The secret Minton tiles of St Wilfrid's Parish Church in Davenham (with audio)

PUBLISHED: 08:35 05 September 2010 | UPDATED: 17:48 20 February 2013

Sam and Helen Gardner with the restored floor

Sam and Helen Gardner with the restored floor

An important piece of Cheshire history, kept under wraps for decades, has been restored to its former glory with a little help from a couple from Hartford<br/>WORDS BY EMMA MAYOH<br/>MAIN PHOTOGRAPHY BY JOHN COCKS

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Pull back the carpet in some buildings and you might find the clashing colours and bold prints of a 1960s linoleum. If youre lucky, you might uncover wooden floorboards that can be brought back to life with a healthy dose of sanding and elbow grease.

But when Reverend Martyn Cripps, rector at St Wilfrids Parish Church in Davenham, pulled back a shabby carpet covering the chancel floor, he uncovered a piece of Cheshire history.

Hidden beneath was a floor constructed with encaustic tiles made by renowned Stoke-on-Trent potter Herbert Minton and laid by prestigious architect John Douglas, who lived in nearby Sandiway.

Douglas was responsible for work on the Duke of Westminsters vast Eaton estate, he designed Chesters iconic Eastgate Clock and he worked on commissions for some of Cheshires most established families.

And between 1870 and 1873 he redesigned the interior of St Wilfrids, filling it with Gothic features. This included the tiled floor in the chancel.
Reverend Cripps said: I thought wow. To discover the history of it and how it would have been constructed was very special. To know it was put together by Douglas and Minton tiles is just incredible and it has been covered up for at least 50 years.

It has been the job of Sam and Helen Gardner, who run Cheshire Restoration Services, to bring the chancel floor back to its original condition. The Hartford couple are used to working on original Victorian floors in homes and buildings around the north west, including the Southern Cemetery in Manchester. But they admitted this one was special.

Sam, a former engineer, said: We were absolutely blown away when we first saw it. It was so beautiful and carried such significance. A lot of work needed to be done and it was in a dirty condition but it is rare to see a floor so intact.

The fact it had been covered up all those years meant there was so much potential for it. The floor is early 1870s but it was probably installed when the church was renovated as part of Douglas Gothic revival. It was a real find and the fact the tiles were Minton make it particularly special.

The couple spent two weeks on their hands and knees piecing together damaged and broken tiles from the floor, restoring the colours and cleaning away the years of oil and wax that would have been used to clean the floors in Victorian times. They also had to try to remove marks left by the carpet that had been covering it. But their hard work has been worth it.

Helen, who used to be the managing director of a media company, said: To have that many encaustic tiles is very unusual. We felt very lucky to be able to work on the floor.

This restoration was about our passion for what we do and the privilege of being able to work on such a fine example. We are very proud of it.
For Reverend Cripps, the floor was the second of two important finds at the church. A decorated panel that has been used to cover a table in the chancel was discovered to have huge historical significance.

It had started to look a bit tired so members of the Mothers Union made a new one to replace it. The old one was folded and kept in the corner of the vestry. But then it was discovered there was something very special about this piece of tapestry.

Reverend Cripps explained: It had been removed from the chancel but then the diocese came along and said because it was Victorian we couldnt just remove it. I got some restoration people to come and look at it and they discovered it wasnt Victorian at all. It dated back to the 16th century and was a national treasure.

Its got real gold in it and it was sent off to the Queens restorers around three years ago. It will take five years to restore. When they looked at it they found pins in it from the original seamstresses.

I didnt really appreciate how special St Wilfrids was as a church. I had been based at incredible churches in Salisbury, Guernsey and Oxford and when I first came here I took it for granted. But what a surprise it has given me. This really is a special place.

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