The mud man of Malton

Nigel Copsey is uncovering a house of secrets – and two ghosts – which next weekend will play a starring role. Michael Hickling reports.

Mud is the mission of Nigel Copsey. It's always in his mind, is central to his working life and when he climbs off his scaffolding to talk about it, he speaks warmly of the "majesty of mud".

He is the project manager for the restoration of York House, once perhaps the most prominent, and today certainly the most fascinating, building in Malton. It faces the main road, just ahead of those traffic lights where in summer, before the by-pass, families fumed as they edged slowly towards the right turn at the crossroads which would put them in the clear for the seaside.

Once it was easy to miss the house – it's obscured as you drive into the town centre by the bulk of the Talbot Hotel – but no longer. Next weekend it will be the focus of interest as experts from around the country turn up to examine what has been uncovered here during the past two years.

They will find a work in progress and if Nigel Copsey gets his way, that's how it will remain. "We're revealing, not restoring," says Nigel. "We believe in minimal repair – a building should look its age. You can't recreate authenticity." This approach allows the building to illustrate the clear evidence of many changes in a history going back some 500 years.

Possibly longer. York House sits on an escarpment ridge on a key spot in the town. It's half way up the pathway that climbed from the ancient wharf on the River Derwent below (through which most of Malton's goods were once shipped) to the market above.

As the medieval New Malton started to flourish, a charter was negotiated by the burgesses where the first on the list of customs and privileges they were allowed to enjoy was the right to dig stone and earth for building. Mud is what they needed to make their town grow. It was the mortar between the stones and the plaster on the walls. Today it still is.

"Many of the buildings within the medieval boundary are bedded in mud," says Nigel. "Because the town has always belonged to a single family, the history, instead of being lost, has been left in place." It's this continuity with the past that might help to provide the town with a new future. Mud could be the catalyst for the making of a new Malton.

Like most market towns today, Malton faces a set of linked problems that are difficult to resolve. Locally the biggest change focuses on the historic livestock market which like so many others is in decline. The town's owners, the Fitzwilliam Estate, want to close the market and re-develop the site. Opponents say that means doing away with an asset that brings in trade and visitors and would diminish the town's rural character.

Nigel Copsey, who works for the estate, suggests another way to put Malton on the map. He sees the York House project as the start of a process that would see the town become a powerhouse for traditional craftsmanship and building restoration. "This is the flagship for a strategy to apply across the whole town. It will change the face of Malton."

This is not pie-in-the-sky stuff from an academic expert. Nigel is a stonemason who comes from the South West where the restoration of Wells Cathedral in the Seventies led to a re-think of the role of traditional craft techniques and a revival of them. As a result, numerous specialist businesses sprang up which brought significant economic benefits to the area.

Nigel thinks something similar is possible in Malton and buildings that were once the stables of the Talbot Hotel have been earmarked for a potential craftsmanship academy. But it seems these new ideas are not going to be realised without some pain, or at least misunderstandings.

Geology gives you the information about who built what – the type of stone used tends to mark periods of Malton's development. One that was locally-sourced was Hildenley lime-stone and according to Nigel this material is as fine as Portland stone.

He is now pushing for the re-opening of the local Brow's quarry, where calcareous sandstone was quarried for a number of other old properties. Nigel reckons the demands from the quarry for building restoration work would be fairly light and lorry movements few.

Even so, some locals residents don't want it. On a grass verge by the road leading out of Malton towards York they have planted a large sign that says Stop The Quarry.

Using mud was reckoned to signify that builders were either poor or had no access to limestone. Not so with York House. "This is a high-status construction and they chose mud," says Nigel who prises some from between two blocks of stone and rubs it appreciatively between finger and thumb. "It's literally just soil."

On one of the house walls the surface is chipped back to reveal mud plaster with added rye grass and a lime plaster which was mixed with ox hair. "I've got 10 different recipes for mud which is nicer than any plaster to apply, it's so sticky. "

But why is mud such a big deal in his approach? "If you take the building back to what it was in the first place, it will perform as its builders intended. It's a voyage of discovery, we are having to learn as we go along."

For him, the traditional and the modern methods of building are inimical. "Rigidity and impermeability is the modern way, flexibility and permeability is the traditional way. You can't resist moisture in a building, you've got to live with it – that was the traditional approach. The technology of modern building is all about excluding moisture. But the fact is you can't do that for ever and once moisture does get into a modern building, it's devastated. I've worked in New York. I've seen it happen in skyscrapers."

