I went down to see inside the Abbey Church, Dunbar this afternoon. The scene was one of decay and putrefaction in amongst the dereliction, even before the small crop of councilors arrived. With wet rot everywhere and plaster detaching itself from walls like a bad case of psoriasis, the scene seems unimaginable so close to the High Street redolent of a surreal set for a neo-gothic TV drama. Alas, legal protection for this building, since its designation in the 70s has achieved absolutely nothing. Legislation that is intended to protect or at least guide the better management of the historic heritage of our town has failed, once again. Water penetration is now taking its toll. It is a matter of time before major structural damage will ensue and the building is finally condemned.
The architect and local boy, Graeme Armet, who was christened in the Church not long before deconsecration, arrived promptly and had pinned up some helpful large plans of the proposals he is appealing. He proceeded to explain the proposal to members of the review body. He answered their questions about the juxtaposition of the old with the new unapologetically 1 , highlighting how, as far as possible, the new would not interfere with the old and vice versa – in other words ‘respect each other’. He then explained how the rotting roof timbers would be carefully removed and in parts restored to preserve the supporting columns; internal lath and plaster wall removed; parts of the rear wall disassembled and reused to replace or repair the main structure to be retained to give the impression of a church (such conceits are important in architecture.)
We then went around the side and the back of the buildings to get a feel for the visual impacts of the proposal. In all fairness to the councilors they seemed quite interested and asked what appeared to be good questions even nodding towards an understanding of the architect’s vision for the new use. The architect had a fair number of opportunities to respond to questions on the choice of materials and designing solutions to problems faced in rehabilitating this old building, before the councillor contigent sloped off in a huddle.
I had to stay behind for a second look. Despite the austere appearance of the frontage the inner space of the former church was surprisingly intimate and not as unwelcoming as the front. One thing the church’s architect Thomas Hamilton pulled off was to make it look bigger and more imposing than it actually is, the original conceit. But however much I was intrigued and wanted to explore, I also wanted to get out as the active process of decay revealed itself to my eyes as they accustomed to the dim light. The dirty chrome and olivaceous efflorescing wallpaper was actually the fleshy fruiting bodies of Coniophora puteana or wet rot fungus. Finer examples I have never seen. It is not at all difficult to imagine a rehabilitation of some sort, but the replacement of many of the internal structures like-for-like seems now even more unlikely.
Squelching through guano-like deposits of pigeon excrement the architect finally pointed out some barely decipherable plans rotting where he’d left them on the stage years before. A metaphor perhaps for his broken dream of a rehabilitation?
It is easy to get sentimental about what the church could have been, but it is easier still to imagine the fate of this building if a developer or the community doesn’t come forward with an acceptable plan (that doesn’t involve a pub/wine bar or car park.) The opportunity for a carpet warehouse has thankfully eclipsed (the building is too far gone for that), but will the final full stop on the High Street be a far uglier intrusion because the collective imagination of our democratic systems has failed us? I hope not.
Will the review body take a different view to the planning officials? We’ll soon find out, hopefully by around mid-afternoon tomorrow.
- There are both negative and positive aesthetic consequences of reassignment, but this is not well understood – least of all by the public and perhaps decision-makers ↩