Engineering and design student insights

Student projects, placements, research and study experiences in the Faculty of Engineering & Design

Topic: Department of Architecture & Civil Engineering

Imagining the Forest

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📥  Department of Architecture & Civil Engineering, Student projects

Author: Emily Johnson

Between the 12th and 18th of June, structures began to sprout out of the ground at Bushey Norwood.

Within the week, four pavilions were designed and constructed on the National Trust site by a group of Architecture and Civil Engineering students, to be used in the Forest of Imagination festival which took place at the end of June. The festival takes place every year in Bath, but this year the challenge was to bring it to the top of Bathwick Hill, submerged in nature and separated from the town’s deep historical context.

The Run

With Harry Hewlett from FCB Studios, our group consisting of three 5th Year and three 1st Year Architecture students, as well as a 1st Year Civil Engineer student, were able to construct The Run. The project takes its name from the buttercup species of the field; the flowers evolved into the narrative for the project, exploring and exaggerating this datum to a human scale and submerging us in the overgrowth.

The Run - a structure from the Forest of Imagination

The Run

Imagining the Forest

The brief of our pavilion was flexible, provided it attracted and directed people to the top of the field where more events were being held. The process began with a site visit, where we were thrown into the middle of the field. Initially, the lack of context was daunting, and we found ourselves searching for a significant site connection to bring the project to life.

It wasn’t until we revisited the site when we saw the pavilion as more than a wayfinding tool, it was a chance to plant our own forest within the opening. This allowed the provided materiality to work in its raw form, felled timber from the forest on the site. We chose the trees with character - the wonkier the better - and used these as the vertical elements of the structure. The additional frames took more thought, focusing initially on framing views in the surroundings, but later evolving through sketches and modelling to provide a bench and deck for someone to inhabit. The pavilion wasn’t just a way finding tool, it was a rest point.

Building the Forest

Construction began by Wednesday, and the heat grew as the week went on. The horizontal frames were our first task, constructing them from sawn timber sourced off-site. By using a different wood to the columns for this element, their processing, or lack of, could be distinguished through hue. Once moved into place, the felled trees could be ‘replanted’, our structure forming around these natural elements. This was when colour was introduced to the structure, the initial idea being to mimic the datum created by the buttercups down at floor level. Though this was a bold move (one which I was initially unconvinced), it has a playful artificial quality you don’t expect on such an untouched site.

Once all the trees were steaked in place and the frames went up, not only did it provide us with a great resting place for a much-needed ice cream break, but an ideal opportunity to experience the pavilion. Laying down amongst the trees and looking up at the yellow against the blue sky imitates a bug’s view out of the grass, our surroundings being the nest that rose from the earth using our hands.

Reflecting on the Forest

This opportunity has been a chance of freedom in an education based on countless theoretical projects. Practicing at 1:1 gives an appreciation of scale and quantity of materials required to build something, as well as the manpower involved. Though the size of the pavilion is quantifiable, the experience has been incalculable. I would recommend doing this project to anyone, it’s a great addition to a portfolio, and gets us students away from the laptops we are constantly looking at in hope of inspiration, and out into the real world.

(That said, I resorted back to my laptop the week after. I made it a goal to learn Adobe Premiere during the summer, and I documented the process through film. The result can be seen above!)

Group members: Emily Johnson, Alice Mellor, Molly McGrath, Alice Kim, Jessica Lai, John Chan, Yimika Koya


A meeting of concrete geeks

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📥  Department of Architecture & Civil Engineering, Postgraduate

Who is a concrete geek: The concept of cement and concrete has been around for decades, one could even claim for millennia if Roman concrete is considered. Contrary to the common belief though, the long-standing presence of Portland cement in our lives isn’t analogous to our knowledge about it. Until the past century, when research started investigating cement’s intrinsic mechanisms, trial and error had been the only ways to manipulate its’ properties. Given its’ heterogeneous nature, there are still things to discover about the second most commonly used material in the world. All those then, who are fascinated by its potential and eager to unveil its secrets (including myself) are the ones to be called concrete geeks.


