Blaze to Glory: How We Restored the Queen’s Castle

After the devastating fire at Windsor Castle 30 years ago, restoration has become a prestigious and challenging building job. After the death of Queen Elizabeth II, Luke Haynes addresses those involved in the project.

A plume of thick grey-black smoke billowed across the Berkshire sky on the morning of Friday, November 20, 1992, as a massive fire broke out at Windsor Castle, the official residence of the late Queen Elizabeth II.

The blaze, started by a faulty searchlight that lit a curtain in the private chapel in the castle’s upper quarter, was described as ‘unstoppable’ by witnesses and spread inside the room, melting intricate plaster wall finishes and searing wooden pews. to ashes.

The fire spread to the entire Grade I listed building, which had been built in stages from the 11th century, including major additions in the 15th and 19th centuries. It consumed several more pieces and caused the castellated section of Brunswick Tower to fracture in the northwest corner.

Extinguished 15 hours after starting at 2:30 a.m., the blaze saw 225 firefighters douse the building with 1.5 million gallons of water.

The incident at the end of the year, which the Queen described as her “annus horribilis”, was devastating.

She and Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, who were away from the property to celebrate their 45th wedding anniversary, returned home to a scene of ruin. About a fifth of the castle had been damaged or destroyed, including 115 rooms, while whatever was left standing was flooded.

Careers

Restoring a property of such historical importance was neither cheap nor easy. The works cost a total of £36.5m, equivalent to £63m today. With the royal palaces too expensive to insure, a national debate ensued over who should pay for the work. Some MPs and pundits have argued the Queen should foot the bill. In response to the pressure, Buckingham Palace was opened to tourists to fund the repairs. Her Majesty also contributed £2million from her own personal wealth, and the episode saw her agree to pay income tax for the first time.

Once funding was secured, architectural and historic building consultancy firm Donald Insall Associates was appointed to act as the coordinating architect for the main reconstruction and restoration phases. Higgs and Hill – later to become part of Bam Construct – was chosen as the main contractor for the second phase of the restoration work, which involved the construction of new permanent roofs over two of the castle’s great halls and over the one of his towers.

Donald Insall’s Peter Riddington led a significant portion of the work, including the reimagining of several state rooms. Now a consultant, he remembers the fierce competition that surrounded the position. “Anyone who could do it wanted to do it because it was their chance for a career,” he recalls smiling. “Insall was very determined to get involved because we knew it was such an important project.”

His firm was responsible for all of the design work for the restoration, and Riddington personally took charge of the revival of the Great Reception Room, as well as the Crimson and Green Drawing Rooms.

Labyrinth

Recalling the labyrinthine layout of the site, he describes his first impressions of the “utter devastation” he faced. “Some of the rooms were okay and not so badly damaged, but the ones like the green living room, where the firefighters had actually drilled a hole in the ceiling to pump water in [were ruined]. The Crimson Dining Room was a complete shell, as was the State Dining Room, which looked like a blast furnace. All that remained were iron dogs that were embedded in the masonry […] those were the only things that gave us a clue as to where the coverings in the room were.

He remembers the huge amount of national discussion around the approach that would be taken to restoration – for example whether it would be more traditional or embrace modern designs. The then president of the Royal Institute of British Architects, Richard MacCormac, had suggested that contemporary architects be allowed to reinvent the castle building.

Ultimately, says Riddington, furniture, paintings, clocks and light fixtures helped determine the plans. These had been removed from the building before the fire, ahead of unrelated large-scale rewiring work which was due to take place, and included some of the finest sets of furniture from the Regency era.

“These suites are absolutely priceless, so the whole concept of thinking you could recreate a room in a modern style and then put that furniture back in was just weird,” he says.

Two years after the fire, Higgs and Hill workers started at the site. By then a huge temporary roof that had been compounded had been erected in an effort to dry out the affected area and keep it safe, a process detailed in the book Restoration: Rebuilding of Windsor Castle by Adam Nicolson .

From outside to

Bam UK and Ireland executive director James Wimpenny was not directly involved in the project, but was working for Higgs and Hill at the time. After reviewing Bam’s records of the work, he tells Construction News that the contractor’s first assignment was to build a new roof. This included the section covering St George’s Hall, which had collapsed during the fire. The structure was made of steel and covered with lead. It consisted of 30 trusses, which were made up of a pair of steel beams that were bolted together and then attached to concrete pads in the walls on either side, Nicholson’s 1997 book recounts.

Wimpenny says building the hall’s roof initially created a problem for the contractor – essentially forcing staff to work from the outside in. He explains that the roof was installed early to allow for a long drying process, so it was erected while new wood, stained glass and interior finishes were purchased and prepared.

“Normally you would have put a big crane outside and lifted all the materials. But, since there was a roof over it, it all had to be brought in and installed inside the building,” he says.

Another challenge the main contractor faced, according to Wimpenny, was sourcing materials to match those that had been used before.

“There were many traditional products which you might not see in ordinary building these days – for example, stone which had to be quarried in Bath, holm oak to replace all the roof trusses, and sheet Golden.”

The company had to be inventive when it came to sourcing materials. For example, they looked abroad for supplies and had to cut down 70 holm oaks. Where they encountered dead ends, they needed new ideas.

“We had to put steel frames [in some parts of the building], which would not have been there traditionally, but we then installed the traditional materials around it. So it was a bit of a mix then, a bit of new technology with old stuff.

In-game reputation

With an army of different specialists flooding the property, questions have been raised about the cohesiveness of the task force.

But Riddington says problems were avoided thanks to strong management. In particular, he thanks Higgs and Hill project manager Philip Rowley, who was awarded an MBE for his leadership on the project. “One of the great things about Windsor was that everyone shot the same. It was a deal like no other because everyone knew it was their reputation. [on the line]. They were brilliant craftsmen. »

He adds that members of the royal family were keen observers of the work at their official residence, with Prince Philip chairing its restoration committee.

“They used to come back to Windsor – their home – from Buckingham Palace on Friday nights and the first thing they did was go straight to the site,” he says. “Of course, a contractor’s worst nightmare is for their client to walk into a site with open holes and such. But they would – they were very involved.

Riddington himself only met the Queen after the work was completed in 1997 – at a party for everyone involved in the project. He remembers the late monarch being “very pleased with the work” and her “incredibly blue eyes”.

Reflecting on the project three decades later, Riddington says his role in restoring some of the country’s most historic pieces was “pretty special”, but those he shared the build with were those who had shaped his treasured memories of the job. .

“One of the things I will always take away from the project is that I met some of the smartest, most knowledgeable, talented and creative people I have ever met. Just bright, brilliant people.

Justify recognition

Companies carrying out work for royalty are entitled to display the prestigious Royal Arms logo on their marketing and products to show that they hold the Royal Warrant – recognition that they are providing goods or services to royalty.

In the building and maintenance sector, more than 100 companies currently hold a warrant – which usually has to be renewed every five years, but also lapses two years after the death of the royal who issued it.

Commercial painting and renovation contractor AC Beck won his Queen’s Warrant in April 2021 after working on several royal estates, including painting the exterior of Windsor Castle in recent years.

Chief executive Stephen Beck says getting it took a lot of work, but insists it was “just a reward” for the hard work the company has done over its 70-year history.

On the mandate, he says: “It gives you a status [and means] a lot in terms of quality demonstration, experience. It puts you on a different level, setting you apart from other entrepreneurs.

“We are really proud to be involved.”

Warrants issued by the Queen are expected to be reviewed in coming years.

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