If ever there was a false economy, it was the idea, advocated by many builders, that you can get away with a cheap guttering system when renovating or building a new home. I know this to my cost, for when the previous owner extended my house six years ago, all the old cast-iron rhones (as they are called in Scotland) were replaced with plastic ones, despite the efforts taken to slate the roof in the traditional manner. Already, these have become cracked and warped, and some of the gutters have been torn by the wind from their flimsy brackets.

Rainwater goods play a vital role in both the condition and appearance of a building. One of the very few companies still specialising in manufacturing them is J. & J. W. Longbottom, founded in 1919. The firm produces a huge assortment of cast-iron goods, from drainpipes and gutters, many with fancy profiles, to ornamental brackets, hopper heads and gratings. Its stock includes the full range of products from the 1934 catalogue of Sloan & Davidson, which it took over in 1992.

Until the late 18th century, plumbers used lead, but in the early 19th century, cast iron took over as a cheaper alternative for rainwater goods, thousands of which could be churned out from a single mould. ‘A lifespan of 100?150 years is common-place for iron castings if well maintained,’ says Richard Gudgeon, Longbottom’s managing director, ‘whereas the general consensus is that if you get 10 years out of plastic goods, you’ve done well. Alumi-nium castings haven’t been around for long enough to tell, but they look different to cast iron, being not so chunky.’

David Whitehead did his apprenticeship with a ferrous foundry before joining Longbottom in 1989. His work as a moulder is key to a process that involves coremakers, furnacemen, fettlers, casters, blacksmiths and pattern makers. ‘To cast a gutter, the principles of which are the same as for other more complicated pieces, you start with a pattern an exact replica, like a jelly mould,’ he says. ‘Mostly we use existing patterns, although we do make new ones out of wood for special commissions.’

The pattern is placed face down on a board surrounded by a mould-ing box, into which ‘green sand’ is tightly compacted using a special tool. The box is then rolled over and another placed on top, and filled up in the same way. They are then separated, and the pattern carefully lifted out, leaving the shapes of the gutter’s upper and under sides moulded into the green sand. The two halves are then fastened together again, and molten iron poured into the void. ‘We use only recycled cast iron, which we melt down,’ says Mr Gudgeon. ‘There’s a lot of good-quality scrap available from old machinery.’ After 1? hours, the casting is ready for fettling (grinding down sharp edges), and finishing with a rust-preventing primer.

As well as making cast-iron goods to contemporary designs and supplying replicas for historic buildings, Longbottom also repairs old castings, particularly ornate hopper heads, for which new patterns would be very expensive to make. ‘It’s usually the backs that rot away the areas that are difficult to get to for repainting.’ Recent projects have included castings for St Pancras station, and hopper heads for the orchard room at Highgrove; the National Trust is also a regular client.

MARY MIERS

J. & J. W. Longbottom?01484 682141

This article first appeared in Country Life magazine on December 7, 2006

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