English Heritage's north territory includes the guardianship of some of the finest historical sites in the country, amongst them the abbeys of Rievaulx and Whitby and the castles at Helmsley and Pickering. Charged with their overall management is Mick Wilson, the organisation's Regional Landscape Manager.
In this article, our editor talks to Mick about his work and the sometimes unique challenges he and his team face
The four English Heritage sites I was to visit - Rievaulx Abbey, Helmsley Castle, Pickering Castle and Whitby Abbey - sit within or on the edge of Britain's largest national park; the North Yorkshire Moors. Three of them - Rievaulx, Helmsley and Pickering may be found close to the busy A170 road between Thirsk and Scarborough, whilst Whitby Abbey occupies a stunning location overlooking the popular coastal resort.
My first port of call was Rievaulx Abbey, where I was met by Alan Cathersides, the organisation's Senior Landscape Manager, and Mick Wilson, Regional Landscape Manager for the north territory.
Rievaulx Abbey is a former Cistercian Abbey founded in 1132 by twelve monks from Clairvaux Abbey (in NE France) and was to become one of the wealthiest abbeys in England until it was dissolved by Henry VIII in 1538. It was the first Cistercian abbey in the north of England and, in time, became one of the great Cistercian abbeys of Yorkshire, second only to Fountains Abbey, about twenty miles to the south-west, near Ripon.
Its remote location was ideal for the Cistercians, who followed a strict life of prayer and self-sufficiency with little contact with the outside world.
The abbey lies in a wooded dale by the River Rye. To have enough flat land to build on, part of the river was diverted several metres west of its former channel. The monks altered the course of the river three times during the 12th century. This is an illustration of the technical ingenuity of the monks who, over time, built up a profitable business mining lead and iron, rearing sheep and selling wool to buyers from all over Europe.
When the abbey was dissolved there were reported to be seventy-two buildings occupied by an abbot and twenty-one monks, attended by 102 servants, generating an income of £351 a year.
Henry ordered the buildings to be rendered uninhabitable and stripped of valuables such as lead. The site was granted to the Earl of Rutland, one of the King's advisers, until it passed to the Duncombe family (who also owned nearby Helmsley Castle).
In the 1750s, Thomas Duncombe landscaped part of his estate, building a terrace with two Grecian-style temples overlooking the abbey ruins. The 'Rievaulx Terraces' are in the care of the National Trust and open to the public.
When granted a life peerage in 1983, former Prime Minister Harold Wilson, himself a proud Yorkshireman, adopted the title Baron Wilson of Rievaulx.
I was keen to find out what pressures 50,000+ visitors a year has on the management of the site. Like all English Heritage sites, the grounds are managed by their own staff, but with the work carried out by approved contractors. Over the years, English Heritage, under the guidance of Alan and his regional colleagues, has developed a strategy of maintenance regimes to cater for their unique sites.
Much of this work is undertaken via performance and frequency based contracts on a 3-5 year timescale. These contracts are continually reviewed to ensure the organisation can meet their budgets and retain the appropriate methods of land management for each diverse and challenging site.
The main purpose of the work is to ensure these ancient monuments are both accessible and safe for the public, but also managed in a way that protects each site's valuable assets.
Mick Wilson began by saying that he has been with English Heritage for fourteen years and considers it "the best job in the world!"
"I love what I do and enjoy all aspects of the job (apart from filling in my mileage claim). I'm sometimes overheard reminding myself how lucky I am to be paid for going out and visiting such amazing places, something that most people can only do in their spare time."
"Before joining English Heritage, I worked my way up the technical and landscape management ladder through a succession of local authorities in the north, together with several years with the Department of Environment's Property Services Agency as Grounds Maintenance Officer at Catterick Garrison in North Yorkshire."
"Where I am now is a far cry from 1972 when I started out as a trainee groundsman with Durham County Council, although I clearly recall a great feeling of wealth on receipt of my first week's wages - eleven pounds and nine pence - although that was short-lived when I arrived home to see mam's outstretched palm."
