What’s in a name

It’s good to know that there are many people who care about this city – showing positive concern for both its past and the part that plays in Bath’s future prosperity.

Local historians Kirsten Elliott and her partner Andrew Swift are well known as the founders of Akeman Press and the authors of many books on Bath – as well as subjects including pubs, canals and railways.

For me, one of the most unusual publications introduces us to the Ghost Signs of Bath – those faded advertisements on the sides of buildings for long-forgotten businesses. Bath is blessed with many of them with the oldest dating back to 1780.

The book takes us on a walkabout tour of the city – illustrating signs and their individual social and economic histories.

Just occasionally the authors veer away from the advertisements to mention other signage – including one particular street name painted on the side of a building leading off from Broad Street.

It’s on the right hand side of the entrance to ‘Broad Street Place’ and reveals that it marked the entrance to an area once called ‘Gracious Court’. The book tells us this alleyway was originally known as Gracious – or Gratious – Street.

The narrow alleyway leads off Broad Street.

It was once jam-packed with slum housing – now long since demolished. The sign – says Kirsten – must be more than 150 years old.

All the old slum houses have been cleared away.

Walking past it the other day our authors told me:

“We were dismayed to see that the sign bearing the old name of Broad Street Place – Gracious Court – has been deliberately painted out by the decorators at the hairdressers on the corner. There is no planning permission for this – it is a listed building. It is not too late to remove the paint. “

The newly enhanced signage

“This is an important part of the darker side of Bath’s history and was, until yesterday, a remarkable survival. I trust you will take action on this immediately.”

As well as sending me an email she sent the same plea to the Council AND to Bath Preservation Trust – who passed it on to Professor Barry Gilbertson – who is Chair of The City of Bath World Heritage Site AND of the World Heritage Enhancement Fund who – over the years and with limited funds – have done what they can to preserve and enhance physical aspects of the city’s amazing architecture and street furniture.

Now it just happens that the fund – over the past 11 years – has restored a grand total of 56 street signs – and it is professional conservationists who are restoring this particular one.

Stay with me now as l hand over to Barry and quote his email to Kirsten in full. Bath Newseum was amongst the people copied in on this.

“Thank you for raising your concern about the painted street sign at Gracious Court.

We have met, briefly, a couple of times over the past four years of my tenure – particularly when attending the very informative talks which you and/or Andrew have given in Bath. You each rightly command considerable respect in both the heritage and authorship communities here in Bath. Accordingly, I feel your concern merits a full response.

Your email to various individuals and organisations has been forwarded to me in my World Heritage role, via Bath Preservation Trust. I am keen to respond fully and, equally, am happy to enter into further correspondence should you wish to do so. Very willing to meet if that is also your wish.

I have copied this response to those individuals to whom you, quite reasonably, copied your initial email, and will share a copy with the members of Bath’s World Heritage Enhancement Fund (which I also Chair) who have naturally taken an interest in your concern.

Professor Barry Gilbertson – pictured with the Enhancement Fund’s Administrator Ainslie Ensom.

Now, as for the detailed response : this explanation (in italics) has been prepared by Ainslie Ensom DipAD MScHistBdgCons, the Bath World Heritage Enhancement Fund Administrator :

This particular sign has been a tricky one to restore. The severe sulphation crusts on the wall are causing delamination of the surface of the stone under and around the sign. The wires attached directly to the sign, and other interventions over the years, had further damaged the stone substrate of the sign to such an extent that it was on the point of being lost altogether. I note that Kirsten refers to it as a ghost sign, although it must originally have been a street name.

Photograph shows the template stencil in place, in the course of repainting the lettering.

Brian Bentley, of Cliveden Conservation, traced the sign lettering, and of course photographed it to record it, before starting work. He cut a stencil from the tracing which he is using as a template to reinstate the lettering (exactly as found) in a mineral paint which will not further damage the stone.

Since the owners of the building were unwilling to clean the sulphation from the wall, or to relocate the wires which were attached to the sign, Brian has repaired the damage in the immediate area of the sign with lime mortar, and painted a discreet background surface to support the lettering of the reinstated sign and aid its legibility before repainting the letters. He will carefully re-attach the wires to avoid further damage to the sign and minimise damage to the wall. 

One photograph attached shows the template stencil in place, in course of repainting the lettering. The arrowed areas show the mortar repairs. A second image shows the final stages of the restoration from street level.

