In 2002, the Church Council were aware that the building needed re-thatching, and realised that their funds were not adequate the meet the cost. . The Head of Archaeology and Historic Buildings in the Dartmoor National Park Authority (DNPA) Deborah Griffiths, visited Church House and suggested that in view of the importance of the building and the fact that It was probably the only Church House in Devon with smoke blackened thatch, we should undertake a comprehensive restoration. Public meetings were held in the autumn of 2002, and it was decided that a committee should be formed with the intention of applying to Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) for support. In February 2003 we heard that we might be eligible for a grant, and Richard Bellamy (Development Officer HLF) guided us through the processes needed to put in a full application.
The Committee wished to continue to conserve and maintain this rare and architecturally important building and keep it in community use. This would enable people, both locally and regionally to continue to use it. Additionally they would be helping to sustain the craft of thatching and other traditional building skills. The proximity of the building to the Listed Grade 1 Church of Saint Andrew, in the centre of the village of South Tawton, is a significant attraction for visitors to the area and the Committee wished to encourage appropriate tourism, with the support of the Dartmoor National Park . The intention is to continue and increase the use of Church House for parish and church events, for adult education and the arts and for educational events. Artists and sculptors, both national and local, are also actively seeking to use Church House as a studio and as an exhibition venue. Part of the project, which included complete re-thatching, repairs to the fabric of the building, upgrading of access arrangements and improved facilities to ensure the future viability of the building, was the provision of interpretation and educational materials and developing a suitable marketing strategy.
Reports and surveys were then commissioned.
Historical Survey and measured drawings: Keystone, Exeter .(This work was funded jointly by English Heritage and the DNPA.
Feasibility Study: Cynthia Gaskell Brown, M.A. Torpoint Cornwall.
Condition Survey: Allen Van der Steen, Van der Steen Hall, Architects, Chagford.
All these Companies or individuals were chosen for their expertise and knowledge of historic buildings, and their work has been invaluable throughout the project.
Much of the funding for this crucial stage was provided by the Dartmoor Sustainable Development Fund (DNPA and DEFFRA), and Peter Joyce, the fund officer, helped us with the forms. The Parish Council and Friends of Church House also gave financial support at this vital stage when we did not know if we might be awarded a grant by HLF. One of our committee members and her daughter raised over £1100 by jumping from a small plane at 10,000 ft and a nearby country house garden, which was opened in aid of the project, raised £2700 and was visited by over 650 people.
All this took time but in January 2004 we put in our full application. Fundraislng continued, whilst the Project Manager and members of the committee replied to the many questions raised by HLF. Russell Luscombe, the appointed Grants Officer, was very helpful at this stage, as the process was new to us all. On June 16th 2003 we heard that we had been successful in obtaining a 78% grant of £274,000 from HLF. This was exciting and rather daunting news, and we continued with our approaches to Trusts and Charities for help with matched funding. The total cost of the project was estimated at just under £350000, and we had quite a challenge to meet our part of the cost.
Prior to the issuing of Tenders for the actual building repairs and reconstruction, we carried out some essential research on the history and construction of Church House. The thatch was researched by John Letts, Historic Thatch Consultant from Oxford . His report detailed the history of wheat reed thatching as the results of his specific investigation of the Church House roof. Ian Tyers of Sheffield University dendrochronology laboratory, carried out tree ring dating on the building. His results were both startling and fascinating, as his evidence revealed that Church House had been a 2 storied building from the start. This confounded much of our earlier thinking, and explained the relatively light blackening of the base coat of our thatch.
We were most fortunate in being able to retain the services of Cynthia Gaskell Brown whose great enthusiasm for Church House has continued to be a real inspiration to us all. Mrs Gaskell Brown carried out all the historical research and has put together our interpretation material for the panels and guidebooks, quite apart from being a great support to the Project Manager In times of stress!
After much hard work by the architects, and by the appointed Quantity Surveyor, Fred Major of Bare, Leaning and Bare, Exeter, tenders were invited for the Main Contractor. Darrock and Brown of Bodmin were successful. They are an approved Heritage Company and in the event have proved to be an excellent firm to have for the work. Tenders were also Invited for the thatching work, and we were fortunate to secure the services of Malcolm Hayes from Chagford, whose work has been most timely and superb. Bill Gladwell and Arthur Britton of Darrock and Brown, sought various sub-contractors for such work as Stone masonry repairs, joinery work and the provision of heating, and power. The work on the structure of Church House began in May 2005,and we watched the inside of the building being torn apart as all recent additions were removed and the original features were revealed.
The first aim of the project was to restore Church House and to ensure that it provided the facilities required for its proposed usage.
Re-thatching the whole building while leaving the 500 year old smoke-blackened lower layer in place.
Replacing the existing softwood floors with oak flooring, repairing doors and windows and renovating as necessary, including the pointing of the building, inside and out where necessary.
Updating the heating and lighting provision in accordance with its planned uses.
Ensuring that the food preparation area and the toilet facilities are brought up to current standards, including disability access and baby changing provision.
Providing disability access to the ground floor.
Under the expert and patient guidance of Pip Morrison ( Van der Steen Hall) the committee were delighted at the skill with which all those engaged in the restoration work undertook their tasks. Ian Piper of matched the granite for the missing mullions and other stone repairs with amazing skill, and the joinery craftsmanship for the doors, windows and plank and muntin screen has been worthy of the best available. Marshall Joinery from nearby Sampford Courtenay, did this work. The completed thatch is looking great, and has been much improved by the extra work on the East and West facing ends of the roof.