"That was my first full time job, although its fair to say my career in gardening started at a much earlier age when I would always be keen to help my dad keep his garden looking pristine, and also help him with one or two odd gardening jobs here and there for a bit of pocket money."
"I've learned a lot over the years, and I am still learning, but much of my knowledge and gardening wisdom came from those early years in the garden working with dad. 'Don't flog yourself to death son', he would say with a wry grin on his face, adjusting his flat cap and wiping his brow as I struggled to cut the lawn with an old push mower whilst he tinkered with the herbaceous borders. 'Let the machinery do the hard work'!"
Mick was keen to elaborate on his role and responsibilities. "The North Territory covers North Lincolnshire, Yorkshire, Northumberland, Cumbria and Lancashire, within which we manage 124 historic sites, including iconic ones such as Hadrian's Wall, Rievaulx Abbey, Whitby Castle, Lindisfarne Priory and Mount Grace Priory."
"Ten years ago, we had over twenty small contracts covering ground maintenance work across these sites, but this has now been reduced to six main multi-site contracts, bringing with it substantial economies of scale."
"As well as managing all grounds maintenance contracting, I also manage a string of pest control contractors to keep on top of outdoor pests such as rabbits, moles, rats, wasps nests and pigeons. Moles have been a particularly serious problem for us this winter."
The contract is currently held by Vermex, who oversee all aspects of pest control on the Yorkshire sites visited during my tour. If moles become too much of a problem, they are controlled by trapping.
However, the grounds maintenance contractor is obliged to ensure that all mole hills on site are inspected and redistributed. Moles have been known to bring artefacts to the surface, so the contractors are expected to sieve the soil before levelling and report any finds to the staff on site.
"I also manage the mature tree stock across the territory, with regular professional tree inspections and three regional tree maintenance contracts covering 5,000 trees across the various sites."
"Wildlife management and advice is also part of my remit, with wildlife and habitat protection taken seriously at all levels within the organisation. My work also involves close liaison with and advice to Historic Conservation colleagues in terms wildlife and landscape issues related to conservation works or projects."
Mick goes on to state that the contracts at several of his sites - Byland Abbey and Inn, Rievaulx Abbey, Helmsley Castle, Kirkham Priory, Wharram Percy DMV, Pickering Castle, Whitby Abbey and Scarborough Castle - are up for renewal.
He explains; "Following colleagues in other areas, we have increased areas of longer grass which, whilst increasing the possibilities for wildlife habitat, also bring cost savings, and we have gone to a cut and drop regime on short grass areas rather than carting off heaps of cuttings to the tip whenever the grass is cut."
"Contractors are making good use of the increasing array of mulching deck machinery now available on the market to keep lawns looking respectable, although we anticipate future problems with moss and thatch build up," he confesses.
"We are particularly strict with ride-on use where banks are concerned, with a blanket limit of seventeen degrees of slope, whilst mowing is not allowed anywhere near unguarded drops or historic fabric."
"Worth a mention is the fact that tender evaluation is a mix of 60% marks for pricing elements and 40% marks for items including quality control, environmental policy, staffing levels, communications and qualifications etc., so it is not all about price only," Mick expands.
"The new maintenance contracts are centred on grass cutting, maintaining pathways, litter collection and control of weeds and pests, with the aim of keeping these sites well presented, tidy and fit for purpose."
"Grass cutting usually starts in early spring when the contractor is expected to undertake a full first cut and clearance of all short grassed areas over the entire estate. This is to remove all over-wintering grass and facilitate a timely commencement to the new season's grass cutting operations."
"The main short grass areas are maintained at a height of 50mm, embracing a frequency regime that sees the contractor carry out a first cut, plus twelve weekly cycles, followed then by eight fortnightly visits. This regime usually works very well, basically keeping on top of the grass growth during the earlier part of the year and then, when grass growth slows down in June, carrying out a fortnightly cut."
