Context 164 - May 2020

18 C O N T E X T 1 6 4 : M A Y 2 0 2 0 MATTHEW SLOCOMBE Curated decay Curated decay can certainly offer a valid and sensible conservation approach. The SPAB sees it as a long-established minor strand within the range of options available to conservationists. ‘Stave off decay by daily care’ has been the SPAB’s maintenance mantra since its founda- tion.The society’s thinking has influenced much in UK conservation practice and policy, includ- ing 2002’s A Stitch in Time , published jointly by the IHBC, SPAB and English Heritage. Yet as the 21st century has proceeded, funding constraints and fresh thinking drawn from other disciplines have offered a challenge to this conservation approach based on care and repair. Some might even argue that legislation has led us to accumulate too much ‘ancient stuff’. Such thoughts have been articulated by Exeter aca- demic Caitlin Desilvey in her 2017 book Curated Decay: heritage beyond saving . Should we as conservationists simply ‘let go’ and acknowledge that interesting results may emerge? Caitlin Desilvey’s thought-provoking book takes issue with the conventional idea that ‘in order for the object to function as the bearer of cultural memory, it must be protected in perpetuity’. Her argument is that we ‘need ways of valuing the material past that do not necessar- ily involve accumulation and preservation’. This version of ‘curated decay’ stands in complete contrast to the one practised by the National Trust at Calke Abbey or Tyntesfield Park, or by English Heritage’s Brodsworth Hall. In those cases, very active conservation work underlies apparent abandonment. Desilvey advocates something quite different. A comparison can be drawn with new approaches to the conservation of the natural environment. In recent years ‘re-wilders’ have put forward the idea that native wildlife and nat- ural forces should be encouraged, not resisted. Nick Baker, author of Rewild: the art of returning to nature says ‘we continue to sign up to the very Victorian and out-dated view that nature is something to be controlled and tamed, we’ve simply lost our natural tolerance.’ At Knepp Castle, a Grade II* listed Regency gothick house in West Sussex, with Grade II registered parkland, rewilding has been put into action.The stated vision of the KneppWildland Project is ‘to establish a functioning ecosystem where nature is given as much freedom as possible.’ Some coastal communities are also follow- ing the Desilvey path, whether or not they have chosen it. Fairbourne village in Barmouth Bay, North Wales, has been ‘decommissioned’ this year by Gwynedd Council and Natural Resources Wales. The council has concluded that ‘the engineering and financial challenges of protecting the village are likely to become insurmountable earlier than in other areas’. One resident told the Guardian : ‘This is going to happen elsewhere… we just happen to be the first.’The National Trust has also accepted, in its Shifting Shores report, that ‘defence as the only response is implausible – instead we must take adaptive approaches and a longer view, working with nature rather than against it.’ This acceptance of coastal decay and loss contrasts with the approach taken in the 1990s by English Heritage over ‘Seahenge’, an early After 50 years of disuse, the SPAB’s Grade II* Old House Project building is being returned to domestic occupation, but with consideration for the flora and fauna that have colonised the site (Photo: Rachel Morley) ‘Stave off decay by daily care’: repointing work at the SPAB’s Lumsdale Valley working party (Photo: Ralph Hodgson) Opposite: ‘Soft capping’ of wall tops at a SPAB working party site allows ecologically-minded building conservation (Photo: SPAB)