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Monday, 18 May 2009

English Heritage and restoration....

I find A N Wilson, a critic who writes for the Times, often a little too critical and abrasive. But recently he wrote a crtique of the show which was supposed to showcase the work of English Heritage.

He brands the organisation as encapsulating everything that is most loathsome about this island of nostalgic self-regard. Now I could take issue with him on some, at least, of that statement, but I think his ire is actually directed at their desire to "preserve" everything that is anything to do with our heritage as if the island were some sort of museum to be locked into a sort of ideal and nostalgic period past. Among their most ludicrous demands in recent years have been the court case over the restoratiion of an Elizabethan farmhouse that had been much abused over the centuries with rooms subdivided to the point of uselessness, casement windows replaced with 1950's steel windows and the oriuginal thatch replaced with something, quite possible asbestos. Did they applaud the new owner who peeled away all the inappropriate steel windows, the impossible and badly built partitions and restore the roof to something more in keeping?

No, they dragged said owner into court and demanded that the house be "restored" to reflect the "architectural heritage" of the ages. It went to several appeals and as far as I am aware eventuually was settled in a compromise when a judge ruled that he was in sympathy with the owner, but had to uphold the law, even though he felt it was being misapplied. Nor is this an isolated example, anyone who has the care of an ancient building can quote endless horror stories of dealings with EH's army of Gaulieters who seem to have only two criteria - to ratchet up the cost of any repair or restoration by adding at least three noughts to the actual cost, and to prevent you doing anything that might make the building usable or even more like it was originally. They hate the fact that buildings are used by ordinary people, especially they hate churches and congregations who might want to make their building a little more usable for modern liturgy.

As far as they are concerned "Heritage" means that it must now be kept in whatever state it is in today regardless of how unusable that makes it or how unusable it will make it in future. Nothing, nothing at all must be allowed to change. It is a given that as soion as they become involved you can forget normal costing and just think of silly numbers and keep adding noughts. English Heritage isn't going to pay for any of it and simply abuses its legal status to further the goals and agendas of it's army of footsoldiers and "advisers" - none of whom are in the least bit interested in helping the owner or custodian of any such building make it usable, or habitable. "Its listed" means forget the pratctical aspects and get used to living in a museum over which you have no control even though you must pay through the nose for the privilege.

I am a great believer in preserving our heritage - but I find the English Heritage stance on restoration obstructive and incomprehensible. The current mantra is "reversible" - in other words any repair must be identifiable as a repair and removable should the technology become available to "restore" whatever the original material was. Equally, this fetish for preserving the ghastly and the hideous and refusal to allow sensitive and loving restoration to an original form - because it isn't original - is garbage. When I visit the magnificently restored, in some cases rebuilt, heritage buildings on the continent and see the painstaking work that has been done to exactly copy the techniques, materials and methods of an earlier age in order to recreate something that has been lost, I can only marvel at the dedication and applaud the finished product. Yet English Heritage will not allow anyone to do the same here - they would rather see a building derelict than allow it to be repaired and restored.

Perhaps A N Wilson is right when he says "English Heritage marks the death of originality, progress and hope. It will kill of the future faster than Global warming." It is time, I think, to trim their powers and place a check on their ability to demand enormous expenditure when what is needed is sensible maintenance. Time, perhaps, to remove the right of veto from them and return them to their original status as advisers and managers of key sites. They are now stifling the use of the very buildings they are supposed to help protect.

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