YCAA Study Tour of Tallinn, Estonia; Part 1: the Old Town

By Jaanika Reinvald-Colley, YCAA (Class of 2014-15).

The three-day Tallinn study tour started on the evening of Friday 7 September when we met at the Pegasus restaurant, in the building formerly known as the Writers’ House, built in 1963 to fill a gap created in the bombing of Tallinn during WWII. This happened to coincide with Tallinn’s marathon celebrations and as a result the city centre was entirely packed with people.

Tallinn Old Town

Our first day in Tallinn was spent on getting to know the Old Town. We started the day on Vabaduse Square at 10 o’clock where we were welcomed by one of our guides, Sabina Kaukis, an MA Conservation Studies student from the Estonian Academy of Arts [EEA]. From Sabina we learned about the early history of Estonia and Tallinn.

Being a small country in a strategic location on the shores of the Baltic Sea, Estonian history is one of subjugation and serfdom. Starting with the Northern Crusades in the Middle Ages, Estonia became a battleground for centuries where Denmark, Germany, Russia, Sweden and Poland fought their many wars over controlling the important geographical position of the country as a gateway between East and West.

Tallinn was founded in the 10th Century, but only at the beginning of the 13th Century did the Danes establish it as a fortified city. In 1285, the city joined the Hanseatic League and became a junction for organized trade on the Baltic Sea. In 1346 the city was transferred to the Teutonic Order. After the collapse of the Teutonic Order, the city fell under Swedish rule in 1561 and finally became part of the Tsarist Russia in 1710 during the Great Northern War. It was Peter I who restored the ancestral privileges of the established German community in Tallinn. The architecture in the old town, both upper and lower, to a great extent stems from the medieval times, 13th-14th Century and represent the history of the rulers.

The ‘Tall Hermann’ tower (far right) as part of Toompea Castle, Tallinn, with the roof of the Parliament Building seen above the battlements. Source: Visit Estonia.


The Upper Town

Toompea, the upper town in Tallinn, has always been the administrative part of the country. The tallest tower of the original castle, the Tall Hermann, is used for the daily hoisting of the flag ceremony and forms a corner of the current parliament building. Opposite the parliament building is the Nevski Cathedral, the most highly decorated Orthodox Church in Tallinn. Unfortunately we did not have time to go and see the interior of the church as by then Toompea was inundated with cruise ship tourists. At the viewing platforms we saw the lower town, together with its red roofs, medieval church towers, narrow winding streets, public and burgher buildings.

Next stop was St Mary’s Cathedral (aka Dome Church), where we met Varje Ounapuu, a conservation student from the EAA, who showed us around the church and talked about the altarpiece conservation project that she had participated in. Made by the famous Estonian sculptor and carver, Christian Ackermann, the altarpiece is of particularly high value and various departments from the EAA were involved with the works.


The Lower Town

From the Dome Church we took the “Short Leg” down to the lower town, to St Nicholas Cathedral. Dr Anneli Randla took us around the former church. It was partially destroyed in Soviet bombing of Tallinn in WWII and has been since restored as part of the Art Museum of Estonia, mostly displaying ecclesiastical art from the Middle Ages.

Dr Anneli Randla (centre) explaining about the Hermann Rode altarpiece conservation project at St Nicholas Cathedral. Find out more about it here. Source: Jaanika Reinvald-Colley

After an extended lunch break we met again at 6pm for an evening walking tour of the lower town. Dr Riin Alatalu, the head of ICOMOS Estonia, showed us the medieval urban fabric of Tallinn, including the town wall, Town Hall, the oldest pharmacy in Estonia, merchants’ craftsmen’s guild halls, and the domestic architecture of the merchants’ houses. Winding in and out of buildings, at one point marching into a restaurant’s rest room to see the original well and marvel at the painted decoration on the wooden ceiling beams, we got a good feel for the building plots, many of which survive virtually intact from the 13th-14th Centuries.

Having absorbed the architecture of the ruling classes we were ready for the second day at the open air museum, to see how the Estonian peasants have lived through the ages.

Further write-ups of the study tour of Tallinn will follow in the coming weeks.

The YCAA would like to thank the numerous local ‘hosts’ in Tallinn who gave up their time to show YCAA alumni around the city and its heritage, alumni who attended the study tour, and especially Jaanika Reinvald-Colley who organised and facilitated the visit. 


Studley Royal Park & Fountains Abbey, YCAA study trip Saturday, 29 September, 2018

By Lily Liu, MA in Conservation Studies postgraduate (Class of 2018-19)

It was a beautiful sunny day and the perfect trip to mark the end of a technical orientation week. Thanks to the Alumni Association of the University of York, the new 2018/19 cohort of Conservation Studies and fellow alumni were able to visit the World Heritage Site of Studley Royal Park and Fountains Abbey. Led by Dr. Keith Emerick, Inspector of Ancient Monuments and an expert long-involved with the conservation management of the site, the tour offered a fascinating glimpse of English architecture, landscape and culture over the span of several centuries.

St Mary’s Church, Studley Royal

The tour this year took a more academic approach compared to how last year’s MA students experienced Fountains Abbey. It was also an interesting ‘back to front’ approach, starting from the far end of the World Heritage Site at the Victorian church of St. Mary, where special access was granted for us, and ending at the abbey itself.

St Mary’s illustrious Gothic Revival interiors by William Burgess were a visual feast, and all were keen to take in the splendour of the gilding, sculpture, painting, stained glass, and other impressive crafts of art present in the building. Dr. Emerick also elucidated some major building phases, pointing out evidence of past structural issues and the importance of understanding the root of these problems from a conservation perspective.

The “Surprise View” from Anne Bolyen’s Seat, with modern art installation (rather camouflaged here) on the mound in the centre of the picture.

From the church, the group meandered through the Georgian Water Gardens and its associated landscape and architectural follies. Though controversy over some modern art installations ensued over the course of intellectual debate, all agreed the views were nonetheless breathtaking and form part of an important historic environs. The aptly named “Surprise View” from the hideaway of Anne Boleyn’s seat did not disappoint, and acted as the perfect prelude to our finale: the spectacular ruins of the 11th-century Fountains Abbey.

Dr. Keith Emerick illustrating conservation issues associated with one of the Abbey’s remaining arcade columns.

The monumental remnants of Fountains Abbey made for fitting ambience to stir the hearts of all conservation enthusiasts present. We began by stepping through the history of the vaults, into the open corridors of stone arches stretching toward the sky. Previous evidential values of plaster were examined, as Dr. Emerick drew our attention to the markings on the walls which showed a historic preference for more “
regular” drawn-on stone blocks, over the top of the uneven natural cut ashlar — though of very fine quality itself.

Evidence of historic plaster on the Abbey’s walls, with drawn lines added to ‘improve’ the stonework by making it appear more regular.

The visit to Studley Royal Park – including all its gems of the Church of St. Mary, the Water Gardens, and the ruins of Fountains Abbey – was a highlight to the start of the year, and a trip that all participants involved will remember fondly, for the beautiful weather, picturesque settings as well as educational discussions.


The YCAA would like to thank Dr. Keith Emerick for kindly giving up his time to lead this visit, current students and alumni for attending, Lily for this fine write-up, and the University of York’s Office of Philanthropic Partnerships and Alumni for help in assisting the visit. 

[All images by Lily Liu]