The art of church resurrection in the Lake District


A family firm in north Lancashire is meeting the challenge of conserving some of our finest old churches, writes Louise Bryning. MAIN PHOTOGRAPHY: DARREN ANDREWS

One of the first jobs Fred Hall carried out after serving in the First World War was to carve the memorial to his fallen comrades. It stands in the grounds of St Michael the Archangel Church, in the north Lancashire village of Whittington, and one can only wonder at what went through his mind as he honoured the young men who didn’t make it home.

More than 90 years later, Fred’s memorial still stands proud and so does his company now run by his grandson, Nick. He doesn’t have to go far before coming across a church that Fred Hall & Son has helped has helped to conserve. Kirkby Lonsdale, Sedbergh, Cartmel, Ulverston, Kendal and Casterton all have churches safe from the ravages of the time and climate thanks to their sensitive conservation work.

Fred’s son, Cecil, was church warden at St Michael’s for 12 years and the church can be seen from the firm’s headquarters in the former Whittington Village School, designed by the renowned Lancaster firm of Paley and Austin. In 1995, the firm completed the re-ordering of St Peter’s Cathedral in Lancaster – another Paley grand design.

‘Working on historic buildings can be quite challenging as they require a lot of care and a very thoughtful approach,’ said 48-year-old Nick.

For instance, his team had to work carefully around the historic tapestries adorning Casterton’s Holy Trinity Church when fitting a new roof and replastering the whole building. And when re-roofing Pennington Church at Ulverston, repointing the church tower was a major project. They even had to call in lead specialists, J. Elvey & Son of Kendal, to create escapes for the protected bats.

‘We have the majority of specialist trades in-house including stonemasonry, carpentry, plastering, repointing and roofing and we know how to repoint buildings with traditional lime mortars and use the correct aggregates,’ Nick explained.

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There are occasions when it’s time rather than complexity which put pressure on the craftsmen. For instance, towards the end of 2011 the firm took on major structural repairs to The Church of the Holy Ghost in Middleton-in-Lonsdale between Sedbergh and Kirkby Lonsdale but they still managed to complete the job in time for the Christmas carol service.

Nick’s career hasn’t been confined to small rural churches. While in his 20s, he worked on a church which has been the scene of the nation’s most historic events from coronations and royal weddings to state funerals. ‘It was really fantastic working on one of the most important and historic buildings in the country and I learned a lot about conservation and repair through my time at Westminster Abbey,’ said Nick.

At that time, he was working for Rattee & Kett, of Cambridge, a company which once produced the carvings for the House of Lords under the direction of ‘God’s architect’, Augustus Pugin.

While at the Abbey, Nick worked alongside architect Donald Buttress, and they teamed up again years later repairing and conserving Kendal Parish Church.

While at Rattee & Kett, Nick was also involved in projects at Hatfield House, Ely Cathedral and many of the Cambridge University colleges. He won an award, presented by Prince Charles, for conservation work carried out on the Gate of Honour at Gonville and Caius College.

Fred Hall & Son have picked up many awards over the years. When Cecil ran the firm, he won a Civic Trust Award for Colin Croft, one of Kendal Civic Society’s early schemes, and Nick was proud to receive a Lancaster Design Award for Arkholme Village Hall in the Lune Valley.

Building for the future is equally as important as conserving the past for Nick. In recent months, the firm has taken on several major projects including renovation of the youth centre at Rydal Hall near Grasmere; the transformation of former Bentham Grammar School buildings in to Cedar House School and the conversion of Lancaster’s former YMCA in to student accommodation.

‘I like working on buildings old and new,’ said Nick. ‘Good design and quality shines through whatever their age.’

Nothing sacredThere are several churches in Lancashire and the Lakes requiring urgent attention. For instance, St John’s in Crawshawbooth, near Ramsbottom, is considered a major work by Austin and Paley. This impressive church was built in 1892 and it had been in an excellent state. However, metal thefts reduced it to a desperate condition with water pouring through holes in the roof. The walls were saturated and mould formed on the carved wooden furnishings. There were plans to have it made redundant.

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