Saturday, 18 October 2014

Castles Home and Away: Part Seven

This is the seventh and last blog entry describing the seven places of interest visited on a West Highland road trip earlier in the year. The last place of interest visited was Ardnamuchan Point. As Andrew and I were leaving Mingary Castle for home, we saw the brown sign saying Ardnamuchan Point was only 5 miles away. We had come this far, so on a total whim we decided to go for it.

Ardnamuchan Point, beloved of the Radio 4 "Shipping Forecast", is the most westerly point in Britain - in short legendary! Common sense would seem to suggest Land's End in Cornwall is the most westerly party of the British mainland, but in fact it is 20 miles further to the east.

the very bleak and very westerly Ardnamuchan Point

Ardnamuchan is bleak and while not inaccessible, the road is sufficient tricky, that getting there seemed to take an age. Not for the first time Andrew and I asked ourselves "What are we doing here?". In fact a lot of the driving in the Western Highlands was similar. While the distances were not huge, the slow running on the roads make all trips seems like an odyssey. The roads went up and down and wound side to side. I recall passing one "Blind Summit" sign. This normally means just taking extra care. However, this summit was so blind that once at the top neither of us could see the road dropping down beneath us. And much like a high-octane roller-coaster ride, we both screamed involuntarily and in synchrony.

Ardnamuchan Point has a lighthouse (1849) and a foghorn, and while a lighthouse is not a castle, there are similarities. Castles and lighthouses both have towers; both are built solidly; both are often built in stunning locations; and both are often interesting architecturally. Ardnamuchan is no exception and the building style is Egyptian Revival, and indeed the material is granite, of which the Ancient Egyptians themselves were rather fond.

Egyptian Revival lighthouse buildings
The engineering infrastructure for the foghorn is amazing. Diesel engines drive air-pumps. The pressurised air is collected in large metal tanks. These tanks are connected by a pipe to a small building right on the coast, which contains extra gubbins, before feeding through to the massive red foghorn itself. Andrew was in his vintage engineering element, and even I have to admit that the set-up was a steampunk's dream.

lighthouse and foghorn

Andrew provides scale for the foghorn

(timing?) gubbins inside foghorn building

 gubbins inside foghorn building

 warning on foghorn building door

room with air pumps

Arriving at and leaving from Ardnamurchan Point was slowed down considerably by the lengthy last section of road which is single track with no passing places. Andrew and I had to wait at the traffic lights at both ends for a considerable time.  While waiting to leave, I took this image because I rather liked the serpentining road ahead leading homewards.

leaving Ardnamurchin: traffic lights and serpentining road
Looking back, the mini road trip had many of the hallmarks of insanity, but I am so pleased to have done it. Thanks to Andrew for driving and indulging the insanity. I returned re-invigorated and re-motivated for Balintore's restoration.

the 36 m lighthouse tower

Friday, 17 October 2014

Castles Home and Away: Part Six

The main target of this year's mini road trip was Castle Stalker. It is only open on a few days of the year and had to be booked in advance. The secondary target was Mingary Castle. I had never expected to visit Mingary as it is so remote. However, it is only a little bit further into the wilderness than Castle Stalker, so it made total sense to visit it on the same trip.

Mingary Castle is currently undergoing an impressive restoration which is the main reason I wanted to visit. There are warnings on the excellent blog that there is no access to the public, so I wrote a number of times to the author of the blog to ask how I would set about getting permission. There was no reply, so the fairly long drive to Mingary could well have turned out to be a wild goose chase. My friend Andrew did the driving, and I don't know how many times I apologised to him in advance about the possible failure of the mission.

Things did not bode well as the road to the castle was labelled with a sign "no vehicles and no access to castle". Some lateral thinking was required. I suggested that as the castle was on the coast, all we needed to do was somehow get to the coast and follow it round. We passed the castle and drove into the tiny village of Kilchoan. This had a small tourist office/community centre. I asked about access to the castle at the tourist office, I was told categorically there was none. The community centre had leaflets on the castle, and a perspex collection box raising funds for the restoration. The contents of the box were not inconsiderable, perhaps I should take a hint from this? :-)

Andrew and I left the car in the community centre car park. We walked to the harbour, where a ferry was disembarking. I strode off along the beach to the left, the direction we had come from. Surely at some stage I must encounter a castle? Andrew lagged behind, and seemed far less keen to jump over rock pools and climb along cliffs, where there was no beach or where vegetation made going along the flat impossible. I asked Andrew if he was OK but he is very stoic; said nothing; and kept going at his own pace. I found out afterwards his shoes did not have a proper grip. We were scrambling over wet rock surfaces.  Mind you, my trainers seemed no better than his! :-)

Andrew hesitantly navigating rock pools - Kilchoan ferry in background

After an absolute age we finally chanced on the castle. I had considered inwardly giving up a number of times. The castle is absolutely wreathed in scaffolding. In the flesh this is quite astounding, and I had never quite got the scale of the engineering undertaking from the photos on the blog.