The meeting: This April I was given the opportunity to attend the “LC3 Doctoral School: Characterisation methods of blended cements” at École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne - EPFL. It took place at the Laboratory of Construction Materials, Department of Materials of EPFL and it was organised by the team of Professor Karen Scrivener, Head of the laboratory and Editor in Chief of Cement and Concrete Research. From the 3rd until the 6th of April, approximately 30 participants from all over the word, from both the industry and academia, were brought together. Their common interest: cement and concrete science.

How I got there: I wouldn’t have been present at this event, had it not been for the two organisations that supported me. One was the Institute of Minerals, Materials and Mining (IOM3) with the Andrew Carnegie Research Fund and the second was the Armourers & Brasiers Gauntlet Trust with the Travel Grant for PhD Students for Conferences and Industrial Placements.

Content of event: The Doctoral School was an intensive training course about cement and concrete science, including lectures and practical sessions. The lectures covered a wide range of topics including both scientific aspects of cement and concrete science as well as geo-economic factors affecting its use worldwide.

A topic that received a lot of attention was the use of material characterisation techniques for cement and concrete. Techniques such as X-ray diffraction (XRD), scanning electron microscopy (SEM) and mercury intrusion porosimetry (MIP) are commonly applied techniques for material characterisation. Although they are popular in a range of other fields, the intrinsic structure of cement makes it difficult to exploit their full potential. Therefore, appropriate application and interpretation is a burning issue in the research to obtain interpretable results. Other topics discussed were about common issues relating to concrete such as chemical shrinkage, creep, durability along with mitigation measures and principles of rheology and mix design.

The practical sessions took place at the facilities of the Department of Materials at EPFL. The sessions were hands-on and covered a range of techniques. More specifically, SEM and XRD for identification of cement hydration reaction products and calorimetry for investigation of reaction evolution. Also, methodologies for sample preparation for all these techniques, with special focus on samples for SEM, were demonstrated. During the practical sessions, the participants were given the opportunity to use the laboratory equipment and apply some of the demonstrated techniques themselves. Also, tours on the material preparation, concrete & structures and analysis laboratories took place. During those tours, the participants had the opportunity to discuss with PhD students, academic staff and technicians. This created an opportunity to explore areas of common interests and exchange research information. Finally, two events, a dinner and farewell lunch, provided additional opportunities for additional socialising amongst the organising team and the participants outside the course’s context.

My experience: The lecture “Cement and concrete in building worldwide” by Professor Karen Scrivener put in context how the earth mineralogy and geographic distribution of raw materials affect the use of cement and supplementary cementitious materials worldwide. Given the dispute about the environmental footprint of Portland cement, the availability of alternative supplementary materials is a burning issue in cement research.

The second session of lectures delivered by Professor Scrivener, “Cement hydration, kinetics of the reaction, aluminates & microstructure and final phases”, was an in-depth analysis of the hydration reaction of cement, the products and its kinetics. I found this lecture very beneficial and many of my questions were answered as I got a clearer understanding of the chemical processes I am investigating. Also, I had the opportunity to discuss some particularities of my own project and obtain valuable advice and material from the professor. Karen Scrivener is well renowned in the field of cement and concrete science for her research. Therefore, having the opportunity to discuss with her, opened new horizons for my work.

Two sessions that proved very beneficial for my project were the lectures “X-ray diffraction applied to cement” by Dr Ruben Snellings and “Porosity and microstructure characterisation” by Francois Avet. In the latter, the use of mercury intrusion porosimetry (MIP) and scanning electron microscopy (SEM) for cement and concrete were discussed. Dr Snellings has been awarded the 2016 Gustavo Colonnetti Medal for his contribution to the field construction materials, while François Avet is now completing his PhD research in cement characterisation at EPFL. As mentioned above, the application of such techniques in the context of concrete is a matter needing attention. Given that the nature of the system I am investigating is much more complex than common concrete systems, I had the opportunity to discuss aspects of my project and get advice on how to manipulate the techniques to overcome the barriers I am facing.

The rest of the lectures, “Shrinkage and creep” by Julien Ston, “Concrete Durability” by Dr Hamed Maragheschi about deterioration reactions occurring in concrete elements (carbonation, chloride attack & alkali silica reaction) and “Rheology and Mix design” by Dr Aurelie Favier, were very enlightening. All the presenters were willing to share their knowledge, discuss aspects of my project relating to their field of expertise, provide advice and reading material or even establish communication with members of their team.

