Our work at Ightham Mote
Looking after Ightham Mote is no mean feat; with 700 years of history to care for, a lot of work goes into protecting and conserving it. From one of the National Trust’s largest conservation projects to dealing with flash floods and the annual winter clean, find out more about the work that’s being done here.
Conserving Ightham Mote
After Charles Henry Robinson left Ightham Mote to the National Trust in 1985, a detailed study was made of the structure and condition of the house. The report showed that substantial repairs were needed, both to the masonry and the timber framework.
‘You could see the moat through the floorboards in Charles Henry Robinson's bedroom.’
– Bernadette Gillow, General Manager
Reviving the house's original character
The aim of the conservation programme was always to save as much of the original structure and finishes as possible, using traditional methods and materials, reviving the techniques that were used to build Ightham Mote.
- Where the stonework had become dangerously eroded, stone masons carved replacement blocks of Kentish ragstone by hand, taking care to avoid excessive smoothness.
- Handmade bricks and tiles were chosen to match the colour, size and texture of the surviving originals. The old lime render was analysed for colour and consistency, and both as far as possible were reproduced.
- When it was necessary to cut away sections of the timber frame where the wood was damaged by moisture, deathwatch beetle, woodworm or decay, the new oak, often cut from Kent woodlands, was fitted to the old using traditional carpentry joints.
Archaeologist Peter Leach was always on site, recording the different layers of the house as they were peeled away during the conservation.
His series of detailed reports and drawings can be seen in the archaeology room, providing an insight into the development of the house and what are now hidden details.
Conservation in action
The project was, in effect, archaeology on a standing building. It was one of the first in the National Trust to be seen from start to finish by its visitors. The house remained open where possible, sharing the conservation work up close and in action.
The project lasted 20 years, starting in 1985 and completed in 2006, costing £10 million. It is considered one of the largest undertaken by the National Trust.
The sympathetic programme of work carried out by the craftsmen received numerous awards including:
- 1992 RICS Conservation Award
1993 English Heritage/Carpenters Company Award
1995 Stone Federation, Natural Stone Award
2003 Stone Federation Award: The Gate Tower
2003 Wood Awards: The Great Hall Roof
2004 Wood Awards: South West Quarter
2004 Europa Nostra European Union Diploma
2005 RIBA Award and Conservation Award
Appearances in film and TV
So important was the conservation of Ightham Mote, that in 2000, Fred Dibnah filmed part of his 'Magnificent Monuments' series here.
Later, during the final year of the project, Channel 4's 'Time Team' filmed a special edition programme, focussing on the conservation of Ightham Mote broadcast in 2004. DVDs are available to purchase from the shop.
You can find out more about the conservation work in the exhibition at visitor reception.
Caring for the house and collection
Behind the scenes there is a dedicated team of staff and volunteers who care for the house and the collection of over 2000 items throughout the year. Their work enables us to reveal and share Ightham Mote's past with you, and make sure that it is protected for present and future generations.
Each day the team cleans the house to ensure dust and dirt is kept to a minimum.
We use special brushes used for cleaning certain items, such as a hogs hair brush to get the dust out of crevices. The team are meticulous, even ensuring they fold their dusters in a certain way to prevent the edges catching on anything.
Humidity, light and pests
There is an element of science involved in protecting the house and its collection too.
Humidity levels are monitored and adjusted throughout the house, meaning even on hot days the heating might be on. If the humidity is too high, mould will grow and insects will flourish, and if it’s too low, organic materials such as wood, paper and textiles can shrink and crack.
Light can also damage the collection, so sun curtains and blackout curtains are used to keep light within certain limits in the rooms. The team will also leave bug traps throughout the house to monitor pests.
Deep winter clean
Over the closed winter period the collections and house undergo an annual deep conservation clean. The house is ‘put to bed’; furniture is cleaned and covered with dustsheets, ceramics are washed and covered with acid-free tissue paper hats, and curtains are closed to release creases.
Restoration in action
As well as the planned conservation projects, there are also instances when the team need to react quickly to a situation in order to protect Ightham Mote and its collection.
One such incident happened on the evening of Saturday 25 June 2016 when the Ightham area suffered flash flooding. At Ightham Mote the courtyard, several ground floor rooms, gardens and cottages were flooded.
The rescue mission begins
Staff and volunteers immediately began the rescue mission to help evacuate the contents from the affected rooms. The furniture was moved to other rooms and laid down so that air could circulate around the areas that had been in water.
An architectural advisor and electrician also came along to assess the situation. The conservation team completed the painstaking work of cleaning the silt from the floorboards on their hands and knees with nail brushes and scouring pads. Once loosened they vacuumed the silt up.
Using large fans to keep the air circulating the team monitored the moisture levels and waited for floors to dry out. After three months, the affected rooms had all been re-opened. Fans were eventually turned off eight months after the flooding.
As part of flood mitigation, structural interventions have been made to ensure the most effective flow of the water system (a moat and two lakes). This allows water to divert where possible away from the house.
Our conservation work continues outdoors
It’s not just the house and collection at Ightham Mote that need caring for, the outdoor spaces do too.
One of the important tasks completed by the outdoor team across the year is coppicing. You can see where this has taken place on walks in the woodland.
This traditional woodland management technique dates back centuries and requires trees to be cut at their base to create a ‘stool’ and encourage them to produce new shoots, extending the life of the trees.
Why coppicing is needed
Overgrown canopies stop the sunlight from penetrating, which in turn means that the flora and fauna that need the sunlight move on and so do the animals that live on them. By coppicing, woodland is regenerated.
Protecting the veteran trees
None of the old veteran, ancient or protected trees are cut down as part of the rolling coppicing programme. Occasionally it is necessary to fell an isolated older tree due to disease or safety, however this is not part of the coppicing programme.
The coppicing is purely focused on the new growth on a rotation basis, with the clearance of scrub in the process, allowing more sunlight into the woodland floor.
Repurposing coppiced wood
The wood you see stacked up afterwards will then be gradually reused to create fences, posts, benches, stiles or wildlife rich log piles around the wider estate.
With your ongoing support, we're able to continue our vital conservation work. Thank you for helping to protect these special places.
Uncover the 700-year history of this fascinating medieval house and estate. Discover all about the owners that shaped it over the centuries, their connections and lifestyles.
Enter this medieval half-timbered house across a cobbled courtyard and into the hushed interior. Discover dark wood panelling, huge fireplaces and a mix of furnishings inside.
The garden is at its most colourful during the summer months. With vibrant colours, the buzz of wildlife and space to relax in the historic pleasure grounds, it’s time to make the most of nature.
Find out about the project to develop a new visitor centre and restore the walled garden. Discover how these exciting plans will improve facilities for visitors.
As the weather becomes warmer, wildlife, trees and wildflowers come alive across the Ightham Mote estate, while and birdsong fills the air.
We believe that nature, beauty and history are for everyone. That’s why we’re supporting wildlife, protecting historic sites and more. Find out about our work.
Read about our strategy 'For everyone, for ever' here at the National Trust, which will take the organisation through to 2025.