Pepper Pot goes back to the future

What do you do with a much-loved landmark when it has no obvious modern use and the cost of carrying out a full restoration busts your budget?

In the case of the Pepper Pot in Queen’s Park, the answer lay in detailed consultation with groups ranging from English Heritage and the Georgian Group to the Friends of the Pepper Pot – and some special expertise from the Regency Society.

Brighton & Hove City Council had set aside £70,000 for repairs to the Grade II listed building, which was designed by Sir Charles Barry in 1830 and originally stood in the grounds of property developer Thomas Attree’s Italianate villa.

Unfortunately, a full restoration would have cost around £30,000 more, so the council needed a compromise solution that would secure the building’s future. In the course of finding one, the mystery of the building’s original use was solved – it housed a steam engine that pumped water to the estate – and an important 19th century building material was created.

A mystery solved

Detective work by Neil England of the Regency Society and Nick Tyson of the Georgian Group showed that the columned centre section of the tower was originally built with Ranger’s Lime Concrete, a type of artificial stone developed by Ringmer builder William Ranger and used on landmarks including the walls and ramps at the entrance to Adelaide Crescent.

Neil – one of the country’s top historic buildings specialists – has worked with Nick to analyse the material and will be remaking it for the first time in 160 years so the Pepper Pot can be made weatherproof once more.

“One of the problems with using modern render is that it cracks, which allows water in. Then it separates from the underlying Ranger’s Lime Concrete, the render falls off and the structure is damaged,” he explains.

“To give a good base for new lime render, we need to reinstate the top layer of Ranger’s Concrete, so we analysed its components and remixed them. A specialist company will apply it where the modern surface has failed and repair it with lime render.

“It should prevent the problem recurring and, if more of the surface falls away, we now know how to repair it properly. Having the recipe for Ranger’s Lime Concrete also means that we’ll be able to make sustainable repairs to other important landmarks, such as the gateways to Queen’s Park, so it’s a real benefit for the city’s historic architecture.”

Secure for decades

Over the course of five meetings, Neil also worked with the council’s conservation team and the other groups to arrive at a schedule of repairs that should secure the building for 40 to 50 years. It includes coating the dome with a specialist waterproof paint and installing new hardwood windows.

Meanwhile Nick, a Society member, solved the long-standing mystery of the Pepper Pot’s original purpose. Local legend suggested that it might have been an observatory, a vent for sewers or a water tower but Nick found an entry in the Arcana of Science and Art in 1836 that revealed it had housed a steam engine to pump water for the estate.

The final piece of the jigsaw puzzle comes in the form of the Landmark Trust, which lets unusual buildings as holiday homes and is currently assessing whether the Pepper Pot might be a suitable candidate.

“It’s a positive and affordable outcome for the Pepper Pot and the council – and I was delighted that the Regency Society could help to bring it about,” says Neil.

Even the building's name has been disputed: is it Pepper Pot, Pepperpot or Pepper Box? We've followed English Heritage in calling it the Pepper Pot.

Cracks in the dome, above, will be filled, then the structure will be weatherproofed with a waterproof coating.

Below, the Pepper Pot in 1908, in a view from the James Gray Collection, the Society's photographic archive
. On the original, you can see that the building has been named as the Pepper Box.

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