Rotten News: Installment # 5

A rotten beam in the wall at Townend
Published : 29 Mar 2016 Last update : 13 Jun 2016

We’re past the second month of our building project to replace the rotten timbers and re-render the house and Townend continues to reveal its hidden gems to us.

The builders have put up the support frame which will take the weight of the house while the damaged wood is removed – this has been designed by a structural engineer and is screwed into concrete in front of the house. The first piece of new timber should be delivered very soon and once its onsite the builders will remove the first rotten section and install the replacement.

Peeling away the layers

Work has continued with the builders gradually peeling away the layers of render on the house which has given us a glimpse of the stonework probably last seen in mid-Victorian times.

A filled in front door has been revealed in what is now the pantry, and the builders also discovered a lead weight nestled into the wall here. Speculation is rife as to the story behind the weight – is it the counter weight for closing the old door? Perhaps a weapon? Or something else? And why put it in the wall? Perhaps it just came to hand and filled a gap.

Further along the front façade, there are clear changes visible to the windows in what is now the Servants’ Bedrooms. It looks like they have been made smaller over the years.

The Servants Bedroom windows. Looking at the left window, the sill clearly projects past the current window to the far side of the downpipe.
Townend farmhouse exterior with render removed

Tackling the issues

The walls of the house are two beams deep and we’ve been able to look at part of the first inner beam now too, which is in reasonable condition. The only minor issue it has is some woodworm in the sapwood – we’ll treat this with boron pellets before installing the new outer beam.

The builders have set up some sample panels of render and limewash so we can select the final finish for the new render – for example what size and how angular the gravel in the top coat is. To try and get as close to the original as possible we have sent samples of the existing render away to be analysed for chemical composition of the lime as well as an analysis of the size and shape of the gravel aggregate. We are now seeking approval from our planning authority of the render finish; once this has been agreed we can begin re-rendering as the repairs are made.

Later this week more scaffolding will arrive on site which will mean we can get up close to the chimneys to check their condition too. It will be fascinating to be able to see the house form a completely different angle.


Rotten News: Installment #4

The builders move in

The builders arrived at Townend just after Easter and much of their time so far has been taken up with digging pits in front of the house and filling them with concrete to give a firm base for the support structure which will ultimately hold the house up while the rotten timber is removed and replaced.

The majority of the rotten timber work is in the front elevation, which makes it “easy” to access by removing the render. Not so easy though is the jettied section (the part which sticks out slightly to the front) as here we fear that the rot has also travelled backwards into the beams which support the lintel.

The builders have arrived and started digging!
Building works at Townend in Troutbeck

We carried out a survey of the space above the firehouse ceiling last summer using a tiny flexible camera to try and get a view of whether we could detect the rot and also what else we could see. We knew from measurements and plans that there was a void in this space between the low Firehouse ceiling and high closet floor upstairs, and were itching to find out more about why.

A surprising discovery

In order to examine these beams more closely we have taken down a small area of ceiling in the Firehouse. Tantalisingly, the camera survey had appeared to show some kind of insect colony: very distinct black blobs were visible on the timber.

Could this be a beetle colony?
Black blobs on beams under the render at Townend in Troutbeck

However, it turns out that the 19th century Brownes had the last laugh here: when we removed the ceiling it turned out not to be an insect colony; but rather a beautifully preserved, culturally significant and far more interesting 17th century fire hood. The black blobs we had seen were not insects, but tiny blobs of tar.

We had always suspected that the Firehouse would have originally had a large open hearth style fireplace with a hood over it, and indeed we still have the metal “cob irons” from that time – two stands with rows of hooks which would enable you to put a spit across the hearth for roasting meat or fish.

The firehood revealed
The fire hood above the firehouse at Townend in Troutbeck

The idea was that you would sit close to the fire to tend it and keep warm – but would need to wear a hat to protect you from “hallan drop” when water and soot would drip back down the chimney and land on your head!

The fireplace was subsequently modernised in the mid-19th century (and frankly who can blame them, living with an open hearth would have been both back breaking and quite draughty) – but the hood was left hidden in situ behind the new ceiling.

This fireplace was installed in the mid-19th century
The firehouse at Townend in Troutbeck

What might we discover next?

To have discovered something as exciting as this just three weeks in to the project is quite thrilling. Over the next few weeks we will start to work on replacing the rotten beams, and eventually exposing more of the house as we remove the render; surely there must be more secrets waiting to be discovered…


Rotten News: Installment # 3

Over the last few weeks we have started some of our intensive packing and protection work to help ensure that the contents of the house are protected while the forthcoming building work takes place.

This has included moving our very large refectory table in the Firehouse. Although the table is large, it is also a fragile object and it has taken very careful planning and clear communication to move it, as well as at least 8 trained staff!

Before moving the table, we had a rare sneaky peek at the flag floor under the carpet.

A rare peak at the flagstones in the Firehouse at Townend
The floor at Townend

The Firehouse table really is staggeringly large and must surely have been made inside the room. At 369cm in length and 81cm in width the table cannot fit to through any of the doors, so we need protect it in situ.

In this instance we will be making an enormous box to be placed over the top of the table, but first there was the small matter of moving the table from one side of the room to the other, away from the building work.

How do you move a massive, 300 year old table?

To begin with we removed the top of table, taking the weight off the table legs. This also gave us chance to look closely at the underside of the table top in more detail, before moving the base.

The Firehouse table is so large that it's thought it must have been made in the room
The underside of the Townend Firehouse table

The joints in the base of the table are weak and very fragile so we decided to strengthen these joints by securing straps around the middle joint of the table, to stop stress on the joints while it was moved.

