The Wellcome Trust Genome Campus has put Hinxton firmly on the map of gene sequencing worldwide. Creating an independent research facility was a unique endeavour for the Wellcome Trust, and one that created some special challenges. Alongside the provision of modern research facilities, the contractors also faced the challenging task of restoring a dilapidated eighteenth-century mansion and its outbuildings, while converting it into a modern conference centre. There were additional surprises along the way including the unexpected appearance of some of Hinxton's more ancient residents.
The Hinxton estate, with its Hall and 95 acres of parkland, lies on the banks of the River Cam, which also flows through the old university city of Cambridge, nine miles to the north. The link is fitting, as the first recorded owner of the estate, in 1506, was the college of Michaelhouse in Cambridge. However the first building on the site was a modest hunting and fishing lodge, erected in the early eighteenth century by Captain Joseph Richardson of Horseheath. Hinxton was a perfect location for a gentleman's retreat as the estate ponds were well stocked with trout and the fields were alive with partridge.
A family home was first built on the site by John Bromwell Jones in 1748, and the central three-storey block of the existing Hall is from this period. An acquaintance of Captain Richardson fondly recollected time spent at Hinxton: "[As] Cpt. Richardson's small box was built by him for a private retreat and for a fishing retirement ... his friend always styled it Trout Hall. When he [Bromwell Jones] rebuilt it, he had the figure of a large trout carved in stone and placed over the door." The Trout plaque can still be seen today from the garden. At this time, Hinxton Hall was an integral part of the village, lying at the southernmost end of its high street - the road that ran from Cambridge to Saffron Walden in the south. Opposite the house were some fine stables, a well-tended kitchen-garden and an orchard, all of which survive today, albeit in altered form.
By the 1830s, the estate had been enlarged and enclosed, and Hinxton High Street diverted around the parkland to take the route it follows today. New north and south wings provided two additional parlours, and later a library was added to the front of the north wing. In 1831, the resident family announced the completion of their fashionable new Pompeiian parlour, a room richly decorated with Roman-style frescos and murals. As the Hall passed through the hands of a variety of owners, a north extension was constructed to house a kitchen, offices and extra bedrooms necessary to meet the requirements of the growing estate. The 'Pleasure Grounds' were immaculate and boasted an extensive collection of ornamental shrubs and trees. Flower beds were planted, and gravel paths laid for the owners to stroll by the lakes. By 1860, the Hinxton estate incorporated around 13 acres of parkland and the Hall was a country home its residents - the Green family - could be proud of.
By the turn of the century the Greens had vacated the estate and in 1920 it passed into the hands of the Robinson family. The Robinsons were survived by their two daughters, Rita and Laura, who had distinguished careers as army nurses in the First World War. The sisters remained in a flat at the top of the Hall when it was used for billeting American soldiers, stationed at the local airbase at Duxford (now part of the Imperial War Museum), during the Second World War. Finally in 1953, the Hall and grounds were sold to Tube Investments plc, which erected research laboratories in the grounds and converted the Hall into office space. In the late 1980s, the company closed its laboratories and the site was purchased by Capital and Counties plc who had ambitious plans for a business park - a venture that never got off the ground. At this time, John Sulston and Wellcome Trust staff were looking for temporary accommodation for the new sequencing centre; Hinxton was an ideal choice, and so late in 1992, the Wellcome Trust became the new 'landlord' of Hinxton. Since then, the Trust has been fortunate enough to purchase some 1400 acres surrounding the Hall from the Robinson family, thus increasing the Trust's investment in the area.
With impressive efficiency, the metallurgy labs were restyled to those more suited to molecular biology and its first new occupants moved in during March 1993. By the end of the year there were over 80 staff on site and space was tight. However, Murray Cairns, Head of Corporate Services at the then Sanger Centre and the first man on site, recalls: "The old building, for all its inadequacies (like being boiled in summer and frozen in winter) had the advantages of being a highly flexible structure that could readily accommodate the changing demands of both the science and the increasing staff numbers. It was also a very friendly community; you just couldn't help but bump into everybody."
Where ancient feet once walked
Before a larger and more modern research facility could be built, an archaeological survey had to be conducted to comply with planning regulations. As Murray Cairns recalls, "About a dozen people turned up and started digging holes everywhere. We thought nothing of it. Then all of a sudden they were leaping about in excitement and, before we knew it, a bulldozer had stripped off the topsoil and huge trenches were dug. "Building was halted, and four-and-a-half months and £250,000 later, archaeologist Paul Spoerry and a team of 25 workers from the Archaeological Field Unit of Cambridgeshire County Council had uncovered evidence of Hinxton's oldest residents.
