An undercroft is a cellar, often brick-lined and vaulted, and was used for underground storage in buildings in medieval times.
The work at Grade II* listed Priory House is an important project for the Dunstable High Street Heritage Action Zone, which is run in partnership by Dunstable Town Council and Historic England. The High Street Heritage Action Zone covers High Street South, from Priory House, up to the crossroad and along Church Street to Priory Church.
The undercroft at Priory House, constructed of vaulted stonework, is of national significance because it’s a rare and almost complete example of its kind from the 13th century.
It is suffering from environmental and structural issues, including movement and cracking in the stonework. Dunstable Town Council and Historic England are working with structural engineers The Morton Partnership to sensitively repair the undercroft, protecting and retaining as much of the original 13th century material as possible.
PRIORY HOUSE HISTORY
Priory House is one of the oldest buildings in Dunstable, along with the Priory Church. Alongside the repair and conservation work, new research will record the rare features of the medieval undercroft and look to more fully understand its relationship with Dunstable Priory.
Priory House has had a varied history. It was built on the site of Dunstable Priory’s guest house for travellers. It became a private house in 1545, and one of the first owners was the local Crawley family, who used part of the building to create an early mental health hospital.
In 1743, the original stone vaulted hall was incorporated into a much larger house with the Georgian façade and interior details that can still be seen today. By the 19th century, Priory House was owned by the Munt family, who built a hat factory next to it, on the site of the present gateway from High Street South. The factory was demolished in 1907.
Since 1956, the building has been used as offices and is now a heritage centre and tea rooms.
Trudi Hughes, Historic England Heritage at Risk Surveyor, said: “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.”
Cllr Peter Hollick, Chair of Community Services, Dunstable Town Council, said: “It’s been a long time in the planning to get to the stage where works are due to commence. The Town Council is thrilled to be in the position where works are due to start to ensure that this important building is restored for future generations and to be removed from the ‘At Risk’ register. It’s pleasing to see that the Town Council is investing in and preserving our town’s heritage.”
Sarah Tattersall, Conservation Accredited Engineer for The Morton Partnership said: “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 at Totternhoe. We are delighted that works are about to commence.”
Works will begin in September and are expected to take approximately 10 months. During the works, Priory House will remain open with reduced seating in the tea rooms and the exhibition space on the first floor will close from 19 August. It is hoped that full service will resume in summer 2023.
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