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  • Bampton and District Local History Society

    Burnbanks project

    Interview with Nick Paxman

    19th October 2005

    CW:Can you tell me your name please?
    NP:My name?s Nick Paxman. I?m a director of Ocala Construction and we?re the developers who are undertaking the redevelopment and rebuilding of the Burnbanks village. Our involvement in the village now originated when the village came up for sale through an estate agent when United Utilities decided they were going to dispose of it and that was probably about five years ago. You might already have documented just when the sale took place because my memory doesn?t tie that exactly, but it probably came up for sale through a land agency specialist and we saw the details of it then. Trevor [Ingram, fellow Ocala director] and I looked at it and it was just one of those places that we instantly fell in love with. It was obviously going to be a very complicated property development and one that was going to take quite some long time to work out with all the difficulties around some properties still being developed, some pre-fabricated properties, some not, not least of which because of the very environmentally sensitive area that it was in. It then took us about three years to get through the legal stages and the environmental stages of the development up to us starting on site on the 1st May, 2004. Therefore we?ve now been on site for eighteen months to the stage now.

    We started with the demolition of the properties and that gave quite fascinating insights into the construction of the properties. It?s a long time since they went up so there are probably not too many people around who actually put them up at the time. They?re a cast iron, pre-fabricated construction of which I?ve never seen anything like it anywhere else. I?ve spent twenty five years of my working life entirely in property throughout the North-West in a general practice chartered surveyor role, in the last ten years in property development, and although I?ve come across umpteen different sorts of concrete pre-fabricated designs, the majority dating from just after the war when the building material shortage was on, I?ve never seen any built of cast iron before. Neither has anybody else who?s ever been here seen them anywhere else. They were very much a kit form construction. Each of the panels in the properties were numbered and from what we?ve been able to discover there were different shaped pieces numbered B1 through to 7 and that seems to be the only seven pieces that were used in any of the different properties, whether they were the semi-detached ones, whether they were the office buildings in the works yard. They covered all the different shapes that you had in a wall, in a corner post, above and below a window and over a door head with seven different pieces. I suppose if you think of Lego you can similarly build any sort of house or car or castle out of probably no more that seven different sized pieces of Lego, so the principle was probably an easy one to follow. Those cast iron panels were just bolted together with iron bolts ? quite amazing in that I think it probably shows how the walls of the properties kept the damp out. We were actually able to undo the bolts in probably ninety nine percent of the cases having sat there in the wall for seventy five years, or whatever it is, and they hadn?t corroded to any point that they wouldn?t just come off with an air line and a spanner on the end.

    We did dismantle the majority of the properties bit by bit rather than just driving over the top of them. They were built with basically no foundations. The base of the properties was an iron girder frame, a normal H-section girder - what most people would call an RSJ, but in modern parlance is a universal beam - but an H-section girder was laid on the ground and the bottom panels were just bolted into that girder. Now because that was normal iron, mild steel, whatever it is, they were very heavily corroded in most instances, and that was probably why if you looked around the majority of the properties ? and sat here inside number two you can see it in here as well ? the external walls were beginning to bow ever so slightly. You could see this down the sides of the door frames and where the internal partitions join the outside walls you could see that all of them were suffering the same sort of fatigue and the front walls were very gradually becoming the shape of a banana, which I think was due to the fact that this girder that they were sat on was just corroding away so that was beginning to sag under the weight of the cast iron.

