Sarah: Mistress of all she surveys

She helped build Norwich's Castle Mall, had her ceiling tiles rattled by fighter-planes and is now trying to stop rain ruining our historic treasures.

Steven Russell

She helped build Norwich's Castle Mall, had her ceiling tiles rattled by fighter-planes and is now trying to stop rain ruining our historic treasures. Life's not dull for Sarah Bowers, as Steven Russell discovers

IT'S comforting to be on the property ladder, but owning a house isn't all peaches and cream. Everything will be hunky-dory and then you'll suddenly notice the guttering is leaking, there's mould in the downstairs loo and mice in the kitchen cupboard. Oh, and just to make your day, there's water seeping down the side of the bath.

Spare a thought, then, for Sarah Bowers, whose “to do” list takes in mansion houses, barns, teashops and mills scattered across East Anglia. True, at £5million her annual care-and-repair budget is a mite larger than most of ours, but as it has to maintain the structure and fabric of dozens of historic properties it has to be spent with care.

As the new regional building manager for The National Trust in the East of England, Sarah's portfolio includes a Georgian Italianate palace (Ickworth House), a Tudor Guildhall (Lavenham), Britain's only surviving Regency playhouse (Bury St Edmunds) and the Anglo-Saxon royal burial site at Sutton Hoo, near Woodbridge. There's even a collection of trees, hedges and shrubs planted in the form of a medieval cathedral.

Her vast area - covering Suffolk, Essex and four other counties - features hundreds of buildings, once all the associated cottages, farm buildings and so on are added. Does she ever feel daunted just thinking about all those roofs, walls, staircases, windows and doors? - particularly as she's been in the job less than four months?

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“Occasionally . . .” she smiles, “but things are ticking on constantly; so it's not a question of starting from scratch. It's a continuation; maintenance regimes are all in place.”

Security, protection of the buildings from lightning, electrical testing, boiler maintenance, decoration and painting are high-priority concerns for Sarah and her colleagues. But in light of the soggy autumn and winter, it's no surprise she thinks water poses the biggest risk.

Frankly, too much rain has been falling in too short a space of time, and all too often. At Blickling Hall in Norfolk, for instance, built on low-lying ground, water simply doesn't have much chance to disappear. On the buildings themselves, the gutters and downpipes were designed - “if designed at all” - for less fierce downpours and therefore struggle with today's force and frequency.

Even as we speak, minds are mulling over possible solutions, such as improved drainage and soakaways. For water not only erodes the fabric of a building but has knock-on consequences for the items inside, such as tapestries and paintings. Damp can lead to mould, rot, beetles and more. “A one-hour storm can cause a few years of damage for us,” says Sarah.

Then there are rising sea levels, which threaten the trust's coastal properties - such as Orford Ness nature reserve and Dunwich Heath and beach in Suffolk.

You can see how £50million a year has to be spent prudently.

“Five million! I'd love £50million! That would be great!” Sorry - slip 'twixt brain and tongue. Five doesn't go very far when you're maintaining buildings like 400-year-old farmhouses.

“It doesn't, but you've got to remember we're a charity and relying purely on donations, people coming to visit the properties, their membership, coming to Christmas events and things like that.”

There's no massive cheque from Whitehall but a lot of money has come from the Heritage Lottery Fund. (That's from our pockets, essentially.) Some helped with conservation work at the Theatre Royal in Bury St Edmunds, and just a few weeks ago the Real Lives project at Ickworth was awarded £999,500.

Real Lives aims to tell the story of the “upstairs-downstairs” domestic life of the working country house and estate. Many folk who worked in the house and on the estate still live nearby; a project officer will work with local volunteers to collect former workers' memories.

The result will be an “innovative and engaging” presentation of the kitchens and domestic areas in the basement of the Rotunda as seen from 1910 onwards. There are many examples of Edwardian technology still to be seen in the network of rooms, including cooking ranges, luggage lifts, hoists, communication bells and examples of rainwater collection and filtration systems.

That's for the future. At the moment, a team of workmen is working on Ickworth's roof. Winter isn't the ideal time to be clambering up scaffolding, but much repair and refurbishment happens at National Trust properties at this quieter time of year.

Sarah had herself been a member of the National Trust for more than eight years before getting a job with the charity. “I've always loved going round their properties. I probably don't look at the paintings and the furniture as much as looking at the buildings and thinking 'Oh wow!' and admiring the construction. The joy of the buildings is they're all unique.

“I saw the job advertised and wanted to get involved. It was a shock (to get it) because I haven't got a vast amount of conservation experience. I haven't looked after old buildings” - her career has involved modern buildings - “so preserving them is a new element.”

Sarah, who hails from Hertfordshire, had thoughts of becoming an architect when she was younger, but changed schools before A-levels, going from an all-girls grammar to a male-dominated one where there were only eight females in the sixth-form. Many of the guys planned to study subjects such as civil engineering and structural engineering at university, and she found herself leaning in that direction, too.

Just one fly in the ointment . . . “I mucked up my A-levels!” No matter: Sarah took an HND in Building at a college.