Mingarry Castle: approaching the building

I had wanted to talk to someone at the castle about the work going on, but this would involve revealing ourselves as trespassers. I figured we should have a look around first before we got caught. There were at least 10 workmen, and on the principle of "diffusion of responsibility" I figured they would do nothing when (inevitably) we would be spotted. Often people at the coal face are far less "precious" about permission or lack of it, as that is a bureaucratic creation. Andrew and I had a good scramble around. The rock the castle is situated on is the very definition of vertiginous. Half of the beach below the castle is a massive single slab of hard rock: more or less flat but on a considerable incline. An amazing natural phenomenon. This is ideal for boat access to the castle, but to walk across it was absolutely treacherous:  the surface was covered in generic wet beach slime and seaweed! We tried to find safe paths across it where there was a little washed-up sand.

Mingary Castle: up close and personal

Andrew standing by scaffolding for scale

We then boldly climbed up to the work yard. There was a fence around it but we skirted round this to the main entrance and made our way to the site foreman's portakabin. There we met Mr. Thompson of the restoration contractor Ashley Thompson Ltd. He was extraordinarily generous is giving Andrew and myself his time, and telling us about the restoration. One of the major problems is remoteness. The workmen have to live on site in caravans and are away from their family and friends for months at a time with NO personal internet access! Mr. Thompson indicated there was just one place on the building site with some Internet access. The Ardnamurchan Estate who are behind the restoration supply the oak from their forests for the timber construction, and will eventually supply the firewood for the newly built detached boiler house which will heat the castle. Oh to be able to supply my own wood at Balintore! :-) This generates 90% of the material sourcing issues.

a hive of activity - note on-site caravans for accommodation

Ashley Thompson Ltd were behind the most well known "Grand Designs" restoration projection, which was the peel tower/castle in Yorkshire. Most people I speak to have this down as their favourite. It's mine too! Mr. Thompson talked about being 6 months behind schedule at Mingarry due to the weather: the site is incredibly exposed and there are many times where any work is impossible. I mentioned that Balintore Castle was an unspecified number of years behind schedule: the important thing being just to carry on. :-)

I asked Mr. Thompson who writes the Mingary blog, as it is incredibly well-written and updated as regular as clockwork once a week,  Mr. Thompson revealed it is written by an author and journalist who lives nearby. I can only hope, given the erratic scheduling and erratic English of my blog, that the author gets paid so I can excuse my shortcomings as those of an amateur!

All in all, I think Mingary is my favourite restoration project. It is a shame that Andrew and I could not wangle internal access, but it is a busy building site so you could tell there was no way just by looking at the situation. I recall pathetically asking if I could help with the pointing as a way of getting on-site. This is an ongoing and mind-numbingly time-consuming task.

main entrance of castle

It is incredibly rare for permission to be given to restore such an old and historically significant structure. I only wish it happened more often. The work being done at the castle has saved the building - the vast rock underneath was splitting and had to be pinned: a major engineering challenge in itself. I cannot imagine how much money has been spent - if only Balintore had the same budget. The work being done at present is of the highest quality, with many workmen on site full-time pushing the building forward. Since Andrew and I visited a roof has been put on the castle: a magnificent building is now emerging from the magnificent ruins. 

impressive scaffolding round less accessible side of castle

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Fireplace Archaeology II !

Following on from my previous blog entry, I finally started scraping away at the layers of paint on the reclaimed fireplace I had bought on eBay. The aim was to find out its history. The fact that sections of an expensive red marble lay under a layer of black paint was puzzling and indicated that it had a more flamboyant and more expensive past. :-)

Anyhow I chose two flat sections of the fireplace to start scraping. One was on the left hand jamb, and the other was in the corresponding position on the right-hand jamb. Removing an initial square centimetre of black paint from each, showed both had the same red marble underneath. I couldn't resist completing the sections. At least if revealing all the marble proved too much work,  working on these two smaller sections would result in a symmetric end result.

The section on the left jamb revealed the expected and attractive speckled marble pattern.

section of expensive marble revealed on left-hand jamb

The section on the right jamb revealed a much plainer patch of an orange/red colour. I did not expect this. Perhaps there were variations in the marble's patterning? The odd thing was that two layers of paint seemed to have come off this jamb. The black layer on top, and then a browny layer underneath. In fact, the brown layer had half stayed on and half come off, so I scraped away vigorously at the remaining brown areas, but all the colour seemed to disappear and I ended up with the grey of .... slate! Was the expensive marble just a paint effect - surely not - it was so hard, glossy and authentic looking.

something not quite right is revealed in same area on right-hand jamb

The only solution was to start scraping at a hidden surface, where I could do no damage, at an area that was unambiguously the expensive marble. To my shock a top "pock-marked" purple layer came off, and then an underlying bright red layer came off, before I finally came to the slate.

revealed - marble is actually a sophisticated multi-layered paint effect!

