Hardwick Old Hall holds arguably as much fascination as nearby Hardwick Hall. Janine learns how a vital restoration project is preserving it for the generations to come

Drawing on the most innovative techniques of 16th century craftmanship, including ornate plasterwork friezes, English Heritage’s Hardwick Old Hall has been recognized throughout the centuries as a masterpiece in Elizabethan architectural design.

It may be the neighbouring Hardwick Hall, located just a stone's throw away, which garners most interest - however the historic significance and beauty of the Old Hall should not be dismissed.

Built over 400 years ago to mirror the wealth and power of its influential owner Bess of Hardwick, and although now standing in stately ruin, the vast four-floored mansion retains an impression of dominance, with spectacular views extending through rolling fields and valley.

Following Bess’ death in 1608, and with the dismantle of the property during the 1750s, the Old Hall gradually fell into decline and became a ruinous shell; a shadow of its former self.

Great British Life: Hardwick Old Hall Photo: Jim Holden/English HeritageHardwick Old Hall Photo: Jim Holden/English Heritage

‘The site is also very exposed,’ explains English Heritage’s estates director Rob Woodside.

‘The ruins are four - and in places five - storeys high, without a roof to protect it from the elements. Over time, water ingress has caused damp, leading to the loss of plasterwork and detailed stonework.’

Such examples supported a case for vital and major conservation work and English Heritage began the project in April 2022.

‘We needed to better understand the condition of the building and develop the specification for repair, including the replacement of deteriorating window mullions, repointing the chimneys and rendering the external west front,’ he describes.

‘Although the pandemic held us back for a while, works to the main hall finished in November 2022.’

Originally covered in lime plaster as a means of protecting the structure, over time, only a few surviving patches remained.

Great British Life: Hardwick Old Hall is home to some of the rarest examples of Elizabethan plasterwork friezes in the country Photo: Jim Holden/English HeritageHardwick Old Hall is home to some of the rarest examples of Elizabethan plasterwork friezes in the country Photo: Jim Holden/English Heritage

‘We decided to render the west front as this was the most exposed section and in doing so are helping to protect the ornate Gog and Magog plasterwork fireplace from future deterioration,’ says Rob.

‘This conservation allows visitors once again to explore this extraordinary ruin and get up close to some of the finest ornate Elizabethan plasterwork in England.’

The complex project, Rob says, has only been possible through the involvement of many skilled operatives in craft and trade along with a joint effort between all parties involved.

‘We have hugely experienced project managers, historic property curators and building surveyors who understand the history of the building and the issues that needed to be addressed,’ he continues.

‘It’s been a real collaborative effort between English Heritage as client and our consultants and contractors as well as sharing specialist knowledge – including ecological advisers.’

As several species of bats nest were located in the building, Rob describes how this major conservation programme required careful work through limited ‘bat windows’ - certain times when they would be on site without disturbing them.

‘They’re now safe and happy back in their roosts,’ he adds, ‘even though their home can experience the extremities of weather due to its unsheltered location.’

Great British Life: Workers enjoy far-reaching views from up high Photo: Jim Holden/English HeritageWorkers enjoy far-reaching views from up high Photo: Jim Holden/English Heritage

A history of conservation

Having endured centuries of weathering due to its exposed position, and still featuring some of the rarest examples of Elizabethan plasterwork friezes in the country, Hardwick Old Hall has a history of conservation interest.

‘It is always fascinating when we deconstruct part of a building like this and discover something beneath the surface, says Stewart McKinstray, project manager of English Heritage’s intensive seven-month conservation project at the site.

‘This could be previous adaptions and improvements by craftsmen of the past, a small souvenir hidden hundreds of years ago or a method of construction we haven’t encountered before.’

With numerous interventions in the building’s conservation history, such as cementitious concrete added in the mid-20th century, the Old Hall’s story, Stewart feels, is as intriguing as it is varied.

Such interventions, he explains, have also presented certain challenges to the current project.

‘With a very old building like Hardwick Old Hall, the work is very time consuming,’ Stewart says.

‘We must carefully dismantle and undo the work of our predecessors from centuries ago to understand how the building was originally constructed.’

In many cases, examples such as the concrete addition have served a purpose in keeping the building standing as we currently know it.

‘This particular example does create some challenges,’ he adds.

‘Because of its inflexible nature and strength, it is much harder than the surrounding sandstone and lime mortar - this causes accelerated deterioration of the surrounding materials.’