Mick goes on to explain that mowers are set to a height of cut of 30mm for fine turf areas, such as cloister lawns and ornamental lawns. "But, as each site and each season will be different, there is scope in the contracts to pay for additional cuts if required," confirms Mick.
Long grass areas are cut and cleared on a three yearly basis. "Some larger sites can be let out to local farmers who operate a cut and collect programme (free of charge), taking the arisings for hay/silage crops."
"Strimming around obstacles and precious stone masonry is one job that needs to be done with care," says Mick. "The contractors are aware of the damage that can be done by careless workmanship."
"In the old days, grass edges were half mooned or clipped with shears and narrow channels, known locally as 'grups', were formed along the base of historic masonry to keep machinery away from the fragile fabric. However, over time, these grups between the walls and grass have gradually increased in size and become maintenance items in their own respect as well as presenting, in some cases, a potential trip hazard. Careful use of strimmers, fitted with fragile cord that will disintegrate on contact with a hard surface, now enables us to trim grass along wall bases without risk of damage and, so, we are now in the process of back-filling and turfing or seeding over grups at most sites in the north."
At Rievaulx Abbey one of the biggest issues is maintaining grass cover along pinch points, such as narrow walkways between areas of the site. "With so much foot traffic, they become worn, lose grass cover and erode away so, in recent years, we have resorted to using a plastic reinforced mesh in these areas, which has been a great success in areas of reasonable foot traffic although, in high wear and tear areas such as historic doorways and at bases of steps, we have found that bi-annual re-turfing still provides the best solution."
Mick regularly inspects all his sites, meeting up with the contractors and English Heritage's on-site managers who keep him informed of any issues to address.
Providing good disabled access to some of these ancient sites is not always easy with the often multiple changes in levels and narrow access points that can be encountered at most sites, confesses Mick. "Here at Rievaulx Abbey we have maximised access by way of introducing a gently rising grass access route which provides reasonable access into the main church area. The zig-zag path was constructed in such a way as make access as easy as possible whilst blending sympathetically with the aesthetics of the site."
Mick also confirmed that moss has been prolific this past winter, with some grass areas within the cloisters totally overrun. The cost of removing it, or completely returfing these areas, would be prohibitive in the current financial climate, suggests Mick.
Our next port of call was Helmsley Castle, just a few miles east along the A170 from Rievaulx Abbey. The first castle was constructed in wood around 1120 but, in 1886, work began on converting the building to stone. In 1478 it was sold to Richard, Duke of Gloucester who later became Richard III. Richard did nothing to the castle, preferring to stay at Middleham Castle, about thirty miles to the west on the edge of the Yorkshire Dales and also now in the care of English Heritage.
During the Civil War, the castle was besieged by the roundhead, Sir Thomas Fairfax, for three months. After it fell, Parliament ordered that it should be slighted (partially destroyed) to prevent its further use.
In 1687 the castle was sold to Charles Duncombe, who built Duncombe Park, a fine country house overlooking the castle, and the castle was left as the ruin we see today.
One of the attractions at Helmsley, and several other sites including Middleham Castle mentioned above, in late spring/early summer is the Fairy Foxglove (Erinus alpinus), a small alpine plant which is naturalised on the walls and produces a fine display of pale purple flowers.
Here at Helmsley, much of the maintenance work is again centred around grass cutting, with the major requirement being the management of the impressive moats and steep banks surrounding the castle. Generally, these long grass areas are cut once every three years. Mick confirms that cut and collect is a mammoth task for every contractor and comes at a huge cost to English Heritage.
One way of controlling these areas would be to graze sheep, and Alan Cathersides pointed out that this method has been used at other sites. "In most cases, it comes down to logistics," says Alan. "How many animals would be required, the time needed on site, how they could be contained and the safety to local residents, tourists and, of course, the animals? But it is something we will be looking into much more in the future."