    CW:That was just on the ground, was it?
    NP:That was just sat on the ground. In one or two places, where they?d obviously contoured the ground slightly, in each corner of the building there was a small concrete pile. I don?t think any of them were more than a couple of feet deep, from the ones that we dug up ? so nowhere did they have anything that would constitute a proper foundation. The floor was then just laid between these iron girders on a very shallow layer of gravel. The floors under the wet rooms ? under the bathroom, the kitchen and the pantries ? were done in solid concrete. The rest of the floors were a timber floor but those timber joists were just sat on top of this very thin layer of over site gravel and they were all very badly rotten and in one or two of the properties you could see where some repairs had been done over the years because the floorboards were getting a bit rotten. The roofs were covered with an asbestos cement tile, a very light weight roof.
    CW:On wooden rafters?
    NP:The roof construction was a traditional timber rafter roof. What then went over the top is common with all light weight coverings ? properties with cedar shingles are done the same way. The whole of the roof was then covered with four or five by one timber - in proper building terms it was put on as a sarking board. It?s how they build traditionally in Scotland ? they cover the whole roof in timber and then nail the light weight tiles on top of it. It gives you a bit more protection from the rain when it comes in, so you can take the tiles off and you?ve still got a solid timber roof. Plenty of cracks in it for the rain to get through, but?.So that was largely how we found the construction of them. I can?t think of anything else particularly peculiar about the construction.
    CW:What happened to the cast iron panels and the various bits and pieces after you dismantled them?
    NP:The cast iron panels ? I did my best to ensure we kept an intact one of each piece to go to the history society. The rest disappeared off in wagons and in the way of the world at the moment it all went by sea to fuel China?s booming economy, being the place most scrap is now heading to as we can?t keep up with the production. All the rest of them went by road down to Liverpool docks and then disappeared off to China.
    CW:So you would have sorted the bits and pieces into iron, wood.
    NP:Because the construction internally was very very flimsy, for want of a better description, there was no plaster work, no plasterboard, no plastering of any description within the properties. The inside lining of the cast iron was a very very thin fibreboard, the sort that people might recollect from school notice boards in years gone by, a very very light weight ?
    CW:How was that fixed on?
    NP:In the larger square cast iron panels there was a square in the middle where a chock of wood was banged in and then a fairly small timber stud was nailed on to that and then this fibre board was just nailed over the top of it. So the houses must have suffered all the extremes of temperature. The insulation qualities were absolutely zero so they must have been perishingly cold in the winter and potentially, particularly where the fronts were facing south, they must have warmed up like a storage heater in the summer with the heat getting absorbed by the cast iron and staying there for quite some time.

    Although we?ve no timing to it, it appears the chimneys were changed on a lot of the properties. When we stripped the asbestos tiles off the roof there was evidence that a lot of them had wood burning stoves with stove chimneys sticking out through the roof because there were lots of little round holes in the timber sarking which had been covered over. I think on some of the old photographs that I?ve seen, there was little evidence of the brick-built chimney stacks that existed in the properties when we came along so I think at some stage some alteration was made, that in the original properties they probably had a lot of little pot bellied stoves with stove pipes and at some time later they?ve added the chimney stacks ? which were built in Whitehaven red brick. When we knocked them down they?ve got Whitehaven stamped through them like Blackpool rock.

    CW:What happened to the wood? I believe a lot of the wood got taken away by locals.
    NP:Yes. When we started the demolition the wood was unfortunately not recyclable from our point of view in building, so we did start burning quite a lot of the timber initially. And then one person would come along and ask if they could have a few bits of this so we were gladly saying ?Spread the word? and slowly more and more people appeared from out of the local area with trailers and even a couple of tractors and trailers, and quite a lot of it did get taken away. Now I know some farmers have reused it into making sheep rails and sheep pens. I know some?s gone into terracing gardens and holding up borders round people?s gardens and the RSPB, working next to us in their tree nursery, have used a lot of it for relining the beds and borders of the tree nursery so I?m pleased to say that a fair chunk of it managed to get recycled into various other activities.
    CW:Could you tell what sort of wood it was?
    NP:Not really, no.
    CW:It didn?t have any stamps on it?
    NP:There was something on one and I can?t for the life of me remember what it was. I know David Shackleton from the RSPB pointed it out to me at the time he was taking some but I can?t remember what it said on it. If he hasn?t remembered it and reported it on his interview then we?re a bit scuppered on that.
    CW:OK. What about inside? I believe The Oaks was almost as it had been years ago whereas some of the houses would have been improved quite a lot inside.
    NP:There had been some other internal alterations done. A couple of the properties still had the old solid fuel fired boiler, whatever you call them, that people would have done their washing in.
    CW:With the big iron pots.
    NP:Yes, the big iron pots ? can?t think what the proper name of said thing is. One or two of those still had that in. We did try very hard to recover ? well we tried in two properties to recover one intact for the history society, but they were cast iron as well and they were very well built into the brickwork around them. We got one out still encased in a load of brick but in trying to chisel the bricks off then that one broke as well so I?m afraid we failed on that. The surviving properties that were still occupied had variously had new domestic hot water systems put in. They had modern copper hot water cylinders and electric immersions had been put in. A couple of them had had fairly recent bathrooms put in but the vast majority were still the original cast iron bath and high level suite in the WC. There had been very little other modernisation done really. Those slightly newer ones had been electrically rewired. The one or two pairs that were here when we came along that had been empty for many many years they still had the remnants of Wyrelex wiring in.
    CW:What sort of wiring?
    NP:Originally it would have been the Wyrelex - the three straight pins, and the cabling was either lead-covered or cloth-covered. It was two square pins and the little red pin in the middle ? for those of us who can still remember such olden days. But otherwise, I don?t think particularly the water board had ever seen fit to spend very much money on them at all.
    CW:Various people have talked about spending their own money.
    NP:Yes, I think in those terms, as you would find with other long term rented property, it did come down to if somebody wanting something doing they either did it themselves or it didn?t get done. I dare say any major repair would have been done, but wholesale modernisation wasn?t likely to take place.

