Restoring the Restoration church
Over the past two winters extensive conservation work has taken place to St Bartholomew's church. Back in the winter of 2014 work was carried out by the Church of England to repair the roof, along with contributions from the National Trust and the Benthall family. Over the winter of 2015 the work has continued to restore the exterior of the building now that the church is in the ownership of the National Trust.
The National Trust acquired St Bartholomew’s Church at Benthall from the Church of England at the beginning of 2015. It is a rare, Grade II* Restoration Church with an intriguing past inextricably linked to Benthall Hall. It was built in 1667, after the English Civil War, during which the original medieval church on the site burned down.
Despite its long and close association as parish church with the Hall, family and village, it had fallen out of regular use by 2007. There was a risk that it would fall into disrepair or be commercially developed, so the Trust entered into negotiations with the Church of England in order to transfer ownership.
A gradual process of restoration is now being carried out. The first phase, renovation of the roof, has been followed by work to the rest of the exterior, including the bell tower, rainwater goods and paintwork.
Once again we have had to tackle a building that was painted with a relatively modern impervious paint, preventing moisture from escaping and causing damp. And once again we were faced with a 20th century stark white colour, not in accordance with its more subtle historic appearance as shown in an 1843 watercolour.
Our process has been to remove the white paint, check the condition of the substrate and discuss the best type and colour of paint to put back on the building. We are using a stone-coloured lime-wash; we applied patches of various shades to judge which looked best, always with one eye on the stone façade of the Hall in the background to make sure it harmonised.
In addition, changes have been made to the bell-tower to restore its original appearance. The dark brown timber-framing looked rather feeble and was never meant to be exposed. It had probably been uncovered as part of a well-intentioned 1950s or 60s ‘restoration’. It also meant a greater overhang of the tower’s roof. So an extra ‘skin’ of split lath and lime render has been put back onto the tower in order to restore the profile seen in the earliest images, and make it more weatherproof. The small windows in the tower have been covered over, leaving only the louvred vents, as originally.
As often happens when looking closely at a building or interior and carrying out conservation work, fascinating details emerge. This happened when we climbed up the scaffold to check the origin of a leak at the very top of the bell tower. We found the name of C. Smith and the date 1826 carefully incised into the leadwork. On the opposite side of the tower were the initials ‘J.S’ and the same date.
We have now finished the exterior work on the church and once again visitors are welcome to explore the interior and gain an understanding of the close links between the family, the Hall and the church's history.