Renovations reveal history of medieval undercroft at Dunstable’s Priory House

The undercroft at Priory House in Dunstable
The undercroft at Priory House in Dunstable where specialist conservation company Cliveden is repairing the rare medieval stonework.

The undercroft at Priory House in Dunstable, Bedfordshire, is a rare and almost complete example of 13th century stonework that is currently on Historic England's Heritage at Risk register. To get it off the register, a project began in September to safeguard the historically significant structure, which is suffering the effects of movement that is cracking the stonework.

The repair of Priory House is being run by Dunstable High Street Heritage Action Zone. The £95million Government-funded High Streets Heritage Action Zone programme, which is delivered by Historic England, is intended to unlock the potential of historic high streets, fuelling economic, social and cultural recovery. It is working in partnership with Dunstable Town Council and Historic England at the Priory House.

The project to repair the undercroft sensitively, protecting and retaining as much of the original 13th century fabric as possible, is being progressed by structural engineers The Morton Partnership, building contractor Messenger and conservation specialist Cliveden Conservation.

Trudi Hughes, Historic England Heritage at Risk Surveyor, says: “The really exciting thing is that the undercroft, about which we knew very little other than it was reported to be 13th century, now reveals itself as the ground floor and part of the first floor of a 13th century building, with evidence of partitions.

“There’s a lot more medieval fabric within that 18th and 19th century shell than anybody ever thought before. It’s important that we save, restore and protect this much-loved building for local people and visitors to continue to explore and enjoy.”

As specialist contractor, Cliveden Conservation is focusing on the conservation and repair of the stonework and the external render.

The first stages of the work involve investigating the deterioration of the clunch stone in the undercroft from above and below the vaults to determine the most effective and appropriate method of conservation treatment.

Sarah Tattersall, Conservation Accredited Engineer for The Morton Partnership, says: “The project team have worked hard to understand the causes of the complex structural and environmental issues that have resulted in deterioration to the stonework, through research, investigation and monitoring.

“On the basis of this detailed understanding, proposals have been developed to conserve and sensitively repair the fabric, sourcing clunch stone from the local quarry operated by H G Clarke & Son at Totternhoe.”

Alongside the repair and conservation work, new research will record the rare features of the medieval undercroft and look to understand its relationship with Dunstable Priory more fully. The repairs and renovation are expected to take approximately 10 months.

There is more about the project here and you can watch an eight-minute video about it below.