A Towering Problem … an Inspiring Solution

All Saints, Boyne Hill, Maidenhead is a Victorian grade I listed church designed by George Edmund Street and is part of a complex surrounding a quadrangle consisting of vicarage, school, curates’ houses and almshouse. The square tower, about 80 feet high, is constructed of brick and stone and surmounted by an octagonal stone spire a further 70 feet in height. Given that it is the highest point in Maidenhead it can be seen for miles around.

On 25 April 2006, without any prior warning, a block of masonry fell to the ground from the corner of the tower, 80 feet up, into the garden. By chance our architect, Roderick MacLennan of Roderick MacLennan Associates, was at the church at the time inspecting some snagging problems on the newly installed heating system so probably realized much more quickly than us the potential seriousness of what we were faced with. Little did we know.

The first requirement was to obtain more information about the cause of the fracture so steeplejacks were employed to scale the structure, swinging from the top of the spire on ropes (150 feet up, remember!) to take photographs and make a preliminary report. This revealed that there were numerous cracked and broken blocks of stone and that the cause of the problem was a band of rusting and expanding iron work, unseen from ground level, embedded in the masonry at the top of the tower, presumably put there as a stabilizing device whilst the spire was erected. The first hints of an expensive repair task began to appear so as well as needing to obtain much more detailed evidence as to what the repairs might entail and plan a way forward we also needed to consider how money might be found for a project whose extent and therefore costs were at that time unknown.

So far as church funds were concerned we had very little as we had just finished a complete new heating system paid for by reserves and donations from within the congregation. That project, which we had looked on as a financial mountain to climb, had suddenly become just the foothills to this new mountain! We immediately opened up discussions with English Heritage as a possible supporter and began to consider other funding possibilities, a very valuable and helpful mine of information being the Archdeacon of Berkshire, The Venerable Norman Russell. However, the firm financial support of English Heritage was the key to unlocking further support. Consequently, with a submission deadline of 30 June 2006 for an English Heritage Grant to be met, we began to put out feelers to potential financial sponsors whilst our architect marshalled professional resources to flesh out the technical issues and provide costings so that together we could construct the application pack. The finished product was delivered by hand to the English Heritage offices on 30 June. The total estimate for the work was now £1,078,000, including VAT (reclaimable for listed buildings) and we knew that the total amount of funding available from English Heritage would be far less than the applications submitted from us and others. Even if we were successful we were all too well aware that a grant would by no means cover our full costs. It was therefore vitally important to close the gap and Berkshire Churches Trust were the first to support us in our quest, followed by National Churches Trust, the local Louis Baylis Trust, the Prince Philip Trust, the Council for the Care of Churches and some generous private benefactors. Without their support we could not have proceeded.

An anxious few months followed whilst we waited to hear the result. We had little money to spend but concentrated on following up other potential funding leads and working with our professional advisers to put plans into place. Finally, it was announced in January 2007 that we had indeed been awarded a development grant from English Heritage, to allow us to carry out detailed investigations, to issue tenders, evaluate them and make further submissions to English Heritage to justify a repair grant.

In order to obtain detailed information about the state of the structure a cherry picker was hired (council permission, road blockages, temporary traffic lights etc!) and in July 2007 was used to take detailed photogrammetric (x-rays) of the tower and spire, thus allowing a detailed schedule of brick and stone replacement and repair to be drawn up. Netting was also erected around the top of the tower in case further parts of the fabric broke away and a scaffolding contractor engaged to draw up detailed scaffolding proposals. The information gained was used to demonstrate to English Heritage what was required and a substantial repair grant was awarded in March 2008 by the Heritage Lottery Fund – in fact £750,000, the largest grant ever awarded to an English parish church, recognition indeed of the importance of All Saints.

The contract was awarded to St. Blaise and work commenced on site in May 2008. The sight of the scaffolding steadily growing to the top of the spire during the first two months was very impressive and the consequent comings and goings (both up and down!) of the contractor’s staff was also a daily activity to watch. The details of the way in which the project progressed, the stone carving, the brick replacement and the many technical problems that arose would require a very large and separate paper but a few things in particular stand out. Firstly, when the masonry began to be removed it became apparent that the flat rusting iron band around the tower was actually five bands running in parallel right through the thickness of the wall! – and they were not in just the one location, but in two other levels in the tower, all of which had to be removed and replaced carefully with mortar. This was an enormous unforeseen problem.

Then there was the difficulty in re-creating the black pigment in some of the bricks that run in parallel around the tower at intervals. It took several goes to successfully achieve the right colour and consistency.

And then there was the weather vane, which was to be renovated. The vane rod inside the spire is usually held in place by a skeleton of small rods and is relatively easy to remove. However, G E Street was experimenting with the newly discovered Portland cement and had filled the cavity with it to a depth of eleven levels of masonry. To get the rod out it seemed at one point that all the blocks would need to be removed, but the small lifting gear at the top was not capable of handling the weight of the largest ones. Impasse! Fortunately St. Blaise were able to drill it out after removing three levels and we could breathe a sigh of relief.

Overall, work progressed smoothly and steadily and it was a joy to hear the bells ring out again on Easter Day after a silence of ten months. The fabric has been washed down and the weather vane and clock re-gilded and the completed work is really outstanding – a testament to the craftsmen and professionals who have worked on the project. Our thanks and congratulations are due to all and in particular Roderick MacLennan our architect and Ian Gangadeen, St. Blaise’s site manager, for whom nothing was too much trouble.