SPAB Fellows: "You'll Never Have Another Year in Your Career Like This"

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15/05/2024
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SPAB
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Ellie Jae Dobson, bricklayer and 2024 Fellow, shares a snapshot of her journey so far. 

This week I’ve been in Norfolk, a place I never would have thought of visiting. I’ve been staying at a host’s house, mucking in to make breakfast and sitting with the other Fellows discussing the day's agenda and what we have learned on previous days and weeks. The conservation conversation never stops! 

Today we have been flint knapping with John Lord, who many would consider to be a true master of his craft. Coming from Yorkshire, geologically, flint doesn’t occur in the region, so trying flint knapping was a completely new thing for me. The material is so different to the stone and brick I’m used to. 

 

A flint church

Cut-faced flint walls at Debenham Church.

 

I learned how to strike the flint in a way that almost moulds it into your desired shape. Taking this new-found knowledge, I applied into more decorative flint pieces and ended up with a shamrock. 

 

 A shamrock made from knapped flint

A shamrock made from knapped flint.

 

This week I’ve also learned a lot about timber-framed buildings and how exactly to repair them. We travelled around with Rick Lewis to see his previous projects and stopped in Debenham where it seems to be a timber-framed haven! It made me appreciate the skill that goes into constructing them and just how skilled the craftspeople were when these buildings were first completed. Especially the roof structures, which are a geometric web of chunky timbers. 

So far, the Fellowship is what I expected and more! Travelling around and meeting so many new people and seeing so many new things, for me, is the best way to learn about heritage crafts because I’m getting stuck into the action. And meeting people who have been doing their crafts for so many years, I’ve gained knowledge and insight that I would never have got by simply reading a book or scouring the internet for answers. 

 

Looking around a timber framed building

Exploring timber frame repairs at one of Rick Lewis's previous projects.

 

One of the main things that has surprised me is the limited amount of people who seem to be interested in learning a heritage craft; there are so many buildings that need care, attention and maintenance and there seems to just not be enough people with relevant knowledge or interest to get involved with conservation projects. 

I’m also surprised that despite the number of questions that have been answered, there seem to be almost as many unanswered questions. What starts as a simple question develops into a whole web of other questions and conversation. Which lime is best to use on heritage buildings? Should we use different limes for different aspects in the process? I think all of these questions will make me more conscious in the future about what materials I use when carrying out works on a heritage building. 

 

Timber repairs

Timber repairs in Debenham.

 

For anyone thinking of applying to the Fellowship in future, I’d say to just apply. You'll never have another year in your career like this; the knowledge you gain, the places you see, the connections you make and the people you wouldn’t otherwise meet. It’s all worth it. You can then take that and apply it to any future work, so you know that you're doing the best possible repairs to a heritage building.  


The SPAB Fellowship is an immersive training programme designed to broaden the skills and experience of craftspeople involved in historic building repairs. Applications for the 2025 Fellowship programme will open later this summer. If you’d like to hear more, make sure you’re subscribed to our monthly eNewsletter.

All images © Ellie Jae Dobson

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