Here we share some insights into our ongoing restoration of Semaphore Tower, which will complete in the winter of 2020/21 ready for holidays starting in the spring.
Nestled in the Chatley Heath nature reserve in scenic Surrey, we know that the Semaphore Tower has always faced water ingress challenges. We know also that the wooden mast and its mechanisms, while they had remarkably remained in place, needed significant care in order to work once more. Much of the woodwork and brickwork required an overhaul, and new services plus electrics were necessary throughout. This was the context for our restoration and across 2018-19, while our fundraising appeal was underway, we were also busy planning the programme of works.
In the winter of 2019/20 the project team, led by our surveyor Richard Burton, with architects Louise Bainbridge and Sarah Harlow from Seymour & Bainbridge, quantity surveyor Karl Riechers of Huntley Cartwright and services engineer Neil Prowse of Martin Thomas Associates, put our finalised plans into motion. Thanks to the generosity of over 1000 supporters to our appeal, in late in 2019 we were able to formally sign a contract with the highly experienced contractor Valley Builders, who had won the competitive tendering process.
Onsite work began in earnest in the cold of February 2020. It took weeks of work for the external scaffolding to be stitched together securely, slowly lacing up and around the tower’s five storeys. As the scaffolding was underway, so too was work to clear and prepare the interiors, plus investigate the mast.
A global health pandemic
Within weeks of starting work, the Covid-19 pandemic hit the UK. While the country adjusted to life under lockdown – juggling working from kitchen tables, home schooling and much more besides - the Government announced that, in England, work could continue on building sites.
In response, the Valley Builders team rapidly developed Covid-secure procedures, following all the latest advice and guidance at every stage. Although something we could never have anticipated, in some ways the project lends itself to social distancing – each level of the tower has limited floor space, so limited workspace too. Although some delays inevitably crept in, principally due to supply chain challenges, work slowed but, remarkably, continued throughout lockdown.
Restoring the mast
Through April and May, engineering and heritage conservation specialist Ian Clark worked onsite to restore the all-important semaphore mast structure and its mechanism. With careful and sympathetic conservation carpentry, the wooden mast was overhauled and then painted the original deep red. The mechanism, which runs from the rooftop down into what will become the kitchen, was examined and repaired. Against the odds, we inherited a weighty handle that controls the mechanisms which Ian could use to test and fine-tune this work.
On a sunny day in late July, we were delighted to host a visit from the BBC’s Countryfile TV series. Presenter Margarita Taylor interviewed our historian Caroline Stanford, learning about the history of the building and its early occupants. The resulting 5-minute piece aired on Sunday 2 August to a five million viewers, and remains available to watch here.