As a variation over the next six weeks, your blogger is planning to take a slightly askance look at the main materials we employ in the construction industry – and try to come up with a shortlist of the ten most significant buildings, structures or other substantial objects made using them: and I’ve decided to start, as our ancestors did, with timber.
The television news in the summer months carries regular stories about the Police and Coastguards trying to prevent teenagers indulging in the highly risky pastime of ‘Tomb-stoning’ around our holiday resorts; where they leap off piers or cliffs into water of often insufficient depth.
By contrast, however, documentary makers and naturalists have long paid homage to the “Land-Divers of Pentecost Island”, located in the South Pacific: who erect skeletal towers of tree branches. The menfolk then leap off them in an annual ritual to prove their manhood; with only a length of vine tied around their ankles as a safeguard against certain death.
Rather more sedate in style is the Treetops Hotel in Kenya’s Aberdare National Park where our Queen was holidaying with the Duke of Edinburgh when she succeeded to the throne. In fact you could wonder whether our monarchs have something of a penchant for being found up trees, when you look back on the story of Charles II hiding in an Oak Tree after the Battle of Worcester in 1651.
In fact Charles was more than a little fortunate to find an oak standing for, throughout much of his reign, Henry VIII had been busy turning our great hardwood forests into ships to fight his enemies. His flagship, the Mary Rose, made the news again recently as it has had a new home created for it in Portsmouth, three decades after it was originally raised from the Solent in 1982.
It was not unusual in those times either, when ships were broken up or wrecked, for the timbers to find their way into houses: oak of course being both durable and able to carry loads over long spans as can still be seen in famous old properties such as Ann Hathaway’s Cottage in Stratford-upon-Avon.
The potential for transposition between maritime and land based applications may well have been the inspiration for an entry in the Turner Prize a couple of years back, entitled “Shed-Boat-Shed”: where the artist dismantled and re-assembled his simple shiplap structure to make both in turn.
A downside to timber in building has always been its vulnerability to fire, as befell Shakespeare’s original Globe theatre when a canon was fired during a performance and the burning wadding set light to the thatched roof. The modern day replica on London’s South Bank has so far survived safely.
The children’s nursery rhyme, The Three Little Pigs, does little to restore one’s confidence in timber as a building material, the second pig’s property faring little better than that built of straw. Timber engineering is now, however, highly advanced and systems such as cross-laminated timber feature prominently in the creation of schools and other contemporary public buildings; offering both high strength and fire resistance.
Possibly the most articulate use of timber in a teaching environment is to be seen down at the Eden Project in Cornwall, where the Education Centre – completed a couple of years back – features a complex roof designed to replicate the Fibonacci spiral that is found in plant leaves and other areas of nature.
The subject of education in fact brings us back neatly full circle to the summer holidays which really begin for a lot of students when the exams end and they disappear off down to Newquay for a spot of tomb-stoning. Plastic Surgeon’s teams of Finishers will, meanwhile, be gainfully employed – as they are every year – helping the country’s contractors and facilities management companies repair and maintain all the universities, schools, colleges and halls of residence during the break.