The team working to preserve the future of The Vyne

The Print Room at The Vyne, one of many historic rooms at risk from the leaking roof

The Print Room at The Vyne, one of many historic rooms at risk from the leaking roof - Credit: Archant

Once visited by Henry VIII and home to a Lord Chamberlain and a Commons Speaker, The Vyne has had a colourful life. But it is decaying and action is being taken to fix that. Susie Kearley meets the team raising the roof to preserve its future

It always pays to ensure the roof is watertight and in good repair to keep those treasured possessions beneath safe from harm. When said treasures belong to the nation and encompass a broad sweep of our history, then spending £5.4m on a ‘bit of roof work’ could be deemed a bargain.

That is the price tag for the huge and very necessary restoration project on the massive, medieval roof at The Vyne, once a great Tudor seat originally built in the 1520s for Lord Sandys, King Henry VIII’s Lord Chamberlain.

The grand old house has seen many changes over the years, including the demolition of almost two thirds of the building and later additions and its fortunes have ebbed and flowed with those of its successive owners.

What remains though is still spectacular and, from a heritage perspective, irreplaceable. So keeping the historic contents dry and well preserved is essential.

This is a house that echoes with history and one that was clearly popular with Henry VIII, who visited in 1510 with his first wife Catherine of Aragon. He returned in 1535 with second wife Anne Boleyn on his Royal Progress and the couple were said to have been very happy during their stay, although that clearly didn’t last long as he had her beheaded in May the next year, with The Vyne connection following her to the scaffold as she was escorted by Lord Sandys.

The English Civil War did for the fortunes of Lord Sandys and the house was sold on to Chaloner Chute, Speaker of The House of Commons. It remained in the Chute family until 1956, when the cost of maintaining the property proved too much and it was bequeathed to the National Trust.

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What they got was a treasure trove of history, including Tudor interiors and a stunning pre-Reformation chapel complete with a stained glass window featuring old Henry himself. They also got a building riddled with problems; leaky, damp and poorly maintained. Severe storms in 2014 were the last straw, tearing through the estate and damaging the roof, walls, chimney and parapets. Fast forward to today and the man responsible for restoring the roof and preserving all that history is general manager Stuart Maughan. No pressure there then.

One ambitious project was completed last year when the glorious stained glass windows in the chapel were restored. Now it’s onto the roof and work is well underway, using a combination of modern technology and traditional materials to ensure this is a job that is both sympathetic and long lasting.

Stuart says: “The problem with the roof was originally identified six or seven years ago, but it was not considered urgent at the time.” Those 2014 storms changed all that and he says action had to be taken as water seeped into gaps and voids where the original Tudor building met 17th century extensions.

“There was a real risk of losing both the house and the historic collections inside,” says Stuart. “We commissioned a feasibility study, with costings, to make the house watertight, and drew up plans to put everything right. It wasn’t as simple as taking the tiles off – major structural work was needed because the problem was widespread. Books were moved out of the library because of water coming through the roof. Tapestries were moved out. Many items were moved away from where water was coming in.

Restoration work began in autumn last year, with the still imposing house being wrapped in a protective tent, allowing contractors to get cracking on the crumbling roof, chimneys and parapets whatever the weather. Such is the importance of the project that archaeologists work alongside the contractors at all times.

“By January, we had a new exhibition on the ground floor, of ‘moving tapestries’, music and incense, transporting visitors back to 1535, during the reign of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn,” says Stuart. The first floor is closed while the conservation work takes place, but people can inscribe a clay tile with their name, to support the (ongoing) fundraising.”

Best of all, there is a 360 degree rooftop walkway offering a close up view of the restoration work as well as stunning views across the estate. Not surprisingly, it has proved very popular.

Stuart says: “People are watching our workmen take the chimneys down, replace the tiles, and rebuild or repair parapets and chimneys. Some visitors, especially those interested in engineering and construction, return to see the progress that’s been made. It helps tell the story in a really visual way.

“Some of the trusses date back to Tudor times and despite their age, they’re in good condition – the plaster’s in good nick too, but we do wonder what the builders will find as they work on the roof, because once you start to take the tiles off, you often expose more problems. We have put some money aside for contingencies. It’s a massive job, involving lots of contractors, but we hope to have it all finished and watertight by Christmas.”

The project should be finished by March next year, but even then there is more work to be done, says Stuart: “The Tudor buildings are over 500 years old. They’ve settled and are wonky, because the foundations move naturally. Even the outer buildings are 300 to 400 years old. When they fail, repairs can be a major job and quite expensive because they’re Grade I listed, so you have to log and record each brick, and put it back in place. Everything’s so old, it does pose challenges.

“We monitor how well we’re preserving the property and produce an annual spreadsheet of work that needs doing, which helps us plan ahead. It’s hard to do everything you want to do, but the next project will be restoration of tapestries, which are 220 years old. It costs about £350,000 to conserve six tapestries. We’ve got some money lined up for this, but we need to raise more funds. Other parts of the building need work too – the brew house, the stable yard – there are lots of areas we could work on, but we have to prioritise and review the situation every year.”

Inside, the ground floor has become a temporary home for various collections shunted out by the closure of the first floor. But even though there is one less floor to see, there is still plenty to capture the imagination, says Stuart.

“The new exhibitions in three rooms on the ground floor are fascinating. There’s a collection of porcelain, ceramics, mirrors, lighting and chairs. Visitors follow the story of King Henry VIII when he came to The Vyne in 1535. There was a nasty plague in London, so he headed for the countryside, visiting friends. The exhibition tells the story of what happened while he was here. It was a lively period in history, with lots going on. People were losing their heads and a lot of people didn’t like what the King was doing with the churches.

“We needed help understanding what it would have been like when 800 people descended upon The Vyne, for jousting, feasting and other social events and celebrations, so we’ve been working with Oxford University to get it right. The King held business meetings at The Vyne too, and was reported to be very happy at this time with Anne (despite having just met Jane Seymour), so the exhibition explores this story. Visitors can also learn what happened in a Lady Mass Ceremony and admire the newly restored chapel windows.

“Another exhibition looks at The Vyne’s Victorian owner, William Wiggett Chute, who took up residence in 1842 and put most of his wealth into saving it from falling into disrepair. He lived a modest lifestyle so that he could afford to maintain the house, preserving it for future generations.”

Stuart is clearly proud of the success of the stained glass restoration. “It is the finest in the National Trust’s care and considered to be among the most beautiful 16th-century glass in Europe. It features King Henry VIII, his sister Margaret, and first wife Catherine of Aragon, together with their patron saints. When condensation gradually began to eat away at the windows, causing pitting and corrosion, the glass was removed for conservation and re-fitted with state-of-the-art protective isothermal glazing. The project was a huge job, with the practical conservation work taking seven months, and the review and assessment two years. It’s nice to be able to welcome people to see the completed work in the chapel while the next stage of restoration takes place.”

Even in these straitened times, the millions being invested in The Vyne has to be good value for anyone who believes in keeping our heritage alive and accessible.

This is a grand house in so many ways and unique too. After all, where else would you be allowed to stroll around on the roof?

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