For the end of November, the weather was unseasonably mild which allowed a great shot of the old Church High building today with the palest of blue skies behind it complete with cotton-wool clouds. Apart from the tip of a red crane just visible above the roofline, the first change to the building I noticed today was up in the eaves. All four dormer window frames now appeared to have been removed.
Arriving at the gates to the old Junior School grounds, the cotton-wool clouds now provided an interesting – and refreshingly different – backdrop for the ever-growing steel structure of the NHSG new build. Work was now underway on the last area of the building: the three-storey front section which will face onto Tankerville Terrace. While I stood there, the large red crane made more than one swinging delivery of shiny steel to the very top floor of the structure.
From the gateway, the hive of activity going on at the foot of and within the structure itself wasn’t at all obvious, but, once up close, it was clear that it was ‘full steam ahead’ for everyone on site today. Much like Ford Madox Brown’s Pre-Raphaelite painting of 19th Century urban construction in progress, ‘Work’, everywhere you looked across the site today a different narrative was unfolding.
Straight in front of me, a pair of yellow ‘cherry-pickers’, manned by smiling workmen, were moving up & down between the levels of the steel structure almost in unison: construction poetry in motion.
To my right, a worker was busy attaching a chain to the next piece of heavy, grey steel due to be lifted up aloft by the huge red crane; meanwhile on the second floor, another worker waited to receive it.
Zooming in closer still to my right, a team of men working at ground level within the shadowy depths of steel structure were all busy smoothing out wet cement which would soon set to form the floor.
Over to my left, two workers were engrossed in smoothing out the surface of what looked like a huge white tarpaulin – presumably the damp course membrane for the floor of the old building extension.
When completed, this three-storey extension will house a lift, the re-positioned north staircase, two classrooms as well as the Head Mistress’ Office. However, this was all rather hard to imagine at the moment with the bowels of the building cut wide open and exposed.
Well, at least it wasn’t raining today. As I rounded the corner of Tankerville Terrace, a vibrant blue and green scaffolding rubbish chute was complemented beautifully by a bright, pale-blue sky. Clearly there was still more material to be removed from inside. The windows were all wide open again, but the dormer window in the eaves, exposed for so long, was now covered up with sheeting.
Work seemed to be progressing well on the steel work of the new build in the old Junior School grounds. Each week, the structure seems to gain in substance and complexity. It was now beginning to take on a more three-dimensional form and, for once, the grey metal was not merging into a dull grey sky, but glinting brightly in sunlight.
The structure looked to be about three-quarters in place by now and, even more than last week, it was possible to see the full footprint of the building’s foundations traced out on the ground.
But the really interesting developments this week had taken place to my left. Although no-one was working there at present, work was now clearly underway preparing the foundations for the new glass-fronted extension to the old red-brick Church High main building.
By the side of what used to be the kitchen store area and the caretaker’s office, a stack of rusty, steel reinforcement cages could be seen stacked against the outer wall of the building – the type of metal that cement is poured over in order to create a concrete base.
Closer investigation revealed that large metal pins were already being put in place ready to position the cages of rusty wire rod.
Up to my left, dark scorch marks left by a blowtorch, staggered at even intervals, were now the only indication that a metal fire-escape had ever been there. The dark apertures of the 1930s extension still continued to demand attention and draw the eye inside once again.
One wondered whether the same fate was awaiting them as was already happening straight ahead of me to the windows of Room 9?
Windows that were clearly now destined to be windows no more?
November 11th may have been a particularly wet and miserable day for my weekly visit to the old Church High site, but it certainly turned out to be a very memorable one. For, walking back down Tankerville Terrace on my return to work, as I passed the front door of the main building, to my amazement, it now stood wide open!
One of the men at work inside the building had opened the teal-blue make-shift gate in order to deposit some pieces of wood into a skip. As he became aware of a rain-bedraggled woman across the road from him frantically fumbling for her camera to take a quick shot of the dark interior which had fleetingly been revealed, he stopped to talk. When I told him ‘my story’ – parallels to Coleridge’s ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ were becoming hard to avoid by now – he took pity on me and, taking the camera from my hand, offered to take some photos inside for me to see the work that was going on.
I had to wait until I got home that night and uploaded the images to my PC before I could properly appreciate the shots he had captured for me. I know the building well, but it was dark inside and the re-fit had now reached the stage where some of the plaster had been removed and the walls stripped back to the brickwork. On the screen of the digital camera, this had proved a bit disorientating. He wasn’t away from me for too long, so the areas the guy had photographed had been limited to the ground floor, but it was still enough to give insight into the scale of the transformation taking place inside.