On top of the actual training, the opportunity to interaction with the rest of the participants helped broaden my view. The diversity of backgrounds, various places around the word and the mix of academics and professionals made the interaction very interesting and fruitful. We were given the opportunity to discuss about grounds of common interest, diversity of methodologies and approaches and of course exchange advice (as proper concrete geeks would do).

Outcome: Overall, I could conclude that I am very grateful to be given the opportunity to take part in the LC3 Doctoral School at EPFL. I had the opportunity to meet well renowned experts in my field, interact with people sharing the same interest and problems, get introduced to different perspectives and finally enrich my knowledge. The benefits are not to be counted only in terms of knowledge but also the opportunity to prepare the ground for future collaborations and develop as a researcher through the exchange of information with my peers.



The Destruction of Memory

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📥  Department of Architecture & Civil Engineering, Postgraduate

Why is architectural heritage targeted in war? And what can we do to protect it? Based on the book by architecture critic Robert Bevan, The Destruction of Memory reveals the destruction wrought by instances of cultural genocide across the world. Through exploring contemporary struggles, including the ongoing actions of Daesh (ISIS) in the Levant, this film shows you both the war against culture, and the battle to save it.

On the evening of Tuesday 2nd May, ACE Society hosted around 30 students and staff in the Level 2 Studios of 4 East South to watch the film of “The Destruction of Memory” and discuss what it meant to us, personally and professionally.

Rebuilding of Ferhadija Mosque, Banja Luka, Bosnia & Herzegovina. Image: Derek Wiesehahn. Copyright 2016 Vast Productions USA

Rebuilding of Ferhadija Mosque, Banja Luka, Bosnia & Herzegovina.
Image: Derek Wiesehahn.
Copyright 2016 Vast Productions USA

We were fortunate to be joined by some special guests – Tim Judah, a reporter for the Economist on and author of several books on Balkans history; Ammar Azzouz, a trained architect and Bath alumnus from Homs in Syria, currently working for Arup in London; Ivan Gololobov and David Clarke, who teach and research in Russian and German Studies respectively, from Bath’s POLIS department.

After we’d watched the film and had a timely drinks and snacks intermission, we shared our perspectives on the film. This ranged from the historical, political and aesthetic, including some moving anecdotes of personal experience.

The following discussion was broad and challenging. We shared personal experiences of living and visiting cities recently shaped by conflict, and sought to answer the larger questions too. Will future generations inevitably repeat the crimes of the past? Is international law equipped to deal with these crimes? What is the balance in urban reconstruction between commemoration and moving on? There were few simple answers to be had, but much was learned in how to understand these complex situations – both as professional designers, and as human individuals.

The documentary unfolds in the crit bays of 4 East South.

The documentary unfolds in the crit bays of 4 East South.

We would like to thank the Dept of Architecture & Civil Engineering and the Edge Arts Community for funding and supporting this event, as well as our special guests for their time. It was an educational and thoughtful evening – a reminder that being the best designers and engineers is as much about listening as it is about speaking.


Passive House For All

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📥  Department of Architecture & Civil Engineering, Please categorise your post

Passive House for all

The 2017 international Passive House conference was set against a backdrop of reducing carbon emissions in Europe and the need to divest from fossil fuels to meet both national and local targets. Energy efficiency is key to this and passive house standards for both new build and existing buildings were proposed as the benchmark for domestic and non-domestic dwellings

The conference theme was ‘passive house for all’, and ‘all’ had many strands and meanings, some of which were less apparent, but may in the end have the greatest impact on the passive house movement.

‘Passive house for all’ meant many climates, and examples were given from the very cold  to warm and humid climates. Each had their own the challenges, in cold climates PHPP is sensitive to very small changes to insulation and thermal bridges, in warm and humid countries delivering cooling and moisture extract are the priorities. The presentations showed that the passive house standard is applicable and achievable in all these situations and that solutions and products are developing to meet these challenges such as a theoretical MVHR unit that will extract heat and moisture from warm humid dwellings and use this heat to create hot water.

