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A Home with a History: renovating a house within York’s medieval walls

In his 30s, the academic George Younge gradually began to transform his unbeguiling terrace into a layered and liveable home, a physical process that slowly shaped his own studies and became a textbook example of thinking through making

George Younge
Adam Firman
A Home with a History: renovating a house within York’s medieval walls

Nestled on the opposite bank of the river from the main attractions of York, Bishophill has always had a strong sense of its own identity. This little cluster of dwellings rises up from the disused wharfs of the Ouse, the brooding river that flows through the city centre. As you walk from one street to the next, orderly rows of houses frame views of the medieval walls, which form a protective ring around the neighbourhood. These massive fortifications impose a limit on the housing stock; now, as a thousand years ago, the area has a pervading sense of sanctuary.

I moved to York in 2012 for a lectureship in medieval literature at one of the city’s two universities. Within weeks, I’d made an offer on a house in Bishophill. Built in the 1880s, the vendor, I would later discover from the deeds, was a descendent of the original owner, a riveter employed in the tangle of goods yards, sidings and carriage works in York’s famous railway quarter.

In medieval times, when a church was replaced or renovated, rather than demolishing the existing structure, construction proceeded within and around the original building, allowing the more essential work of the liturgy to continue without interruption. I found my new home to be a chilly and unwelcoming prospect – no central heating, barely a plug socket in sight, and acres of disintegrating wallpaper and carpet.

Over the following decade, I renovated and extended the house in the manner of the medieval church builder, undertaking the new work while living amid the old. In contrast to the pace of construction, which advanced fitfully, the liturgy of my late 30s pushed on with unstoppable momentum – a failed engagement, various financial scrapes and eventually an encounter with the woman who would become my wife: singer-songwriter Olivia Chaney, possessor of one of the truest voices you’ll ever hear.

In a book that I’ve returned to often, Making: Anthropology, Art and Architecture, Tim Ingold takes his readers on a journey from the prehistoric toolmaker to the modern urban planner, meditating on what it means for an artisan to impose form on their materials. Whatever the medium or moment in time, Ingold argues, makers and their materials are engaged in a kind of “correspondence” or dialectic – a mutual process of becoming. This idea resonates with my own experience of rebuilding a house while finding my feet as a young lecturer; the medieval informed my approach to the building, just as the building shaped me as a thinker.

Wherever possible, I used materials that are enduring, natural and local. The reclaimed floors in the kitchen were quarried from the same seam of sandstone as the paving on the ramparts of the city walls. The rooms are now warmed by cast-iron radiators sourced from a church in Lancashire, powder coated in a dull black. In what was the front parlour and now the room where Olivia composes and rehearses, I laid wide oak floorboards, salvaged from a girls’ boarding school. Some of the best features in the house were unexpected discoveries. I found the range and copper boiler concealed behind a plywood panel; the powdery-red tiles in the main room emerged from beneath sedimented layers of carpet.

All these materials – stone, brick, iron and oak – have been left as bare as possible, with just enough treatment to make them functional. As a result, the surfaces and atmosphere of the house fluctuate over time. The complexion of the copper splashback in the kitchen shifts with the humidity; the reclaimed floors take the wear as new pathways are driven across the old. The walls have been stripped back to the original plaster, flecked with tiny particles of debris that escaped through the sieve when the sand was dredged from the river. Every room is painted in the same shade of peachy emulsion, applied in strict deference to the rhythms of the building. Where the original plaster was sound, I left it bare; where a modern repair was necessary, I covered it in paint.

The kitchen is the centrepiece of the house. For years now, I’ve collected Heal’s furniture from a very particular period: 1910-1940. To my mind, the tables, chairs and cabinets manufactured in the Heal’s factory on Tottenham Court Road during these decades embody a perfect fusion of medieval craft traditions and the formal simplicity of modernism. The kitchen cupboards, which I made by hand from limed oak, pay homage to some of my favourite details from the golden age of Heal’s cabinetry – half-blind ‘London’ dovetails on the drawers, subtly recessed cupboard doors and a draining rack that doubles as a storage unit.

The parts of the house that are entirely new – the ground floor extension and the loft room – are at once unapologetically modern and in conversation with the older elements of the building. These rooms are clearly additions, yet the materials and construction techniques employed here rephrase the original idioms of the house. Rather than using metal corner beads, for instance, which offer a harsh transition between walls, the new parts of the house have traditional wooden dowels wherever two walls meet, with small shadow lines cut into the plaster on either side.

As I laboured on the house, creating everything from the windows to the staircase myself, the focus of my work at the university gradually and inescapably shifted to questions concerning materials and making in the Middle Ages. I began teaching a course on craft cultures in the medieval period and their reception in the 19th century by members of the Arts and Crafts movement, not least William Morris and John Ruskin, whom I’d long admired. One unexpected consequence of ‘thinking through making’ was that my reverence for these figures, especially Morris, began to diminish. I came to feel that Morris’s enthusiasm for gothic ornament and idealised view of the guilds was perhaps more of an anguished response to the industrial revolution and a reflection of his attachment to the socialist movement than a true understanding of the Middle Ages.

In turn, I began to wonder what an authentic modern engagement with medieval craft cultures might look like. A cryptic series of letters carved into the underside of the slate worktops in the kitchen, which I cut from a decommissioned snooker table, brought to mind the common medieval practice of embedding spolia (reclaimed architectural elements) in new buildings – a convention rich with symbolic associations. In an attempt to translate the medieval concept of ductus into modern form, I imagined the movement from the bottom of the house to the top as a journey, signposted by the graduation from heavier, inert materials (stone, brick, metal) to lighter, organic surfaces, such as wood and rush, which dominate in the airy loft.

I finished work on the house about three years ago. I now enjoy watching my children inhabit the space and listening to Olivia compose and rehearse in the front room. Although the hard graft is in the past, rebuilding the house has proven to be a turning point. Alongside writing and lecturing, I have since worked on many other buildings, designing and making interiors, often with a strong historical element in play. My workshop has moved from a bedroom to a farm building on a nearby estate and nature reserve, and I am currently designing my own range of furniture and products, which amplify ideas that I began to explore whilst working on the house in Bishophill. It’s here that the correspondence between maker and materials continues.

George Younge on Instagram

Olivia Chaney will be playing at Union Chapel, Islington on 11 June 2024


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