VIDEO: Close up conservation at Oakham Castle

The major conservation of Oakham Castle is now well underway. As part of the latest phase of the development, specialist contractors are now on site as work to restore the 150 year old slate roof of the No1 Court begins.

The restoration project, which is being carried out by conservation specialists Woodhead Heritage on behalf of Rutland County Council, includes the complete renovation of the Collyweston stone slate roof. Collyweston is a traditional limestone roofing material which is notoriously difficult to work with, so the Woodhead team have enlisted the help of local specialists, Claude N Smith Ltd.

Nigel Smith, Managing Director at Claude N Smith Ltd, is the second generation to run the business, having taken over from his father who started the business in 1965, he said: “Collyweston slate is a unique product, historically quarried in Collyweston, Northamptonshire. The mined stone was left outside for three years until the frost revealed layers that could be divided into flat slates. It’s found in historic villages, churches and stately homes in England and has a very distinctive natural pastel colour when new.

“We are only about 20 minutes down the road from Oakham Castle, so this is a great project for us. We have a couple of local guys working on site, who have a combined experience of over 60 years working with Collyweston slate.”

Extraction of the limestone stopped in the early 1970s as it was no longer commercially viable. This saw a reduction in the number of companies competing to work with it. It also means that the only source of the product now is reclaimed from buildings that are neither listed or in conservation areas. Collyweston stone slate can last for hundreds of years and is capable of almost continuous re-use, however nails and lime mortar beds can degenerate over time meaning that re-slating takes place between one and two hundred years.

Nigel continued: “It’s incredibly rewarding to be able to work on listed properties and Oakham Castle is no exception. For me it’s very much about preserving the traditional skills, over the years we have become specialists in working with Collyweston and every project we work on now is a listed building.

“But the product does have its challenges. For example it’s the only roofing material that’s laid on lime mortar; most are just dry laid above each other. Collyweston is thin and can be very fragile, so you have to know how to treat it. There’s a huge amount of skill involved, the slates are laid bigger at the bottom and gradually get smaller as you work towards the top. Due to the age of the roofs we work on, there are lots of corners and valleys to contend with, we need to make sure the roof looks the part but also remains water tight for at least a hundred years.”

Councillor Terry King, Leader of Rutland County Council, said: “The restoration of Oakham Castle is bringing a hugely significant piece of English history back to life. We want to provide a first class culture and heritage centre that the whole county can be proud of, so it’s important for us that we use skilled local crafts and trades wherever possible and that the materials are consistent with those used when the castle was first built, hundreds of years ago.”

Richard Savage, site manager for Woodhead Heritage, said: “Using specialised local contractors like Claude Smith, not only enables us to help and support local businesses, it also means we are able to benefit from the years of experience and expert knowledge that they bring to the project. This kind of partnership working ensures that we are able to preserve important historical buildings for generations to come.”

Oakham Castle is due to reopen to the public in summer 2016, with both the Great Hall and castle grounds undergoing extensive restoration to reinterpret the site’s historical significance. As well as preserving and revealing the ancient defensive wall, new installations and exhibitions will help to tell the story behind the Oakham Castle, while there will also be a new Medieval Garden planted with Oakham in Bloom and improved access to all facilities.

The restoration of Oakham Castle has been made possible thanks to a £2million grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF). You can find out more about Oakham Castle and the restoration project by visiting: www.oakhamcastle.wordpress.com