Gurney Manor has been recognised for many years as a most remarkable survival - a little altered late medieval house of high quality, with almost all its original structure still intact. Although parts of the building date back to before 1400, the main period of building was between 1450 and 1480. Most alterations made afterwards, such as new windows or fireplaces, panelling or decorative plasterwork, date from the Tudor and Elizabethan periods. From 1600 until now no substantial change had occurred, beyond the rebuilding of the hall roof, first around 1690 then in about 1890 and again in 1990.
Even the recent division into flats scarcely affected the fabric. Without them, it is possible that the building would have been lost in the 1940s. By 1980 however this extra lease of life had expired. The house was rundown and parts of it were near to collapse, with long-concealed structural problems starting to become obvious as walls and chimneys leaned perilously.
The picture is now rather different, as the Manor has returned to something approaching its appearance in 1600. In 1984 it took the eye of faith, or of considerable knowledge, to see the interior of a medieval house behind the plaster ceilings and partitions that hid all but a few details from view. Now, fine medieval roofs and fireplaces are fully visible and wonderfully repaired. Windows have been reglazed in traditional patterns, walls have on them lime plaster as good as that of medieval craftsmen and ceilings, whether of plaster or moulded oak, are in perfect shape.
In its new life, the original arrangement of the house has been respected and the layout of the rooms for the most part follows the pattern set before 1500. In some cases, such as the parlour, the hall and the chapel, they can be used again as they were in medieval times. But the needs of today have also been catered for. The kitchen has moved to a more convenient site for modern life, between the hall and the parlour. Bathrooms have been fitted in where they do not interrupt the medieval layout. Central heating has been installed, to supplement the heat of the open fires.
To oversee the work, the Landmark Trust employed Caroe and Partners of Wells, architects with a wide experience of historic building repair, together with the equally experienced Quantity Surveyors, Bare, Leaning and Bare of Bath. Nearly all the work was carried out by a team of six men, part of the Landmark Trust's own workforce. Under the careful and knowledgeable eye of the foreman, Philip Ford, our masons and joiners worked on nearly every corner of the building, to make it sound and weathertight.
The owners of Gurney Manor in the past made alterations and improvements to suit their own ideas of comfort. We in turn hope that as a result of our work, our visitors will be comfortable, and quickly feel at home.
The Restoration described Peter Bird of Caroe & Partners
Building work began at Gurney Manor in the autumn of 1984, with the careful removal of modern accretions and plaster layers to attempt to learn more of the history of the house. It is a remarkable building and was worth taking time over; and this archaeological exercise which occupied some nine months was indeed very rewarding. It enabled us to assemble a large fund of information about the building before any decisions were made about repair and it was a most exciting period in that every day seemed to reveal more fascinating detail about the building's past.
Armed with this history of the house it was possible to develop a programme for its restoration stage by stage and to agree the work with English Heritage, who provided a generous grant for the work. Repair began in the solar block. The magnificent 15th-century roof here was badly decayed, the chimney stack was falling out and window tracery was precarious and defaced. The roof was carefully dismantled, repaired and re-assembled. One carved post of the original roof was found to survive and this was conserved and used as a model for the restoration of the remaining posts. The chimney was tied back to the building with a complicated web of concrete stitches; a print of 1845 enabled us to reproduce the early chimney head in stone. During this work the 13th-century carved stone head of a King, now set in the wall of the solar, was found in the hearth of the same room.
Once the solar block was weathertight, work passed to the kitchen range. Here again the 15th-century roof was dismantled and repaired. The south wall, leaning outward because of the sideways load of the roof, was restrained again with a concrete ring beam concealed in the head of the wall: the ends of this beam were tied to the structure by drilling through the wall core, in order to avoid loss of medieval render and plaster which survives inside and out. The nuts and bolts securing the beam can be seen inside the flue of the fireplace.
As the work progressed on the outside 'envelopes' of the kitchen and solar it was possible to turn to the interior and to details such as the repair of the rendering. Where it was missing or loose this has been replaced in lime mortar exactly to match the original. The stonework of the window tracery and dressings has been repaired by consolidation of the old work and by some replacement of the worst decayed material. Repair of timber floors such as the framed floor over the kitchen, all done with epoxy resin to save as much as possible of the old timber, has also been undertaken. The fine chapel ceiling, with its remains of bright medieval paint, was taken down for conservation and to allow for the carving of new fretwork, to replace missing sections.
Next came the hall, where the roof has been restored to its 17th-century level, after taking off the late 19th-century roof and building a new structure at the lower level revealed by research. The roofs of the small building on the north-west corner and the pentice in the courtyard, have also been repaired and the pentice walls rebuilt.
For the last year, work was concentrated on finishing the interior and fitting it out for its new occupants. Even so, there were new finds - during the work for the central heating, for example, the original open hearth in the hall was discovered. As work proceeded over the years more and more had been found out about the building - all this was recorded and our knowledge of Gurney Manor and its builders improved steadily as each stone was removed and replaced.