A close fought battle for the 2017 John Betjeman Award

Sensitive repairs to the iconic Ionic portico at St Pancras Church in London have won the prestigious 2017 SPAB (Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings) John Betjeman Award. St Pancras Church, a striking Greek Revival building of the Regency Era, is famous for its classical ‘landmark’ caryatids fronting the traffic-choked Euston Road.

The annual award honours the memory of church enthusiast and SPAB member Sir John Betjeman and is made for outstanding repairs to the fabric of places of worship in England and Wales completed in the last 18 months. Importantly, the award is always made to the winning church / chapel rather than to individuals. This year’s John Betjeman Award attracted a record number of entries from across England and Wales. All dates and styles of ecclesiastical architecture were represented, from soaring landmarks seating hundreds to the small and modest, some in deeply rural locations, but all at the heart of their community

The SPAB judging panel* visited three shortlisted projects earlier this spring and found themselves faced with a tough decision. Ultimately the meticulous and beautifully executed Portico Project at St Pancras Church emerged as a clear favourite.

Years of pollution have taken their toll on the early 19th-century building designed by father and son William and Henry Inwood to serve the growing population of the Duke of Bedford’s ‘New Road’ estate on the northern edge of Bloomsbury. As part of the parish’s ‘Portico Project’ architects Alan Chandler and Marcus Chantrey have meticulously cleaned and repaired the roof, parapet and terracotta decoration of St Pancras’s Ionic western portico, working closely with specialists  Pierra Restoration, Leadworkers MS Lock and Sons, conservator Sally Strachey and Darwen Terracotta.

The Revd. Anne Stevens, vicar of St Pancras Church, said:

“We are delighted to receive this award. St Pancras Church has been one of the treasures of Central London since it opened in 1822, but the Inwoods had no idea that the Euston Road would become one of the most heavily polluted in the country. This has caused – and still causes – severe damage to the decorative features of the building. We were determined that the repairs to the roof, stonework and terracotta should preserve the original grace and beauty of the church. In an area blighted by poor development, the classical elegance of the building continues to lift the heart, and to remind people of the timeless values of faith, hope and love in our busy world.  Sir John Betjeman is remembered with great fondness in the station that bears our name – and it is an honour to receive the SPAB award that bears his.”

On behalf of the conservation team, architect Alan Chandler said:

“The Portico project was a collaboration in a true sense – between two architects, Arts Lettres Techniques and b2 architects, between us and our craftspeople, notably leadworkers MS Lock and our terracotta manufacturer Darwen, and between the parish and the local community – particularly the children who learned about the fabric of the building and lovingly drew the caryatids while half the church was inelegantly encased in a cage of scaffolding and corrugated metal.

“As a team we are very proud to receive the John Betjeman Award – having the spirit of collaboration and quiet invention that permeated this project recognised by the most significant conservation society is tremendous.”

SPAB’s Betjeman Award judges agreed that the work at St Pancras was an excellent example of good practice in sensitive repair.

Judge Rachel Morley said:

“We were incredibly impressed by the time and effort which was given to understanding the construction of the Portico – the development, alterations, inefficiencies and unique details, as well as the materials used. This informed and justified every step of this complex suite of repair and re-engineering works. The detail of the work throughout was exquisite. We were especially pleased with the team’s forward-looking approach – not only developing a recipe for this rare form of terracotta to inform future repairs, but also supporting the craftspeople that possess these skills. Overall, we found this to be an exceptionally thorough and thoughtful project.

The John Betjeman Award takes the form of a commemorative scroll featuring a John Piper print of a church much-loved by Betjeman and this was presented to the parish and the conservation team at the Society’s summer members’ meeting in York on June 10th.