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Some treasures in the Weald and Downland Open Air Museum

Posted in Architecture, British Countryside, Conservation, Historical articles, History, Uncategorized on Friday, 25 May 2012

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This edited article about conservation of buildings originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 712 published on 6 September 1975.

Historic buildings, picture, image, illustration

Buildings found in the open air museum include a rebuilt granary (top); Titchfield market hall (left); Catherington tread-wheel (right); Bayleaf House (middle); Beeding Toll House (bottom)

‘An Englishman’s home is his castle,’ we say. And this applies to Scottish and Welsh people, too, for their castles have been their homes, perhaps for eight or nine centuries. But these are stone-built fortresses, like Alnwick, Berkley, Caernarvon and Glamis. Because they were constructed of the most enduring materials, they have survived. Ordinary folk, however, lived in houses of brick in the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Before that, most houses were timber-framed, with ‘wattle-and-daud’ – rough plasterwork stuck on to laths and split hazel wands and the like as infilling.

Brick-built houses stand up well to time and weather. Timber-built ones, if oak was used and the craftsmen knew their job, also stood the test of time. But not many of them date back beyond the sixteenth century. As for the humbler homes, with poorer quality timber and rough plaster, these have survived less well. Rafters collapse, rain pours in, and soon the whole building is in ruins.

In recent years, conservationists (people who feel it to be important to save such buildings), have undertaken the task of locating many of these humbler dwellings and restoring them. Sometimes this has been possible where they stood. In other cases, when site-development or road-widening has threatened them, they have been skilfully dismantled and removed, often over quite long distances, to a new site, and there lovingly restored.

At Singleton in West Sussex, for instance, is the Weald and Downland Open Air Museum. Not a museum in the usual sense, but some forty acres of meadowland and woodland on which you can wander about and examine a wide range of domestic buildings that have been brought here and re-erected from their original sites in Hampshire, East Sussex, Surrey and Kent. Where necessary, they have been restored with matching timbers so that they can be seen in very much the condition they were in when they were first built.

You will be surprised at the wide variety to be seen. Though it is only ten years since the idea was first put forward, and the site has been open to the public for only four or five years, nearly twenty buildings, large and small, have been assembled. Within the next few years, that number may well have doubled.

What will you find when you go there? To begin with, you will see one of the smaller buildings, the Beeding Toll House, weather-boarded with a tiled roof. It is less than two hundred years old. Its signboard, covering half one wall, is a reminder of the days when stage-coaches, carriages and wagons, horsemen, herds of cattle and flocks of sheep, had to pay to pass through these turnpikes. In the eighteenth century, there were more than a thousand, so that long-distance travel or the droving of large flocks or herds could be very expensive as well as slow.

Older by a very great deal, some distance across the meadow, is the Catherington Tread-Wheel. It is so large that it almost fills the timber-framed and wattle-filled structure in which it is mounted. Its huge axle is a rough-hewn tree-trunk, and its spokes are stout oaken posts. For three centuries it was operated by men ‘walking’ inside it. As the wheel slowly turned, the rope raised a large bucket full of water from a well said to have been 300 feet deep. Tread-wheels such as this one were used, with overhead pulleys, to hoist blocks of stone for cathedrals such as Canterbury, where one can still be seen to this day.

Still older is a medieval timber-framed dwelling, Winkhurst House. Part of it may date back to the late fourteenth century, though most of it is sixteenth century. One portion of the house still has its central hearth, as was the custom in the Middle Ages. It had no chimney, the smoke escaping through a triangular vent in the west gable. It may have been a small farmhouse, or yeoman’s cottage.

The most impressive building here is Bayleaf House. It is outstanding not only for its size but because it illustrates a medieval style known as ‘jettying’. The upper storey projects outwards above the lower walls, supported on massive beam ends and reinforced by curved oak beams that look like ships’ timbers. Two such houses facing one another across a street, would be set back far enough for wagons to pass by, while the pedestrian could walk along beneath the ‘jetty’, protected from bad weather. Meanwhile, if they wished, the occupants of the upper storeys could shake hands across the street.

Like Winkhurst, Bayleaf House originally had a central hearth. But some time in the seventeenth century it was ‘modernised’. An upper floor was inserted and a chimney-breast built at one end, with an inglenook on each side of it, such as you can see today in old inns and farmhouses. Bayleaf House was dismantled at Bough Beech in 1968, its timbers were carefully numbered, and the whole building re-erected on this new site in 1972.

Another very interesting building is the 500-year-old Titchfield Market Hall, rescued, restored and re-erected here in 1974. Timber-framed, it has herring-bone brickwork instead of wattle-and-daub. It stands on oak pillars, as so many medieval market halls did. Stall-holders traded their wares at ground level, and an oak stairway leads up to the upper floor, which would have been used as a Council Chamber or even possibly as an Assize Court.

There are humbler buildings here, too. The old Southwater Smithy, for instance. Here we have a thatched granary, mounted on mushroom-lilke saddle-stones to prevent rats and mice from getting at the grain. There are some low-slung cattle-sheds, sturdily built by good craftsmen. This is shown by the fact that their ‘marks’, or signatures, are cut deep into some of the rafters, proof that they had taken pride in their job. Master masons, joiners and carpenters had this pride in their work, and often ‘signed’ it, as artists do their paintings.

Beneath the trees surrounding the meadowland, you will find a reconstructed charcoal-burner’s kiln, and sleeping-hut beside it. They were designed by two long-retired charcoal burners in the district who had followed the trade of their forefathers for longer than they can now remember. Charcoal burning was practised in Egypt at least 6,000 years ago. It is carried on in many parts of Europe to this day. The sleeping-hut is constructed of long poles set in a circle in the ground, their upper ends meeting like those of a Red Indian’s wigwam. The poles are covered with bent laths and then turfed over.

To see all that there is to see at the Weald and Downland Open Air Museum, takes time. But a visit is well worth while, for here you can see evidence of how ordinary people lived and went about their day-to-day business, while the nobles and the gentry lived on their great estates, often behind massive or ornate stone walls. The ordinary folk, of course, formed the vast majority of the population. Their way of life has been preserved for us, in places such as Singleton, by public-spirited individuals who believe in maintaining our traditions even in this rapidly-changing environment.

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