This was nothing less than an incredibly sophisticated, multi-layer and convincing marble effect. A red coat was applied, then the piece was dipped, I would suggest, in a purple oil-based paint laced with water droplets - in a similar manner to marbling paper. The resulting effect was a myriad of red splodges showing through, just like a naturally occurring mineral.

I have seen sections of various painted marbles in the V&A from Victorian times and they are utterly convincing. In fact there was even a society of marble painters. And this paint effect marble on my own fireplace had me totally fooled until I did the scraping.

This begs the question of what do I do now to the fireplace? I am quite tempted to leave these red sections to show the history. Should I try to reveal any more? The grey painted marble roundel in the cross piece is so obviously wrong that I will definitely return this to the original black, so the gold painted carvings will show up advantageously. Apart from this and just restoring a deep black where required, I may just leave alone. 

However, the mystery of its past has been solved. Much of the fireplace had been originally painted in a vivid red faux marble that would have contrasted marvellously with the black slate and gold-inlaid carvings. It would have been simply stunning, and if only I had the ability to do this paint effect again. These Victorian skills, I fear, are now largely lost to us. 

However, tastes change and a later generation must have considered the bold Victorian effect vulgar, and the whole thing was toned down, but with considerably less art and much less skill. The red marble was painted over because, one presumes, it was known to be "just" a paint effect. There is much Philistinism, where the destruction of art and beauty masquerades as improvement.

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Fireplace Archaeology!

fireplace arrives home - note cats-cradle strapping!
Every so often, I check though eBay for replacement architectural antiques for Balintore Castle. The wise advice I was given, early on, was to collect slowly and cheaply, for surely if you want a grand Victorian fireplace in a hurry it's going to cost you an arm and a leg. There is a huge difference in price between a polished-up antique marble fireplace in a high-end dealer's showroom, and one that is a little worse for wear, and that someone wants rid of quickly during building works to their home. In short don't pass up any opportunity, it may not occur later.

Anyhow, a fireplace turned up on eBay recently. The pictures showed that although the bits of the fireplace were covered in pigeon poo, there was something intriguing about it. The seller was unable to say whether the fireplace was slate or marble. The scale of the fireplace (it is a bit of a beast) suggested it should be marble. Slate fireplaces are for the less well-off, so are generally smaller. The principle goes that if someone could afford a large fireplace, then they could afford marble. However, the grey marble panels looked painted on because the marbling pattern was a little "soft". There was a limit to what I could discern from the low-res photos, but for £100 it was worth a punt. :-) The original fireplaces at Balintore were marble rather than slate, but the design of this fireplace was something special that I had not seen before, so on the principle of going for quality items I felt that it was immaterial whether slate or marble.

After winning the item, I turned up with my pick-up at the village of Great Alne. The seller Steve was really friendly and explained the fireplace was found lying in his old mill building. The previous owner of the mill had never gone through with his plan to restore the building, but had left architectural antiques lying around. Steve and a friend kindly loaded the fireplace onto my pick-up and wouldn't let me help. I had explained previously that I am recovering from back surgery and shouldn't lift more than 5 lbs!  Steve's family plied me with two cups of tea and three Kit-Kats while this was going on. Having been through nightmares with some individuals on eBay, it makes encountering genuinely lovely people a real pleasure.

I had a brief examination of the mantle shelf with Steve, and concluded that it was slate rather than marble. There was a shiny black coating that was coming off in parts, revealing a matt grey finish underneath. The wall side of the mantle shelf was also a slate grey colour. There would be no coating on a marble fireplace - just polish! Steve handed me one piece that had come detached from the fireplace - the "cushion support" a flat piece that goes on top of the leg, directly under the mantle shelf. Suddenly I was in shock, a surface that would have been hidden revealed a beautiful bright red marble. The bright colours of marble are the most expensive and most posh "rouge marble" is actually just a shade of brown. Yet, this was an unmistakable and vivid red. The pattern even suggested porphyry: a stone even more expensive than marble beloved by the ancient Romans. What was going on? Was the red marble simply an off-cut being used: carved and then painted black by the stonemason? Or perhaps the fireplace once looked totally different with a red, black and gold colour scheme: a colour combination that makes total sense? Sometime in its life perhaps it had been "dulled-down" to fit in with a drab room or someone with drab taste? The rather poor painted grey marbling could support this hypothesis.

hidden surfaces reveal expensive marble underneath
further evidence of expensive red marble

Anyhow, the mystery has not been solved yet. I will do some test-scrapings on the fireplace to reveal what is underneath. If I do find symmetrically placed slabs of red marble on the left and right jambs, then I will be enormously temped to reveal these. In any case it will be a delight to either restore the shiny black finish to the fireplace, or to reveal its former high-class true colours. So far I have just done my best to remove the ground-on pigeon poo as shown in the photographs below.

left jamb before cleaning
left jamb after cleaning
right jamb before cleaning
right jamb after cleaning
mantle and cross-piece before cleaning
mantle and cross-piece after cleaning

just before unloading - only a panorama could fit everything in!