The Hinxton estate has always had untapped potential for archaeologists. The fertile valley of the River Cam, with its chalk and gravel deposits, would have made it an attractive habitat for ancient communities. A medieval road from Hinxton to Great Chesterford, a Roman town lying a mile due south, ran through the site and so it was likely that satellite settlements, or at least their remains, might be scattered along its length. Furthermore, as the private park had been protected from deep ploughing (an intensive farming practice adopted after the Second World War), any archaeological remains would have been left intact. It was a rare opportunity and the archaeologists were not left disappointed.
Ancient feet had, indeed, once trod upon Hinxton's soil. The archaeologists excavated a number of pits, including a deep chalk shaft, which indicated that our ancestors from the Neolithic period (4400-2000 BC) had once worked in the area. The function of the pit is unknown, although early Bronze-age residents, several hundred years later adopted it as a ritual site and filled it with bits of finely decorated beakers. The prehistoric visitors might have worked in the area, as traces of flint were retrieved from a number of natural ponds; however there is no indication that they lived on the site.
The real excitement was generated when the archaeologists came across the tell-tale signs of an Anglo-Saxon settlement, right in the middle of the proposed construction site. With the assistance of carbon dating, and knowledge of the structure of more intact Saxon sites elsewhere, the archaeologists were able to trace the changing fortunes of this homestead occupied over 1000 years ago. From what the archaeological team can make out, Anglo-Saxon residents in the sixth to seventh centuries AD had at least four huts, known in the trade as sunken-featured buildings or grubenh user ('grubbing houses'), on the site.
All that remains of these crude buildings are the shallow pits that formed the floor and the two holes that held roof supports. In some houses, a suspended floor might have kept the workers off the ground and, inadvertently created a repository for small fragments of Saxon life: a collection of doughnut-shaped loom weights made of unfired clay and some exquisitely carved and polished needles and pin beaters (for keeping weaving threads separate), suggest that the Saxons wove fabrics in the huts. A cache of burnt flax seeds, the largest find in the country make it likely that linen was made, although wool would also have been woven. Family members, and their servants or serfs, would have lived in timber halls, some of which were up to 12 metres long. All that remains of these buildings are the post holes that outline the walls.
Over the later stages of Saxon occupation of Hinxton (around AD 900-1200), there were several successive rebuildings of the main hall and huts, and a ditch was dug around the settlement to provide security, possibly some drainage, and a means to control livestock. Analysis of seeds suggests that wheat, rye, barley, oats, peas, beans and flax were grown, while bone fragments of cows, sheep, pigs and the odd goose indicate the range of domestic livestock on the settlement. It was a thriving community; new wells and cesspits were dug over the years, drying ovens and cooking pits were built, and a building, possibly a kitchen, was constructed outside the enclosure. Even before excavation had begun, the physical biography of the Saxon community had been identified by a magnetometer survey which can detect the presence of iron oxides left by the residents.
The excavation provided a wealth of interesting artefacts. A bone comb, a section of a musical wind instrument called a drone (a part of a bagpipe-like instrument), and the finely decorated pieces of the boardgame tabula (the forerunner of modern backgammon) provide insight into the personal Saxon world. A particularly precious find was a walrus-ivory sword handle, the first of its kind excavated in this country which had probably originated in Scandinavia. The dig also unearthed a couple of mysteries. Why was a woman buried alone in a grave outside the enclosure, rather than in the communal burial ground which has still to be located? And who broke the large Ipswich-ware pot and placed it carefully at the bottom of a pit?
Yet, for all the evidence of life, the settlement was abandoned by the thirteenth century. The face of rural England was radically changed by the Norman conquest in 1066, and the imposition of feudalism. By then the emergence of Christianity (sixth to seventh centuries AD) had already started focusing rural communities around parish churches; the conquest probably accelerated the creation of the modern 'nucleated' village. However the modern community of Hinxton still bears the mark of its ancient roots: 'Hinxton' is Anglo-Saxon for 'Hengest's farm'.
It is clear that the project stirred the imagination of locals as well as the archaeologists. Project manager Paul Spoerry was caught delving into our muddy past by local Radio Cambridgeshire personality Chris South. The site was opened to the public before the foundations of the new Sanger Centre were started, and over 1300 visitors came to have a final look before the site was given back to the scientists, to let them start building the foundations of our genetic future.
The frustrations of renovations
Pride of place in Hinxton Hall itself is the Pompeiian parlour, a room decorated in classic Roman style, a rare find in the UK, and one reason why Hinxton Hall is a Grade II* listed building and protected by legislation. With the discovery of the Pompeiian room frescos, the Wellcome Trust carried out changes to the building as sympathetically as possible in the appropriate style, using authentic materials, and mindful of the original structure of the Hall. They thus sought expert advice and approval from English Heritage and the local authority -South Cambridgeshire District Council.