As anyone who has renovated a house or fully re-decorated a room will know, empty of all furnishings and fittings, even the most familiar spaces can appear alien or strangely sad and bereft. The inside of Church High was no different, provoking complex feelings. Whilst it was good to see the old familiar rooms and corridors once again, it was hard not to feel pangs of sadness for they way they had once been: vibrant, colourful, full of activity, peopled by old friends.
The first shot was taken from just inside the main doorway and revealed the entrance lobby looking towards the LRC. The window into Reception had now been removed and, to the left of the shot, grey breeze blocks clearly showed where the Meeting Room doorway and Reception Waiting Area with its Alumnae display case used to be. At present, this has created a uninviting, very narrow corridor space, although the plans for the new school show that Reception is to be open plan on the right-hand-side of the entrance.
The second shot was of the LRC taken through a recently opened-up window off the main corridor. This is the area of the old building where we will notice the most change and, for some, that will be hard to take, as it was a beautifully-designed room always vibrantly buzzing at the very heart of the school. I believe the raised floor is to do with disabled access; clearly a lot of space will be now wasted.
My workman had clearly turned right in front of the LRC because the third shot was unmistakably of the Small and Large Dining Halls taken from the bottom corridor at the foot of the north stairs. The lovely light ash woodwork and dividing doors, installed during the bottom corridor renovation in Lesley Smith’s time, had now all gone. In the new school, the Small Dining Room is to be a Conference Room and the Large Dining Hall will house the admin support staff.
The fourth shot took a little bit of working out, but my workman had clearly passed through both dining rooms and then turned left. In our time, we would now be facing the cafeteria serving area of the Dining Hall with the open plan kitchen visible behind it. Instead, the camera now showed really big changes: the demolished single-storey kitchen block to make way for the new circulation extension.
The workman had then clearly returned back along the bottom corridor and taken a photograph with his back to the Dining Hall looking towards the south staircase (which unlike the north staircase is to be retained) and the side door of the building: the girls’ entrance. The grey breeze blocks to the left of the picture indicate that the glass trophy display case has now been bricked up.
On his way back out of the main door to return the camera to me, the workman, my very first ‘helper’ who I now know was called Dave Cartwright, had taken one last shot: a close-up of the now frameless Reception window where Lesley Ferguson, Church High Receptionist, used to welcome visitors to the school with a warm smile.
As I have said before, the people who gave that special spirit to the building cannot ever be separated from our memories of the place.
The Tankerville site was a real hive of activity today; it was good to feel the place coming alive again after sitting empty & inactive for so long during the long wait for planning permission to come through. There were men & machines hard at work every where you looked. The first workman any visitor to the site must meet is the Gateman.
My visits to Tankerville each Wednesday seemed to be coinciding with dull, drizzly weather at the moment, which isn’t ideal when trying to photograph a grey steel structure. It also makes it nigh on impossible to convey the tangible buzz of excitement on-site now. The new build had obviously come on apace since last week and it was now possible to get a clearer sense of the size it was going to be. For anyone with a memory of the low-level Church High Junior School, this was starting to feel very strange. It is going to be big!
The steel structure was now developing a sense of depth as well as height. Not only were all three storeys of the first section now in place, it was starting to feel three-dimensional. Safety rails had now been put in situ for the workers, but the most obvious new development this week was the presence of flooring. Men had clearly been very hard at work recently and, as if on cue, three workmen moved to the edge of the first floor and stopped to talk then wave. The presence of human bodies within the steelwork not only had the effect of bringing it to life for me for the very first time, it also helped convey the sheer scale of the developing structure.
In front of Princess Mary Court, it was possible to see to my left the building’s ground floor plan starting to evolve much more clearly.
Today, however, the most interesting thing for me was the renewed activity on the old Church High building. As I photographed the steelwork, a yellow dumper truck was moving back and forth behind me all the time, its scoop full of a gravel-like material, and, to my left, over beside the newest part of the old building – the Home Economics & Art Block – a JCB digging machine was also at work.
The yellow digger was bound for the gaping gap where the single-storey kitchen had once stood. Work on the foundations for the new glass-fronted circulation extension was now well underway.
My weekly visits are by now becoming normal for the work force and today everyone seems in a particularly good mood. There was no shortage of workmen happy to stand and pose for the camera. Whilst always curious about what new things are happening, a big part of my mind is always aware that I am possibly seeing parts of this much-loved building for the very last time. In front of me now are windows which soon will be letting in light for the very last time.
As I made my way off-site, the heavens finally open. Luckily I had come prepared with an umbrella today. I note that work is still going on in Alison Roe’s Deputy Head’s room above me. With no window, not only must it be draughty, but very wet indeed up there now!
As I pass Westward House, a group of men appear, all well wrapped up against the rain in bright, water-proof, high visibility jackets. I realise one of them is Project Manager, Nick White, and stop to talk. It wasn’t just the men on-site who were happy to smile for the camera today, despite the rain. The work must clearly be going well.