‘Passive house for all’ also means delivery at scale, moving from a niche market to district wide developments. The EU funded project Sinfonia supports Germany’s targets of reducing fossil fuel reliance. (interestingly Germany’s priority is to remove nuclear power from the grid before coal and gas). This can only be achieved though wide scale deep retrofit projects to existing dwellings. Deep retrofit was the only solution as undertaking moderate refurbishment risked ‘locking in’ less energy efficient components and interventions which may require further upgrading later, or worse not be improved upon for cost reasons.

Delivering at scale also means building bigger, and several examples of high rise multi-family dwellings were given, both new build and retrofit. Here the challenges are very different.

How do you test the air tightness of a whole building containing 352 new apartments when the plasterboard is being installed on the ground floors before the airtightness work has been completed on the upper floors? The answer was to create zones to test sections, this gave confidence to the air tightness strategy and allowed for modifications to be implemented through the build.

Building at scale will also impact on the choice of services, 352 MVHR units means 704 punctuations in the building envelope, so centralised systems make better sense for air tightness, and release precious floor area in individual apartments, which in cities like New York is critical. However, in existing buildings the layouts may mean that individual heating and ventilation systems may be needed, especially in buildings were there is mixed tenure, i.e. tenants and leaseholders. An example was given of in-wall MVHR units which are suitable for small homes and apartments.

In Austria where many apartment blocks have external render this could be used as an external air tight layer, which avoids complex detailing at intermediate floors. A new product which was yet to go into production was demonstrated, which could test the air tightness of external render before any insulation is added to ensure that it is sound and suitable for creating the air barrier.

The main positive from the conference was how much more widespread passive house is becoming and how a standard, that was designed for the German climate, is being adapted and developed so that is it applicable in a wide range of climates, countries and building types.

The negative, many of the buildings are still being developed as prototypes, with people learning on the job, many presenters said they would not do now, what they did in the examples they were giving. The challenge to try and overcome this so that knowledge and training includes practical solutions to common problems to prevent each building being a ‘first’.

'Passive House for all'  presents a challenge to the Passive House Institute who manage the standard and the brand. If ‘all’ means global adoption, it is likely that different countries may have different approaches. The US already talk in BTUs and R values rather than kWh and U values and China may create its own relevant standards. Worldwide adoption has many advantages, look at the PV industry where prices have fallen, access to cost effective components would remove many of the barriers to passive house, however maintaining quality is key and ensuring that the rigor which means that a certified passive house will deliver on its design intent, is maintained

image from

Image from


Drilling into polyurethane foam


📥  Department of Architecture & Civil Engineering, Postgraduate

Continuing my investigation into the properties of both low and high density polyurethane foams and their suitability for 3D printing, the drilling resistance of test specimens was measured. Interfaces are a crucial element in 3D printing and the aim of the drilling was to discover if there was a change in the density of cured foam at interfaces and moulded boundaries.

Two types of rectangular block specimens were used:

Cut-edged specimens with an interface: The liquid components were poured into a tray in two stages. Enough liquid was poured in to expand and occupy half of the tray volume and once fully cured, a second quantity of foam liquid was poured on top of the cured layer.
Moulded one-layered specimens: the two liquid components were mixed and poured into moulds to expand and cure. Enough liquid was poured in to fully occupy the volume, therefore no internal interfaces were present in these specimens.
Drilling resistance was measured using a Sint Technology Cordless Drilling Resistance Measurement System. The position of the drill bit was linked to a software program to continuously record the force required to advance the penetration of the moving bit through the foam. Specimens were placed into position and clamped as pictured.


The results showed that the material was higher in density at interfaces and moulded boundaries, with the difference being most pronounced in the low density, high expanding foam – up to approximately ten times as dense. Drilling into polyurethane foam was an interesting and entirely new experience, with the drill gliding effortlessly though low density foam and the high density foam putting up a little bit more of a struggle!


Questions and answers on the Basil Spence project

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📥  Department of Architecture & Civil Engineering, Student projects, Undergraduate

Author: Emma Moberg

In his introduction to this project, Martin reminded us that “vision without action is a day dream”, and similarly, “action without vision is a nightmare”. Even though I thought it fairly apparent at the time, I would in hindsight say that we have experienced quite a bit of both. The real lows such as the heartbreak of a cracked concrete model or a fatal computer crash, were all eventually overcome. I think the essential trait to our team has been our persistence; continuing to question and experiment to push the scheme further. I believe that the project has not only taught us to ask the right questions, but also how to provide useful answers.

