Church history trampled underfoot

10 June 2016

Attention to detail: the remains of the 12th-century doorway at Strata Florida Abbey, near Aberystwyth (CREDIT: KATE GRIFFIN)

Attention to detail: the remains of the 12th-century doorway at Strata Florida Abbey, near Aberystwyth (CREDIT: KATE GRIFFIN)

HERITAGE beneath our feet is being lost in the search for safer and more practical uses of our historic churches, the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings has warned.

“We’re alarmed at the way old floors are being ‘walked over’ in improvement plans and ‘upgrades’ in a variety of old buildings,” the society’s director, Matthew Slocombe, said. “Our caseworkers regularly report that they are involved too late in discussions about works involving old floors. By the time they are asked to comment on plans or proposals, pivotal decisions have already been made or are being actively pursued. A great number of schemes are being developed without initial consideration of the beauty and interest of the materials, literally, underfoot.

“In churches and cathedrals, for example, original floors — notably tiles and ledgerstones — have been re-laid and removed to allow the introduction of heating solutions, or to create a level floor that better meets health and safety requirements. Another major driver is the need to create a more flexible space, suitable for a variety of uses. Although laudable in intention, this can lead to destruction of ancient fabric.”

The society has launched a campaign to raise public awareness of the importance of old floors in a variety of buildings. It has listed Britain’s top 20 historic floors — none of which are under threat — which range from cathedrals to a Roman mosaic and a Norfolk pub. They include encaustic tiles at Winchester Cathedral; the worn Chapter House steps at Wells Cathedral, also known as the “sea of steps”; unglazed medieval brick paviours at St Mary’s, Cawston, in Norfolk; and the 13th-century tomb-lined floor of St Mary’s at Lead, North Yorkshire.

“The society believes floors contribute enormously to the ‘spirit’ of a place,” Mr Slocombe said. “The patina of time caused by centuries of wear and tear, daily use, and gradual settlement are essential components of a space’s presence and unique atmosphere and acoustic quality.

“Yet these imperfections can make their own important contribution to the interest, beauty, and historic value of a structure. Floors are where we make a direct physical connection to a space, following in the footsteps of those who — throughout the centuries — have gone before. Romantics among us might well feel a frisson of recognition to know that we are standing on the very spot where history was made.”

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