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 to repair the roof by the Church of England, along with contributions from the National Trust and the Benthall family. Over the winter of 2015, with the church now in the ownership of the National Trust, work continued to restore the exterior of the building. More recently, the interior has also been restored.

The National Trust acquired St Bartholomew’s Church at Benthall from the Church of England at the beginning of 2015. It's 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 with the Hall, family and village as a parish church, 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 has since been 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) and subsequently to the interior (wood and plaster repairs, plus repainting).

Once again, we've had to tackle a building that was painted with a relatively modern impervious paint, which was not allowing moisture to escape and consequently causing damp. And, once again, we were faced with a 20th century stark white colour that was not in accordance with the church's more subtle historic appearance, as shown in an 1843 watercolour.

One of the images that we based the restoration of the church on
A watercolour of the church in 1843
One of the images that we based the restoration of the church on

Exterior

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're 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 to restore the profile seen in the earliest images, and to make it more weatherproof. The small windows in the tower have been covered over, leaving only the louvred vents, as it would have been originally.

As often happens when looking closely at a building or interior and carrying out conservation work, fascinating details have emerged. 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.

This inscription was found by one of the builders
Lead work showing the name C. S. Smith 1826
This inscription was found by one of the builders

Interior

Once work had finished on the exterior of the church, focus moved to the interior.

During a winter clean, frass (fine wood dust) was discovered on the pews in the gallery. This indicated to us that there was some sort of pest activity in the church. A survey on the beams revealed active deathwatch beetle. One particular beam above the pulpits was so damaged that a decision was made to replace it with a steel beam. We covered the steel beam with an oak panel that had previously been concealing the damaged beam.

At the start of the summer, redecoration work began inside the church. The walls needed to be stripped of the white emulsion paint that was trapping the damp in the walls. We replaced this with a permeable matt emulsion paint, which allows the walls to breathe, and used a more subtle cream colour to replace the stark white. Plaster work was also done in areas where the wall had sustained damage due to trapped damp.

During the interior decoration work, we had the Benthall hatchment (a tablet bearing a coat-of-arms) restored. Work included giving the hatchment a thorough dusting, removing the old varnish and replacing it with a conservation grade acrylic, and touching up losses in the paint work with dry pigments bound in a conservation-grade acrylic.

Interior view of church, showing the organ and pews
Benthall Hall - interior view of church (pews and organ)
Interior view of church, showing the organ and pews
Interior view of church, showing stained glass and pulpit
Benthall Hall - interior view of church (window and pulpit)
Interior view of church, showing stained glass and pulpit