Twittering 1880s style at Tyntesfield estate
The neo-gothic turrets and pinnacles of Tyntesfield can seem imposing and even eerie to a 21st century visitor. But as the National Trust continues its £16.5m renovation, the experts have turned their attention to one of the smallest buildings on the estate.
The Victorian aviary, which was later converted by the Gibbs family into a playhouse for the late Lord Wraxall's daughter Doreen, is one of the most distinctive features of the property.
With its quaint twin gables, and its crumbling charm, most visitors fall in love with the character of the tiny building standing in the shadow of the great, austere mansion house.
The Grade II-listed wooden construction, which is currently in a poor state of repair, is a rare surviving example of a Victorian country house aviary.
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Located in Tyntesfield's formal gardens next to main house, it was built in about 1880 to house exotic birds, and with its ornamental character, it is a reminder of the leisure habits of the Gibbs family, who lived at Tyntesfield for four generations – converting their unprecedented business success importing guano for fertilisers into a country pleasure garden existence.
"It's a wonderful little building," says buildings surveyor Kate Gunthorpe.
"When restoring buildings of this age and significance we have to make decisions really carefully and have a thorough understanding of the building.
"The aviary is a bit of a puzzle at the moment and contains all sorts of materials from the different stages of its development so it will be great to start to piece it together.
"It is a good example of a Victorian aviary – where the Gibbs family would have kept their exotic birds in the last 20 years of the 19th century. There was a real trend among rich families for keeping exotic birds during that period.
"But it was later adapted as a children's playroom fitted with miniature furniture, where the children could have real tea parties and games of keeping house, so it has a rich history with two very different usages."
The restoration of the aviary has been made possible thanks to £30,000 raised by visitors taking part in Tyntesfield's annual raffle.
The National Trust will now do a detailed investigation into the contents of the aviary, with the help of surveying students from University of West of England, archaeologist Bob Edwards from Forum Heritage Services and the public.
"We hope to work on the restoration throughout the rest of this season and early next year," says Tyntesfield curator Stephen Ponder.
"Throughout the process we will encourage members of the public to watch the work taking place, and engage with the craftsmen.
"The difficulty for us now is to decide how we should restore the building. Although it was built as an aviary, throughout the 1930s it was distinctively used as a playhouse.
"We have to try to decide which was the more significant period in its history. For that we're talking to the present Lord Wraxall and the Gibbs family, and exploring all the old documents and photographs that we can get our hands on."
The former home of the late Richard Gibbs, Lord Wraxall, Tyntesfield was bought by the National Trust in 2002 to be conserved for the nation.
The property was found to be in need of a serious makeover, following the death of the reclusive bachelor in 2001.
Cash from both the National Trust's own coffers and the National Lottery's Heritage Fund will cover the bulk of the £16.5m renovation, with fundraising events being planned to make up the current £1.6m funding gap.
If you've visited Tyntesfield in previous years, you probably realise the project is very much a work in progress.
But this year the trust hopes to make a big push, and that means welcoming the public into what could be mistaken for a building site.
"There may be some visitors who wonder why they've paid to see a house that's covered in scaffold and full of people in hard hats," says programme director Helen Bonser-Wilton. "But I think a lot of people are fascinated to see the work being carried out.
For more details call 0844 800 4966.