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How conservation work on Ickworth House's iconic rotunda's roof has helped secure Bury St Edmunds property's future for generations to come

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From ground level, the rotunda of Ickworth House – looming the height of almost eight double-decker buses above your head, with new slates gleaming in the spring sunshine – is a huge and impressive structure.

Inside, in the attic space that visitors never see, the true scale of this historic landmark is revealed.

And the size and complexity of the task of replacing its roof with 7,000 hand-crafted slate tiles really hits home.

View of the Rotunda with newly restored roof at Ickworth
View of the Rotunda with newly restored roof at Ickworth

Slabs of prime Westmorland slate were custom-cut on site to construct a weatherproof jigsaw that ensures a perfect fit on the oval shape of the dome.

Along with new leadwork and lightning protection, it will help to ensure the iconic rotunda’s place in the landscape for centuries to come.

The project, named Ickworth Uncovered, is the biggest conservation task ever undertaken at the National Trust-owned Suffolk mansion – the ancestral home of the Earls of Bristol.

Scaffolding surrounding the Rotunda at Ickworth, Suffolk
Scaffolding surrounding the Rotunda at Ickworth, Suffolk

For a year, the 200-year-old Italianate palace – the vision of the eccentric 4th Earl – was encased in 273 miles of scaffolding, while the roof covering weighing 42 tonnes was removed and replaced.

Ickworth House stands proud in spectacular parkland on the second highest point in the county. It is said that, from the rotunda roof on a clear day, you can see Ely Cathedral.

From one window under the dome, you can see a vertigo-inducing old iron spiral staircase leading upwards ... not a route that would ever have been attempted by the faint-hearted.

Gazing up from the ground – it helps to have good eyesight and someone telling you where to look – you can see the care taken to accommodate the house’s lesser-known residents.

Just visible are entrances for some of the seven species of bat that call Ickworth home. The others roost in a hibernaculum in the vaults.

It might be a £5 million project for a stately home, but there is one aspect any property owner might recognise.

At first, it was going to be a relatively small job on another part of the roof. Then it was a case of ‘if we’re doing that, we might as well do this ...’

The project began in 2017, with the need to repair the flat roof between the central rotunda and one of the wings of the house.

“We started to see water leaking through into the smoking room, which is a little art gallery,” said Aimee Monk, project manager for Ickworth Uncovered.

Aimee Monk, project manager for Ickworth Uncovered -outside Ickworth House (56376449)
Aimee Monk, project manager for Ickworth Uncovered -outside Ickworth House (56376449)

“We needed to do some repairs and that led to us considering the whole rotunda roof, which had 200-year-old slates.

“Because we would have scaffolding, we thought ‘should we do that as well’. Looking ahead to the environmental pressures it is likely to face, we needed to protect it for the future.”

The glass roof of the old squash court in the west wing of Ickworth, now used as a cafe, has also been conserved to make it weatherproof for years to come.

Modern lead work and guttering will ensure better drainage from the roof of the dome.

“The rotunda used to have white stripes down the roof and that was where water ran down the slates – it pulls the minerals out,” said Aimee.

She added: “I think my favourite part of the whole project was seeing the craftsmen at work.

“There are 7,000 slates, each one hand-crafted – big, smaller, then big again, and every one has to overlap to maintain the shape.”

The dome has a frame of oak beams, and is also supported by internal walls.

Inside the Rotunda roof at Ickworth, Suffolk (56371957)
Inside the Rotunda roof at Ickworth, Suffolk (56371957)

Emily Deal, collections and house officer, points out where craftsmen through the ages have written their names – and notable events, including England footballers’ success in the World Cup – on the beams.

Under the slates is what is known as sarking, a covering of wooden boards.

“The original boarding over the frame, still visible from inside, looks like it might have been part of shipping containers that artwork was brought in. It was retained and another layer was put over it,” said Aimee.

“That made it heavier, so they had to calculate if the frame would take the extra weight.

“The scaffolding was a feat in its own right, which took two months to put up. They built it in six sections on the north lawn and an 80ft crane moved the scaffold roof.”

The new tiles are Westmorland slate like the old ones, cut on its natural line, not laser cut. It is green-tinged, not purple like Welsh slate.

“People ask why didn’t we reuse the old slates, but they become porous,” said Aimee.

Even so, they were not wasted. “We have sold the old slates so they are having a new purpose. People have bought them to make all kinds of things, including pizza ovens, bird houses or on small building projects.

“We are also using them in various ways across the estate.”

Bespoke roof ladder made on-site at Ickworth, Suffolk (56375946)
Bespoke roof ladder made on-site at Ickworth, Suffolk (56375946)

The reroofing was paid for with the help of grants from the National Lottery Heritage Fund, the Wolfson Foundation and from the National Lottery through Arts Council England.

Funding has also come from National Trust members, supporters and donors, as well as other fund-raising initiatives, including being able to write your name on one of the new slates.

The project got under way in the summer of 2019 and, before work could start, 2,500 pieces from the house’s collection had to be moved.

At the top of the rotunda is a glass skylight through which light streams into the building below. The scaffolding roof blocked it out, but the chance was taken to stage an exhibition where only individual pieces were lit.

“Because the scaffolding plunged the rotunda into darkness, we created an exhibition that included a lot of pieces that hadn’t been on show before,” said Aimee.

The hope was to also give the public a unique insight into what the project entailed.

Then, at the start of 2020, Covid struck and the country went into lockdown, forcing the closure of visitor attractions like Ickworth.

“We had wanted to showcase it and share conservation in action,” she said. “We had a camera so people could see it but they couldn’t see it live.”

But the pandemic did not put a stop to the work, which finished on target in summer 2020. Then began the long job of taking down the scaffolding and returning the interior to normal.

More Covid restrictions kept visitors away from the house for some of 2021, although the parkland, which is a favourite venue for walkers, was open.

Spirit of Ickworth, a community-made film celebrating the completion of the roof project, was premièred last month.

It was produced in collaboration with the creative learning department of the Theatre Royal in Bury St Edmunds, and West Suffolk College.

“When we uncovered the rotunda, it was joyous,” said Aimee, who is also Ickworth’s visitor experience and operations manager.

“We have been able to secure Ickworth’s future, and improve it for the environmental challenges we will face.”

Building of Ickworth began in 1795. The 4th Earl dreamed of creating an impressive Italianate palace like those he had seen on his travels.

It was intended as a family home and a gallery to show off his collection of art, which, sadly, was seized by Napoleonic troops en route from Europe.

He did not live long enough to see building completed. It was finished by his son and the treasures seen there today were amassed by his descendants.

Today, the house is run by more than 50 staff supported by 280 volunteers, and is expected to attract 300,000 visitors this year.