Spring Cottage, Cliveden
Ann Towers describes an unusual restoration project.
Devey's cottage following restoration
Named after the nearby springs and set under the hanging woods overlooking the River Thames, Spring Cottage on the National Trust's Cliveden estate gives the impression of being a simple picturesque dwelling. Its external appearance cleverly conceals its unique interior and belies its history as an idyllic retreat for the owners of the mansion and their guests. For, unlike other estate cottages whose sole purpose was to accommodate staff, the cottage evolved as a direct result of the desire to entertain at the Springs. Yet in recent years, Spring Cottage had become dislocated from the rest of the estate. Privately let and without any public access, it had slipped into a state of quiet decline.

On leasing the cottage from the National Trust, Cliveden plc commissioned Julian Harrap Architects to explore the opportunity of restoring the house and its gardens for use by guests of the hotel in a manner that would reintegrate it into the estate whilst continuing its traditional use as a place for private entertaining.

As part of the initial Conservation Study, we undertook historical research to examine the evolution of the building, which would enable us to put forward an informed strategy for its restoration and redevelopment. Wendy Hitchmough delved into the Cliveden archives to trace the origins of Spring Cottage and found a rich history.

She discovered that, as early as the 18th century, elegant parties of visitors moored their pleasure boats on the banks of the Thames to enjoy the water from the springs and dine in a clearing in the woods. Royal parties from Windsor ranked among the visitors, prompting Lady Orkney to commission Peter Nicholson in 1813 to design a Gothic Tea Room for entertaining on a grand scale at the Springs. As well as an architect, Nicholson was also a prolific draughtsman and writer, publishing practical design manuals. His Architectural Dictionary of 1819 illustrates the design for the "Tea room, at the Spring near Cliffden", together with details of the doors and windows. The Tea Room was initially used for banqueting, but some time later was extended to form an ornamental fishing villa. By 1857, the Estate had passed into the hands of the Duke and Duchess of Sutherland and they in turn employed the architect George Devey to refurbish and extend the cottage. Devey designed the picturesque cottage that we see today, encapsulating, the earlier structure of Nicholson's Tea Room within it, and it became a favoured retreat of Queen Victoria and Harriet, Duchess of Sutherland, her ladyin-waiting.

The Octagon Tea room
With such a rich background it was vital to retain the historic atmosphere of this remarkable two-in-one building. The key objectives were to repair the cottage to National Trust standards, while providing all the modern amenities that guests of a 5star hotel would expect, combining the somewhat incompatible ideals of rusticity and grandeur.

While a brief was being drawn up, identifying the operating needs of the hotel, a great deal more research was necessary. Analysis of paint scrapes not only confirmed the evolution of the building but also revealed the original colour schemes of the various parts of the cottage. A condition survey was carried out to pin-point essential repairs and an approach to the restoration of important features was formulated.

The Octagon Tea Room had been neglected for many years, and its stained glass had been lost a some point during the 1960s, replaced with lifeless sheet glass. The wonderful box shutters had been butchered during the installation of storage heaters, and its magnificent vaulted ceiling plaster was cracking, but most significantly, during alterations to the room one side of the octagon had been opened up and bled through to a study, overlooking the river. The essential symmetry of the room had been destroyed and it had become an amorphous shape.

As the Tea Room was intended to become a formal dining room with a large table at its centre, the first task was to narrow the opening to the study to reinforce the enclosure of the octagon, as originally conceived. in order to achieve this, the plaster arch moulding over the opening had to be remodelled. Moulds were taken from the existing plasterwork so that an exact replica of the ornamental plaster could be run on site. On opening up the roof above the Tea room, it became apparent that part of the vaulted plasterwork had become detached from its laths, and needed to be reinforced. The roof void had been previously inaccessible and only when the slate roof covering had been removed could the Nicholson and Devey structures be appreciated fully. The early 19th century timber ribs forming the vault were decayed in places and needed to be strengthened. A mechanism of tiny wires was devised to suspend the ribs from the supporting structure, securing the vault from any possibility of collapse, and access was provided into the roof void with crawl boards for future maintenance. Also, a fibre optic projector was installed above the centre of the vault with eight fibre optic tails reaching to the eight points of the star of the vault and illuminating the dining table below with a disc of light.

The old woodshed has been converted into a simple rustic bathroom
Throughout the Cottage, plain glazing was replaced with leaded light glazing. The size of the lead carries and pattern of the glazing varied in each room to suit the window, but in the Tea Room diamond lights were installed, breaking into tracery at the top of the panels to blend with the original fanlight designs. Antique glass, complete with reams and seeds, had the effect of re-invigorating the room and as the sun sinks in the west over the river, the room comes alive with reflected light from the water shimmering on the walls.

Old storage heaters, which ob structed the windows, were removed and the gothic window shutters carefully pieced back together again. The storage heaters had looked out of place in the Tea Room and yet the question of how to heat such a lofty room still needed to be answered. The Cottage was not served by gas and any solution therefore had to be electrically powered. After looking at all the options, we resolved to find a method of installing under-floor heating beneath the existing timber floor. it had the aesthetic appeal of being completely invisible, while providing a constant source of heat which would benefit the structure and could be topped up by the use of the open log fire. Before the underfloor heating could be installed the fine boarded floor had to be carefully lifted. Each board was numbered and photographed so that it could be re-laid easily. Then purpose-made metal saddles were laid across the timber joists into which precast concrete lintels were dropped to form the necessary heat store. A sand, cement screed was laid on top in two layers with the heating cables sandwiched between and the original floorboards, showing the stiletto heel marks of former fashionable occupants, re-laid.

