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Vernacular Farm Buildings

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February 2009

At the Society’s February meeting Linda Hall (who was a big hit when she came in January 2008 to talk about Gloucestershire privies!) returned to address the Society on the comparatively refined subject of vernacular farm buildings.

Sadly, England’s pre-twentieth century agricultural buildings are declining in number. As a much neglected aspect of our architectural history they simply do not attract the public interest that would help to secure their preservation. An overgrown seventeenth century barn may look rather picturesque in neglect, but won’t remain so for long before it is reduced to a heap of rubble. The buildings are especially vulnerable because they are simply not suited to modern farming needs, so the farmer has little reason to maintain them, particularly as doing so can be extremely costly. Often they are subjected to conversions, of varying degrees of sympathy.

Perhaps the most impressive, and often the most ancient, agricultural buildings which remain standing today are the mediaeval “Great Barns”. These vast structures were usually built by wealthy institutions owning large areas of land such as the monasteries, the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge Universities, and the wealthiest schools of the day, for instance, Winchester College. Though built in humbler fashion, they are in their way as majestic as the great cathedrals of the age, some having aisled structures, and others, such as the tithe barns in Bradford-on-Avon or Winterbourne, raised-cruck roofs which span the width of the barn. Dendrochronology has allowed us to accurately date these structures: one example at Cressing Temple in Essex was erected in the early thirteenth century.

The construction of the Great Barns varies considerably across the country: those in the east of England were commonly roofed with clay tiles; in the West Country stone tiles or thatch would have been used. A noticeable feature of these barns would have been the ventilation slits around the walls: these were essential to prevent the goods stored in them (often packed right up to the roof-spaces) from rotting, or even self-combusting – though it does make them somewhat draughty. When the barns ceased to be used for the storage of perishables, the ventilation slits were often blocked up, but it is often possible to see where they once were. Another feature which may be observed on the great barns is putting holes, where medieval wooden scaffolding was set during the construction of the barn. On most buildings these were filled in as the scaffolding was taken down, but on the great barns they were often left open to provide extra ventilation.

Bredon barn near Tewkesbury was still in use for storage of hay in 1980 when it burned down. Fortunately, Freddie Charles, a local architect, had produced detailed architectural drawings, which allowed the building to be restored. The Bredon barn’s huge porches would have provided shelter to carts waiting to unload goods. A dovecot was located over one of the porches, and the reeve’s office over the other.

Of course, most barns were far smaller and more humble, but from an architectural perspective they can be just as interesting. There is a sixteenth century barn in Frampton-on-Severn, of wattle-and-daub construction – with a twist. It seems that no daub was used on the walls to improve the ventilation, which was as vital to an ordinary farm barn as to a tithe barn.

The word “barn” comes from the Saxon word for barley, and it therefore doesn’t take a genius to work out what was originally stored in them. But a barn was far more than just storage space – it was also used for processing wheat. It is common for old barns to have large doors opposite each other on either side of the barn. These would be thrown open: the floor space in between was then used for threshing, and the draught created by the open door was perfect for winnowing (this consisted of throwing the threshed grain into the air: the breeze would catch and blow away the light chaff, whilst the heavier grain would fall to the ground from where it could be gathered – separating the wheat from the chaff, as the saying goes). While this was going on a low board would be placed across the doors to stop the grain from spilling out, and it is from this board that we take the word “threshold”.

An interesting twist on your common or farmyard barn is a barn supported on staddle stones, which bear more than a passing resemblance to giant mushrooms. These provided the dual benefit of ventilation underneath the floor of the barn and a cunning protection from rats: although the rats could climb the “stalk” of the stone, they couldn’t climb over the flat underside of the “cap”, and your grain was kept safe from rodent infestation. The door – a potential weak spot in this defence – was often accessed by means of removable steps or even a drawbridge, demonstrating that, on occasion, it is an Englishman’s barn that is his castle.

Another common building traditionally to be found on a farm was a cart shed, for storage of farmyard equipment as well as (what else?) carts. These are usually open along one side, with pillars to support the roof. In the south they are usually built of stone, although as you move northwards brick cart sheds come to predominate. If built of timber, carpenter’s marks are often visible: these more rudimentary buildings were essentially pre-fabricated at the carpenter’s yard, with marks to show you how to put all the pieces together in the farmyard, rather like a set of shelves from IKEA, but without the disadvantage of the assembly instructions being in Swedish.

And if you want to really make the farmer next door jealous, why not go for a two storey affair? An open ground floor provides room for heavy equipment and an enclosed upper storey makes a first class granary – again, well ventilated and rat-proof. Again the staircase up to the granary is a weak spot, so one such building incorporates a pair of kennels under the stairs, from which a couple of canine sentries could keep an eye on things.

Whilst a number of medieval barns and dovecots have survived, medieval stables are much rarer. Later examples, however, can be hugely impressive, with decorative architectural embellishments, such as cupolas, pilasters, pediments, and impressive clock faces. The 18th century stables at Calke Abbey in Derbyshire even feature an imitation door, which exists purely to ensure the symmetry of the building. Stables are almost always well lit to assist the ostlers in saddling, bridling and cleaning out the horses. Frequently, stables featured a hay loft on the upper storey – sometimes with a gap around the edges of the floor so that the hay could simply be pushed into the hay racks in the stables below.

As for cowsheds, they can be seen as part of so-called longhouses, of which one half would be used for human habitation, and one half as a cattle byre. The warmth given off by the cattle helped to heat the dwelling, the cattle were kept secure and close at hand, and the farmer didn’t have to go outside to milk them! By the seventeenth century the cattle were being moved to separate cowsheds, although at some farms this did not take place until World War II. Such longhouses are common in upland areas, and also in Gloucestershire. Unconverted byres can be easily identified by their central drainage channel, and even those that have long since been used for human habitation disclose their origins by the blocked up outlet at the end where the drain would leave the building.

As for the pigsties, they were often part of the same building as the privy, in order to keep the bad smells together! But I don’t think we ought to delve too deeply into privies (so to speak).

I could go on: dovecots, cider barns, calf pens; all varying in their construction, their style; all giving us a rich insight into England’s agricultural past, revealing the concerns which shaped the life of the farm in times past and attesting to the ingenuity of the builders in tackling the problems which they faced. Perhaps we should endeavour to appreciate these buildings while we can.

The Thornbury Local History and Archaeology Society always welcomes new and occasional members. Details of our programme can be found on this website, the library or the Town Hall. Our meetings are on the second Tuesday of the month, held at St Mary's Church Hall beginning at 7.30pm. Visitors are always welcome at the society for the small charge of £2.50.

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