Keeping history alive - the team preserving East Anglia's ancient buildings
- Credit: Danielle Booden
Have you ever driven through Suffolk or Norfolk, and marvelled at the historic buildings? Of course you have.
East Anglia is home to thousands of magnificent ancient stone properties, dating back hundreds of years – many of them going all the way back to the medieval period.
But how do these buildings stay so well-preserved, while maintaining their original charm and heritage?
That’s where Steven and John Briggs come in.
This father-and-son duo are the masterminds behind Medieval Masonry – charged with restoring and conserving historic buildings across the region.
With a collective decades’ worth of experience, you could say stonework and building preservation runs deep in this family’s blood – as Steven is the third generation of Briggs men to take a shine to the trade.
“I set up the business in 2014 alongside my dad,” Steven explains.
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“He’s been a stonemason for over 40 years, and my grandad was also one. That’s essentially how I got into the trade – I started working with my dad as a labourer, and I’ve been doing stonework since I was 14.
Steven’s grandfather, Edward ‘Teddy’ Briggs, boasted an impressive CV, working on the likes of Tower Bridge and Horse Guards Parade in London, and completing his training at St Paul’s Cathedral.
Steven’s father John completed two apprenticeships (one to hone his carving skills, and another for site work as a ‘fixer mason’), eventually going on to work on the Houses of Parliament with his dad.
But what was it that inspired the Briggs men to set up their own business here?
“We worked for a company that were based in Essex, and we used to run all of their Norfolk projects. But we were being asked to do all of these things that we didn’t agree with – such as not using the right materials, and certain aspects of the projects. So we thought by running our own business, we could control what we did, and put the buildings first.”
And that’s exactly what they did.
Since the business’ inception eight years ago, Steven, John, and their team have worked on some of the oldest and most historic buildings in the east – with each building’s best interests at the heart of what they do.
What is it that sets apart restorative stonemasonry from regular and more modern building work?
“Essentially, it’s all about how you interact with the buildings, and trying to preserve every aspect of the materials within the construction. You need a deeper understanding of how buildings are put together, and why you’re using certain materials. Whereas I think a lot of general builders who try and make that crossover don’t necessarily have that level of care and respect for the historical materials.”
Authenticity is at the core of their work, as Steven explains.
“The fundamental principle that we always work to in conservation is a ‘like-for-like' replacement. We always want to understand what the building was originally constructed in, and what it was meant to be doing for the building, and we go back to that.”
For instance, limestone was a commonly used material during the construction of historic buildings such as churches and halls. When the Normans began constructing buildings here, they used limestone which was brought over from France as ballast. And thankfully, quarries in Staffordshire have a very similar stone in colour, grain and hardness.
“Lime mortar is another easy one, and we’ll try to match whatever the original lime mortar mix would’ve been.
“That’s the basic of what we start our jobs with – what the original specification was and how closely we can match it.”
Steven and his team also hark back to ancient practices and use a variety of techniques within their work, including lime plastering, rendering and cutting hardwood to replace ancient beams, and tools such as flush squared hammers, cross pein hammers, chisels, and mallets.
One of their projects in Suffolk saw the team restore and conserve Sibton Abbey, the remains of an early Cistercian abbey near Yoxford. The work, which took around six months, aimed to conserve the Abbey as a maintained ruin.
“To fulfil this request, we replaced and repaired the brick and stone, and rebuilt and repointed the flint. We also reinstated window jambs to replicate what was once there, as well as repaired the flint infill sections along the way.”
The end result was well-preserved and cared for ruins that should continue to stand the test of time, all while retaining their historical charm.
“We are extremely proud of the quality and finish of the restoration work our team produced on this project, which showcased why they are specialists in their field. We feel honoured to be able to breathe new life into places like Sibton Abbey.”
Steven and his team have also worked on a number of churches across Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft.
In 2017, his cohort worked on St Margaret’s Ruined Church at Hopton-on-Sea, on behalf of Great Yarmouth preservation Trust. The project saw them take down and rebuild the brick parapet, rebuild two of the buttresses, repair the stone windows, and flint, rebuild and repair all four elevations of the tower.
Currently, Steven and his team are working on restoring and conserving Great Yarmouth Town Wall – a mile-long medieval wall scheduled monument that can trace its origins to 1261.
“Our team started work rebuilding the wall late February and are making great progress on the project which includes restoring the spandrels, and rebuilding a medieval arch using original medieval bricks.”
With a roster of workers who are starting from the bottom, to more experienced masons, all them share the same passion when it comes to historic preservations. “We try to keep the same people, and add to them over time. It’s the model we’ve stuck to, as we need to know the people we work with have got the experience and knowledge to work on these buildings.
“We are very passionate about sympathetically restoring the historic structures in Norfolk and Suffolk to preserve the local heritage. It’s ingrained in us as a company to look towards leaving a legacy for the future.”