6 Palace Street, Caernarfon
You would have thought that a grade II listed building, which is in a conservation area and part of a UNESCO World Heritage site, is worth saving. Clearly not in the eyes of Arfon Borough Council of 1994 (now a part of Gwynedd County Council). In their opinion, No. 6 Palace Street, a much neglected building was not only unsightly and dangerous but also the cause of public concern. According to an article in a local newspaper, The Daily Post, they believed that its demolition would induce a reaction of public cheer and contribute to the festive spirit of Christmas '94: 'Shoppers in Caernarfon will have an extra cause for celebration in the New Year when a dilapidated building in Palace Street is finally demolished.' Call us party-poopers, but SAVE intended to put a quick stop to these predicted celebrations because of the dubious legality of the planning and listed building consents.
It transpired that far from there being a unanimous feeling of relief to see it go, a number of national and local conservation groups were strongly opposed to the action. Not only was number 6 Palace Street thought to be one of the oldest building in Caernarfon after the castle, but it also had a number of unique features that made it a site of great importance. Under all the scaffolding, the rather unassuming building held secrets that passers-by could never have guessed. A survey showed it contained medieval timberwork dating from the fifteenth-century and roof timbers that showed signs of being part of a medieval solar cross wing to a lost hall. Additionally, the layout of the site denoted a double burgher's plot, which is the only original site laid out in medieval times in Caernarfon. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that there was an outcry against its demolition amongst serious conservation bodies. Enthusiasm to save number 6 was further fuelled by the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings who claimed that the house was not yet so dangerous as to collapse. They felt, like SAVE, it could still be rescued and restored, so rescued and restored it should be, setting an example for Welsh conservation projects then and now.
The building was due to be demolished immediately after Christmas on 2 January 1995. There was no time to spare and action had to be taken quickly if Number 6 was to be saved. The only hope was to seek an injunction against Arfon Borough Council from the High Court before the end of the year. On New Year's Eve Marcus Binney and Emma Philips (the then SAVE secretary) went to court to battle it out in the last case of the day. At the final hour they succeeded in obtaining an injunction preventing any action, pending further agreements. It was time for a well-deserved drink to celebrate on New Year's Eve. The bulldozers had been stopped just in time. Or had they?
After the success at court, SAVE needed to phone the local authority to inform it of the legal situation. But there was no answer from the Council. After numerous attempts to both their fax and phone the situation became an emergency. As a last resort, Marcus Binney phoned the demolition contractor directly. With persuasion, they informed him that they wouldn't get round to it for another week! The news finally made its way to the district surveyor. Although SAVE was obviously delighted with the recent events, others were less amused. However, after extensive correspondence between the council solicitor and David Roberts, further progress looked hopeful and SAVE undertook to purchase and restore the building for new use.
In record time, SAVE established the a building preservation trust, Ymddiriedolaeth Treftadaeth Caernarfon (Caernarfon Heritage Trust). There were a number of sources that lent their support, including the Prince of Wales who opened the building in 1996. Financial aid came from grants received by CADW (£32,000) and The Lottery Fund (£55,000) as well as a loan from the Architectural Heritage Fund (£75,000). However, although funding was generous, there were unseen expenses that had to be negotiated. Part of the agreement with the council was that the building had to be under 24-hour surveillance for public safety, the cost for which had been estimated at £6,000 a week. After a mild panic and lots of research, SAVE managed to find a freelance security man that agreed to take the job for £500 a week. One dilemma was solved but, as usual, more were yet to come.
Only local builders, approved by the council, could be used. Unsurprisingly, due to the grim appearance of the derelict building and the past difficulties with the council, SAVE were worried that no one would be willing to take it on. Thankfully, after a couple of quotes, one of which recommended demolition, they were wrong. The local builders Henry Jones Ltd, with the direction of Huw Thomas (a respected conservation architect), rose to the challenge. At this stage, SAVE did not actually own the building. To start work on Number 6, therefore, was a huge risk but in the time-honoured fashion of SAVE campaigns, the risk was taken and work started in April under license. As soon as work commenced, the architects and builders were constantly surprised to discover details which confirmed the age of the building (between 1400 and 1450) and its completeness. A number of features were uncovered, such as a range of fireplaces, rare sections of 'wattle and daub' and enough timber framing to explain how the building once looked. It appeared that Number 6 Palace Street was of far greater importance than had been previously revealed.
The basic philosophy adopted for its restoration was to keep as much of the building as possible whilst repairing and slightly reordering the interior so as to provide more space. Shop and office space with stores to the rear was the agreed planning permission, including the need for public access - a term imposed by grant aid. This would enable the upper solar to be opened for public view as an upstairs shop space. That was the ideal plan, but needless to say, some things proved unsalvageable and although most features were saved, some were lost. The stone stack connected to the kitchen's brick chimney, for example, had no foundations and sank, tilting backwards on to the supporting scaffolding. There was no alternative to demolition, and it had to be taken down as quickly as possible for safety reasons. As the building was a mesh of medieval timberwork and later eighteenth and nineteenth century editions, some of the derelict nineteenth century features were not essential conservation items and considered too expensive to repair. Apart from these exceptions the architect kept to the agreed conservation philosophy and even when things had to be dismantled (such as the roof), they kept as many of the raw materials as possible for reconstruction in other areas. After eighteen months of hard work Number 6 was finally completed, and very handsome the building looked too.
In December 1998, 6 Palace Street was sold to its present owner who runs a tearoom and antique shop - ideal uses for the building which allow all year round public access. But there is more to this story than just a happy ending for one building. Its transformation has helped reinvigorate the whole of Castle Street, which is now hardly recognisable from the run down condition it was in when SAVE began their battle back in 1994. It sparked off a regeneration of Caernarfon's old town which will help to bring back visitors to a delightful and historic place.
This project stands out from the rest as one of the most dangerous and rash SAVE have ever undertaken, on a par with Barlaston Hall. It shows how SAVE puts itself on the line like no other charitable organisation. It is this kind of drive and passion that will continue to fuel future campaigns and (fingers crossed) enable SAVE to be able to tell many more success stories like that of Number 6 Palace Street.
(Text written by Sophie Jones, 2003)