Rebuilding our Heritage

The Vivat Trust conserves and restores the smaller historic buildings that are overlooked by larger organisations

Architecture Heritage Rural Affairs

The troubles of the Bolton Percy Gatehouse are a classic example of the difficulties facing heritage funding in Britain. The rare, timber-framed building outside York, dating from about 1467, had fallen into decay. Indeed, the south-west end had collapsed. For ten years it had been on English Heritage’s register of buildings at risk, and despite the attempts of a few village fundraisers it seemed destined to perish.

Enter the Vivat Trust, a charity that rescues buildings of historic and architectural importance, restores them and converts them into short-stay holiday homes. Vivat is finally giving the gatehouse a new breath of life, having provisionally gained a lease from the Bolton Percy Gatehouse Preservation Trust. The building should be restored and ready for use in May.

The Vivat Trust was founded in 1981 by Niall Philips and Paul Simons, two young architects on scholarships with the Society for the Preservation of Ancient Buildings, who were shocked by the number of historic structures that were falling into disrepair. Once restored, the buildings are rented out as holiday homes to generate income and cover costs. Vivat operates in the same fashion as the bigger Landmark Trust but is specifically permitted by the Charity Commission to buy leasehold properties. It is therefore able to help save smaller- or medium-sized structures which are often overlooked by larger trusts or whose owners may not wish to grant a freehold.

Vivat finds projects through individual owners, trusts and local authorities and it relies on donations and grants for funds. The buildings should be “of particular architectural note or interesting and quirky”, says its project organiser, Alice Yates. The properties Vivat restores are often listed but do not have to be very old. Among its 22 buildings are banqueting towers, dovecots, a chantry and a watermill, as well as houses and cottages. As they are not permanent residences, Vivat does not need to make drastic alterations for modern facilities and can concentrate instead on the main structure. It also tries to maintain the buildings’ historic character by reusing furnishings and employing local craftspeople.

Yates believes that the British really do appreciate their heritage. “Our guests love the fact the buildings are a tangible link with the past and our restoration schemes balance a commitment to the buildings’ historic fabric with modern comforts,” she says. However, what the public does not appreciate is the difficulty of preserving this heritage and combating neglect.

“There should be more incentives for owners of listed buildings – the heritage field has been lobbying the government for years to abolish VAT on repairs to listed buildings,” Yates says. In recent years, the Heritage Lottery Fund has experienced sizeable budget cuts and this looks set to continue as money is redirected towards the 2012 Olympics. As a result, Vivat’s application for a grant to help repair Earlstoun Castle, in Dumfries and Galloway, was rejected last summer.

Vivat is therefore concerned with awareness and education. “We want to try and get as many people as possible to see our buildings,” says Yates. Sightseeing visits are encouraged, as are trips by conservation students and schools wishing to learn about the restoration process. Once a year, all the buildings are opened to the public as part of the English Heritage weekend. This has been a great success. As one guest said after staying at Church Brow Cottage, in Cumbria, “This is proper England. Beautiful, unspoilt and wonderful. We will return.”