Five miles south of Bath, on what was once the main road to Salisbury there is a sharp S-bend in the picturesque village of Norton St Phillip which brings one face to face with a remarkable building. The George Inn stands out because it is clearly medieval, substantially larger than any other building nearby, and partly timber framed. In an area of the country renowned for its fine stone buildings and Georgian architecture in particular, the dramatic appearance of this building is jaw dropping.
In 1998 the inn was carefully repaired and refurbished by Stansell Conservation, West Country Tiling and others under the direction of Acanthus members, Ferguson Mann Architects for the buildings proud owners Wadworth & Co Ltd, a family-owned brewery best known for producing Wadworths 6X. The project is of particular interest here for the solutions adopted to conserve its stonework, its timber frame and its huge stone slate roofs, for its archaeological investigation, and for its solutions to the fire-safety requirements of creating hotel accommodation.
The brief from Wadworth & Co was to carry out all necessary conservation and repair work, and to turn the pub into a small hotel with up to 12 bedrooms and a dedicated restaurant. The George Inn was then a pub only, with no hotel accommodation offered. A high proportion of the building was unoccupied and unusable.
As the work required affected every part of the building, and every element would therefore have to be investigated and recorded, it was decided to take the opportunity to carry out a thorough archaeological investigation which went beyond the scope of the work that was strictly necessary.
From an appraisal of existing records primarily in the local studies collections of libraries and county records offices within the region, it was clear that the George owes its existence to the Carthusian monks of the nearby priory of Hinton Charterhouse. They were given the manor of Norton St Phillip as part of their endowment in 1232. In the Middle Ages the wealth of the area was primarily founded on wool. Here the monks had built up a substantial cloth trade, with regular fairs and markets established as early as the 13th century. The George Inn was almost certainly purpose built by the monks as an inn to accommodate merchants and traders travelling to the fair. Records show that goods were stored in the inn before being sold at the fairs, and linen cloth was sold at the inn itself.
The inn has been rebuilt and altered many times throughout its history. From an investigation of the surviving fabric it became clear that the earliest parts are late 14th century . At this time, the main building was three storeys high as it is now, with a two-storey hall to the left of the passage way, cellars to the right and ranges to the rear around the courtyard. The main building was some eight metres longer to the west, as part of the building was demolished in the late 17th century. The top floor of the main building was probably used as a long, open dormitory, with smaller rooms on either side of the hall on the floor below.
Dendrochronology (tree-ring dating) carried out by the Somerset Building Research Group on the oak timber frame indicated that substantial reconstruction took place around 50 years later as the trees used to construct the roof and timber frame were felled in 1431. The roof trusses in the central bays over the section to the left (south-east) of the passage way are much more elaborate than others suggesting that what is now the Norton Room was once a hall open to the underside of the roof. This was borne out by analysis of the floors below which revealed that the tall, narrow hall had timber framed galleries around two sides at both first and second floor level, and must have looked quite spectacular. Because of their large size, the architects believe that these galleries could have been used for the sale of cloth. The stone mullioned bay windows at ground floor level were added to the front at this time, as was the porch and the spiral staircase which projects into the courtyard to the rear.
The hall was floored over at both levels in the early 16th century, no doubt to create additional accommodation, and a large chimney stack was constructed to one side of it. Wall paintings created in this period of the buildings history were uncovered during the investigation work. These have now been covered over to protect them, but one can still be seen in the Monmouth room.
Dendrochronology confirmed that continual changes occurred around the courtyard in the 15th and 16th centuries , and in the late 17th century the George Inn was reduced in size. Eight metres in length of the main building was pulled down and the gable facing what is now the car park was constructed. An unknown amount of the south-west range was also pulled down. It is quite likely that the lime ash floor was laid across the floor boards of the top storey at the same time.
No major alterations were made in the 19th century. A watercolour of 1842 and a sketch made in 1852 clearly show that the stone steps leading up to the mezzanine floor to the right of the porch and a tall chimney to the left were added between these two dates. Early restoration work was carried out in the 1890s and 1930 when changes were made to many of the windows and the roof was repaired.
When the current programme of work commenced in 1998, little work had been carried out since the 1930s and the building needed a major overhaul. The largest element was the work required to the roofs which were covered with stone slates with a variety of fixings marking different phases of repair. Where they had been nailed, the ferrous nails had frequently corroded splitting the head of the slate. Many of the oak pegs were no longer at 90 degrees to the slates, allowing some slates to slip down the pitch. In other cases the battens had simply rotted or split under the load.
The original proposal to include 12 hotel bedrooms with en suite bathrooms in the George depended on the creation of accommodation on the top floor of the main building. However, the provision of an alternative means of escape had far-reaching consequences for the building, involving major interventions. Furthermore, partitioning this magnificent space would have detracted so greatly from its character that it was decided to incorporate the landlords bedroom at the east end and leave the remaining space mothballed.
The roofs were stripped carefully to enable the reuse of as many of the original stone slates as possible. Almost 70 per cent were useable. Each of these was redressed, redrilled and graded by size from 18cm to 53cm ready to lay to diminishing courses as before.
Because of the scale of the roof covering (29,750 stone slates in all) and the importance of the fabric it protected below, the client required low maintenance solutions that would be economical in the long term. Furthermore, the siting of the building, running right up to the pavement of the main street, posed a potential danger from falling stone slates and maintenance access was severely restricted. (The scaffolding to the front had to be cantilevered out in a complex, engineer-designed structure.) It was therefore decided to opt for a high specification and every element of the roof covering was considered carefully.