It was important that the kitchen retained the character of the original fishing room with its geometric tiled floor and wooden workbenches, where fishermen used to sit to make up colourful flies for casting. A fitted kitchen in this case was completely out of the question and an ingenious solution had to be found to the problem of inserting 20th century appliances, without spoiling the mood of the room. The existing wooden worktop was adapted by cutting out a section and forming a lid which when lifted revealed an induction hob. A belfast sink was also set into a new timber worktop with a matching lifting lid folding back to form a draining board and an enormous American refrigerator was installed within a new gothic screen to provide an endless stock of fresh food.

The services throughout the cottage had to be completely overhauled to bring them up to current standards and new electrics, plumbing, heating and hot water, drainage, security and fire alarm systems had to be threaded through the fabric of the existing building.

Nicholson's ''The Architectural Dictionary' 1819.
Space was at a premium, and without extending the cottage further, creative ideas were needed for producing the level of accommodation that the hotel demanded. in order to provide the ground floor bedroom with an ensuite bathroom, the existing woodshed was converted into a simple rustic bathroom. Connected to the cottage via a short rooflit corridor, the wood shed appears unchanged from the outside, but inside it houses a freestanding cast-iron tub and enjoys a river view. Its encaustic tiled floor is cool underfoot in the summer, but under-floor heating ensures that is warm in the winter. In contrast, the bathroom upstairs was converted from a bedroom, offering ample space for guests to relax, unwind and linger in comfort. The sanitary appliances are treated as pieces of furniture with the wash basin set into an antique washstand and an enormous cast iron bath in the centre of the room. Each bathroom is served with hot water from separate hot water cylinders. Upstairs, these were easily concealed in the roof void, but since the woodshed was isolated from the main building it was necessary to devise a means of housing its own hot water storage cylinder locally. A new courtyard was formed between the wood shed and cottage by building a brick wall on the third side. On the woodland side of the wall, out of sight, is a plain-tiled lean-to shed housing the hot water cylinder and extract fan. A timber 'privy' was also built on the back of the wall to contain the electrical intake head and meters. These had previously been mounted in the sitting room and were relocated outside the property in order to free up yet more valuable space.
Arcadian landscape around the Spring.
The remodelling of the landscape setting was conceived as three distinct elements: to the north, a riverside wilderness walk, along serpentine paths through a shady yew grove, carpeted with ivies and drifts of spring bulbs; a cottage garden immediately surrounding the cottage, with beds spilling over with flowers, for sitting and eating alfresco; and, to the south, an Arcadian landscape structured around the existing Spring pool and cascade.

The edge of the riverbank, within the wilderness, was badly eroded and existing timber piling had decayed leaving only a line of knarled posts. The Environment Agency was keen to see the riverbank repaired and encouraged the use of a piling system which would enhance a natural habit for plants and fish. A combined system of piling was used with sheet metal below water level and oak, from the estate, above water, designed to replicate the random appearance of the original boarding. Bays were oriented around trees on the riverbank to ensure that all the existing vegetation was retained and to plant reed beds, which would also soften the edge of the piling.

The cottage garden, which was rather exposed to public passers-by, needed to be remodelled. The curtilage of the cottage was redefined by diverting the public path and forming a picket fence along the new east boundary. A slice of the escarpment was cut away and a contiguous piled timber retaining wall was constructed to improve the amount of space around the cottage.

Outside the Tea Room doors, the patio under the Minstrel's Gallery was laid with Caithness flags, brought from a quarry near the Duchess of Sutherland's Dunrobin Estate, and a new 'Green Room' was created. Enclosed by yew hedges, this formal space overlooked by the Minstrel's Gallery provides an elegant outdoor room for private entertaining. From the Green Room a tantalising glimpse of an ornate stone urn and the sound of the cascade lead the visitor along a narrow path to an Arcadian landscape. Around 1900, William Waldorf Astor introduced a classical stone bridge across the outflow from the springs and a flight of steps down to a landing stage on the Thames. The stone balustrade, ornamented with eagles, is modelled on the 17th century Borghese balustrade on the Parterre.

The pool and cascade dried out long ago, when the course of the natural springs moved, leaving the pool neglected and overgrown. Environment Agency consent was granted to abstract water from the river and to circulate it via the pool, over the cascade and back into the river. An underground chamber was constructed to provide a reservoir of water, which could be pumped around the water feature, debouching water across the rocky fern covered cascade, as originally intended.

Like the cottage, the restored pleasure garden is designed to revive its historic character, combining the idealised, romantic landscape of rustic simplicity with a sophisticated setting for picnics and parties.

The hotel is now taking bookings for the cottage for those wishing an exclusive break and next year the gardens will be open (on selected days) to National Trust visitors.

Ann Towers is with Julian Harrap Architects

Context 60 December 1998