    The only other main part of the village in the development that we?ve had a big building involvement in has been replacing the whole of the drainage system. The drainage system, for its age, was not unusual but the foul water and the surface water - the roof water and the drains - all went down the same pipe which went into a clinker bed rotating treatment plant, down in the woods behind The Oaks. What must always have been a problem with that was when it rained very heavily and you get a surge of top-water coming off all the roofs. It must have always have caused some degree of pollution because the disposal in the soak-away would only cope with a trickle of water and it would always have caused some degree of pollution down into the woods when it rained heavily. From that side, it was probably good that there?s only been a few people living here for the last number of years, otherwise the state of it would have been somewhat worse.

    CW:That was sewage as well?
    CW:That would have coped with the whole village when it was fully inhabited.
    NP:That was the only system for the whole village and, yes, it must have been quite a problem when it rained a lot before. We?ve now separated that and we now have a separate foul drainage system and we?ve installed one of the new Bio-Disk package treatment plants, and we?ve put a reed-bed in behind that as well. So they?re now situated in roughly the same place in the wood down behind what was The Oaks, basically in the same place that it was before. But it?s now a very very clean system. And the reed-bed was only planted up earlier this year; there aren?t many reeds yet to see, but in another year or two, it will be a very good wildlife habitat in itself, which is one of the attractions of the reed-beds because it?s a good environmental habitat.
    CW:And that deals with the solids as well as the waste water.
    CW:Excellent. What about the wildlife you were mentioning earlier?
    NP:The wildlife has been?from a work point of view it?s been a truly tremendous part of the countryside to work in. The wildlife that we?ve enjoyed watching while we?ve been working here has been a joy ? we?ve seen the roe deer and the red deer actually walking through the village itself; we have dozens and dozens and dozens of rabbits. As most people will know we have a very healthy red squirrel population round here as well and foxes and badgers are both readily seen in the area. And with the demolition of the buildings and the building of the new ones a number of bat habitats were surveyed in the area and several species of bats roost in and around the village as well. It truly is a wildlife, um ? I?d hardly say oasis, but it?s a very very beautiful rich wildlife habitat that we?ve got.
    CW:And birds as well?
    NP:Birds, yes. Birds aren?t my specialist subject.
    CW:I?ll ask Dave about that.
    NP:Apart from lots of the obvious ones I?ve certainly both heard and seen within the village woodpeckers along with all the usual woodland birds you?d expect.
    CW:Have you come across the remains of the other buildings in the woods? I don?t suppose you have to go too far in do you?
    NP:No. Within the area of land that we purchased you can still see in the little piece of woodland that we own the bases of 26, 27, 28, 29 and the dispensary. You can still see the flat spots in the woodland as to where they are and if you go and kick in the moss and fallen leaf mould and things you can still see bits of the concrete bases. And if you walk further up into the woods you can see quite lot more of them as well.
    CW:But you?re not going that far in, are you?
    NP:No, that?s outside the area of the village that we bought. In the piece of woodland we own behind 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, you can still see three of the bases of the other properties that were around.
    CW:What do you think it must have been like to be involved in building the dam all those years ago and living here? It must have been a mixture of luxurious houses that had electricity, running water, flushing toilets, but also incredibly hard.
    NP:Yes, the type of construction and the method of construction would have been very very arduous work and they didn?t have the luxury ? although they had some machinery available to them, they didn?t have the luxury of the sort of machinery that we build with these days. But as many people who?ve visited comment how spartan the houses appear now and how cold they must have been, if you put it in the context of the twenties they would have been very very luxurious properties to a lot of people. I?m assuming that there was a fairly itinerant workforce, to some degree, probably coming out of either Manchester or West Cumberland with probably still back-to-back terraced housing and outside loos. They were coming to semi-detached or bunkhouse accommodation with all services and flushing toilets inside. In those ways if we stand and look at it they would have been very very desirable properties. And again, if they were people who appreciated the countryside the countryside was every bit as beautiful then as it is now, so there would have been some people who missed the hustle and bustle of the town but anybody else who?d got any sense would have enjoyed and loved working round here.

