National architectural award

Published: Monday July 4, 2016

Staircase after restorationSensitive conservation work to a unique 15th century staircase at St Michael & All Angels at Bishop’s Cleeve has won the prestigious 2016 SPAB (Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings) John Betjeman Award. The unusual English oak staircase is a remarkable piece of medieval engineering and is one of the Grade I listed church’s most-loved features.

Four shortlisted projects were visited by the SPAB judging panel in May. The judges were unanimous that the 2016 award should go to St Michael & All Angels at Bishop’s Cleeve.

The staircase at St Michael & All Angels is both beautiful and functional but needed to be stabilised to ensure its continued use. Craftsmen Cameron and Daniel Stewart, working with timber expert Hugh Harrison and the parish’s architect, Peter Gilbert-Scott of John Falconer Associates, made new panels for the outside of the stair using English oak. The handrail was stabilised, making the staircase feel safer. A metal ‘shoe’ was inserted into the wall to ensure that the beam holding the upper part of the staircase was properly supported. New wood was also skilfully inserted into the gaps in the treads. This rare and important survivor is now safe to continue in regular use.

The staircase is the only access to the bell-ringing chamber so is an essential part of the musical life of the church and the community are delighted that it has been repaired. Ann Jessop, a member of the Parochial Parish Council, says: “Our medieval oak staircase was in a hidden corner. Even Nikolaus Pevsner, the author of architecture guides, did not find it! Our congregations were privileged to witness the transformation taking place, bringing to life this 15th century part of our history.”

The Society’s annual award honours the memory of poet, church enthusiast, conservation campaigner and SPAB member Sir John Betjeman and is made for outstanding repairs to the fabric of places of worship in England and Wales completed in the last 18 months. Importantly, the award is always made to the winning building rather than to individuals.

SPAB judging panel spokesman, Rachel Morley says: "We were hugely impressed by the delicacy and sensitivity of the work to restore structural integrity to this ancient staircase. The balance achieved between access and safety issues, conservative repairs and the aesthetic showed tremendous skill and thoughtfulness."

SPAB’s John Betjeman Award takes the form of a commemorative scroll featuring a John Piper print of a church much-loved by Betjeman. This was presented at the Society’s annual members’ meeting on 25 June in King’s Lynn, Norfolk.

In Art in Living Form John Betjeman wrote: “There are something like twenty thousand Church of England places of worship in this country and of those far more than half are ancient buildings, that is to say each represents the gradual growth of a community. They are the history of English art displayed in living form, and most country churches have far more to tell to those who will look than have the local museums.”  

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