Repo Men: Don't throw it away, call Mr Kay

In an age of built-in obsolescence, Thornton Kay is determined to find a new home for everything from doorknobs to entire 16th-century buildings. Jack O'Sullivan reports on the boom in architectural salvage
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Indy Lifestyle Online
ancy buying a derelict Irish Georgian mansion and taking it away in crates? How about a small Welsh chapel to put up in the back garden? Or a 16th-century barn, excellent value at pounds 55,000, provided you can reassemble a heap of ancient gnarled beams? If any of these eccentric follies appeals, you need Thornton Kay - Mr Architectural Salvage - and you will find them all listed on his website. Go no further if you are looking for a Doric column, say, or a Victorian orangery, or a12ft-high pulpit to make your home complete. Kay prides himself on finding new uses for just about everything, large or small, old or new.

Thornton Kay's is the story of an obsessional character, a self-styled David ranging himself against Goliaths in JCBs who would grind buildings into rubble fit only to backfill motorways. He is intense and wiry, and there is something of the Sixties revolutionary about him, except that while contemporaries were protesting against the US bombing of Cambodia, he was fighting off the demolition men. And he hasn't given up.

Kay runs Salvo, the bible of the fast-growing architectural reclamation industry. He publishes newsletters and directories that tell you where the salvage yards are, here and abroad. His commitment is total. He has transplanted his family for months at a time to Ireland and France to check out the industry there. Recently, they almost ended up in Shanghai, where redevelopment of French and British colonial architecture is yielding treasures no longer easily found here in Britain. The children stopped that particular adventure by refusing to move again and attend a Chinese school.

In all, Kay has identified an estimated 1,000 firms involved in recycling materials, ranging from farm tools and floorboards to fitted kitchens. And Salvo's Website carries numerous details of ancient buildings about to be knocked down and looking for a new location.

We're sitting in Thornton Kay's home. You might expect him to live in a huge pile bedecked with the barmy artefacts he has spent half his life off-loading on to the rest of us. In fact, he is positively ascetic, living with his partner, Hazel Matravers, and three of his six children in a tiny grace-and-favour country cottage near Berwick-upon-Tweed, owned by Lord Joicey. "We're as poor as church mice," says Hazel, as she wonders whether they can afford stamps to send out the next edition of Salvo News.

The cottage is, confesses Kay, "full of junk", not a column in sight. The main antique feature is in the middle distance: a clump of trees where James IV rested overnight in 1513 before the Battle of Flodden. Apart from that, there is only the vast open countryside of Northumberland's castled fiefdoms. This is the retreat of a dedicated missionary, a computer whizz, who hopes that his mastery of the Internet and desktop publishing will turn us all from relentless consumers into re-users.

Thornton Kay is not interested in objets for their own sake. "To me," he says, "an antiques dealer is someone who, in the main, denies the utility of an object. Yet that is precisely what concerns someone in architectural salvage. And whereas age adds value to an antique, the aim of salvage is to pay less than one would for something brand-new."

The phone in the cottage rings constantly. Today, someone wants a leather washer for a Victorian pump. "We've put him on to a bellows restorer in East Sussex, who can sort him out." Then there is a woman who spent pounds 2,000 on new balustrading, erected it on the patio and decided it was too fussy. Does Salvo know anyone who would buy it, she asks? Another woman rings wondering if someone could take a lovely old cricket pavilion off her hands - it has lost its pitch and is now surrounded by a housing estate. Meanwhile, Hazel is enthusing about a stainless-steel English Rose fitted kitchen, bought in the 1950s and now being thrown out. She has two possible buyers for it and hands on the telephone numbers to the seller.

This couple have had a considerable impact on a fledgling industry that instinctively prefers discretion. "Until I started publishing," says Kay, "dealers thought the fewer people who knew about the business the better. They thought they could make more money by charging more. But it is far better to create a bigger market, with more people spending."

They certainly are spending. The white marble fire surrounds that developers so eagerly smashed just a few years ago now sell for thousands of pounds. Original timber flooring, which used to be worth pounds 2-pounds 3 a square yard, now goes for pounds 20-pounds 30. Twenties bathroom basins, which until recently were worth about pounds 5, now cost pounds 50-pounds 100. Black enamelled slate surrounds for fireplaces, which were still being thrown out two or three years ago are now selling for pounds 100-pounds 500 each.

But the business has its problems. Ironically, just as markets are developing, it is getting harder to salvage some materials. "Mechanisation means that a huge vehicle can now plough through a building," says Kay. "It makes it very hard to save some items."