    I think what is interesting if you look at photographs from that stage, there weren?t any trees around here and what people see now as a village within a wood, it wasn?t a wood then. The forestation which has happened has partly been planting that the water board has done ? the conifer plantation between here and the dam was all planted by the water board as landscaping to shield the front of the dam from view from afar. A lot of the woodland around the area of the village that we?ve been developing is just self-seeded native afforestation. Predominantly the tree species we have are frontier species: silver birch, bird cherry predominantly within the village because they?re just what comes along first and what?s seeded itself first. The big stand of Scots pine that run across the back of the village behind 54 down to 66 was I?m told planted by the water board in relatively recent times. It wasn?t a wood in those days ? it was just open countryside.

    CW:And you?ve got a family connection with this area.
    NP:Well, this is one of these very strange provident things, if you believe in things, and I?m a great believer in fate in life, as I get older and soppier. Fate is a very strange thing and when Trevor and I were looking at this development and it got to a point where we?d been considering it and looking at it and I got home one day and mentioned to my wife that ?Oh, guess what we?ve been looking at?, or something, it then transpired that as a child she spent an awful lot of time here. Her parents, at the time, and the property she grew up in was only just down the valley at Knipe and number two, which was the post office for many many years, was actually lived in and run by my father-in-law?s aunt, if that?s not too complicated a connection to know. So Aunt Maud lived in number two until her death in the mid-90s sometime, I think.
    CW:What was her last name?
    NP:Um, I haven?t a clue.
    CW:Sylvia might know that one.
    NP:Have to phone a friend for that one. But yes, that was just an amazing piece of coincidence and I?m just a believer in fate.
    CW:Had you been to Burnbanks before, years before the project began?
    NP:No, it wasn?t anywhere that I personally knew from any time. My only other involvement into this area was through my wife and her family and even at that stage I didn?t know of her connections to this place at Burnbanks and had certainly not been up here before it came up for sale and we came along having a look, and it then turned out to be where she had all but grown up.
    CW:Very strange. So in the course of your eighteen months on this site you must have met quite a few people who either lived here or were coming to have a look to see what you were doing.
    NP:Yes, I think there has been an awful lot of interest in what we?ve been doing. A lot of the local people have been paying us visits and having a look round. I think the awareness of the area, heightened by what the history society has been doing in it?s project, has brought more people along, some no doubt coming along to say good bye to what was here before, others just coming back to remember. There?s obviously been a number of people who have been quite regular visitors to Burnbanks, people who had connections here years ago and have continued to come ? although they might now be living all over the country they?ve kept turning up every few years just to have a look and show their children where they started off and where they grew up. It has been a very fascinating project to be part of and in what might seem a very strange way Trevor and I feel honoured to have been a part of that transformation because in property developing you usually come along to a greenfield site or a disused farm or an old hospital or something similar to that which doesn?t really have a story to tell. To come into a still-living community, to come into an entire village and recreate it and rebuild it is I think an honour is not too strong a word to describe it. It makes you also very sensitive and aware of what the village has meant to so many people and how it has been a community, how it?s been a lifelong home for some people. One of the tenants that was living here when we first started work had been here from 1929 as a six month old baby and we come along and in a very short length of time, a two or two and a half year period, we?ll have started and finished the redevelopment of the village and that?s just a blink of the eye in the lifetime of the people who have been Burnbanks and have been the village. No community is anything without the people ? it?s not the bricks and mortar, it?s the people and you?re treading on those people?s lives and memories and histories. We hope we?ve been sympathetic to that and it does have quite a deep meaning to us, to have done such a very unusual development project really.
    CW:What sort of people have you got moving in? A wide range of people?
