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Corbridge Bottle Kilns - Kenny Brunskill

Built in the early 19th century, the Corbridge bottle kilns site in Northumberland is one of the few remaining examples of a Tyne Valley rural pottery. Mason Kenny Brunskill carried out vital repointing and brick replacement to the buildings, using ropes and spider cranes.

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When the Tyne and Wear Building Preservation Trust began searching for a team that could repair and consolidate two Grade II listed bottle kilns at Corbridge, Stone Technical Services of Darlington and mason Kenny Brunskill were a natural choice. Difficult access to the kilns meant that an innovative approach was required for restoration work – not to mention a head for heights. It is now hoped that Kenny’s example on this project will inspire other young builders to consider restoration as an exciting and varied career path.

Kenny Brunskill at the Corbridge bottle kilns, Corbridge, Northumberland
Kenny Brunskill at the Corbridge bottle kilns, Corbridge, Northumberland © Historic England

Lofty ambition

Built in the early 19th century, the bottle kilns are among the few remaining examples of a Tyne Valley rural pottery. The scheduled monuments were part of the Walker’s Pottery, which produced bricks, roof ridge tiles and chimney pots, among many other items. The kilns are two of only 44 in Britain, with most located in the south of the country. Despite being a well-known local landmark, the condition of the kilns had deteriorated severely over the years and the project to repair them aimed to remove them from the Heritage At Risk Register. The TWBPT undertook the work, with grant aid from Historic England and Northumberland County Council.

Stone Technical Services proposed that most of the repointing and brick replacement for the kilns be carried out with a mixture of rope and spider crane. This approach would bring the project in without the need for costly scaffolding but would require unusual dexterity and skill amid testing weather conditions.

Two workers in rope harnesses work on the exterior of a bottle kiln at Corbridge
Workers in rope harnesses work on the exterior of a bottle kiln at Corbridge © Stone Technical Services

Kenny, from Willington, County Durham, joined STS in 2007 as an operative, after serving in the military. Since being selected for an IRATA rope access qualification, he has risen through the company to become a supervisor within STS Restoration in 2014. In this role, he has worked on a number of prestigious projects, including St Paul’s Cathedral, the Serpentine Bridge in Hyde Park and Lumley Castle, among others. His enthusiasm, work ethic, maturity and natural skill at working at heights have made him the “go to” guy for masonry work on steeples and spires around the region, said Stone Technical Business Development Manager Richard Pavlou. “Kenny has exactly the right qualities for this work and we are so lucky to have him. The sector needs more young people like him.”

Historical advertisement depicting the Corbridge Bottle Kilns
Historical advertisement depicting the Corbridge Bottle Kilns

Outcomes

Through innovative access methods, Kenny and his crew consolidated the two bottle kilns at Corbridge Pottery. They have extensively re-pointed and replaced the brickwork, safeguarding the immediate future of the kilns and a conservation-accredited architect has signed the kilns off the Heritage At Risk Register.

Richard Pavlou hopes the successful restoration of the Corbridge Bottle Kilns could have a wider impact by encouraging others to explore the feasibility of more restoration projects using these access techniques, which are comparatively cheap. “We hope that in cases where the costs of restoration are prohibitive, this case might lead more people to start thinking, ‘perhaps there is another way’.”

Interior view of a bottle kiln at Corbridge
Interior view of a bottle kiln at Corbridge © Stone Technical Services

Why this category?

The success of the project reflects Kenny’s remarkable trajectory as a mason since leaving the British Army in 2003.  After first working as a labourer with EP Services, he moved to STS and developed a passion for masonry. He soon carved out a niche at working at extreme heights – a skill that is highly sought after in the world of conservation.

His dedication and that of his crew at Stone Technical has safeguarded the survival of the rare historic structures and ensured local pride in the landmarks for years to come. “We are all really proud to have been involved in the bottle kilns project as it meant such a lot to the local community,” said Kenny. “Preserving local heritage is such important work and should never be undervalued.” Also important was the training event that the team from Stone Technical Services organised for a group of trainee bricklayers from Gateshead College. The site was closed for a day as the students tried their hand at building with lime and got a taste of the reality of working on site rather than just in the classroom.

"The trainees clearly benefited from having Kenny as a role model and were impressed by his innovative approach as he helped them to build arches in lime mortar and instructed them on using the cranes," said Richard. He believes Kenny has shown them that restoration can be an exciting career option and hopes some may even be inspired by him to pursue specialist training in a sector that is at risk from a skills gap. “Too few young people are going to college to learn about restoration,” he said. “A role model like Kenny can even help to boost this workforce.”

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