For new conservation work, to ensure a considered approach which is in keeping within the property and its former construction methods, numerous experts have been required - including stone masons, carpenters, archaeologists and master plasterers.

‘We also worked with timber analysis experts, lead workers, scaffolders, architects and engineers; a conservation project such as this involves many people from a wide variety of backgrounds and a lot of traditional skills are required,’ says Stewart.

‘At its peak, this was an incredibly busy site with around 30 operatives working across the scaffold.’

Great British Life: Much of the conservation work is a painstaking and meticulous process Photo: Jim Holden/English HeritageMuch of the conservation work is a painstaking and meticulous process Photo: Jim Holden/English Heritage

Project challenges

The planning of this scaffold, which provided access to work on the Old Hall’s vast upper floor windows, presented many challenges.

‘A lot of the stones that make up the window structures had to be replaced with new ones,’ Stewart adds.

‘This work is challenging, even at ground level. Elevate that 20 meters in the air and you can imagine the careful considerations required.’

With over 800 tons of scaffold material and 6,500 scaffold boards required to be brought onto such a sensitive site, many weeks and people were involved in creating and implementing a safe method of work.

‘A large consideration in the management of a project like this is how to carry out these processes in a safe manner, explains Stewart. ‘Thankfully, the vast scaffold went up and back down again without any major drama!’

As well as the obvious temporary structural scaffold addition, a lot of the work managed at ancient sites such as Hardwick Old Hall is discreet and hidden from the visiting public.

‘This all must be planned and designed to be functional but have minimal visual impact,’ says Stewart.

‘Hidden repairs include the stainless-steel pins and ties added to the aging stone stairs. Even though these are severely fractured, with the addition of the metalwork they are now secure for years to come. Such preventative measures are essential at Hardwick Old Hall, whose condition is affected by external factors including the weather.’

Great British Life: Restoration work includes the replacement of deteriorating window mullions Photo: Jim Holden/English HeritageRestoration work includes the replacement of deteriorating window mullions Photo: Jim Holden/English Heritage

Climate change effects

‘The increase in intense rainfall and wind-driven rain is likely to have contributed to stonework erosion on weather exposed walls, as well as damage to the remaining plasterwork,' suggests Ruth Knight, head of climate change and sustainability at English Heritage.

‘We know from climate science that, since the Industrial Revolution, the global temperature has increased at a much faster rate than we would expect to see from natural causes.

‘We’re seeing an overall trend of more extreme weather which is already having a detrimental impact on our historic sites.’

Fluctuations in temperature and longer periods of hotter weather can also lead to faster deterioration, as materials expand and contract at different rates.

‘Although it's difficult to be precise about the impact of climate change on individual materials, we can see an overall change in condition and accelerated deterioration at sites such as Hardwick Old Hall’ she adds.

Working closely with heritage sector partners across the UK, Ruth explains how sharing knowledge has allowed a positive, proactive approach to climate risk assessment and adaptation across English Heritage sites.

‘At Hardwick Old Hall we have been able to draw on the expertise of the professional conservation team and contractors to understand the damage we are seeing and how we can best protect the site.

Great British Life: If walls could talk Photo: Jim Holden/English HeritageIf walls could talk Photo: Jim Holden/English Heritage

‘This work has and will continue to inform our sustainable conservation programme and provides inspiration for our approach to ruined sites elsewhere across the country.’

As part of a new climate action plan, Ruth’s team will assess risk across the National Heritage Collection.

‘To do this we are taking nationally available data that forecasts climate hazards like extreme rainfall and combining this with assessments of the vulnerability of a site, its buildings, gardens, collections and operation to give an overview of climate risk,’ she reveals.

The information gleaned, Ruth says, will allow a variety of adaptation approaches, including improved drainage, soft capping (where turf is grown on top of a ruined wall to protect it) and increased shading.

‘This work also helps us build climate risk into how we plan and prioritise projects in the future as we work to conserve important historical properties such as Hardwick Old Hall and protect their stunning historical features, such as its decorative plasterwork.

‘The lessons learned for future small scale adaptation changes is an ongoing legacy of this project.’

‘A huge part for me is the satisfaction gained from knowing I have done my part to preserve such important history,’ concludes Stewart.

‘We take a great deal of pride in the fact our names are part of that structure and its story for generations to come.’

Hardwick Old Hall is due to reopen this summer. For more, visit: english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/hardwick-old-hall.