Cobham Dairy's rescue begins

2018 ended with a flurry of activity behind the scenes on the project to save Cobham Dairy, and work began on site in mid-October. Although the building itself is very small, the journey has been a complicated one, so it is thrilling to be up and running with the physical repair and restoration of the Dairy. 

Built in around 1795 by James Wyatt, one of the leading architects of the day, the Dairy is a Gothic-revival eye-catcher in the grounds of Elizabethan Cobham Hall. It is listed Grade II* and on the Buildings at Risk register, having long lain empty and derelict. 

Cobham DairyAbove: The Dairy has fine views across the grounds to Cobham Hall. Landmarkers will approach the building via a separate track through the woodland behind the building.

Cobham Hall itself is now a girls' boarding school, and the Dairy sits close to the edge of the school grounds. The approach to the building, both for our contactors and for Landmarkers, will be via a track which was once the tradesmen’s entrance, rather than via the main drive. We have therefore needed to negotiate and agree three separate leases – with Cobham Hall School, with the National Trust which owns the track and with a local farming landowner who owns the final part of the route. This last section is currently no more than a footpath but will be upgraded just enough to enable Landmarkers to park their cars quite close to the Dairy.

Landmark’s plans

Our restoration of the Dairy will create a Landmark for two, with a bedroom and bathroom in the dairymaid’s east wing (her bedroom and scullery). The south cloister will be enclosed to create the kitchen, with the north and west cloisters left open as originally. The main double height central chamber will be the sitting and dining room complete with a wood-burning stove.
Cobham Dairy Floorplan

Above: New floorplan for Cobham Dairy.

Work begins at last

Planning Permission and Listed Building Consent for the restoration of the Dairy were granted in February 2018, and came with a bumper set of 23 conditions. These included archaeological evaluations, plasterwork, slate and joinery details and conditions concerning parking, access and refuse. An unusually high number of these were pre-commencement conditions, meaning that they had to be discharged before work could start on site. We have also had to work around the presence of both bats and badgers (there are three active setts near the Dairy) which required a licence from Natural England. This has been a long process, but thankfully by September all of the conditions had been discharged and we were able to complete the tendering process and agree a start date with our contractors.

Cobham InteriorAbove: Cobham's derelict hallway

Following a competitive tendering process, we are delighted to be working once again with Colman of Canterbury as it was a very positive experience working with them on the restoration of St Edward’s Presbytery, next to The Grange in Ramsgate. We are equally delighted to have the excellent services of Higinio Gonzalez-Bello, Ginio to all of us, as our site manager again.

The team began work on site at the Dairy in mid-October and they are making good progress. We are currently working off generators, but hope to have mains electricity installed before the Christmas break. Installing the new main supply will involve shutting off the electricity to the whole of Cobham Hall School, which unsurprisingly needs to be done during the school holidays. This work will take place under the watchful eyes of the archaeologist, as new trenches are dug, and with the ecologists continuing to monitor the nearby badger setts.

Discoveries on site

Inside the Dairy, the stone floors (or what remained of them) have all been carefully recorded, lifted and stored. The sub-floor has been excavated to provide the necessary depth for under floor insulation and heating to go in, in due course. As expected, this has led to the discovery of a brick drain that leads from near the centre of the main chamber floor, and heads north, probably to some form of external soakaway. We had seen before what looked like a drain outlet in the stone floor and this tallies with what would have almost certainly been some form of water or ice-holding feature which is a common feature of dairies.

Sadly, whatever was at Cobham Dairy has long gone, and no photographs or drawings have come to light to show what was there. Replacing this long lost feature would create an obstacle in the middle of the sitting room and the main route from the front door to the kitchen. So the brick drain will be recorded by our archaeologist and then carefully removed to make way for the underfloor heating.

Cobham Dairy brick drainAbove: The discovery of a brick drain in the floor of the central chamber.

Below: The Victorian Dairy at Easton Farm Park in Suffolk retains its central feature, sadly long lost at Cobham.

Suffolk and Cobham Dairies

Another discovery has been made in the dairymaid’s bedroom. We had always been a bit puzzled by the fact that the stone slabs to the floor in this room are significantly larger than those in the rest of the property. The initial archaeological survey had suggested that this might be in connection with some form of suspended floor, and this turns out to be more or less right! Under these larger slabs is in fact a brick vault with a very shallow brick dome which is almost flat, and which encloses an empty unventilated void.

We think that this was a way of providing some insulation in this room, keeping the stone slabs a little warmer than they would be if laid directly on the earth as elsewhere in the building. As air is a good insulator, this was a cunning solution to provide a little more comfort to the girl who would have probably lived here all year round.

How such a shallow dome was built remains a puzzle, as it has absolutely no supports to it within the void underneath. Our site manager, Ginio thinks that there must have been some form of sliding formwork (used to build any arch or dome) that could be slid forward once the mortar has set, and then removed before the wall at the end was built.

Cobham Dairy voidAbove: The void beneath the floor in the dairymaid's bedroom.

Another challenge we have discovered is that the brick walls to the upper section of the main double height chamber, are badly bowed along their north and south sides. If this was just to remain brickwork, it might matter less, but trying to fit large sheets of the all-important slate cladding to a bowed surface would give us all sorts of problems – and hence it looks likely that the most pragmatic solution will be to take down and rebuild these affected areas.

Next steps

After less than a month on site, Ginio and the Colmans team have made an excellent start, and we very much look forward to bringing you further updates as the project progresses. None of this would have been possible without your generous support, and that of Ecclesiastical Insurance, for the restoration of Cobham Dairy. Our sincere thanks – once again – from all the team at Landmark.