Kay is also the industry's moralist, establishing a code of conduct for dealers, aimed at preventing them selling stolen goods. And he is the industry's self-appointed policeman, offering his own version of Crimewatch on the Net - the hot properties that have gone walkabout. He has been responsible for what he calls "Internet intercepts", but still faces claims that the reclamation industry encourages theft.

One recent case involved the theft of the columned portico of a Cotswolds house. "It would have taken half an hour to dismantle it," says Kay. "It was being hauled around to the dealers in the back of a van. They guessed it was stolen. One of them rang us and said there was a dodgy portico out there. So we rang the police and the listed buildings people, who discovered that squatters had taken it. They caught them, made them put it back up and everyone was happy."

Kay started out in the Sixties saving Georgian houses from the demolition man's sledge hammer. He was founder of Walcot Reclamation in Bath, one of Britain's first architectural salvage yards, with which he is no longer associated. Picture him as a grown-up version of those kids in the film Hope and Glory who made dens in bomb sites. He was one of those boys, marvelling as a toddler at disembowelled houses with rooms, cupboards and wallpaper exposed to the street. His father was a carpenter who toured the world with the RSC, erecting sets and pulling them down again with lightning speed. Add to the background a grandmother, also a carpenter, who recalled ripping out the stalls in theatres, installing a 6in-deep lake for a Busby Berkeley show before putting the stalls back again the next week, and you have a picture of how Kay began to acquire his passion.

Gradually, Kay's ambitions have grown and become more political. In his time, he has reclaimed the equivalent of acres of oak forests in the shape of old floors, which might otherwise have made huge bonfires on building sites. He mourns the fact that acres of good hard wood are still being burnt every day. These planks and beams came from trees that grew far higher and were much taller when cut than today. Their wood is irreplaceable. But progress is being made: the days when entire 17th-century panelled rooms were thrown on to skips have passed.

And a Kay campaign recently has been responsible for halting, at least temporarily, a European protocol that would have turned millions of old bricks into motorway rubble. The protocol seeks to establish an EU-wide agreed stress-bearing level for bricks. If accepted, it would become impossible to continue re-using old bricks. His long-term aim is to save all the 2.5 billion bricks that are destroyed annually in Britain. Meanwhile, we make 3.5 billion new bricks a year (and to manufacture 10 bricks uses the energy equivalent of a gallon of petrol).

Kay and Hazel are passionate about many things. They hate leaving old buildings empty: "It is an invitation," says Kay, "like leaving a Porsche in an inner-city area. It is bound to get nicked or stripped." Better, he says, to have squatters than leave a building completely unattended.

He is no fan of the National Trust. "It has an overload of fine mansions, many of them still being lived in by their original owners. We have effectively nationalised the landed gentry and created pastiches of these places, stuffing them with antiques. It's costing a fortune, when these buildings should be used for some good purposes."

But he doesn't think that everything should be saved. His views on, for example, war memorials are controversial. "There should be a proper debate. But I don't think we should keep looking back. It's one thing to keep memorials for their craftsmanship, quite another to cling on to all these things at any cost. We should let the memory subside. I know a situation where a war memorial was sold to the Japanese for a night-club. They turned it around so the names were on the back."

And what about those Welsh chapels? "I know someone who has got an intact church," he says. "So what is to happen to it? Would you rather see it, intact, crated up and sold to the Japanese and re-erected in a theme park for Christian weddings or would you like it broken down and used locally in kitchens and gardens?"

Kay is pessimistic about the future. "It seems that we will be spending more and more resources storing more and more possessions. I am not acquisitive and it may well be a positive advantage in the future to have parents who die leaving nothing behind to deal with." However, he sees Britain returning to pre-war traditions, when material from old buildings was re-used. "The period from 1950 to the 1980s was the exception, not the rule," he argues. And he is excited about innovative ideas for re-using goods. So, for example, he details how timber from one old building is being used to build reproduction Victorian pine dressers in Cornwall. A big market has grown up, thanks partly to Salvo, in "saggas", the old pots into which china was placed when it was fired. And he is currently offering, as part of his business, a "recycling audit" to demolition companies, demonstrating what can be saved from particular buildings.

The big breakthrough, he says, will be when modern architects think about recycling as they design new buildings. He is furious that the Millennium Dome is not being built with materials that can be reclaimed. "Architects have to accept that their buildings may last only for 20 or 30 years," he says. "They have to think of using materials that can be used again, long after their creations are just rubble."

Salvo can be contacted at 18 Ford Village, Berwick-upon-Tweed, Northumberland, TD15 2QG (01890 820333), and on its website: http://www.salvo.co.uk

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