On Sleeping Beauty and approaches to decay

This month has seen the successful conclusion of repairs to the precinct walls at Burnham Norton Friary. The project, funded through the Higher-level Stewardship agreement with Natural England, began back in 2015 with clearance of vegetation to provide access. A thick blanket of brambles was peeled back on the east boundary to reveal – in a contemporary version of the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale -  significant sections of surviving flint wall which had been hidden for years. Over the last two summers the wall sections have been carefully repaired. Vegetative growth has been removed; wall heads rebuilt and rough-racked so that they shed water efficiently; and other surfaces selectively re-pointed. In one area where the upstanding wall had not survived, the masonry at ground level was soft-capped with turf (1).

The northern precinct wall had fallen over some years ago. It was decided that, rather than removing the mosses and grasses that had colonised the horizontal surfaces and then repointing, it would be sensible to treat this vegetative growth as soft-capping. Repointing and weathering was restricted to the splits in the fallen wall which occur along its length, to help shed water off the surfaces and minimise frost damage. Where a section of the wall had not fallen at the north-east corner, we took a more interventionist approach and built a brick buttress to support it.

The repairs to these walls illustrate some of the options that can be taken in managing ruined buildings, a practice which Caitlin Desilvey has neatly defined as ‘curated decay’ (2). In her recent book on the subject she explores ‘the tense place between abandonment and attention’ that management of a ruin requires us to examine. She visits sites such as the National Trust’s Orford Ness, where different levels of management have been adopted for buildings on the site, including non-intervention; and she examines the processes of decision making in the heritage sector on managing inevitable change, from restoration at one end to ‘palliative curation’ at the other – a minimal approach which allows gradual decay. It’s a challenging book for those of us whose instinct is to conserve – but is refreshing for the same reason.

At Burnham Norton Friary our decision making has been influenced by several interests and issues including practicality, bio-diversity, cost, legislation, visitor experience and interpretation. The newly-revealed and conserved perimeter wall on the eastern boundary now helps to define and explain the extent and function of the monastic site for visitors, whereas the fallen northern wall tells a different story, about the processes of historic neglect, decay and transformation.

(1) For more information on soft-capping see http://www.geog.ox.ac.uk/research/landscape/rubble/swc/#overview

(2) Desilvey, Caitlin Curated decay:heritage beyond saving (2017) Minnesota 

News in brief


  • Imagined Land at Burnham Norton Friary: LAUNCH
    Wednesday 15th November
     7.00-9.00 pm Public meeting Burnham Market Primary School.  Launch of Imagined Land Project at Burnham Norton. Opportunity to find out about how to get involved in this HLF-funded project – all welcome. More information at https://sites.google.com/site/burnhamnortonimaginedland 
    or contact Simon Floyd, Project Manager:
    Email: imaginedland1@gmail.com Tel: 07896 781574 
  • Saturday 4 November: ‘Walsingham Buildings Uncovered’ Dr Ian Hinton for NNAS. Lecture begins at 2.15pm at the Town Close Auditorium, Castle Museum, Norwich. Lectures are free to all members; non-members are most welcome and are asked to leave a small donation. www.nnas.info
  • Monday 13 November: ‘Standing Room Only? Finding the Other Churches of Medieval Norwich and John Sell Cotman's Medieval Norwich’ 1.00pm Brian Ayers and Clare Haynes. Norfolk Record Office, The Archive Centre, Norwich. FREE - no booking required 
  • Saturday 18 November 2.30pm: 'Earth and Sky: The Legacy of Trevor Ashwin' Imogen Ashwin. Thomas Paine Lecture Theatre UEA. NAHRG lecture. Many members will have known Trevor, the popular Norfolk archaeologist who died last Christmas. All are welcome to this talk (no charge).
  • Tuesday 21st November 7:30pm: 'Death (and life) at RAF Lakenheath: the Anglo-Saxon story' Joanna Caruth, Senior Archaeologist Suffolk Archaeology. West Norfolk & King's Lynn Archaeology Society, Marriots Warehouse King's Lynn. Members of the public are welcome on payment of a small charge. http://wnklas.greyhawk.org.uk
  • Thursday 23 November 2017 7.30 ‘Roman Roads in Norfolk’  James Albone. Friendship Hall, Aylsham. Aylsham Local History Society: non-members £3 alhs.weebly.com