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No more winters out on the tiles

ENGLISH HERITAGE is trying to find a high-technology method of preserving some of the oldest floor covering in the country, writes Nuala Moran.

It has set up a 12-month project to devise a winter blanket to protect the 700-year-old tiled floor at Byland Abbey from the ravages of the North Yorkshire weather.

The tiles have been covered up during the winter ever since they were discovered under soil and rubble in the 1920s and 1930s, but this has not prevented frost damage. Electronic sensors have now been installed around the abbey to monitor temperature and atmospheric conditions, and assess the effectiveness of different coverings.

''We already know that polythene is unsuitable because water gets trapped underneath and causes a build-up of algae on the tiles,' said Dr Jennie Stopford of York University, who is leading the project.

The tiles originally covered the entire floor of the abbey church, which was founded by Cistercian monks in 1177. The 600,000 individual pieces were laid in the 13th century and were in use until the dissolution of the monasteries in the 16th century. The surviving tiles are said to be the finest in Europe still in their original setting.

Apart from protecting the tiles from frost, the blanket must be heavy enough to resist the strong winds in the area and to deter thieves. Dr Stopford will also be studying the way in which the tiles decay to try to find ways of preserving them. During the winter some of the tiles turn black around the edges and this will be analysed.

'The tiles have only been exposed to the elements relatively recently, but photographs show the extent to which they have deteriorated since then,' said Dr Stopford. When discovered, the tiles were covered with bracken from the surrounding moors to protect them in winter, but as bracken produces acid this approach may have precipitated the deterioration.

Dr Stopford said it would be impossible to completely halt the deterioration of the tiles because the clay surface is porous, leaving the tiles open to damage by atmospheric pollution. There is also everyday wear and tear as visitors to the site tread on them.

Guardians of other monuments exposed to harsh weather may also benefit from the research. A winter covering devised for the tiles might also be applied, for example, to the protection of grave markers.

(Photograph omitted)