YORK Theatre Royal has reason to be grateful to Leyton Orient football club.

Back in the days when Orient was a First Division outfit (so quite a while ago, in other words) a young Essex lad who dreamed of being a professional footballer tried out for the club.

It didn't work out for Philip Thake. He became a PE teacher in Bradford instead, later retrained as a chartered accountant - and ultimately ended up as chief executive of the York Conservation Trust.

It was under his leadership that the Trust bought the theatre off the city council for £1 in January 2015 - then oversaw a major £6 million project to restore it.

It was a restoration project the cash-strapped council simply couldn't have afforded - and one that cost more than anyone initially thought it would. The theatre's multi-layered roof was leaking and needed to be repaired. The council had estimated this would cost about £300,000. "But actually we had to spend about £1.5 million putting the roof right!" Mr Thake says.

York Press:

Philip Thake on the staircase of the restored York Theatre Royal

That's the thing about the York Conservation Trust. When it restores a building, it does it properly.

That became obvious last year when a routine survey revealed that the ceiling of the Assembly Rooms was in danger of collapsing. That required urgent repairs - which were done using traditional lathework and a lime plaster similar to that used when the building was originally built in 1735. The total cost was about £500,000 - £50,000 of which was spent on restoring 11 Murano Glass chandeliers. Some of the glass was beyond repair - and had to be re-ordered from Murano in Italy, Mr Thake said.

It is that kind of attention to detail which the Trust has brought to restoring and maintaining almost 100 of York's finest buildings - buildings such as St Anthony's Hall on Peasholme Green; historic Bowes Morrell House on Walmgate; the Red House in Duncombe Place; the De Grey Rooms, Fairfax House and many more.

The Trust - a registered charity - manages to do all this usually without the help of any public funding. The restoration of the Theatre Royal was completed with the help of a £2.6 million Arts Council grant.

But by and large, the Trust uses its own resources (mainly income derived from rent) to buy and restore properties. "I'm an impatient person!" Mr Thake says. "I never want to wait three years to find out if we would get a grant. You're losing income all that time, and the property is deteriorating more."

York Press:

Architect Guy Bowyer (left) and Philip Thake examine the chandeliers at the restored Assembly Rooms

That reference to 'losing income' is a key to the way the Trust works. It now owns 98 historic properties, most of them in or near central York. And it doesn't just restore and maintain these properties: it lets them out - to shops, to small local businesses and, where possible, as homes. Many of its city centre properties have shops or businesses on the ground floor, and lived-in flats above.

The Trust generates something like £2 million a year in 'primary income', mainly through rent. And it is this money which is used to buy and then restore further properties.

The Trust's impact on York has, Mr Thake believes, been profound. In the 1970s, for example, it help save several properties in Walmgate from being demolished. And it has restored and brought back to new life many of the city's finest buildings.

"I think it is a unique charity," he says. "If you can imagine those 98 buildings as they might have been - run down, some not even there any more - then you can see that the Trust has actually helped York to be the attractive city that it is today."

The York Conservation Trust's origins date back to 1945, when JB Morrell, his brother Cuthbert and his son William put eight historic properties in York that they owned into a company they called the Ings Property Company Ltd.

In 1976 all the Ings properties (by then there were more than 20) were bequeathed by Bill Morrell to a registered charity - the York Conservation Trust. The Trust has continued expanding its portfolio by buying and restoring historic buildings in the city ever since.

Mr Thake first became involved with the Trust in 1994. After failing to be taken on by Leyton Orient, he trained as a PE teacher, and landed a job at Bradford Grammar. After four happy years there, he decided to retrain as a chartered accountant, and arrived in York as a junior partner with accountants Pulleyn Heselton in 1994.

The York Conservation Trust became one of his clients. He began to act as the Trust's company secretary, and was soon spending so much time on Trust business that the Board of Trustees gave him the title of chief executive.

He retired from Pulleyn Heselton in 2012, since when he has been at the Trust full time.

Under his stewardship, the Trusts portfolio has grown from 34 properties in 1994 to 98 today. Among its most recent acquisitions are the former Robson and Cooper shop at 14 Lendal (which the Trust is now restoring and which the House of Trembling Madness will move into once the restoration is complete) and No 69 Micklegate, on which restoration work is about to begin.

York Press:

The former Robson and Cooper shop at 14 Lendal which the York Conservation Trust is restoring

Mr Thake won't be the man to see that through, however. He retired as the Trust's chief executive last week.

His place has been taken by Jonathan Bryant, an East Londoner who did a degree in physics before carving out a successful career for himself in museums and heritage management.

His CV includes spells running the Dundee Heritage Trust, the River & Rowing Museum in Henley and the Thinktank science museum in Birmingham. He also worked for British Waterways in Scotland, where he was in charge of some of their commercial properties and, a few years ago, set up his own heritage consultancy with his art historian wife, Kay.

Their company, Roseangle, specialised in helping heritage organisations develop workable business plans.

"We tried to find ways to enable clients to help heritage assets meet their keep," the 65-year-old says.

That's something the York Conservation Trust has always managed to do. So it sounds as though he's just the right person to be taking over.

As for Mr Thake, he also steps down as Governor of the Merchant Adventurers next week, and plans to spend some time on the golf course. He'll also be mentoring students at York St John University, which awarded him an honorary doctorate last year. But his association with the Conservation Trust won't be completely coming to an end. There's a wonderful walking guide which details the many properties on the Trust's portfolios. But it is badly in need of updating. Guess who'll be doing that?

Buildings owned by the York Conservation Trust

The portfolio of historic buildings in York owned and maintained by the York Conservation Trust is impressive.

It includes:

  • The Visit York visitor centre at 1 Museum Street
  • Bootham lodge, 56 Bootham
  • Middleton House, Monkgate
  • Wealden Hall, at 49 and 51 Goodramgate
  • Lady Peckett's Yard, Pavement
  • Bowes Morrell House, Walmgate
  • Fairfax House
  • De Grey Rooms
  • The Assembly Rooms
  • York Theatre Royal
  • The Red House, Duncombe Place

You may have noticed that there's at least one notable building missing from that list.
"We don't own York Minster yet!" Mr Thake says.

Only joking, of course...