Just like they did it in the old days

15th August 2003 at 01:00
DREAMING of restoring a lovely old building is all very well but the reality can be difficult. Builders with the appropriate traditional skills are few in number and there are often stringent building regulations to be satisfied.

In the Yorkshire Dales National Park, a heritage training programme has been introduced for anyone interested in acquiring the vernacular skills needed to work on a barn or restore a listed building.

The programme's first workshops, held at appropriately ancient premises, were fully booked with almost 50 people attending each one. They were organised by the recently formed School of Heritage at Skipton's Craven College and planned by David Tayler, training co-ordinator at the Yorkshire Dales Millennium Trust.

"Building integrity is what we want to encourage," he explains. "There have been vernacular skills courses in other parts of the country but where we have been successful is in introducing a course where there is a real need.

The numbers prove that."

One of the first workshops, held in early summer, covered working with lime. The Dales region is, of course, rich in lime, and builders working before the 1850s, when the railways came, used lime for rendering, pebble-dashing and for pointing. Portland Cement is cheaper and faster and became popular with builders, but cement mixtures crack. But lime plastering and pointing needs patience with its preparation and application, and good weather is essential for what can be a tedious drying process. Nevertheless, there are some advantages.

"Lime is a porous material," says Craig Blood, one of the builders on the course. "That means it will absorb water and let the water come back to the surface. Lime also allows for a good deal of structural movement without cracking. It opened my eyes, I can tell you. Cement is not as good as I had been led to believe. Pointing a house with cement simply keeps the water in.

"We were told the reasons for using lime. Where to use it and how to use it. The course is something my business partner and I have been wanting to do for ages as our clients with period homes are wanting us to use lime more and more. We had a mixture of people on the course - architects, planners, surveyors and some home owners. They all said they don't know enough about lime."

Craig steps back. The wall he has been working on is now as it should be - just as the original Victorian builder intended.

A future course, scheduled for the autumn term, will look at ancient roofs in the Dales. They were made from local Yordale sandstone until the cheaper Welsh and Cumbrian slate was brought in by rail.

"Today there is only one source of that stone in the National Park and it is expensive," explains Mr Tayler. "Students will be taught to assess roof flags to see whether they can be saved and used elsewhere on the same building."

An obvious question for Mr Tayler is, where does he get his tutors from? "There are a few people who are keen to keep the old skills alive and I hunt them out," he says. "I tend to work on recommendations and I use a contact at the Society for the Preservation of Ancient Buildings."

A Rural Trades Register is now being compiled by Craven College and Mr Tayler's students will be added to that register when they feel ready.

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