Originally, oak peg fixings were used and the holes in the slates were created by chipping from each side to produce a hole which tapered and widened in section like an hour glass. Each timber peg would have been put in dry so that, as the wood swelled in the damp, it would be pinched firmly by the narrowest part of the hole. This ensured that the peg formed a rigid right angle with the stone slate, thus preventing it from slipping down the roof. The labour intensity of producing an equivalent effect today is impractical, making the use of oak pegs less certain. Copper pegs were considered but the reaction with the tannic acid from the green oak lath was potentially corrosive and plastic pegs were relatively untried. It was finally decided to have stainless steel pegs specially made with a large flat head and a blunt end. Although not traditional, it was felt that the departure was justified in order to ensure the longest possible interval between repairs.
The traditional finish to the underside of the stone roof slates is torching, a coarse, hairy lime plaster which resists drafts and wind driven rain without sealing the roof space. However, as the landlords bedroom was to be sited in part of the roof, it was necessary to introduce insulation, a breathable underlay and counter-battens to this section. To avoid creating a step in the roofline, the counter-battens were extended across the whole of the roof.
The front slope was recovered with the stock of reused stone slates which were lichen covered. The redressing process involved a reduction in size of each slate and consequently there was a scarcity of the larger sizes. These were made up with a supply of new stone slates, randomly added amongst the old.
At raking abutments (where stacks and parapet gables penetrated the roof covering), the appropriate detail would be to use lime mortar flaunching to fill the junction. However, as this detail has a relatively limited life it was decided to use lead soakers concealed beneath more traditional flaunching. To isolate the lead from the mortar, the lead was covered with a building paper and the lime mortar flaunching was keyed to a stainless steel expanded metal lath.
Considerable thought was given to the use of a gutter to the front elevation, as water dripping off the slates had contributed to the decay of the timber frame below. However, such a large area of roof would have necessitated either rainwater downpipes at each end and in the centre, or an extremely deep section of gutter. Either would have been visually intrusive, and from a practical viewpoint, it was also considered that the eaves were so high above the ground that regular maintenance of a gutter would have been extremely difficult. The idea was therefore abandoned.
Minor repairs were required to the timber frame, the rendered infill panels and some areas of masonry. Generally, these followed standard conservation practice, making the minimum necessary intervention, altering existing material as little as possible and using replacement materials on a like-for-like basis. Many of the external plaster panels in the timber frame consisted of limestone pitched on edge in a Parian type gypsum mix which appeared to predate the 18th century. These were repaired with a lime/gypsum mix.
Some plaster panels in the timber frame had been replaced with hard rendering, probably in the 1930s, and were repaired or replaced using gauged lime mortars.
Prior to repointing and repairs to the limestone, the Jos system of low pressure air/water/abrasive was used very carefully to reduce the harmful surface layer of calcium sulphate. Carved work such as stone mullioned windows were also given a protective shelter coat; a wash of lime putty and fine aggregates.
THE INTERIOR AND FIRE PROTECTION MEASURES
Structurally the interior was in good condition as there had been relatively little water penetration. The principal exceptions were first floor timbers above the porch which had decayed following alterations made in the past, and an unsupported second floor beam where the gallery had been infilled, which was sagging dangerously. To repair the beam, an area of the lime ash floor was removed and a flitch plate was inserted along the length of the beam with connections to the infill joists. The lime ash floor was then repaired using a traditional mix matched by analysis.
Designing hotel accommodation to suit a building of such historic importance is not easy. Without the top floor of the main building only eight hotel bedrooms could be created. Bathrooms were the next problem, having to be designed to fit the spaces available, to conserve both the character and the historic fabric. In the Monmouth room for example, where the Duke of Monmouth is believed to have stayed just days before his defeat at the Battle of Sedgemoor, a small shower room is neatly fitted into the adjacent room behind original panelling. A door was created by making one section of panelling into a gib door. The result skilfully combines historic interest with the standard of finish expected of modern hotel accommodation.
Fire safety presented further problems as the stair tower had to be protected from smoke and flames in the event of a fire. The standard solution, wired glass doors on either side of the stairs, would have had a disastrous impact on the character of the interior. The solution was to hide the fire doors in the walls so that they could not be seen when open, and to fit them with electro magnetic catches so that they would close automatically when a fire is detected. On the ground floor a large single door was used of the height and width of the corridor to avoid introducing an obvious door frame or wall. A recess in the side wall allows it to fit flush with the surrounding walls when open. On the first floor the doors project slightly, but are nevertheless discreet.
All the original doors were retained, upgraded where necessary by lining the interior face with oak to achieve the required fire resistance, and keep shut fire notices were added to the edge of these doors so that they were only visible when left open.
The introduction of bedrooms above bars and kitchens meant that the first floor in particular had to be insulated against sound, fire and heat. Originally, floor boards had been located by rebates between the joists, but these inch-thick oak boards (or soffit boards as they are known) had been hidden by later floor boards above and by a plaster ceiling below. To achieve the required insulation the later boards were lifted and surviving soffit boards were repaired and new ones made where necessary. A continuous layer of ply was then introduced above to ensure continuity, before replacing the floor boards.
The successful adaptation and conservation of the George Inn is partly due to the interest of its owners. As a family firm, Wadworth wished to see the building continue in their ownership for many years to come, and they were therefore able to take a long term view on the quality of materials and design. Although some elements of repair chosen were much more expensive, in the long term their approach is likely to be more cost-effective.
This article is reproduced from The Building Conservation Directory, 1999
JONATHAN TAYLOR is the editor of The Building Conservation Directory and a co-founder of Cathedral Communications Limited. He studied architectural conservation at Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh and has a background in architectural design, conservation and urban regeneration.
RELATED PRODUCTS AND SERVICES
© Cathedral Communications Limited 2010