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Conserving rations

HERITAGE ENGINEERING: Royal Clarence Yard - Converting a former naval yard into a plush waterfront development has provided much food for thought. Alan Sparks reports.

After lying dormant since decommissioning in 1991, Portsmouth's Royal Clarence Yard again has a bright future. Over the next five years the Gosport waterfront site will welcome £60M of mixed use development involving residential, leisure and maritime themed outlets to the former victualling yard.

With a history going back to the 17th century, developer Berkeley Homes would have expected some conservation needs. 'But perhaps not quite on this scale, ' says Gerry Wait, project engineer of Gifford, which is involved in conservation, environmental, geotechnical, structural, marine and civils work on the project.

'There are over 30 listed buildings and eight ancient monuments for starters, ' Wait says.

Wandering around the 20ha yard - which has been off limits to the public for over 300 years - reveals abundant areas of genuine historical interest. According to Wait: 'There have been in the order of 400 buildings here in the past of which there are 100 currently standing.'

Upon arriving on site last year, the developer and Gifford held an open day - which attracted much interest from locals most of whom had only ever peered through the yard's ornamental gates. Some, though, had worked on the site before its closure and their anecdotes proved invaluable in building up a picture of its chequered past. 'We were able to learn things that simply aren't available through any other means, ' adds Wait.

Gifford's brief demands that all areas of historical interest are investigated, catalogued and wherever deemed of sufficient value, retained. Wait has worked on a number of similar projects, including the UK's only other surviving victualling yard - the Royal William Yard in Plymouth.

'What really excites me is seeing new life breathed back into them, ' enthuses Wait.

Archaeology on the site is being undertaken principally by Archestratus Archaeology.

'Being close to the sea we all expected Bronze Age findings, as a passing visit would have been quite likely. But we have found pottery which suggest that this could have been a settlement, ' says principal archaeologist Simon Cleggett.

Cleggett has only been on site for seven months and 'we already have pieces from the Bronze Age circa 2500BC, but as yet nothing Roman, which we were hoping for'.

Interesting and potentially intoxicating artefacts are expected where the old brewery once stood. Unfortunately an oil pipe running close by may have seriously contaminated the plot.

'The scope of some digs is jeopardised due to contamination, with hydrocarbons the greatest concern, ' adds Wait.

Findings can influence the whole design process, as original aspects need retaining or even removing if unsafe.'It's a race against time, ' says Wait.

'We need to get all the relevant information in the right form to the right people. We are just running to keep up.'

Co-ordinating the multidisciplinary team was testing as each branch had its own agenda, making compromise essential.

'At one stage while foundations for a new build near the barracks were dug, we had four specialists standing over a hole, each with a different concern, ' says Cleggett. At times, badger, lizard and unexploded ordnance boffins have all been involved.

Work is currently progressing on the refurbishment of the old barracks. This will become a new residential area incorporating sympathetic new build. But matching mortar mixes and reused stone - which might be expected - are thrown out of the window.

'We want the new buildings to fit in with the existing structures, not replicate them, ' says Wait.

'We have picked materials which distress quickly but we don't need to pretend everything has been here forever.'

EH comments: English Heritage has been involved with Royal Clarence Yard for many years. In fact, back in the 1960s, when the work of protection was carried on from within government, a far-sighted inspector of ancient monuments had a cine film made of the last days of the Cooperage, where the Navy's barrels were made. Now the agency advises on the development and works closely with Gifford on every aspect of the scheme.

Funeral train

Royal Clarence Yard also holds the accolade of being the initial resting place of Queen Victoria on the British mainland after her death in 1901 at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight. The Queen's body was brought across the Solent on the royal yacht Alberta to her private railway station that still lies within the yard's ramparts.

The funeral train then headed to Victoria Station in London, the route lined with mourners. The coffin was cloaked in a purple and white shroud at her instruction, and as a tribute to the Queen, the officers' mess was decorated in the same colours.

Food fortunes

Links with the Navy started in 1690 when the site was bought by local landowner John Player.

Formal gardens were cultivated - the layout of which are still visible - and beer was brewed for the navy.

Between 1750 and 1760 the ramparts, known locally as the Gosport line, were constructed to protect the yard from attack.

Then in 1828 the Duke of Clarence turned the site into a victualling depot, supplying the Navy with food. This allowed all supplies to be consolidated in one place. The impressive buildings were designed by the eminent engineer George Ledwell Taylor. He preferred brick, while his great rival John Rennie, the engineer for the Royal William Yard, loved stone. Army barracks were added 30 years later to house troops awaiting transit oversees.

At this time the yard was in its heyday. Bread and the famous Gosport ships biscuit were produced by the nine large brick ovens at a rate of 1,000t per day.

Adjacent to the granary and bakery sat the slaughterhouse where pigs, sheep and cows were butchered, with the salted meat stored in barrels. Alongside was a blood pit, from where black pudding and beef stock would emerge. After a foot and mouth epidemic struck the country around 1880, the yard was sealed off to protect provisions. All meat was imported, slaughtered on site and taken away in barrels once salted.

With the coming of iron and steel ships, however, the fears of fire at sea waned and on-board ovens were introduced - lessening the yard's value. But the brewery remained strong and the cooperage continued to produce barrels until the 1970s when the rum ration was abolished, cutting another of the yard's lifelines.

By then freeze drying and irradiation had anyway become the preferred methods of preserving food, and by the 1990s the yard had sunk into disuse.

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