Date of issue: 7 June 2016

Media Contacts: Kate Griffin, SPAB Communications manager, 0207 456 0905, kate@spab.org.uk   Alison McClary, SPAB Communications officer, 0207 456 0908, alison@spab.org.uk



History at Your Feet


SPAB’s summer 2016 campaign to encourage people to #lookdown


Britain’s oldest heritage charity believes that floors are the ‘downtrodden’ Cinderella of building conservation.  Throughout the summer and autumn of 2016 we want the public to look at what’s underfoot when visiting old and interesting buildings in the UK and to share what they find on social media.

See SPAB’s Top 20 Historic Floors

at:  http://www.spab.org.uk/media-centre/press-releases/press-release/?ContentID=301

(including suggestions from some well known building conservationists)

and download our free care and repair pamphlet.



Britain’s oldest, most practically-minded heritage charity, SPAB (Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings), wants Britain to #lookdown this summer.

Floors are the ‘downtrodden’ Cinderella of building conservation. When people enter an old building, step onto a churchyard path or walk down a street in an ancient town or village their natural inclination is to look up – at a moulded plaster ceiling, at glorious stained glass windows, at panelled walls or at buildings above and around. We never #lookdown

History at Your Feet is our summer 2016 campaign to encourage to people be more aware of the importance of old floors.

SPAB plays a statutory role in the planning process, with councils in England and Wales obliged to notify us of applications to work involving listed buildings. Hundreds of proposals come to our attention every year and we are alarmed.  Our caseworkers regularly report that they are involved too late in discussions about works involving old floors. By the time they are asked to comment on plans or proposals, pivotal decisions have already been made or are being actively pursued.  We are putting our foot down!

SPAB believes a vital ‘step’ is being missed by many of those involved with and responsible for the care of the built historic environment. A great number of schemes are being developed without initial consideration of the beauty and interest of the materials, literally, underfoot.

In churches and cathedrals, for example, original floors – notably tiles and ledgerstones - have been re-laid and removed to allow the introduction of heating solutions or to create a level floor that better meets health and safety requirements.  Another major driver in terms of interventions is the need to create a more flexible space, suitable for a variety of uses. Although laudable in intention, this can lead to destruction of ancient fabric.

In private houses, our caseworkers have been concerned to see similar proposals (and instances) involving original timbers, flagstones and simple stone and brick paviours. In the case of the latter, these more ‘ordinary’ floor types are also at acute risk in ecclesiastical settings simply because people do not recognise their age or interest. Their modest nature conspires to make them expendable.

And beyond the confines of four walls, exterior ‘floors’ in terms of ancient cobbles, flagstone pathways etc. are facing similar challenges. Obliteration of ancient fabric is happening with worrying frequency. Brutal work is being carried out under the guise of ‘improvement’ with little or no regard for the aesthetic or historic significance and interest of a floor and its importance to the integrity of a building or place. Irreversible damage is being caused by lack of understanding.

Floors can play a vital role in revealing the unfolding history of a building.  If a dwelling retains its original floors then it allows centuries of use – the story of its inhabitants – to be read, giving us a sense of how people lived and how they interacted within that space. The importance of being able to trace this ‘hierarchy of space’ is especially true for older and vernacular buildings where surviving floor finishes and materials may well be one of only a few indicators of its evolution through time. 

The fundamental questions that actually need to be asked at the outset of any project involving an old floor are:

  • What exactly is this floor?
  • What is its significance both intrinsically and to the building overall?

It is only once this information has been established that you can begin to think about the principle of lifting the floor and what might be an appropriate or suitable intervention in each case.

In some ways it is not surprising that this unhappy situation has arisen, floors are so humble and often ‘invisible’ that people rarely notice their beauty or their importance to a sense of place.

The intangible

It’s not just about physical loss. The SPAB is also interested in the intangible. The Society believes that floors contribute enormously to the ‘spirit’ of a place. The patina of time caused by centuries of wear and tear, daily use and gradual settlement are essential components of a space’s presence and unique atmosphere. The floors of old buildings are often worn, discoloured, and out of true level. Yet these imperfections can make their own important contribution to the interest, beauty and historic value of a structure. This is equally true of exterior ‘floors’ set in the historic landscape.

Floors are where we make a direct physical connection to a space, following in the footsteps of those who – throughout the centuries – have gone before. Romantics among us might well feel a frisson of recognition to know that we are standing on the very spot where ‘history was made’.

And did those feetů?

In Canterbury Cathedral a single candle on the stones marks the place where Thomas Becket was assassinated in 1170.  Henry VIII and at least five of his wives (along with most of the people whose lives were fictionalised by Hilary Mantel in Wolf Hall) intrigued on the wide oak boards of galleries at Hampton Court. At Edinburgh’s Holyrood Palace, the boards of Queen Mary’s oratory witnessed the murder of her secretary David Rizzio. When you explore Shakespeare’s birthplace in Henley Street Stratford-upon-Avon you are walking on the floors of the house where he grew up and where he spent the first five of his family life with new wife Anne Hathaway. At Howarth Parsonage in Yorkshire the Brontes read aloud to each other as they criss-crossed the boards in the parlour. Jane Austen and her sister Cassandra danced on the black and white marble tiles of the Stone Gallery at the Vyne, Hampshire. Across the country there are thousands of places where thrilling connections still can be made.

To some this might seem fanciful, but others will instinctively understand that there is a sense here of ‘touching’ the past, making contact with history. When you stand on a broad oak board or flagstone floor somewhere like Hampton Court or The Tower of London, you are ‘plugging’ yourself into another time in the most basic and tangible way.

The famously worn steps leading to the Chapter House of Wells Cathedral in Somerset bear witness to centuries of footfall. The effect is a charismatic reminder of the history and continual use of the building. The wonderful grooves, undulations, imperfections and scratches on old floors of all materials are the 'ghosts of time'. SPAB contends that once you make a significant intervention to an old floor you remove something vital to a building’s heart and story and that this loss is irreplaceable.

We are asking people to:

Step Up!

  • Do you know of any special floors that you think people should be aware of?
  • Do you have any concerns about work that has taken (or is taking place) at a building you know? If so, we’d like to hear from you. Please send your suggestions, comments, concerns, and hopefully pictures to press@spab.org.uk


In addition, if you are on Twitter, we’d like to invite you to share your images with our 11,000 + followers. Over the summer months, if you are out and about and spot a wonderful old floor or ancient cobbled pathway please take a snapshot. We’re hoping to raise the lowly floor and get people talking.  Simply tweet us at @SPAB1877 with your photo of a floor, tell us where it is and include #lookdown 

Go to http:/www.spab.org.uk/advice/history-at-your-feet/  to see SPAB’s Top 20 Floors including suggestions from some well known building conservationists.

Care and Repair

We have produced a free information download based on a popular SPAB technical pamphlet written by Adela Wright (available as above)

For further press information contact Kate Griffin. Telephone 0207 456 0905 / email Kate@spab.org.uk or Alison McClary, 0207 456 0908  Alison@spab.org.uk

The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) was founded by William Morris in 1877 to care for and preserve the UK’s architectural heritage. Since its foundation, SPAB has been committed to advise and educate homeowners and building professionals through courses and publications. Following Morris’ exhortation to: “Stave off decay by daily care” SPAB is the force behind National Maintenance Week each November.  Today it is a dynamic, campaigning organisation, and registered charity, taking building conservation into the future.  To find out more visit www.spab.org.uk                                                                                           Charity No 111 3753               SC 039244

EMBARGOED UNTIL 0.00 hours Tuesday June 7th 2016