Our Method:
Physical Models
The One Sentence

A dialogue through models

Our scheme developed over eight weeks of questions and answers, and more questions, a process in which the models were key. Imagining and developing a building in a team of four can be challenging if the conversation takes place only in words. I found that arguments more often arose due to miscommunication than actual differences and disagreements. In order to lead a constructive design conversation and share ideas between us we have used a wealth of cardboard and foam models. Also a useful tool in all of the tutorials, acting as tangible objects of dialogue. The model making has been effective in terms of communication, but also to test and interrogate ideas. We detected flaws and made improvements through continuous material experimentation.

Towards the last stages, our cardboard models grew in scale and were eventually tested in plaster and concrete. We spent many days, even weeks, sawing formwork in the workshop, testing plaster pigment levels, cutting foam and pouring concrete in the lab. We learnt fantastic things from the skilful department staff; Walter, Miles and Eve, patiently guiding us through the hands-on making. Obvious as it may sound; by building our building again and again, we developed a clear and coherent material and structural strategy, tried and tested by the critical method. To me, the confidence that this rationale of physical evidence and tangible iterations provides, has been valuable.

One sentence to focus our design

Often during the project we would be asked to repeat the single sentence that defined our scheme. Our sentence was “A monument to Oxford’s literary heritage” and was decided in the second week. While a simple exercise, that sentence on the wall was helpful in decision making and reminded us of the initial motivation and foundation for our project. Our one core idea evolved and developed rather than drastically altered. Although we had many days of doubt and indecisiveness, we were always able to gather in consensus around that core sentence, and thereby drive the process forward.

The group dynamic

I am incredibly grateful to have been through this exact project with these exact people. The dynamic within the group has been exciting and invigorating; I do really believe that we have played on each other’s strengths towards an end product that is more confident, clear and thoughtful than any of us could have thought of on our own. And in turn, inherent to our building is Matt’s wonderful clarity of thought, Helen’s conviction and drive for the scheme, Zach’s patience and brilliance and my own continuous efforts to question, improve and imagine our scheme. After the blood, sweat, tears and sleep invested in this project I am glad to see our Basil Spence finally come together. And, I am proud of the work we presented, which I believe is a perfect culmination of all of our efforts and the methods we have learnt over the past three years in Bath.


Unity, confidence and persistence on the Basil Spence project

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📥  Department of Architecture & Civil Engineering, Student projects, Undergraduate

Author: Helen Needs

Unity of thought
Working together is the foundation on which the Basil Spence project is built. The integration of disciplines to create something inspiring is both an exciting and daunting prospect. Emma and Matt have been close friends since the beginning of university, and are now almost like brother and sister. My place in the team dynamic has occasionally been to balance this, trying to resolve slight tension by helping them realise they are often saying the same thing! We were incredibly lucky to have worked with Zach, our engineer, who shared our desire to create something more. He appreciated our architectural ambitions, and worked with us to enrich them with structural and environmental strategies which elevated the design to another level.

I think that throughout the project we have all endeavoured to not take the “easy way out” in any aspect. If ideas felt that their only justification was being the obvious, or easiest solution, we wouldn’t accept them. I think this unity of thought helped us create something with a truly strong concept, which stood the test of time - each of our moments of unwillingness to compromise has paid off. A new experience for me has been the sheer volume of models we have created during this project. As a bold initial move was the key to our design, considering its scale - modelling it from the outset was unavoidable. We tested any and every eventuality and suggestion given to us in tutorials, resulting in a rapid iterative process which allowed us to become comfortable with our scale and form. The process of making these models also meant that there have been very few instances where the team has not been “on the same page” with what we are trying to express.

Confidence to answer our critics

Throughout the project, my confidence has experienced true peaks and troughs, as has the confidence of the group as a whole. In week two our proposal began to be referred to by tutors and colleagues as something “bold”. A building of this scale, standing out amongst its context is not something I believe would have been any of our initial ideas had we been working alone. The reaction to this risk-taking approach was more often than not, positive and something we were commended for.

