The National Trust is formally launching its Heritage and Rural Skills Centre at Coleshill in Oxfordshire on 19 May.
The skills shortage within the conservation sector is putting heritage buildings at risk, with around 25% of building stock being pre-First World War, requiring traditional building techniques to maintain them.
In 2017 when Christian Walker, general manager of the National Trust’s Buscot & Coleshill Estates in West Oxfordshire, was forced to import specialist lead workers from Europe to repair a historic roof, he realised the extent of the problem.
Six years later, the National Trust is launching the Heritage and Rural Skills Centre in the picturesque village of Coleshill in West Oxfordshire. This on-site community of craftspeople in individual workshops will run alongside a teaching hub that offers courses for professionals, beginners and hobbyists, including lime plastering, stained glass and basket weaving.
The Heritage and Rural Skills Centre aims to safeguard the vital traditional building techniques and rural crafts that are in decline. Its individual workshops are all housed in sensitively converted farm buildings, once the model farm, which was at the cutting edge of agriculture in the mid-1800s when it was built, and clustered around a series of courtyards.
There are 1200 building structures under the care of the National Trust on the Buscot & Coleshill estates alone, requiring a wide range of skills to keep them in good repair, including thatchers for roofs, lime plasterers for walls and blacksmiths to repair iron gates and railings.
Opening in May is the new Faringdon Forge. This dedicated blacksmithing workshop has been fitted out with the help of course provider and blacksmith David Gregory. There’s a wide variety of equipment, including forges and a new glass window so visitors can get a glimpse of courses in action.
Award-winning wood and stone carver Tom Ball has been a resident at the Skills Centre from the start. Tom has a wealth of experience in the field of restoration and works with some of the UK’s most prestigious conservation companies as well as the National Trust. Most recently, he faithfully recreated from photographs two stone busts, which had been stolen from the gate posts of Coleshill House in the 1990s.
The first course to run at the Heritage and Rural Skills Centre was lime plastering, in association with the SPAB (Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings) and the Worshipful Company of Plaisterers who provide bursaries for those not able to fund their place on the course.
The popularity of the courses means they’ve outgrown the original studio space, and a new studio has been created in the former cattle-fatting pens. A strong programme of courses will be on offer in 2023, including lime plastering, ornamental lime plastering, blacksmithing, stone and wood-carving, stained-glass making and weaving – and evening and half-day courses for those wanting to ‘have a go’.
A new, permanent exhibition will also open on 19 May about the Coleshill estate and its long legacy of craftspeople. The exhibition offers visitors an insight into the creative mind that built the Inigo Jones-style mansion, which once stood on the site and was said to be one of the finest examples of 17th-century architecture in the country.
Coleshill House was lost to a fire in the 1950s, and the exhibition will celebrate the innovation and rural skills that created the Home Farm and the many creative people who were inspired to live and work on the estate.
There’s also an opportunity to see some of the items salvaged from the fire, including the great Saloon fireplace, pieces of stone- and plasterwork and medallions showing the craftsmanship of the roof and walls.
There’s a public Open Day with tours, demos and children’s activities on Saturday, 20 May.