Think about the number of family feasts which have taken place around this table since about 1700.
The Firehouse table at Townend in Troutbeck

Any unnecessary strain on a piece of furniture this old could spell disaster, so it was essential while moving the table that only one person spoke, to ensure that everyone moved together as one.

After careful planning and team work, the table is now sitting in its new location with the top added back on, ready for its enormous box to protect it during the building work.


Rotten News: Installment # 2

The apocalyptic flooding which has battered Cumbria over the last few weeks has thankfully left Townend unscathed, although some of our team members have not been so lucky. Despite the poor weather, we're surging ahead with our project to tackle the rot.

Our tree surgeons have started work in the garden trimming back some of the trees – in particular those very close to the house which will improve air circulation around the building for the future. Work inside the house continues with inventory checking and basic cleaning, whilst we are also starting to plan the more intensive packing and protection work we will need to do to help ensure that the contents of the house are protected while the forthcoming building work takes place.

We wanted to tell you about some of our favourite objects in the collection, and how we plan to look after them during the project.

Cat's cradle

“I just love the cradle in the State Bedroom. It’s a particularly fine example – including knobs you could wind string between to keep animals away from the baby (hence cat’s cradle) and a little cupboard in the back for a hot brick to keep the baby warm. I love wooden objects, how they feel, the colour and texture – not just the furniture but also the doors and beams in the house too.”  - Nicky Hunter, Conservation Volunteer

Nicky and the cradle in the State Bedroom
The cradle at Townend in Troutbeck

During the project, moveable furniture like the cradle will be covered with custom made dustsheets and stored away from the invasive work.

Herding sheep

"My favourite objects in Townend are the paintings of sheep in the Firehouse and Blue bedroom. They are visible evidence of the importance of sheep farming to the Browne family. They were painted by a friend of the last George Browne called William Taylor Longmire who also painted a naive portrait of George which is displayed in the State Bedroom. Taylor Longmire’s family also appear in the Browne's family tree through marriage." - John Houghton, House Assistant

The paintings need to be stored vertically and also kept in the same orientation they usually hang – i.e. portrait or landscape, in order to keep the paint as stable as possible. Our joiner will construct a special temporary storage frame in one of the small bedrooms where all of the paintings will be stored together.

The feasting table

"I love the grandeur of the Firehouse table and thinking about the number of family feasts which would have taken place around it since about 1700. It’s staggeringly large and must surely have been made inside the room. The stretchers between the legs offer a place to keep your feet from resting on the cold floor – but the one at the far end has a curiously deep groove cut or worn in it: why this is we can only speculate!" - Danielle Soper, House Steward

The grand table in the Firehouse
The grand table in the Firehouse at Townend Troutbeck

Unlike the cradle, larger furniture, such as this vast board table, will need to be protected in situ. In this instance we will be making an enormous box to be placed over the top of the table. Moving the table is also a challenge and will require at least 8 people just to move it from one side of the room to the other.

Packing the clothes away

“My favourite object has to be the white dress with purple flowers on which hangs in the kist in the Housekeeper’s Bedroom. I think it is often overlooked but it is beautiful when you get it out – it has such delicate needlework and there are hundreds of pin tucks to join the skirt to the bodice.” - Fe Wolley, House Assistant

Most textiles will be cleaned using a low suction vacuum and packed into large acid free board boxes. We use scrunched up acid free tissue to support any natural folds (including sleeves and necklines) – either in a sausage shape or a round “puff” with a further smooth outer layer of tissue to prevent any abrasion to the delicate surface of the object.

Burning the candle at both ends

"I think my favourite object is the candle and rushlight holder in the window of the Downhouse. It has always seemed to me to be a rustic, fairly home-produced piece, an individual object that cannot be found anywhere else. In the many hours that I have spent gazing around that room I have fancied that George went to the local blacksmith along the road, and commissioned it - a light holder that would do for every day use with the rushes, but also for special visitors with precious candles when needed. I have always loved to explain its use to visitors, demonstrating to countless children how the rushes would slot into the holder at 45 degrees and then go on to the "burning the candle at both ends" story, with the holder being picked up and carried around the house to be hung on the nails that can still be seen above windows and doorways all round the house. It has been held by so many people, held lights for so many of the family and servants, and I see it with the rushes smoking away, casting a dim glow along the table or sideboard, a small pool of light by which people could read or write, with the pungent smell of the burning rush filling the air - bringing to life for me the people and the times of the house." - Keith Hildrew, Volunteer Room Guide

Small objects, such as the rushlight and candle holder will be wrapped in acid free tissue and stored in crates. The acid free tissue will protect them from light damage and dust as well as providing physical support to more fragile objects.

Unique books

“I love the collection of books at Townend. They are unique and of great cultural value and significance, but also contain many human stories too – either within the printed word, or even sometimes in annotations or historic use (such as being leant out to friends).The variety of subjects and period of creation is unparalleled in this country.” - Emma Wright, Manager

The books in the library at Townend will stay in situ during the project (this room is not having invasive work done on it) however we will install protection to the shelves to try and limit dust deposition which is damaging and can also attract other issues such as pests and mould. We will do this by hanging a cover over the front of the shelves made from a conservation grade polythene material which will allow air to circulate (essential for minimising potential mould growth) whilst protecting the books from dust.

Support our work

We estimate that this project will cost in excess of £100,000. We've had a great response from our visitors who want to help us by making a donation towards this work, but there is still a long way to go.