Rebuild shines a new light on ancient stones
Michael Davis of Davis Sutton Architects describes how a tumbledown ruin was the inspiration for an historic restoration project
St Illtud’s Church is a Grade One listed building that lies at the heart of the Vale of Glamorgan village of Llantwit Major.
In recent years its importance as an early centre of Christian learning has grown and it now rivals Lindisfarne and Iona as the oldest in Britain.
At its west end was a small 13th century ruin known as the Galilee Chapel, described by Henry VIII’s survey of monastic possessions as ‘The Lady Chapel at the West End’. In the 15th century it became a chantry, a chapel where prayers were said for the family who had endowed the building, in this case the family of Sir Hugh Raglan.
Puritans abolished chantries in the reign of Edward VI, after which the chapel presumably fell into disuse.
It is this long period of disuse that inspired the form of its restoration project. Instead of simply building up the existing stone walls, we had a strong conviction towards representing the ‘ruin’ within the restoration. After all, it had probably been a ruin as long as any other use in its 800-year history. That is why you still see the random tumbledown walls below the deeply overhanging eaves.
We were asked by the PCC to look at how the Galilee Chapel might be restored to house an extraordinary collection of early Christian Celtic stones that were inappropriately displayed in the West church.
Among many challenges with this brief was that there were no records of the Galilee at all, so we had to interpret the ruin from the surviving fabric and from the archaeology below ground.
During the excavations inside the building many burial plots were found, the majority of which appeared to have been dumped there, probably from the West church when the Celtic stones were brought inside. Even more burials were found at lower levels and this had a significant impact on where, and to what depth, the stones could be positioned.
The requirements for this project were quite simple: to provide a display for the stones; to build a kitchen and toilet to serve the community and visitors; and create an archive room that could double up as a parish office.
A mezzanine floor was added to act as a flexible space to accommodate schools and other parties which it was expected would swell visitor numbers once the stones were better displayed.
Although the Galilee Chapel is very small (11m x 5m) it is peppered with historic features which made the design very challenging – there are large arched openings placed centrally on all four sides; two further stone door openings in the north east corner, and ruined steps at each corner of the west end. With the walls no longer supporting a roof, a new frame had to be designed to support both the roof and upper floor. Four posts were positioned centrally around the intersection of two axis, north-south and east-west, and this supports the majority of the roof structure. Finally, the space between the irregular wall tops and the roof line above was simply filled with frameless glass. This maximised the amount of natural daylight falling on the stones as it would have done when they originally stood outside, with the light ever changing.
The walls were built from a local Lias limestone with the dressings mainly Quarella, a stone that no longer exists. The closest match for Quarella is Woodkirk from Leeds, and this was used for all the new stonework, including the new west window. The ruined rubble walls had to be capped with blocks of Woodkirk before the glass could be introduced, and this allowed us to create varying widths of glazing to give some rhythm to this contemporary element.
Our thinking was clear from the outset. The new elements would form a contemporary solution rather than trying to create a pastiche of what might have been there. We toyed with the idea of roofing the small chapel with zinc, and although we wanted this to be a contemporary solution, we also wanted it to be subtle and therefore settled on Cornish slate to match the adjacent roof.
The use of the building has now fundamentally changed and the needs of the community, both local and international, are very different. This is reflected in the new layout. The new elements are simple and largely represented in oak – boarding to the walls and boarding to the roof above. We introduced a very minimalist oak stairway, which winds and twists so that it arrives at two different levels while tightly squeezed into the north-east corner, carefully avoiding a variety of features. The delicate design of the stairs was born out of the need to keep such a small space as open as possible.
The tracery of the 13th century west window had crumbled away leaving only a heavily weathered stone frame. We spent many months debating the design and material for the new window. A modern interpretation incorporating Celtic knot work was finally discarded in favour of the final design that you can see today, which is based upon other 13th century windows in the church.
We went to great trouble to ensure that none of the remaining window frames were lost and carefully cut the back out of each piece of new stone so that it fitted snugly around the face of the old. Although not immediately obvious, you can, on close inspection, discern the subtle difference between old and new.
The real stars of the show are the Celtic stones. It was important that they were displayed sympathetically and we to try and capture the mystique of their ancient inscriptions and strap work. The Houlte Stone was the only one that still had it’s wheel cross in place and so this was placed at the centre of the display, creating a focal point. Painting the walls off-white, and laying a new almost white limestone floor allowed the stones to stand out against a very simple backdrop. During the day the light is ever changing, but in the evening the spotlights provide a different atmosphere. The stones can be lit from all directions, but the spotlights in the floor cast an oblique light that raises the patterns and inscriptions that say so much from so long ago. If you manage to catch a moment alone with the stones at night you may hear them speak. If so, they will speak of Illtud and one of Britain’s oldest and greatest institutions, built here in Wales.