Saving the Semaphore Tower

We’re delighted to have opened the Semaphore Tower in Surrey, our latest building rescue and a project completed despite the challenges of the Coronavirus pandemic. Here we share a glimpse of the restoration, tracing the years of work that went into saving the structure.

The context  

In January 2016, at an event in St James’s Palace hosted by our patron HRH The Prince of Wales, we announced a determination to rescue, amongst others, buildings with communications origins. So when, in 2018, Surrey County Council approached us about the 19th-century Semaphore Tower - once a vital communications link for the Royal Navy – we were determined to rescue the Napoleonic-era structure.  

Nestled in the scenic Chatley Heath nature reserve, the redbrick Semaphore Tower had long faced water ingress challenges. The wooden mast and its mechanisms, while remarkable survivals, needed significant restoration. Much of the woodwork and brickwork required an overhaul, and new services were needed throughout. So across 2018-19 we were busy with paperworkplanning a programme of works and, latterly, fundraising for the rescue.  

Work begins 

In the winter of 2019/20 the project team, led by Landmark surveyor Richard Burton, with architect Louise Bainbridge 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 1,152 supporters, in late in 2019 we were able to formally sign a contract with the winners of a competitive tendering process, the West Sussex-based Valley Builders  

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Work onsite began in the cold of February 2020. It took weeks for 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 Coronavirus pandemic hit. 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 some delays inevitably crept in, principally due to supply chain challenges, work continued throughout 2020 

Restoring the mast 

Engineering and heritage conservation specialist Ian Clarke was onsite for two months to restore the all-important semaphore mast structure and its mechanism. With sympathetic conservation carpentry, the wooden mast was overhauled and painted the original deep red. The mechanism, which runs from the rooftop down into what is now the kitchen, was examined and repaired. Against the odds, we inherited a weighty handle that control the mechanisms that Ian could use to test and fine-tune his work. Thanks to this work, we will be able to demonstrate the marvellous semaphore mechanism on free public open days.  

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Utilities 

Although perhaps not the most glamorous side of any building work, a fundamental aspect - bound up with the final presentation and use of a space - is the layout of its utilities. Throughout this project, much effort was dedicated to renewing the tower’s services and ensuring the highest level of fire safety. To take but one small example, electrics are laid out ensuring plug sockets are situated where bedside tables sit – all for the comfort of guests charging their phones overnight or reading books by lamplight.   

Countryfile visit 

On a sunny summer day, we were delighted to host a visit from the BBC’s Countryfile TV series. Presenter Margarita Taylor interviewed Landmark historian Caroline Stanford, learning about the history of the building and its early occupants. The resulting five-minute piece aired on 2 August 2020 to five million viewers and remains available to watch here 

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Decoration 

With huge thanks to our friends Craig & Rose, we’ve used their paints throughout the building – each colour carefully chosen to evoke naval history.  

All the joinery - including doors and their architraves plus linings, skirtingswindows and their sills - are painted Pipe Clay in eggshell. All ceilings are White Doe chalky emulsion.  

All the walls are an eggshell - the entrance lobby Pipe Clay, the entrance hall Saxe Blue, the ground floor bathroom Regency Cream. The twin bedroom and its shower room are Steel Pole, the double bedroom is Pompadour and the sitting room Regency Cream. The kitchen walls are also Steel Pole, the hand-crafted units matched to Smalt.   

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The stairs, landings and basement are a striking stylised combination of White Doe and, below the string line, a special mix to match the historic red colour of the Semaphore mast 

The front and back doors are, externally, Smalt and, internally, Pipe Clay. The roof balustrade and entrance railings are a special mix matched to the rainwater goods.   

Furnishing  

In the run up to a building opening, our furnishings advisor John Evetts usually spends months visiting antiques fairs, hunting for the perfect items of furniture. With the Coronavirus pandemic, in 2020 that was impossible.  

Instead, John spent hours on Instagram, purchasing from dealers who had pivoted from in-person sales to social media offeringsThere are light-hearted hints of the military throughout the tower - a telescope for guests to use on the rooftop and a pair of historic semaphore flags hanging above the bath, signalling ‘man overboard.’  

These furnishings join hand-crafted bespoke kitchen fittings, produced in our Honeybourne workshop by joiners Mark Smitten and Matt Cannell.  

Welcoming guests at last 

Throughout our early planning processes, we had envisaged opening Semaphore Tower in autumn/winter 2020. The Coronavirus pandemic of course dealt a blow to that timetable, but we are delighted to have welcomed our first guests in April 2021, who we hope will find a peaceful retreat from the tumultuous world.  

Explore the Semaphore Tower