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Published by the Society in the Ripon Gazette, 26th November 2010
What is the value of a ruin? And how far should we go towards restoring a ruin, or even a dilapidated building, back to some sort of useable form?

These are the sort of questions that were particularly being asked 150 years or so ago – and they are being asked again today. To many Victorians the word ‘Restoration’ meant trying to take buildings – especially churches, but castles and even country houses, too – back to some golden age, where the architecture was pure and unsullied and the carving as crisp as it was centuries ago.

One of the proponents of this attitude was Sir Gilbert Scott, who restored Ripon Cathedral – and hundreds of other cathedrals and churches, too. There is no doubt that many churches had been neglected over the previous decades – we have only to read Scott’s comments on the state of the fabric at Ripon to see in how dangerous a state it had been allowed to fall. And Scott certainly did help to save it from further decay.

At Ripon his intervention could be seen as comparatively conservative; elsewhere he was much more ‘thorough’ – what we might see as destructive. Yet he thought himself to be very restrained. In his book of 1850 called ‘A Plea for the Faithful Restoration of our Ancient Churches’ he condemns ‘the torrent of destruction’ – ‘there has been far more done to obliterate genuine examples of pointed [ie Gothic] architecture by the tampering caprices of well-meant restoration than . . . by centuries of mutilation and neglect.’ A building so treated, he argues, ‘loses all its truthfulness’.

All of this would be approved of by a modern Conservation Officer – but then Scott goes awry. He suggests that it could be acceptable to ‘replace’ what has been lost in later changes; indeed, he says, such an action ‘may be desirable, particularly when the later portions are decayed, and the earlier may be restored with absolute certainty’. Scott’s confusion is typical of the age – there was a genuine dilemma about how best to restore.

Some architects, of course, were happy to restore – and some restoration produced great results. In France the architect Viollet-le-Duc restored the walls at Carcassonne and the castle at Pierrefonds to a 19th-century version of their medieval glory. In the same way, William Burgess rebuilt the entirely-ruinous Castel Coch in south Wales for the Marquess of Bute, turning it into a Rapunzel-like fantasy of turrets and drawbridges.

Since the time of Scott and Burges, there has been a revolution in the way buildings are looked at and cared for – thanks in large part to William Morris and the movement which he founded, spearheaded by the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings. Morris condemned ‘the fatal practice of ‘restoration’, which in a period of forty years has done more damage to our ancient buildings than the preceding three centuries of revolutionary violence, sordid greed . . . and pedantic contempt’.

Restoring a decaying church or castle is one thing – but what about ruins? When the monasteries were dissolved the buildings were seen by many as an opportunity. The wealthy grabbed the lands, and sometimes converted the buildings into houses. Other people, at all social levels, saw the monastic buildings as a convenient quarry, where the stone was already dressed and ready for use – Fountains Hall is a good example. Of course, this had always gone on. Saxon churches used the remains of Roman forts and towns in their building – there may be bits of Roman arches in St Wilfrid’s crypt in the Cathedral.

By the 18th century, though, ruins were valued not so much for their use but for their ‘picturesque’ qualities. To have a ruin in the ‘landskip’ of your estate was to be very much in fashion – hence the desire of William Aislabie to include Fountains Abbey as part of his Studley Royal estate, or the Duncombes of Duncombe Park to have views of Rievaulx from their Terrace. We still like to look at ruins – Fountains Abbey is one of the most visited of all the National Trust’s properties, with almost 350,000 visits last year.

Lower down the list is Corfe Castle in Dorset (just under 200,000 visits). It’s an impressive ruin – and one that has had its share in a recent controversy. The Chairman of the National Trust, Sir Simon Jenkins, has suggested that he would like Corfe reconstructed – ‘restored’ – in the way that Burgess did at Castle Coch. ‘I cannot see what’s wrong in presenting a building so that ordinary people can understand it’. Even setting aside the superior attitude that implies (‘I can appreciate it, but you need help’) it goes against all the accepted tenets of how we have come to view buildings. A restored Corfe Castle would be something very different – pretty, perhaps, but never real. What not build something new nearby, if that’s what you want?

Of course not all decaying buildings should be left – the buildings at the junction of Water Skellgate and Low Skellgate are unlikely ever to become picturesque ruins, and need immediate treatment, for example. So do the two maltings, one besides Sainsbury’s store ands the other at Ure Bank Top. And organisations Like the Landmark Trust, which has restored the pretend Ruin at Hackfall for holiday use do a remarkable and valuable job. But would we contemplate the complete rebuilding of St Anne’s Chapel in High St Agnesgate? Or of Fountains Abbey? Highly unlikely.

It may be that Sir Simon was just stirring things up; yet he’s certainly set the National Trust on a more populist course, which could lead to conjectural reassertion of the type we thought had largely been defeated, not just in Trust properties but elsewhere. It’s a movement that could again result in the loss of important aspects of historic buildings. We need to watch out!

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