Next stop was university in Edinburgh to top up her qualification to a degree, and then came a job as an estimator in Bury St Edmunds with the John Laing construction group. “But sitting in the office all day, I got very bored. I wanted to be out and see it happening! So they let me out on-site.”

So after a year at a desk she spent three outside. Did that mean donning a fluorescent jacket? “It did, yes. I got my boots and hard hat. I was quite happy!”

Sarah was a planning resources engineer, making sure all the crucial information was available at the right time; ordering materials and making sure they were delivered when needed; making sure men, plant and other essentials were ready.

The first project was an operating theatre extension for a private hospital in Buckhurst Hill, in metropolitan Essex, that was built underground and with a car park on top. “It was brilliant for me. We were doing contiguous piling and underpinning - all these things I'd only read about. Fantastic!”

Sounds a daunting (and baffling) job . . . “No, no. I loved it. Really. It's about being organised.

“In some respects it's down to building up relationships with suppliers, so that when you want something urgently, they know you mean it, rather than it being something you don't really need until the next week. It's about getting that balance right. You have to get to know the people and then they trust you - and know the bills will be paid, and all of those sorts of things. I loved it.”

Sarah then joined Bovis, which was building Castle Mall shopping centre in Norwich. She was there from 1989 until 1993 and, as project planner, was responsible for co-ordinating all the activities - making sure contractors were in at the right time to get their job done.

Has she ever had any hassle or discrimination during her career as a woman in what some Neanderthals might consider a man's world?

“I was welcomed at college by a lecturer who said 'Oh, you're just wasting time until you get married.' I was the only girl on my HND course; I was the only girl on my degree course, and on-site I've been the only girl most of the time. At Norwich it was exceptional because there were some female architects involved, and some female engineers.

“The men on-site are fine. The guys on the site are fine. If you stick your nose up in the air and ignore them, and pretend you're better than them, they're not going to like it; but they'd do the same to a guy who treated them like that, wouldn't they? You normally found any problems were from people who saw you as a threat to their job!”

Sarah took four years out to have her daughters, now aged 15 and 13. “Then I was getting very bored at home and needed to do something!” She tried to get work through agencies, “but part-time work in construction as a female was virtually impossible - or was then”. But West Suffolk College in Bury St Edmunds, where she taught on construction courses, was happy to draw upon her knowledge.

After four years or so the lure of live projects was just too great to resist and she got a job with the Ministry of Defence, working at RAF Lakenheath for the American 48th Civil Engineering Squadron.

There was plenty to keep a project manager on her toes, with work having to comply with both British and American building regulations. The base was a town in itself - with schools, shops, offices, runways, hangers, housing, hardened facilities and more - so there was variety. Challenges could involve repairing sections of runway or roads, or revamping a building for new occupants.

Sarah spent more than six years at Lakenheath, the last three in a more senior position (rising from a C2 grade to C1 in civil service parlance) as senior project sponsor for Defence Estates. (That's the body managing Britain's military installations.)

During this time she oversaw projects costing from £50,000 to just over £1million, such as reconfiguring the main access gates.

Coincidentally enough, as she talks to the EADT in the old basement kitchens at Ickworth, planes rumble overhead. “They're Mildenhall aircraft.” How can you tell? “They're quiet!” True; the Lakenheath-based F-15s do have a distinctive roar.

“My office wasn't far from the runway. I remember my first day, sitting in the office. When they were taking off, all the ceiling tiles were rattling and I thought 'Oh my goodness! What have I done here?!' You did get used to it.”

She came to The National Trust after Lakenheath. What are her early thoughts about the new role?

“The people have impressed me the most. They are such nice people - the employees and the volunteers. Everyone is here because they want to be; they're not here because it's just a job and is down the road. So you've got that ethos of wanting to improve the places and make them better for the public.

“We've all got a common cause - which hasn't always been the case where I've been. Everyone has a passion for what they're doing.”

Sarah Bowers lives near Bury St Edmunds, in a Victorian house dating from 1895. A fair bit of money has been spent on it, she admits, but it never reaches a point where she can say it's completed. “People in the building industry never quite get to finish their own,” she laughs.

At The National Trust she's in charge of six building surveyors in the East of England: three looking after general maintenance, such as painting and electrical testing, and three involved with specific projects such as roof work and fire precaution measures.

National Trust properties in Sarah Bowers's portfolio include

Melford Hall: the red-brick Tudor mansion at Long Melford where Elizabeth I was once lavishly entertained and Beatrix Potter was a guest

Bridge Cottage: a beautiful 16th Century thatched home in Constable Country at Flatford

Bourne Mill: a picturesque watermill with working waterwheel in suburban Colchester

Coggeshall Grange Barn: a 13th Century monastic barn near Braintree

Paycocke's: a late-Gothic merchant's house in Coggeshall

Wimpole Hall: Cambridgeshire's largest and grandest Georgian mansion

Oxburgh Hall: a 15th Century moated manor house near King's Lynn with secret doors and priest's hole

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