Another possibility would be to get local farmers to cut and collect for hay and silage, but, on many of the sites, the grass quality is compromised by other vegetation, making it a less worthwhile option, whilst the amount of flat land cuttable by large machines is also restrictive.
The sheer steepness of the banks restricts the use of larger mowing machinery so, in most cases, it has to be done by hand using brushcutters.
We next moved on to Pickering Castle, another site offering similar management problems to Helmsley Castle, having many steep banks to maintain.
The castle was built around 1070 as part of William the Conqueror's 'Harrying of the North', which was being carried out at this time to punish rebellion and discourage any further thoughts of the same.
One of the contractors, The Gavin Jones Group, was on site carrying out the 'once in three years' grass cutting and collecting all the grass from the site.
It is quite an arduous and daunting task due to the limited accessibility of the site and the sheer scale and size of the steep banks to be maintained. However, in recent years, the contractor has resorted to using radio controlled flail mowers to undertake this task, hiring in, on a daily rate, a specialised mower and trained operator.
It was intriguing to see this work going on. I was amazed at the speed and skill of the operator and the capability of this machine to work on such steep banks without rolling over. The mower was a tracked diesel powered flail model that could be controlled from 150 metres away.
Even though most of the steep banks were able to be cut with this machine, there was still a need for some manual work for the really steep and difficult areas, along with the need to rake and collect the cut grass. English Heritage have recognised the risks involved in carrying out this work and have installed fall arrest systems at all sites requiring works on steep banks.
The possibility of grazing for this type of work is, again, being considered.
Another issue highlighted at Pickering was the management of trees, especially large mature species that have shown signs of decay.
English Heritage has a policy of carrying out a professional survey on their trees on a fifteen month cycle, with interim observation carried out by their own site staff and managers when on site. The fifteen month interval has been introduced intentionally so as to ensure formal inspections are carried out at different times of the year. This approach helps build a comprehensive knowledge of each tree and its particular condition and characteristics throughout the seasons and aids the identification of issues such as the presence of fungi or wildlife.
There were two large mature trees identified with some signs of decay, both of which were on a public right of way. Mick's concern was that some branches might fall off and cause injury so, after further inspection, he carried out work to reduce the canopy weight of the trees. Mick was keen to prolong the life of these mature trees as they provide a haven for wildlife and insects. However, he knows it is only a stay of execution before they have to be felled.
Our final destination was Whitby Abbey, a ruined Benedictine Abbey overlooking the North Sea on the East Cliff above the town.
The first monastery on the site was founded in 657 AD and was subjected to several raids by the Danes between 867 and 870, following which it remained desolate for more than 200 years.
In 1078, a second monastery was built which lasted until it was dissolved by Henry VIII in 1540. Though the abbey fell into ruin, it remained a prominent landmark for sailors and also helped inspire Bram Stoker's 'Dracula' published in 1897.
In 1914, the abbey was shelled by the German Battlecruisers, Von der Tann and Derfflinger, which were reportedly aiming for the signal post on the end of the headland. Scarborough and Hartlepool were also attacked. The abbey sustained considerable damage during the ten minute attack, but this was repaired after the war.
Whitby Abbey is a stunning example of a large medieval monastery and, again, the main maintenance issue is the management of the grass cutting around and adjacent to the site, although there is an old pond within the grounds that, in recent years, required dredging to de-silt it.
The land adjacent to the abbey is, on occasions, used for staging other events, such as concerts, so it is often a case of working in the general maintenance of these sites to accommodate these events.
Like the majority of English Heritage sites, the contractors endeavour to start early to enable them to complete the main mowing tasks and the use of noisy machines before the visitors arrive on site at 10.00am.
Visiting these four unique sites provided a fascinating insight into the work that English Heritage perform to ensure they can be enjoyed by generations to come. With in excess of 150,000 visitors a year between them, these historically rich sites show that there is a genuine interest in our heritage. Something our Government may wish to consider when it comes to the ongoing financing of English Heritage.