When first impressions cover an extraordinary story

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It’s easy when encountering a place for the first time to imagine that everything there is as it has always been, even when you already know that the place concerned has only recently been changed and refreshed.

Barn dormitory today
Barn dormitory today

On my first visit to Airton Meeting House and Barn I was sold on the idea of living here as warden almost instantly as much by the attractive, tranquil and well-ordered nature of the complex as by the wonderful welcome of the people who interviewed me and the potential to grow the programme of events and activities on the site.  I knew that both the Meeting House and the Barn had in recent years been refurbished and was impressed with the result but remained unaware of the depth of the transformation – particularly where the Barn was concerned – until some of the members of the Meeting showed me photographs of the interior prior to the alterations.

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one of three former upper floor dormitories (photograph Laurel Phillispon)

The images were a revelation.  I was looking at pictures of tired, dishevelled rooms of a character with which anyone who frequents old church halls or Victorian community buildings up and down the country would be familiar.  Looking at these photos, dank, musty aromas almost reach out of the images and the cold air seems to fill with footsteps and voices echoing off hard, dreary walls, floors and ceilings.  In the old photos of the Barn, those ceilings appear low – too low to correspond with the comfortable spaces I’d first encountered – and contribute to a desultory atmosphere of unreconstructed gloom.

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the upper ground floor entrance before re-ordering (photograph Laurel Phillipson)

This was the first indication that the refurbishment had been more substantial than the refit and decorate that I had imagined – albeit a thorough one.  After checking the location of the old photos and standing as close to the equivalent spot as possible, the real nature of the changes became clear.  Walls had been removed, floors lowered, staircases re-oriented.  None of the new fixtures and fittings stood in the same place as their predecessors, so that to effect the changes, the entire building had been rewired and re-plumbed.

from the same location with stairs reoriented and floor flush with outdoor ground level
from the same location with stairs reoriented and floor flush with outdoor ground level

In short, none of the former spaces seemed to map onto what I knew.  ‘Before and after’ photos tell the story: dingy corners are replaced with light-filled rooms, care having been taken to ensure access to windows from all directions wherever possible; clutter is exchanged for simplicity and order, patchy surfaces of multiple dismal shades superseded by a simple palette of warm colours, cleanly applied.

A glance at the plans revealed how space had been gained by incorporating the former garage of the Nook (now the warden’s residence) and two rooms above it into the Barn – as would have originally have been the case, since the division between these distinct building structures always lay where the join is today.

the kitchen in the lower floor before the re-ordering (photograph Laurel Phillipson)
the kitchen in the lower floor before the re-ordering (photograph Laurel Phillipson)

These alterations must have involved extraordinary technical challenges and in my view the incredible transformation of the Barn, carried out by builder Colin Atkins under the direction of architect James Innerdale,  is if anything more spectacular than the excellent refurbishment of the Meeting House.  Taken together, the two projects represent an exceptional achievement on the part of a few committed individuals, Airton Meeting’s current clerk Laurel Phillipson and the late and much loved Kevin Berry being particularly instrumental.  Their efforts – not least in raising the £300,000 required within the constraints of Quakers’ principled opposition to the use of lottery funding – ensured not only the buildings’ conservation and ongoing use but the continued presence of a living Quaker heritage in Airton, one of Quakerism’s oldest heartlands.  May it be so for many years to come.

the lower floor in the Barn today
the lower floor in the Barn today
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