History in Structure

Herstmonceux Science Centre

A Grade II* Listed Building in Herstmonceux, East Sussex

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Latitude: 50.8702 / 50°52'12"N

Longitude: 0.3459 / 0°20'45"E

OS Eastings: 565160

OS Northings: 110473

OS Grid: TQ651104

Mapcode National: GBR NVH.B8N

Mapcode Global: FRA C6MS.SP9

Plus Code: 9F22V8CW+39

Entry Name: Herstmonceux Science Centre

Listing Date: 26 March 2003

Grade: II*

Source: Historic England

Source ID: 1391813

English Heritage Legacy ID: 502678

Also known as: Equatorial Group of Telescopes
Herstmonceux Observatory

ID on this website: 101391813

Location: Wealden, East Sussex, BN27

County: East Sussex

District: Wealden

Civil Parish: Herstmonceux

Traditional County: Sussex

Lieutenancy Area (Ceremonial County): East Sussex

Church of England Parish: Herstmonceux All Saints

Church of England Diocese: Chichester

Tagged with: Astronomical observatory Building complex

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TQ61SE Herstmonceux Science Centre


Also Known As: Equatorial Group of Telescopes, Royal Greenwich Observatory
Former Equatorial Telescopes and workshops of the former Royal Greenwich Observatory, now education centre. 1953-8 by Brian O'Rorke for the Admiralty. Derrick Oxley of the Civil Engineer's Department, Admiralty, engineer. Steel framed buildings clad in traditional Sussex red bricks with grey brick headers, with Portland stone window surrounds and dressings. All the buildings of cavity wall construction with insulation to avoid build up of heat that would distort observations at night. The workshops with copper roof to rear of flat roof. Light steel domes of insulated cavity wall construction, clad in copper; all the telescopes independently mounted on deep founations independent of the structure. The buildings grouped on a bastion of reinforced concrete clad in brick with areas of squared knapped flint and York stone paving.

The plan comprises six domes of various sizes symmetrically arranged, set in two rows of three. The northern row for reflective instruments is linked by workshops for resilvering or aluminizing of mirrors, and standardisation laboratories. The telescopes set on raised bastion, reached from the west side and entered via broad entrance gates under bridge up two flights of steps with pebbled surrounds. This leads to side of central pool, which connects the central dome of each row, ie. the largest of the northern row with the smallest of all the domes. Bastion laid out as garden, with York stone paths and pebbled areas, stone kerbs, and raised walkways on brick and flint walls with stone steps. The two outermost domes in the southern row are the largest of all, and are set proud of the bastion, connected to it via short bridges. The bastion provides a secure entrance to the site, but gives the group the character of an early eighteenth-century landscape feature overlooking the park.

Northern group originally with entrance under central dome, now blocked but retaining steps incorporating spheres, a repeated motif here. Steel-framed tripartite windows between Portland stone surrounds have louvred blinds to control heat, and at each end doors with bronze handles carefully designed not to conflict with the lines of the architecture: when closed the handles point downwards, within the frame of the mullion. These doors set on steps within the framed surround, supported on smaller spheres. Rooftop balconies have steel balustrades with paired balusters set in surrounds supported on tiny domes. Similar balustrade forms balconies to the domes. On south side the smallest central dome incorporates gazebo at end of pool. Many buildings incorporating date set on hopper head to lead downpipes: 1955 set between an anchor is most frequent.

Workshop blocks linked under central dome, with corridors in double-height spaces to either side facing south, the upper landing with balcony whose thin balusters are supported on steel spheres. Hornton stone flooring, door surrounds and central piers. The upper corridors retain their original timber panelled doors and have woodblock floors. All the domes are of similar construction, with floor levels of varying heights reached up stairs, and with timber panelled walls. All domes revolve and have opening shutters to permit observations. The south-western dome housing the 26-inch Thompson refractor is mounted independently of the floor which rises up and down for the convenience of astronomers making observations at different points of the sky. The Science Centre retains the 26" refractor of 1896 and 36" reflector of 1932 telescopes and other telescopes brought by the Royal Greenwich Observatory to Herstmonceux. The main axes of the telescopes are tilted to lie parallel to the Earth's rotation axis and is known as an 'Equatorial' mounting, more complex to construct but easier to use than other mountings and giving the group of telescopes its name.

Brian O'Rorke's drawings for the scheme date from 1951-2. They show that while the components of the design were pre-determined by the Admiralty, their disposition and their raising on a bastion was devised by O'Rorke - he wrote on the drawings that the inspiration for the layout came while in the bath! The shutters to the domes are also an innovation of O'Rorke's, and were much lighter than those in use elsewhere.

The Royal Observatory moved to Herstmonceux to avoid the atmospheric pollution and glare that made observations at Greenwich impossible. In 1984 it moved again, to the Roque de los Muchachos Observatory at La Palma, Canary Islands. The Equatorial Group is the most distinguished of the RGO's buildings at Herstmonceux: a conscious expression of modern science in traditional local materials, with the guise of eighteenth century garden temples never deflecting from their scientific purpose. The quality of materials and the detailed finishes are exceptional, and the Equatorial Group must be regarded as one of the most important government commissions of the period. It is also the leading work of its architect, Brian O'Rorke (1901-74), who made his name as an interior designer for the Orient group of liners, for flying boats, the Coronation Scot and early aircraft. He was also a distinguished architect, whose scheme for the National Theatre was never constructed and whose few surviving works deserve better recognition.

The grounds of Herstmonceux Castle (itself listed grade I), to which the Equatorial Group make an important contribution, are on the Register of Historic Parks and Gardens.

Architectural Review, January 1954, pp.18-20; May 1959, pp.351-2
Architect and Building News, 12 November 1958, pp.643-50
The Builder, 16 January 1959, pp.111-15.
RIBA BAL RAN20/E/7/1-27, Drawings at the RIBA Drawings Collection

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