When Tube Investments took over the estate such restrictions were not in place, and the company had been at liberty to change whatever it wanted. Architects Sheppard Robson and building contractors Bovis were thus faced with a major rescue bid. Fortunately because of Tube Investments interest in metals, the original tiled roof had been stripped and replaced with one of corrugated steel that had successfully protected the Hall from the worst of the water damage. However the builders' first task was to strip the roof and re-tile it, for which they 'gift-wrapped' the scaffolds in waterproof sheeting to shield them from the East-Anglian wind and rain. Inside, electric fireplaces and ugly 1970s light fittings were removed, and temporary doors and walls ripped out until only the original shell remained. From here, repair work could begin in earnest.
Extravagance and eccentricities
Restoration of the Hall did not come without its headaches and a number of unforeseen additional costs. Rejuvenating the Pompeiian room alone took art restorer Pauline Plummer and her team of highly skilled craftspeople around 14 months, an endeavour for which the Trust carried an additional £150,000 expense. While cleaning the south wing, the chance removal of a strip of wallpaper revealed a lime green rococo motif, which an expert in paint analysis, summoned from the Victoria and Albert Museum, confirmed was authentic.
More preservation work was thus required, and the final product is the lime dining room - a contrast to the frenzied colours of the Pompeiian room. Alerted to the possibility that the Hall might disclose yet more decorative features, particular care was taken with the other rooms. The large central room was found to be decorated with imitation wooden panelling and was emblazoned with various coats of arms. This theme extended to the foyer and some wonderfully detailed wallpaper was uncovered. However the original decor was thought to be too dark and heavy and the local authority eventually agreed to having ft cleaned, protected, and covered over with a lighter paint, deemed to be more suitable decor for the twenty-first century conference attendee.
The relevance of one of the coats of arms was established when a match was found on a memorial plaque - called a hatchment - in the local parish church. Above the hatchment reads, "In loving memory of Edward Henry Green de Freville, late of Hinxton Hall, Cambridgeshire ... and of Henrietta Elizabeth Green his mother". However the coat of arms is of the de Freville family, not that of the Greens. Why the name change?
The history books record that Hinxton Hall passed from Edward Green to his son Edward Humphrys Green in 1834 and it was the latter who adopted the surname de Freville. Edward Humphrys was particularly fascinated with his lineage, especially after inheriting the de Freville family home - Shelford Manor - in 1850. The de Freville manor had originally been granted to Sir Richard de Freville, a descendant of Bernard de Freville who was known to have been a companion of William the Conqueror. Edward Humphrys Green was so enamoured with his notorious connections that he requested that his cousin, Edward Henry Green, adopt the de Freville name on his death - this Edward Henry obediently did. However tenuous the link these aspirations of noble lineage may well have prompted the Green family to decorate their home in this baronial style.
All in the name of fashion
More unexpectedly inspiration for the interior decoration of the other main function room of the house came from further afield. The reverberations from the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79 continued to be felt, at least in the art world, centuries later. When the ruins of the city of Pompeii were dug from the ashes in 1738, the art world drew breath at the exquisite murals and frescos that adorned the walls of the city's villas. This classical style became a favoured form of decoration by 1800, and is the style that Pauline Plummer and colleagues have so lovingly re-created in the Pompeiian room at Hinxton Hall.
The Pompeiian room was first recorded when the Hall passed into the hands of Tube Investments in 1953. The company had covered the walls with a purple flock wallpaper leaving two small aluminium 'windows' for interested visitors to catch a glimpse of the murals beneath. However neither the Trust nor Pauline Plummer had guessed the full extent of what remained. As she recalls, "It was a bit of a gamble; we just didn't know what would lie underneath. So, we were astonished to find that a lot of the paintings remained intact." However many of the murals had been severely damaged by damp. At certain places on the wall only the shadows of the original paintings - ghosts of Roman figures - remained. At times art restoration is akin to police detective work the whole scene had to be pieced together from just a few scraps of evidence. Pauline Plummer scoured art books in a search for clues to the missing sections: a rump of a horse and fragment of a scarf looked similar to that of a Pompeiian engraving; the centaur above the door bore a strong resemblance to that of a painting she remembered hanging in Stowe school.
