Tools of the Trade – Soft Capping

Have you ever been out, enjoying a glorious weekend walk in the country (or similar) and noticed this?

Image credit – Historic England

Then wondered, how exactly it was that grass managed to grow in the most unusual places?

Fascinatingly, the grass you may have witnessed poking up through the tops of stones was intentionally placed there.

Placing soil and grass on the tops of ruined walls, to aid conservation, offers a viable alternative to traditional hard capping.

Eight years of experiments, field trials and monitoring by Historic England and the University of Oxford at multiple historic sites demonstrate how this approach can not only reduce rates of deterioration, but also support biodiversity and reduce costs. Based on this evidence, all of the ruins at Hailes Abbey, Gloucestershire, were soft capped in 2013 and this is proving very successful.

Hailes Abbey, Gloucestershire. Image credit – https://www.archaeology.co.uk/articles/opinion/what-price-heritage.htm

How does it work?

Ruined and free-standing walls are exposed to rain, thermal fluctuations and frost that cause deterioration over time. Hard caps of stone and mortar have traditionally been used to consolidate wall tops and minimise on-going damage, but these often crack / deteriorate, quickly requiring regular maintenance and repair. Using soil and vegetation to cap walls offers an alternative and there is strong evidence that such soft caps are effective at buffering fluctuations in temperature (including frost) and moisture, and thereby protect the tops of walls from further damage. Soft caps also reduce the amount of rainwater running down the face of walls that can increase the harmful weathering of face stones and cause unsightly surface staining.

Hailes Abbey

A 13th Century Cistercian Abbey was the first Scheduled Ancient Monument in England to be entirely soft capped in 2013. Soft caps were applied on all sections of exposed wall, including at ground level and walls up to 5m in height. The cap consisted of locally-cut turf with a thickness of c. 10 cm. In some areas small sedum plants subsequently were added to help prevent edge erosion.


Hailes Abbey suffers from flooding, is situated in a frost hollow and many of the walls were in very poor condition and deteriorating rapidly requiring frequent and costly repairs to the hard capping in the past. Previous soft capping trials at the site had proved effective, supporting the decision to soft cap the entire monument as a more sustainable and cost-effective way of conserving the ruin.


Although costs can vary (see below) the soft capping method has proven to be a cost effective, low maintenance method of conservation that reduces costly maintenance and repair cycles for asset managers. It also provides a degree of ecological enhancement of value in itself; greening ruins provides some aesthetic appeal and limited regulating (e.g. water attenuation) and supporting (e.g. habitat provision) ecosystem services. Results of preliminary trials (in Scotland) show it can be a useful asset management tool that can achieve desired engineering performance outcomes and provide ecosystem services.


Ecosystem services

Soft capping functions as additional habitat for plants, insects and birds that hard-capped walls do not provide. Plant communities forming soft caps are dynamic and change naturally over time and may support locally similar but distinct species assemblages.

By slowing the deterioration of valued historic assets, soft capping provides a cultural service. Many people also place greater aesthetic value in ‘natural looking’ ruins, and using vegetation to slow deterioration may therefore support broader efforts to engage the public with historic sites.

Social value

A detailed visitor perception study at Hailes Abbey found that around 78% of visitors has a positive perception of the capping and 16% had a negative view (the remainder were neutral). Those with a negative view were more accepting once educated about the conservation benefits of a soft cap.

Extending thanks to Historic England, for providing us with this information which was found in “Appendix 1: History – Greening the Grey: a framework for integrated green grey infrastructure.” – A great read.

Whats on?

February 2019
1 Timber Frame Repairs
Cressing Temple Barns, Essex
1-3 Chapel Royal in England: Arechitecture, Music and Worship
Rewley House, Oxford
2 Day Rendering with Lime
Merryhill Training Centre, Fife
4-7 Conservation and Repair of Architectural and Structural Metalwork
West Dean College, West Sussex
5-6 Making and Using Traditional Mortars – C1 Contractor Level 1
Merryhill Training Centre, Fife
5 Housekeeping and Dust
West Dean College, West Sussex
5 Exploring the History, Art and Conservation of Leighton House
Kensington, London
6-7 Understanding Building Conservation
CIOB, London
8-9 Understanding British Buildings
Birmingham City University
9 Sash and Case Window Repairs
Merryhill Training Centre, Fife
12 Historic Cements and Concrete
The Engine Shed, Forthside Way, Stirling
15-16 Disaster Management and Heritage
Birmingham City University
18-22 Intensive Training Assessment and Accreditation in Construction Masonry
Merryhill Training Centre, Fife
18 Conservation of Timberwork
The Engine Shed, Forthside Way, Stirling
19-20 Understanding Building Conservation
21 Conserving, Repairing and Maintaining Traditional Windows
Balmoral Castle, Aberdeenshire
22 Lime Pointing Training Day
Bodmin, Cornwall
25 Secret Spaces: Medieval Sacristies, Vestries, Treasure Rooms and their Contents
Society of Antiquaries apartments, Burlington House, London

The services we provide for you at

aura conservation


Roof Tiling, Steeplejacks and Lightning Protection, Roof Drainage, Lead Protection, Roof Features.


Stone, Brick, Cast Stone, Terracotta, Sculpture, Statuary, Bronze Statuary.


Painting & Decorating, Plasterwork, Tiling, Timber Flooring.

Services & Treatment

Protection and Remedial Treatment, Paint Finishes, Mortars & Renders, Pointing, Paint Removal, Masonry Cleaning, Structural Repairs, Epoxy Resin Repairs.

Metal, Wood & Glass

Fine Joinery, Wood Carving, Windows and Doors, Secondary Glazing, Metalwork.

Incorporated in 2006, Aura Conservation have existed for over twelve successful years. We have a sound and experienced management team. We can assist you in any of your conservation needs and have a body of long standing and experienced tradesmen we can call on with specialist knowledge of the conservation world. Along with prudent financial management, we have a sound financial foundation that will see us prosper in the coming years.

You can contact us at:

Dunham House, 181 Wellington Road North, Stockport, Cheshire, SK4 2PB.

Tel: 0161 442 9850 / Fax: 0161 432 8478

Email  enquiries@auraltd.co.uk
Web    www.auraltd.co.uk


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: