A £6 million project has been completed to restore the roof and facade of the medieval gatehouse of the National Trust’s Oxburgh Hall in West Norfolk.
The 500-year-old building is scaffold-free for the first time in six years and the work will secure its future.
A new immersive experience has opened up in the oldest part of the building, revealing what life was like for a Catholic priest in the 16th century.
Research reveals the possibility of an earlier structure being built on the site.
The work addressed the challenge of building scaffolding in a ditch, incorporated bat-friendly tiles, and led to important archaeological discoveries.
The restoration saw the replacement of 14,000 roof tiles, 27 chimneys and 14 skylights.
Now, a new immersive experience has opened up in the gatehouse, which is the oldest part of the 500-year-old building.
Here visitors can experience what life was like for many Catholic families in the 16th century, including the Bedingfeld family, who remained devout Roman Catholics throughout their time at Oxburgh Hall.
The family’s support of the Catholic Mary I in her claim to the throne brought the family unprecedented power and prestige.
With the succession of Protestant Elizabeth I, the fortunes of the family changed dramatically.
The Bedingfelds’ refusal to change their faith after the Reformation cost them dearly, both politically and financially.
Property curator Lynsey McLaughlin said: “Historical research tells us that Henry Bedingfeld’s house was raided in 1590.
“Although there is no concrete evidence that this was Oxburgh, excavations of the houses of the leading recusant families were commonplace and it is highly probable that such raids took place here between 1580 and 1610. .
“This new volunteer-led guided experience will share the story of a raid, placing the Priest’s Hole in Oxburgh in its historical context.
“Visitors will now be able to step back in time to see what the King’s Hall would have looked like after it was looted and searched for evidence of Papist activity.
“Based on an inventory from 1585 and with the help of specialist craftsmen to recreate the scene of a raid, volunteers will tell the story through the eyes of those who lived it, helping to bring it to life on a very personal and emotional level.”
The new experience, which is currently open from Friday to Sunday, follows the completion of the roofing project, which came after an unexpected skylight collapse in 2016 which, upon further investigation, exposed a weakness in the roof. structure at the roofline.
The project involved the construction of very complex engineer-designed scaffolding to overcome the added complication that the 500-year-old building was surrounded by a moat. 31 miles of scaffolding tubes and 605 tons of sandbags were brought in to create a base that protected the fragile moat soil and fabric of the building, but also ensured the ecology of the moat was safeguarded throughout the project .
Dave White, Project Manager, said: “Working on historic buildings can often pose challenges when you start to lift the veil on what lies beneath.
Also, we were hitting a tipping point with the roof open, just as the coronavirus pandemic hit the headlines.
So, it’s amazing to see how far it’s come and the building now without scaffolding. Full-screen know-how and the future of Oxburgh were assured.
“During the project, we replaced 14,000 pan tiles which the 4th Baronet brought to replace the originals in the 1770s, which had become weathered, cracked and damaged.
“We gave some of them a coat of special bat paint mixed with sand, to ensure night visitors to Oxburgh could climb the tiles around the openings of their new roost.
“The ornate faux Tudor fireplaces, which had become unstable, were repaired or replaced using 12,000 handmade bricks, weighing 29 tons, which appear to have always been there.
“Part of Oxburgh’s distinctive character, each fireplace is slightly different in design, one of which was so complex the brickmakers had to turn to a 3D printer to create a special mould.”
The project was carried out by Messenger, contractors specializing in the conservation and repair of historic buildings.
Andrew Woodley, Head of Contracts at Messenger, said: “It has been a privilege to work on Oxburgh Hall.
“As we often find when working on period properties, many challenges presented themselves and it was up to our team, in particular our site manager, Wayne Gray, and his team of craftsmen, to women, subcontractors and qualified suppliers, that all have been overcome with pragmatism, aplomb and great skill, resulting in the realization of a project of which we are all very proud.”
Several discoveries were made throughout the project.
From historic wallpaper in attics to thousands of rare archaeological finds under floorboards, which included a page from a rare 15th-century illuminated manuscript, fragments of late 16th-century books, to high-level Elizabethan textiles found in two old rat nests.
The variety, age and significance of the objects found and what they reveal make this a unique find and have helped shed light on Oxburgh’s past.
The search also revealed that part of the roof structure on the west side of the building predates Oxburgh and is likely to have been reused.
This raises the question of whether this could be evidence of a structure at the site before the building we see today.
Dendro’s analysis and a structural survey in 2006 suggested as much, but the roofing work gave the experts a much clearer view, confirming their initial suspicions.
The roof project at Oxburgh Hall was made possible by a grant from the Heritage Stimulus Fund, part of the Culture Recovery Fund, which is administered on behalf of the government by Historic England, and support from the National Lottery Heritage Fund, thanks to the money collected by National Lottery players and the Wolfson Foundation.
The project has received additional support from the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development through the Leader programme, the Sylvia Waddilove Foundation UK and the Constance Travis Charitable Trust as well as National Trust members and supporters.