Nigel likes working in America where he says they are more receptive to change back to traditional ways than over here. He started his working life as a dry stone waller in Cornwall and Dorset and then went to college to learn to be a stonemason.

In his presence, don't use the c-word. Cement is what he loathes and we cross the road from York House so he can explain why. Here are traditional 18th century terrace houses whose stonework has been re-pointed with a modern cement-based mortar instead of the original lime mortar. The cement, eight times harder, is intact but the stonework is not. Parts of it near pavement level are crumbling.

"There's no excuse for using cement in an old building, it's too hard and incompatible. Lime mortar lets the moisture out of a building – it's the sacrificial part, the softest and most porous part. Salt is removed via the decay of a lime mortar and it's the salt that does the damage. The expansion of its crystals eventually turns the stone to dust if you use a cement mortar.

"There are 2,000 properties in Malton, 600 in the historic town and the reaction of the average builder to the idea of repairing them with traditional techniques is 'Oh my god'. They don't know how to do it – we have to give them access to the information." He lays on training days in lime and stone conservation and the end of which there's often an inquiry 'any chance of a job?'

Bricks in one of the fireplaces at York House were fired in in 1560. The local MP and magnate William Strickland lived in York House in 1684. It was his workmen who created the illusion of symmetry in a medieval building that had none.

Strickland's son became the Lord Treasurer and the fact that he was based in London and picked up the latest architectural fashions may explain some of the stylistic changes to the house which for Yorkshire were ahead of their time.

It has a superb view across the vale of the Derwent to Malton racecourse on the skyline (another forgotten part of Malton's history – dating from 1680 it was ploughed up in 1862 by a religious fanatic who didn't like racing). The Talbot Hotel used to be the Strickland family hunting lodge. Strickland sold the town, with his father-in-law to the Wentworths. Inherited through marriage by the Fitzwilliams, it has been in their possession ever since.

Work on the house has meant freeing things like window frames and mantelpieces from up to 15 coats of paint.

What was thought to be cellars, full of debris, was a medieval undercroft. "There are possibly 40 in Malton and very few people know they are there. Even local history groups say 'I had no idea'."

On a baking hot June day that made Malton feel like the South of France, the undercroft was chilly. As it was cleared out, Nigel found a stone entrance to what turned out to be a passageway down to the river. "It's lowest point of the river in the town. We think it may have been a butchers here and they took their waste and just fired it off down the passage and into the river down to Kirkham."

Malton is a medieval town where all the burgess plots remain intact and Nigel can always spot the ancient in the modern. Noting an ugly modern asbestos roof he says, "You can tell by the pitch of the roof that it was originally thatched." About 90 per cent of the town was thatched in 1730.

York House's garden of about five acres leads down to the river and also survives intact. At one time the Fitzwilliam family had ambitions to develop a spa a little further down the river bank.

Nigel is an evangelist for his mud conservation approach. One of the first things to catch the eye as you walk into York House is a handwritten notice which says, "Dare to Dream to Think to Act" stuck on a timber support. "I've probably shown 500 people round this place and I've not had anyone here who's not been inspired," he says. "I think it's of national significance. We want to make this town an exemplar of good practice. I feel there's a future for Malton by making the most of its history."

And the house ghosts? There are two, independent of each other from different periods of history. One, female, is to be found in a front corner of a first floor room overlooking the main road. Nigel says he's fairly sceptical on these matters but concedes: "I heard someone passing above when I was the only one working in the house. A former resident heard the same." More intriguingly, he says the one in the corner spoke to a worker who was cleaning the stairs.

What did she say?

"'You're not doing a very good job'."

Two-day heritage event at York House

Building conservation experts will be gathering at York House in Yorkersgate as part of the Ryedale Building Conservation and Heritage Fair, June 27-28.

The fair is a free, two-day event organised by the Fitzwilliam Estate, the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, York University and Ryedale District Council.

Craftspeople will be demonstrating skills, and hands-on sessions working with mud and lime mortars, as well as with stone, will be held on Friday and Saturday.

York House will be open to visitors both days, with exhibitions

and displays of Malton's racing and landscape heritage and of the

York House Conservation Project so far. Information: 01653 600666.