    NP:Fortunately for the sake of the community the national park?s planning policy has ensured that there is a local occupancy restriction to the properties so the people who are coming to live here either have to already have been living or currently working in an area which is that part of Eden District Council which is in the national park and the parish of Shap, so in a simple geographical area from the M6 at Shap Summit it?s west of the motorway and south of the A66, although the top little corner of that, from Yanwath, Clifton, Eamont Bridge, they?re outside of that area. In simple terms, it?s that triangle bordered by the M6 and the A66 but as I say a little bit of the two or three villages closest to Penrith are outside of that area, so it?s quite a tight geographical area. So all our people here have got that connection. Possibly initially I anticipated we might be attracting more the older generation, more towards the retirement end of the spectrum, partly because of the location, partly because the house type as a two/three bedroom bungalow was never going to be appropriate accommodation for large families and although it?s nice accommodation for one or two children, which is probably what most people have these days, it fell short of being larger family accommodation.
    CW:You had to follow the footprint roughly or exactly of the original houses.
    NP:Yes, we were completely restricted by the planning process to the same external footprint of the building as the pre-fabs did so that set the scene for the type of property. But against my initial prejudice to the properties, of the people who?ve bought property here already we have got people in their twenties, thirties, forties, fifties, sixties and seventies I can probably say with certainty we?ve managed to attract the complete spectrum of ages, from young newly-wed couples through to some retired people. We have a few children coming in. We don?t have a lot coming in as yet but we have got a spattering of children in amongst those people.
    CW:So there?ll be a generation growing up, having similar experiences to the original people.
    NP:So there will be another generation of people who can remember back to their childhood from Burnbanks.
    CW:Can you think of anything else? Would you be interested in living here?
    NP:My wife would love to come and live here. In another ten years I might be ready to live here. I?m not quite sure I?m quite ready to live here.
    CW:I?ve had mixed experiences from some of the people who used to live here many years ago. Some now say it?s too isolated, too far to the shops. Other people say yes they?d like to ? mixed reactions.
    NP:Yes, it?s a fantastic location. It has to be a superb location for children to grow up in ? the freedom that the kids can have here, the way they can just go exploring up the fells. That sort of freedom ? there aren?t many places left where you feel at ease giving your children that much freedom. I mean, it?s a freedom I had as a child but it?s not the freedom we give our children these days in most locations, unfortunately, but there we go.
    CW:When do expect that you?ll finish?
    NP:We should be finished completely by the middle of next year, by the middle of 2006. We?re just now starting the demolition of the remaining properties which will take approximately six months to build, with a bit of down time over Christmas and the winter again, especially as it?s going to be the worst winter since records began. As they can?t even get the forecast right for tomorrow I don?t know how they can get the forecast right for winter. But we should be all done and finished by the early part of the summer next year.
    CW:Well, I think it?ll look pretty good.
    NP:Well, I?m certainly pleased with how it?s turning out. I obviously have a slightly prejudiced view on how it?s turning out but I hope other people do think that it?s turning out well. I think certainly the comments that have got back to us wholeheartedly have been along the same tack - people have been delighted at long last to see the village being restored and many people have been saddened by how derelict it had become through years and years of neglect and how sad it was that if its redevelopment and rebuilding had started sooner the profile of the community might have been slightly different. Some people probably would have stayed longer if they?d thought something was eventually going to happen but I think an awful lot of years have gone by with no clear direction as to what was going to happen, or lots of promises that something was going to happen one day but it just went on and on and on. It was rapidly heading to being empty.
    CW:So it?s got to be better than that.
    NP:I would have thought so.
    CW:It?s a shame in some ways that there can?t be a bit more of a village with facilities and some sort of a focus. That?s not part of the plans obviously.
    NP:No, I mean, being as we are in the national park any prospect of any additional buildings is absolutely zero, but then you look at Bampton which as a settlement is many times bigger than Burnbanks is ever now capable of being and even in Bampton they?ve struggled to keep any of the local services available. In some small way the sixteen extra households that will exist at Burnbanks will at least put a little bit more into the usage of the services in Bampton, but it?s one of the very sad things of rural life that a lot of the smaller villages can?t commercially support the services that they used to do. In some small way Burnbanks will help Bampton?s community services a little bit, but there?s nothing like enough people out here to support anything else really.

    I?m looking at my site plan for any other inspiration of anything else that might be of interest, but I can?t think of anything else.

    CW:That?s all right. That?s been very interesting. Thank you very much.
    NP:Thank you.

    Interviewer: Caz Walker

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