"Daunting is an understatement": The battle by archaeologists to save a burnt-out mansion

By Ben Miller | 23 May 2016

The disastrous fire at the 18th century mansion of Clandon Park looks set for a happy ending - and the rediscovery of many amazing artefacts

A photo of a large historic house, Clandon Park, after it has been gutted by a major fire
© BristolIcarus / Wikimedia Commons
If the restoration of Clandon Park, the Palladian mansion gutted by an electrical fire in April 2015, seems a formidably arduous proposition, spare a thought for the archaeologists who dug through the rubble. Amid plans for the main rooms of the 18th century Surrey mansion to be restored to their original look, announced earlier this year, Catherine Edwards made up a four-piece rescue team, slipping on red boiler suits and helmets to begin the salvage operation.

The Grade I-listed site, as you might expect, has been “very different from the average” during the six-month search. “For a start we’re in a building, which doesn’t happen very often,” says Edwards, of AOC Archaeology.

“Normally we’re on an excavation and we don’t know what we’re going to find. But here we know there’s a potential, it’s just a matter of trying to find objects.”

This was a “very different mindset” ahead of a somewhat incomprehensible challenge. Starting out on the saloon steps – “just four figures huddled in the doorway of this giant house” – the team crept in, spending the first few days trying to understand the scale and possibilities beyond the charred doors. “And then within a couple of hours we started getting bits of plasterwork, bits of porcelain – we started to understand what we needed to do and how long it was going to take us to get through it all, really,” says Edwards.

A strict methodology and good old trowels were their initial tools, moving the tumbled artefacts between hand shovels, buckets and rubble sacks. The National Trust offered a provisional plan, but some objects had been swept across entire rooms and levels.

“The collapse of the rooms obviously happened in a completely random fashion,” says Edwards. “We found objects all over the place. You could be working for three or four days and finding very little and then you’d find a beautiful piece of plasterwork or a complete piece of porcelain.

“I think it’s just the small things: with faces, it looks like you’ve found nothing, and suddenly you get your brush out and this face appears. It’s absolutely incredible.”

The team had never previously visited Clandon, and there were suggestions that the house could be left as a ruin. “Daunting is an understatement – it seemed like an impossible, endless task. It’s hard and heavy work.

“We’ve been on site throughout the winter in all kinds of weather and some very cold days. There’s a lot of brick and masonry amongst the debris all of which has to be sorted and carried out of the building one sack at a time. Our whole team has worked tirelessly and we’ll all be leaving with bigger muscles than when we arrived.

“The basement has proved a particular challenge. In some areas the debris field reached up to 1.5 metres high – the result of four floors crashing down into this one section of the house. It’s remarkable that we’re finding anything in here at all.

“I’m hoping for the number of fragments and artefacts that have been uncovered, a lot of it is going to be able to come back on display in whatever capacity it can be.

“I think that tells an interesting story of the phoenix rising from the flames, so to speak.”

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Three mansions to see

Parc Howard Museum and Art Gallery, Llanelli
Parc Howard was built by the Buckley family in 1885, a family with a long association of brewing in the town. The mansion, with its 27-acre park, was given to the town of Llanelli in 1912 by Sir Stafford and Lady Howard.

Ardkinglas Estate, Argyll
Situated on the shores of Loch Fyne in Argyll, against a spectacular background of mountain and forest, Ardkinglas House is an architectural gem. Ardkinglas Woodland Gardens are open all the year round with an outstanding collection of plants and trees, including the tallest tree in Britain.

Valentines Mansion and Gardens, Ilford
Visit the recreated Victorian kitchen and Georgian rooms, with gorgeous views over surroundling parkland. Enjoy contemporary art exhibitions and installations. Explore the stunning historic gardens
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