Recently I was asked to name a favourite building that I had studied, which is no easy matter. As a buildings’ archaeologist for more than 20 years I have studied hundreds of structures from pigsties and farmhouses, churches and warehouses, to ironworks and textile mills. It’s a difficult question as usually it’s a case of providing a report as part of a planning condition. This means studying a building for just a few days, or even just a few hours, before providing a highly technical report, often on just a few aspects of the structure.
There are certain buildings I have looked at during this process that I would be very happy to study in detail at leisure; Shaddon Mill, an 1830s stream powered cotton spinning mill in Carlisle is one, and a row of three weavers’ cottages built in 1772-3 in Manchester’s northern quarter, another. However, a return is seldom possible. Such has been the reality of working within the planning system since 1994.
Occasionally, long-term conservation work involves multiple returns to a structure as the fabric is revealed and then repaired. The 15th to 17th century merchant’s property of Staircase House in Stockport and the timber-framed 1530s church at St Lawrence’s in Denton, Tameside, are both buildings I have been fortunate to study in this way. Each demonstrates how the buildings only slowly reveal their secrets, through a close study of their form, fabric and function. I have also had the opportunity to undertake several research projects involving thematic and township surveys looking either at a specific building type or at a small rural or urban area. Amongst these is one building that I have returned to many times in the last 21 years: St Werburgh’s in Warburton.
This ancient church is one of only 29 surviving late medieval timber-framed churches and chapels in England and Wales. It was described by the mid-20th century architectural historian Nickolaus Pevsner as a ‘loveable muddle’. St Werburgh’s is small medieval chapel of ease that lies in a pretty, circular, graveyard, defined by a bank and ditch, hemmed in by ancient yew trees, on the Cheshire-Greater Manchester border. Though the church passed in 1971 into the hands of the Churches Conservation Trust, there are still four services held each year, including a candle-lit carol service. Last year I was lucky enough to hear Latin vespers sung in the church as part of a celebration of Warburton’s history, and the same weekend to launch a book on the village and its ancient church.
St Werburgh’s has an aisled nave with two large late medieval (probably 15th century) timber trusses supporting a heavily-altered roof, a stone and brick chancel with extensive Victorian work, and a brick bell tower of 1717 located unusually at the eastern end of the church. The low roof-line of the nave reflects its partial rebuilding in stone around 1645. I have spent 20 years studying this building, teasing out at least six major phases of building activity and hunting for any signs of the short-lived priory established here in 1187-90 by the lord of the manor, Adam de Dutton, beyond the fragments of two stone medieval coffins. It is still a structure that retains many secrets. Last year I realised that the scorch marks visible on one of the uprights in the nave were in fact taper burns and should probably be interpreted as protective marks from the late medieval period. I have visited this church every year since 1995 yet still the story of its historical development and spiritual and social place within its village remains incomplete.