Pauline Plummer made good use of a large folder of photographs of original Pompeiian art work to generate suitable topics for the more badly damaged areas. The Romans' appreciation of nature is echoed in her own interpretations: a glass bowl filled with fruit, a mischievous fox, a startled hare, and a proud rooster all alive and vibrant. Gaps in the lower frieze were filled with some of our own native birds - a goldfinch and a mistle thrush - although the Romans favoured more exotic African animals such as lions, tigers and elephants. For some bizarre reason, at some point in the room's history all the images of cats in the murals had been blacked out; Pauline Plummer has subsequently freed them from their prison of paint.
The focal point of the room would have been the two figures on the north wall, but these had been covered with red paint perhaps by a previous owner affronted at the nudity Pauline Plummer guessed that one was Apollo, the sun god. She chose Diana as a suitable partner and sketched her from a statue held in the Louvre in Paris. Along the north wall, she added four Roman maids, each representing one of the four seasons, in the style of Roman mythology.
The artist behind this Regency decorative extravaganza is unknown. Pauline Plumber first thought that the Craces – a family of artists well known for their historic re-creations – might have been involved. Their handiwork can be seen in places such as Buckingham Palace and Brighton Pavillion. Ickworth Hall in Suffolk also has a Pompeiian room fashioned by the Crace family. However experts think that the style at Hinxton is distinctly different and potentially the work of another artist (or artists). Whoever the creator was, the amount of work involved would have been little less for those who were originally commissioned , then it would have been for the Trust to have it restored. The house owners were indeed quick to boast of it’s completion in the local paper. Pauline Plummer muses, "We can only guess why they had it done. Perhaps it was to celebrate a marriage, or the arrival of a new family member." A pair of distinctly English aces painted on one wall may hold the clue. Although we can continue to puzzle over why the room was so decorated, its restoration offers visitors to the Hall a rare show of Regency extravagance.
Tricks with bricks and mortar
Repairing any old home can be a challenge, let alone one that was built over 200 years ago. Legislation stipulates that identical or closely matched materials should be used for repairs, a requirement that greatly complicated the rebuilding process. Gaps in the garden walls, for instance, could not be filled by modern bricks but needed a combination of five different types; when weathered the mixture of bricks should blend in better with the 'look' of the older sections of wall. Many interior walls needed replastering and the recipe for a traditional horse-hair plaster had to be concocted. It is tricky stuff to make: too little horse hair and the plaster falls away; too much and the walls look hairy. The solution was largely a case of trial and error although having skilled craftsmen was invaluable. A feature of Hinxton Hall common in country houses is tuck pointing - the thin white line of putty embedded in the mortar to give the bricks a sharper finish. This was an expensive and time-consuming decorative effect, and the builders compromised by finishing only the north and south wings; the central block is noticeably darker in the absence of this finishing. The tuck pointing, along with the interior decoration, suggest that the family had wanted to create a quality home in this rural location - a reflection of their financial status.
A striking addition to the stables are the two Islamic-styled towers. Far from a thoughtless addition, they were cleverly engineered into the basic structure of the stables, and the original wooden beams can still be seen from inside the new conference centre. Continuing in the tradition of the Hall, the stylish tower carries a weather vane in the shape of a trout.
Refurbishing the old laboratories, and constructing the new, let alone overseeing a unit of high-tech research laboratories, a country house, 55 acres of parkland and two fish ponds, created a number of headaches for site administrators Murray Cairns and Jane Rogers. A plague of rabbits and moles, trees felled by gale-force winds, an overly people-friendly buzzard and a drying lake full of carp "swimming on their sides" were among the unexpected problems the pair have faced during the creation of the Campus.
Marrying the old with the new
In the course of the renovations, the stables have been converted into 'rustic' seminar rooms, and a 300-seat auditorium has been built inside the kitchen-garden. An ancient mulberry tree has been uprooted and relocated to make room for this conference facility. Where fruit once hung on vines, posters can now hang in the cloisters built against the kitchen-garden walls. A new seminar room to the west of the building overlooks the orchard and parkland. The architects have taken great pains not to mimic the old, but to construct distinctly new additions; thus, if necessary it will be an easy task to remove the modern components to leave the restored, older shell intact.
A stroll through the rooms of Hinxton Hall today is evocative of times when it was an elegant country house, rather than the hub of an international high-tech project. The gardens have been carefully landscaped by Elizabeth Banks Associates to preserve the flavour of their past glory. A lakeside path offers staff and visitors an attractive perspective of the Hall and modern research facilities. The Wellcome Trust hopes too that local residents will make full use of parkland beyond the lakes, and perhaps occasionally challenge the staff of the Sanger Institute to a game of cricket on the new pitch within the estate.
Thus, the Hall will continue to be a focus of interest for local people, as it has been for decades.