Whilst we were comfortable with the shape and form of the main building from the beginning there were a number of delays due to lack of confidence. This speck of doubt initially diluted our ideas and central concept. Throughout tutorials and discussions leading up to the interim review there was an “elephant in the room”, which surprisingly was not the large, bold main building. Each of us avoided designing these smaller modules - which were initially key to our concept. Just before the interim review these modules were removed from the proposal entirely. This move tested my confidence in the idea as a whole - however, it felt as though a weight had been lifted and allowed us to focus our efforts entirely on designing the central building. Our initial moves gained a positive reaction at the interim review, one major change to “tidy up” the diagram of our building was something we all agreed on. From here, there were more layers to add to achieve the level of detail we felt it required to reach its full potential - but it felt attainable.

As we planned our final critique, I was hit with a realisation of how deeply immersed we had become in the project. Going into the review I felt we would be able to guide the critics into elements of the design we felt best sold the proposal. Pushing and questioning each other and ourselves constantly meant when others asked questions - we had conviction in our answers.

Perseverance until the end

This was the longest project we have tackled so far in our university careers. It was an exciting prospect having the time to develop an idea so fully, but we've also needed perseverance. Once the idea of the “concrete box” was expressed, we universally agreed that some, or all of our models would ideally be concrete casts. The idea was beautiful, the reality was hours spent in the workshop, many failed attempts and ultimately - heartbreak. Creating formwork which we thought would be sturdy enough took days - only to have this be our downfall - the model could only be removed from its formwork by brute force. The concrete cracked, leaving us with only one or two intact fragments, the model was unsalvageable. Yet, we decided to pursue the goal of creating a casted model, just in a different medium. The end result perhaps was not as neat or accurate as we had envisioned, however the ceremony of opening it up during the review and revealing the spaces inside still achieved the desired effect and our time spent making it was worthwhile.

After experiencing the euphoria of winning the Basil Spence, knuckling down and ensuring all our thoughts and ideas were captured on our final report was a difficult process to begin. We had the well-known situation of “it’s all in our heads, we just need to draw it”. This week, having each focused on producing a section of the report, I have witnessed it come together into a piece of work I am immensely proud of and that I believe shows our scheme at its best - a place I would love to visit.


Everyday tales for country folk...


📥  Department of Architecture & Civil Engineering, Postgraduate


I have been a city dweller for most of my life but my early childhood was rural with a herd of Friesian cows as immediate neighbours and the woods closer than the village shops. With such a background, The Archers has always felt like catching up with old friends and it was a terrible shock when the village suffered a devastating flood in March 2015. Time was suspended, in Ambridge at least, as the events of a single night were dramatised over several episodes. After the waters subsided the causes and consequences of the flood continued to be explored, intensely at first then periodically, as the village recovered and reflected.

Individual and community stories can be a useful source of information for understanding flood events but need to be used with care to ensure that they do not compromise privacy, security or wellbeing. This makes a dramatised story, where the reactions and responses of fictional characters can be explored in detail, very useful as the basis for considering how resilience measures might be developed and deployed.

One aspect of the flood that has been revisited has been the involvement of a certain Rob Titchener. He had been implicated in blocking a culvert that contributed to the extent of the flooding; he had been reluctant to help with rescue then hailed a hero for his actions; and there was suspicion over his involvement in the fate of a dog, Scruff, as well as the later disappearance of a migrant worker, Stefan. These were woven in to the larger scenario of his coercive relationship with Helen Archer, which reached a shocking conclusion last year.

It was as this story played out, that I discovered Academic Archers - a forum where storylines were discussed not just for their entertainment value but by experts with an intellectual interest in the storylines. So when a call for papers to be presented at a second conference was made, just days after characters had been discussing the drying times of their properties near the River Am, I took a deep breath and submitted an abstract.

By fortuitous timing, the Flood Resilient House at BRE Watford was launched just a week before the conference. Speaking to assembled built environment and insurance professionals before opening the house, Emma Howard-Boyd, Chair of the Environment Agency, emphasised the need for personal responsibility and welcomed the project as an opportunity to demonstrate and test solutions.

BRE FR House

This provided some useful details and photographs to use in my talk alongside mapping from fan fiction.  The house also featured on BBC Countryfile the next day though I am not sure how many of the audience will have seen it as the first section (08:30-16:30) was during the Sunday evening episode of The Archers!

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