Historical twist as nesting birds hold up Seaton Delaval Hall work

Nesting jackdaws in six chimney stacks bring back Seaton Delaval Hall fire memories


Staff at a stately home could be forgiven for getting into a flap over a tribe of nesting jackdaws at their Northumberland property.

For the discovery of around 20 nests in six chimney stacks at the National Trust’s Seaton Delaval Hall produced an uncomfortable sense of historical deja vu.

A jackdaw nest in a chimney is believed to have been the cause of a blaze in 1822 which gutted the Central Hall of the building.

The Central Hall, with its fire-damaged statues, has been a shell ever since.

The new nests, containing 30 jackdaw chicks, were found during repair and restoration work on the Central Hall following a grant last year of £500,000 from the SITA Trust.

Now the work has stopped until the youngsters leave.

Julie Hawthorn, house and collections manager at Seaton Delaval Hall, said, “The building work has been going very well and it’s slightly ironic that the same birds that are alleged to have caused the fire all those years ago are still here today.

“Work will be halted on the chimneys for a couple of weeks until the fledglings leave the nests.

“At least it’s not a case of history repeating itself as we currently don’t have fires in the chimneys below!”

Hall operations manager Justine James said: “We can’t shoo the birds away when they are nesting. But we have learned our lesson about jackdaws at Seaton Delaval Hall and when the young fledge the chimneys will be capped.”

At dusk on January 3, 1822, sailors off the Whitley Bay coast noticed that the sunset seemed unusually brilliant. It was the Seaton Delaval Hall fire.

A newspaper report read: “Every endeavour to preserve the body of the building was unavailing nothing but the bare walls being left standing.

“The fire is generally supposed to have originated in a chimney which had been rendered foul by birds having built their nests in it, and that hence the fire was communicated to a rafter fixed to the chimney.

“The roof was speedily in flames and the fire burnt with such fury as to bid defiance to all human efforts. The glass in the windows, by the intense heat, was reduced to a liquid state and the lead in the roof poured down like water.”

The centre remained a roofless ruin until about 1859-60 when architect John Dobson was called upon by the 16th Lord Hastings to produce a comprehensive restoration scheme.

Wall tops were rebuilt to support a new roof, and cast-iron columns were used to strengthen internal walls. But the scheme faltered, and the place was left an unheated and unfurnished shell.

The current restoration project has seen the original 18th Century chequerboard floor of the Central Hall carefully lifted and stored while archaeological work was carried out.

Much of the original Irish black limestone and Italian Carrera marble has been re-layed and the hall is now waiting for delivery of new stone to complete this stage of the project.

Experts will then begin work on six life-size statues high up in alcoves in the Central Hall.

Julie said: “The external part of the project is due to be finished by September, so the scaffolding will start coming down soon, revealing the decorative stonework in all it’s glory. “

While the work is taking place, the Hall and gardens remain open to visitors who can see the conservation work in progress.

The National Trust has already spent £2m on conservation work, rewiring, fire and security systems, preserving internal masonry, reroofing and upgrading facilities.


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