I suffer from acrophobia, a simple fear of heights as opposed to vertigo, which I believe involves dizziness and a wish to throw yourself off a high place. But to find myself at parapet level on a roof for a morning is not my usual idea of a good time, especially remembering how the eagle that surmounts Dyrham, and beside which I now find myself standing, usually soars against the sky.
Dyrham at the moment is a virtual cathedral of scaffolding, balancing structural extravagance and absolute necessity. You reach it in a reassuringly solid-sided lift and step out, to walk its aisles on reassuringly firm ground, solid underfoot and suitably veiled to either side. Over the course of the year it has become an extraordinary, revealing, world apart – a domain visited by 70,000 already, thanks to a veritable army of volunteer guides.
On every side, as if in a theatre devoted to the varied and arcane skills of the 17th century building trade, are figures crouched down over gulleys, ridges or rooftops or striding around as nonchalantly as if their feet were on the ground. This many million pound programme for the National Trust, being carried out by Bristol builders Ken Biggs and their subcontractors, is urgently replacing a failing roof, found to largely consist of 19th century repairs, and which had begun to put the entire house below at risk. I asked site manager Andy Nicholls about a little coloured picture tacked onto a rafter below us. Ah, he answered, that’s just to remind the workforce of where they are – working above one of the most valuable interiors in Europe. The photograph showed a painted ceiling, potentially lost if any of them lost their step up here.
As my photographs show, the entire roof has become something like a great yard, a workshop in which lead workers are cutting, fitting, folding and inserting the new sheets alongside tilers who are preparing and laying both new and reused slates, buckets of copper nails to hand, while stone masons and conservators carry out work ranging from replacement of chimneys to the gentle cleaning of carved detail. Elsewhere the carpenters are putting the essential corsetry into the structure, without which all the other skilled work would be lost.
If you want to help, buy and inscribe a slate. Messages on broken or fragmentary slates are proving an inspired fund raising idea and the best possible tool for public engagement.
And high above, inscrutable, stands that immense eagle, hardly smaller than myself, surveying the transformational scene with a beady eye. In the meantime, Nicholls, a man with a passion for his job, is standing in.