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Conservation update: Mary Arden's Farm

Caring for our historic buildings requires a lot of care and planning. Find out more about the process we go through, and our recent work on the site of Mary Arden's Farm.

Gemma McGlinchey

Conserving Historic Buildings

Every 5 years, the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust commissions Quinquennial (or QQ) Condition Reports for our historic buildings from specialist conservation architects. These provide an up-to-date report on the physical state of the houses, and identify work that needs to be carried out in order to preserve them for the future.

When we receive these reports, the first step for us to work with our architects and engineers to prioritise the required work across the whole portfolio of our properties. This is based on a number of measures including severity, structural integrity, level of deterioration, impact on visitor experience, rate of escalation etc. The work is then costed per site, usually in two groups – immediate priority issues and highly desirable, but not as immediately concerning.

After ensuring we have sufficient funding to proceed with the work, we need to obtain Listed Building Consent (LBC) on an item-by-item basis. This requires sometimes lengthy discussion with Historic England, academic specialists in the field and the Conservation Officer for Stratford District Council, where all of our buildings are located.

Proposals are then formally put forward detailing exactly how the work will be carried out, including detailed drawings, heritage and ecology impact statements and other justification documents. Everything has to be agreed before permission is granted and work can commence.

We are very lucky to have a talented Building Conservation team here at the Trust, who are experienced in the many techniques and materials needed to conserve our historic buildings in an appropriate manner. They're able to undertake a lot of the routine conservation work we carry out, as well as reducing the need to use external contractors on projects. This keeps our costs down and helps to maintain a continuity of knowledge about repair work over time, which is often invaluable. 

Conservation at Mary Arden's Farm

Since late Summer 2018 we've been focusing on the buildings at Mary Arden’s Farm, including Mary Arden's House, Palmer's Farmhouse and the barns, which have listed status. The Great Barn, in particular, is of great interest to Historic England.

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Palmer's Farm panels

While the farm remained open to the public we focused on replacing failed panels in Palmer’s Farmhouse, including one in the kitchen that rocked alarmingly if anybody touched it. We replaced approximately 100 handmade oak pegs to fill the holes where the previous ones were rotten or missing, using a traditional device called a shave horse to make new pegs. While replacing a small section of the beam above the window in the ground floor bedroom we also discovered an infestation of live death watch beetle!

Once Mary Arden's Farm closed for the winter, the scaffolders arrived to enable us to start work on the gable end chimney of Palmer’s Farmhouse and the Harvest Barn.

Drilling Palmers Farm Chimney.jpg

The chimney on Palmer's Farmhouse was suffering from failed mortar between the bricks and on the capping. Some of the mortar had previously been replaced with cement, which does not allow older material to flex and breathe, so this needed to be removed to prevent further damage. We carried out controlled drilling of small holes into the mortar before it could be carefully chiselled out without damaging the original brickwork. It was then replaced with hydraulic lime mortar, and the chimney was wrapped up to allow the lime to cure. 

Mary Arden's Farm Chimney Covered.jpg

Wrapping is only really necessary in low temperatures, so it may have been quicker to carry out this work during the summer months but it is often messy, noisy and disruptive for our visitors. Where possible we try to complete work like this at times when there are no visitors, or when numbers are expected to be lower.

Several areas of the barn wall had developed large cracks over the last few years due to the movement of the building. The remedy for this has been to remove any failed mortar and insert Helibars (a helix-like metal bar), which are fixed in place using lime mortar. These Helibars add strength to the building across the stress points and the section is then monitored, sometimes for years, to ensure that no further work is needed.

Mary Arden's Farm Barn Helibars.jpg
Helibars in place before being fixed

We have also had a conservation building contractor working on the hall window in Palmer’s Farmhouse, to replace the rotten oak beam that runs across the top of the window. They also replaced structural beams and panels over the cross passage doorway. All of this was successfully completed before the farm re-opened for a new season, so we were ready to welcome our visitors back to come and enjoy the results!