When the Cotswold village of Burford decided to treat itself to a rationalised community centre, Acanthus Clews relied on the famous local stone to keep the historic and aesthetic faith
Burford plays up to the chocolate box image of the Cotswold village – even its fire station has more than a bit of the medieval threshing barn about it. But what was once a prosperous hub of the wool trade sank into economic decline when the trains were routed miles away from its sunny Cotswold stone and merchants’ houses – until another sort of prosperity arrived with the day-trippers and coach parties, come to visit its intact heritage, ungrubbied by decades of development and change.
One of their stopping off points is the church of St John the Baptist, a parish church started in 1175 that has grown with Burford itself: 12th century, 15th century, Victorian. It has 100,000 visitors a year. And the quiet church, as it was, has been reinvigorated with new mission over the last two decades. When the long lease for the church-owned Warwick Hall ended, the proselytising desire to engage with the wider community – and need to find space for the activities in which the church already engaged – came together into a brief for a refurbishment and extension. The hall had long been used for exercise classes and baby groups but the space, added to over time, was awkwardly chopped up with the normal problems of level changes and inadequate loos and kitchens.
The new building steps happily away from the orthodoxy of glass and steel delineating the new from the old, to be part of the continuum of the place
Enter Banbury-based conservation architect Acanthus Clews. Already engaged for St John the Baptist’s quinquennial inspections, its relationship with the church surely made it the right firm to tend to this hall, which along with a row of almshouses lines the entrance to the churchyard. But this practice is entering its second generation with an unexpected expertise and gentle ambition. Its director since 2008 is David Finlay, whose experience includes Towner Art Gallery in Eastbourne while at Rick Mather Architects, and BBC Scotland and Barcelona Law Courts for David Chipperfield. His expertise is demonstrated in this project which is more than a tending to a historic building, or painstakingly precise restoration. It takes the original Warwick Hall and its congested hinterland of accretions to create a bigger, spacious, easy-to-navigate centre that has internal lightness and simplicity and a grounded but unassuming presence alongside the church.
An unassuming presence is hardly surprising for a project that incorporates a grade II-listed hall alongside a grade I-listed church, attracting close scrutiny from Historic England and the Church of England’s own Oxfordshire Diocesan Advisory Committee. But there is a real compositional skill in the way the new section, flanked delicately with more recessive glass, ducks down behind the perimeter walls to offer a gable end to the churchyard. The long roof of this second hall settles in comfortably with its hummock of graduated Cotswold limestone tiles. A roof light along its length is concealed on the ridge by the angles of asymmetry in the double pitched roof (an asymmetry shared with the original Warwick Hall). It maintains a domestic scale externally that fits its precious surroundings. While it is a design that would satisfy those who prefer new architecture – or at least new elevations – to remain invisible, it steps happily away from the orthodoxy of glass and steel delineating the new from the old, to be part of the continuum of the place.
The cleanness of the lines, generous top light and garden views make this a pleasant, usable space
In a large part that is due to the stonework which grounds the whole building. On the outside a seamless repair has raised the churchyard wall, the aged stone of an anomalous and crumbling range behind it repurposed to avoid the glaring brightness of new stone. On the gable ends Finlay drew each course (not such a chore in a practice used to colour coding each stone of a cathedral facade by its state of repair). Different depths draw attention to the horizontality and craftsmanship, and align beautifully to frame a first floor picture window above the dry stone wall. Originally, the rough sawn finish of the ashlar of the churchyard wall suggested a way of finishing the new stone that would be in keeping with its surroundings. But when Finlay saw the vagaries of every joint exposed in the unevenness he asked the masons to sand it down as normal.
Inside, two strong arms of the rubble stone walls – one edging the churchyard and the other Warwick Hall – lend solid character to the space. The first runs the length of the churchyard entrance and café and out into the garden overlooking a smooth flowing mill race of the River Windrush. The second wall is alongside the stair, its leaded panes and a doorway which was bricked up before living memory imparting a sense of the tall Warwick Hall that many locals have known and loved over the years. This texture offsets the spaciously plain interior. There are no frills to the internal specifications, which reflects both a humility in the design compared to its ecclesiastical neighbour, and the fact that a third of the budget went on stone, the basement and ground source heat pumps. There is an airiness and simplicity that welcomes wheelchairs, pushchairs and exploring toddlers, and tells you the youth club can operate here. Despite the rich carvings and memorials of the church, this is determinedly a modern working space. The café is a clear demonstration of this: it is light even though a plan to knock a window through the churchyard wall was prevented. It is lit by rooflights – two circular and one running the building’s length – and end windows that look onto the garden. Hard surfaces and large tables – buzzing by 11am – contrast with the tight spaces and froufrou decorations of Burford high street cafés (though sadly also absent here is the local lardy cake they offer).
The second hall is deliberately multi-purpose, although precisely what that meant changed over its 10 year gestation
The second hall carries on this theme of good light (a slim clerestory as well as a rooflight) and restraint, with grey finishes. There is none of the timber or structural play that many such halls use to grace a utilitarian space. But the cleanness of the lines, the generous top light and garden views make this a pleasant, usable space – perhaps more so than the original Warwick Hall itself. There, the dimensions feel rather awkward despite interesting historic detail: it is a narrow room with high ceilings and high schoolroom windows that limit the views and natural light. The second hall is also deliberately multi-purpose, although precisely what that meant changed over its 10 year gestation. So it can be blacked out with blinds and sliding acoustic partitions across ground floor door and windows, cutting out noise and the views into the café and garden. Or it can be opened up to them, say during Burford Festival, so almost an entire corner of the hall is part of a larger space. It can also be air conditioned so late lettings behind closed doors don’t disturb almshouse residents next door.
The ambitions and remit for these halls are wider than even a church of an evangelical bent. Burford has always lacked a spacious hall – although Warwick Hall filled in for many years – and there was a fund set aside some years ago to build one. This was rolled into the project and brought with it accommodation for the needs of daycare users, laundry facilities and a disability-friendly toilet. It no doubt also helped fund the large basement which provides storage for both the church and regular users. That might mean large print scrabble and a table cloth for those running the regular elderly daycare sessions, extra chairs and learning materials for the Sunday School or largescale toys for the toddler group.
Visiting Burford on a sunny summer day, chock a block with day trippers and tour groups, you wonder how it can exist as a local centre. The calm space that Acanthus Clews and the church have created in the community centre feels like it can serve local residents as a haven and a meeting place, as well as having the capacity to open up to visitors and bring the two groups together.
Construction cost £3.2m
Gifa cost per m2 £3,294
Total annual CO2 emissions 32.7 kg
Client St John the Baptist Church, Burford
Architect Acanthus Clews Architects
Quantity surveyor Baqus Sworn King
Structural engineer Price & Myers
M&E engineer Environmental Engineering Partnership
Landscape architect Clews Landscape Architects
Audio visual consultant Smart Sense
Lighting designer Firefly Lighting Design
Acoustic engineer Arup Acoustic
Main contractor Edgar Taylor
Stone subcontractor OG Stonemasonry
Structural glazing IQ Glass
Roofing subcontractor Everest Roofing