The net result is that a historic street name has been saved, in its original hand, for the future, rather than be permanently lost as the surface of the wall deteriorates further. 

Regarding planning permission, we have not in general needed consent for work on the painted signs, just the incised ones, since the materials and methods employed are already approved. Cliveden will, as always, write a full report on the project in due course with specifications, photographic records and technical details.

In addition, there are three further observations that I would like to make, so that you have the full picture…

  • Over the past 11 years or so, the WHEF has restored a grand total of 56 street signs, almost all at first floor level, around the city : 21 incised into the stonework and 35 painted. Although we do try to seek some level of reimbursement from property owners, relevant trusts or charities, this is not always forthcoming. The total cost expended to date is £67,597.
  • This year the proposals are to conserve a set of four painted signs which are in need of attention, to be restored by Cliveden Conservation at an overall cost of £7,000 including VAT. The signs approved are all in the city centre, at Gracious Court in Broad Street (the subject of this email), York Street, Bridewell Lane and Cheap Street. 
  • We were honoured to win a national award from The Georgian Group : Architectural Awards 2019 : Award for Streetscape Initiatives for our “Historic Street Signs Restoration Scheme, Bath” The third image attached shows Ainslie and myself holding the Winner’s Certificate at the Award Ceremony, held at The RIBA Building in Portland Place, London.

It is also perhaps worth noting the following :

PUBLIC BENEFIT and BENEFIT to the WORLD HERITAGE SITE

The improvement to the signs is noticed and commented on favourably by local Bath residents. The occupants of the buildings bearing the signs are almost always very appreciative, both of the evidence of care being taken of the city’s historic fabric, and of the enhancement to their property. For visitors, maintaining legibility of the signs is also valuable as they negotiate their way round the city. 

The World Heritage Site street scene is also enhanced and the authenticity of the original signs is preserved. Retaining the historic signs in a good and legible condition obviates the need for modern attached (often metal) signs to be installed, usually covering an existing decaying sign which then disappears from view and deteriorates further.

VALUE and LIFESPAN

The resulting improvement to the aesthetic appearance of the street scene in relation to the relatively small-sized detail of the restored sign is remarkably high. 

The signs are all lasting very well; painting the lettering of the incised signs has proved to preserve well the (usually) shallow carving, and the first sign conserved in 2010, Princes Street on the west elevation of the south side of Queen Square, is showing no signs of deterioration. Painted signs are also holding up well, as can be seen in Trim Bridge, also conserved in 2010.

Restoration work underway in Sydney Place in 2013 !

Finally, Kirsten, thank you for raising your concern. I do hope that all this information will give you confidence that historic street signs are being restored and conserved professionally and correctly. We believe that individually, and in aggregate, these restorations contribute significant benefit to the World Heritage Site within our fair city of Bath.”

Kirsten told me she had received Barry’s response and was ‘actually very happy with it.’

However, she had always believed the restoration of old signs needed planning permission and wondered whether this had set ‘a very dangerous precedent’ and that she though it definitely was ‘a case of the road to hell being paved with good intentions.’

Now, l am no expert on these matters so l consulted a third party who told me that planning permission was not likely to be needed as the works would be considered too minor for consideration. It was listed building consent that was more the matter in question.

My expert told me:

‘Listed Building consent is not required for like-for-like repairs, plus the legislation states that consent is required for works that affect the CHARACTER of the building.  This deliberately leaves an area of discretion, which is why conservation officers are employed to make these judgements.

Kirsten is right to raise the question, but it is not accurate to assume consent would be required.

It is also very questionable to say that any consent would be refused, as without intervention (by highly trained and qualified conservators Cliveden) this sign would have been lost forever in a very short time.

There is therefore a judgement to be made as whether to stand by and see things erode and be lost or to intervene with appropriate conservation – and then of course debate what is ‘appropriate.’

There’s going to be no point of view that will satisfy everyone in this debate but at least all of those participating are on the side of Bath and its heritage.

Maybe it would have helped if there had been a contractor’s sign erected saying it was the Enhancement Fund doing the work – but there’s no getting away from the fact that the restoration of more than 50 of Bath’s historic street signs is a big success story.

PS. Elsewhere in Broad Street is the sort of writing on a wall that l am sure no one wants to see.

It brings down the area and should be removed. Anyone got a ladder?