and the local community who have shown such interest and appreciation for what we have done throughout the process and tolerating the scaffolding that blighted their village for the best part of 2 years. It just reminded us of the importance of getting it right, as it felt like 5-9 Church Street is not only our house, but part of it belongs to the local community. 

5-9 Church Street: Text
5-9 Church Street: Pro Gallery
5-9 Church Street: Pro Gallery
5-9 Church Street: Pro Gallery
5-9 Church Street: Pro