Local landmark born from the ashes

BEHIND closed doors today, one of Ipswich's historical buildings is being recreated almost from scratch. Features editor TRACEY SPARLING finds out more, from the craftsmen who are working on their most exciting project for 40 years.

By Tracey Sparling

BEHIND closed doors today, one of Ipswich's historical buildings is being recreated almost from scratch. Features editor TRACEY SPARLING finds out more, from the craftsmen who are working on their most exciting project for 40 years.

RISING from the ashes today is a treasured landmark of Ipswich's past, being restored for the future.

The cabmen's shelter from Christchurch Park, was burned down in an arson attack by vandals years ago.

It stood ruined, its fancy timbers charred black and obscured by chipboard and tarpaulin.

Few walking past the eyesore next to the public toilets, would have stopped to consider its colourful Victorian past, when horses and carriages were the taxi cabs of the day.

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Back in 1892 - which is the date featured on the shelter - cabbies needed somewhere to sit and have a hot meal as they awaited their next fare. The men were glad to rest, under elaborately carved timbers while their horses stood round the outside. A fire for warmth and cooking, glowed in the centre of the shelter, with smoke escaping through a small turret known as a cupola.

In recent years the ruined shelter sat by the Bolton Lane entrance to the park. Its fate remained uncertain until the Lottery Heritage Fund came up with a grant, and officials realised that their dream of restoring it was finally possible.

So last July a council team dismantled the timbers piece by piece, worked on them through the winter with advice from the Cabmen's Shelter Society, and by this summer the relic will once again stand in its full glory.

Christchurch Park manager Sam Pollard said the shelter originally stood on Ipswich Cornhill, until 1895 when roads started to be developed for car traffic and it was towed by a steamroller to its location in the park. He said half a dozen shelters still stand on the streets of London, but Ipswich's shelter is otherwise quite rare.

Sam said: “They were originally built because cab drivers were not allowed to leave their vehicles to have lunch so they were built as feeding stations - very practical buildings. The drivers would park their cabs outside and pop in for a hot meal.

“In rebuilding it, we have used as much of the original wood as is humanly possible, although even the conservation experts could see some pieces were too damaged to re-use.”

A team of just two men from the council's joinery shop, who are more used to making doors and gates for 1930s council houses, have constructed the shelter.

For chargehand Peter Shemming and joiner Robin Smy the project was an exciting if daunting task. They faced a massive jigsaw puzzle as they started to piece together a design from the charred wood that was left, and build new parts where necessary.

For example, with just a crumbling black 'tablet' for reference, they had to make a template resembling a Chinese puzzle, to work out the dimensions of the new tablets which were needed.

Peter said: “We were fortunate to be given the opportunity and it was a big challenge. But we thought we could do it, and we have loved doing it - I've loved every minute of it from start to finish.

“I've worked here for 38 years and this has got to have been the most interesting project we've done for 40 years.”

The shelter will emerge as a finer version than the original, using the best products as approved by the Heritage Lottery Fund including Douglas fir and mahogany.

The frame currently stands on wheels, with an undercoat of primer as it awaits its top coat of paint. It used to bear the colours dark green and yellow - far too similar to the Norwich City strip - but after consultations with the council's conservation officer the new improved version will be a greenish grey.

Sam said: “The idea is for it to look sympathetic to its site, so it doesn't stand out.”

It will be finished by the summer, when it will be craned on to a low loader and driven back to the park.

Council staff are exploring the idea of using a steamroller to pull it, to recreate the scene from when it was wheeled through town from the Cornhill.

It will stand in front of the 'seven sisters,' a collection of beech trees each planted by the mayors of Ipswich, of which the seventh will soon be planted by current mayor Bill Wright.

It will have a prominent location by Westerfield Road entrance where it will be in full view of residential properties, to deter vandals.

“I think it's a wonderful project,” said Peter. “Let's just hope it doesn't get the abuse it once had.”

Rob Lewis from Haughley who created the 20ft long decorative timbers for the shelter, is one of only 50 master woodcarvers left in the country.

His skills mean he gets some unique jobs. He carved fruits for a huge throne for the Sultan of Brunai - “It would have seated ten people!” - and a coat of arms now inside a state room at number 10 Downing Street - “I catch a glimpse of it on tv occasionally when Tony Blair is filmed inside number 10.”

He has also carved wood for Windsor Castle, Brentwood Cathedral and stately homes.

He said: “There aren't many of us in this business, so if we're busy when the job opportunities come in, we ring round and share them between us. But this job is a bit of a one-off so when I got the call asking me if I could do it, I said 'give me the chance!'”

It took him five months to carve the European oak timbers, which are the icing on the cake for the structure and will be placed under the eaves. They replace decorative timbers which were too badly damaged to replace. The carved leafwork, cherubs and cornucopia are copied from photographs and drawings of the time, and deciphered from clues on the charred remains of the original timbers.

Rob said: “Fortunately there was enough left after the fire to establish the patterns. It will all be pretty much exactly as it was.”

They feature the letters 'ICS' for Ipswich Cabmen's Shelter, but the initials 'FB' remain a mystery. They may be the carver's signature, but if you know what they stand for, give us a call.

When the shelter is unveiled this summer, children could also have fun trying to spot a tiny mallet, which Rob has carved in to the design as his signature.

A host of other improvements and restorations are planned for Christchurch Park costing £4.4m.

They will be mainly funded by £3.3m from the lottery. The shelter costs £100,000 including £75,000 from the lottery.

Other improvements will include:

the arts and crafts shelter, commonly known as 'the bandstand,'

groundworks in the Wolsey Garden,

pond dredging,

new park management offices and public toilets near Bolton Lane,

new eco-friendly boat-shaped kiosk for the lower arboretum,

extensive landscaping,

complete footpath renovation.

In 1892, the year the shelter was built, there were more than 20,000 cab horses working in London. They pulled mainly two-wheeled 'hansom' and four-wheeled 'clarence,' cabs. During the night-time the lowest grades of horse, cab, and man worked on the streets.