What Lies Beneath

How old is old, and do the dates ascribed to properties in estate agents details really stand-up to close inspection?  Estate agents particulars are considered by many purchasers to be suspect in what they do or do not say, but they are very much better in the present than they were a few years ago before various bits of legislation were brought in to tighten-up on such information,

However, much is still left to the skill of the person who has prepared the sales details, and many will be careful not to add anything that they cannot fully justify and so risk the ire of those that monitor their output.  Whilst they may be accurate at providing room sizes and descriptions, along with the number of power points, radiators, etc, it is the dating of the property that often lets down both the seller and buyer.

For most estate agents they have no problem in dating a modern house providing it is post Second World War although asking them to put it within a certain decade can lead to furrowed brows.  A pre-war house is almost as easy – it is a pre war house!  Try getting a date for a house that is pre First World War and things start to get a little fuzzy and good encompassing terms such as Edwardian or Victorian are bandied about without too much concern as to the actual date ranges into which they fall.  Go back one or two more centuries and even generic date terms such as Georgian, Regency, Tudor or Jacobean start to become very questionable in terms of accuracy.

Such it was when we were asked to undertake a pre-purchase appraisal of a house in a middling size village in a county in the south of England.  This was to be a brief assessment of the property by looking at it in a fairly holistic way before our clients committed themselves to the greater expense of making a formal offer along with all the subsequent detailed survey, financial, legal and other costs involved with a purchase.

The selling agents, a reputable regional firm of surveyors and auctioneers, described the house in their particulars as being listed grade II and of mid to late seventeenth century date. Certainly as one saw it from the front it had the overall appearance of a house of that date, except for a 1970s style extension on one end.  From the front it was a long house on a roughly north to south axis and about one room deep and built of stone from what had probably been a local quarry.  In the main part of the house the stone mullioned windows ‘looked right’, as did the general symmetry of the front façade.  In addition the front and back of the house showed marks of where it had been altered and adapted over time in the form of building joints, changes of material use and style.

Overall it displayed a comfortable historical character and the type of building that would be seen as a picture of an idyllic country cottage on a glossy calendar.

All that was spoilt as soon as we entered through the 1970’s style standard joinery catalogue front door.  Inside the whole house had had a make-over in the late 1960’s and was awash with painted hardboard flush doors, shiny quarry tiles on the ground floor, perfectly smooth replastered walls and ceilings, painted hardboard stair, ‘dated’ and insubstantial bathroom, bedroom and kitchen fittings, and tiny fireplaces with surrounds made from miniature bricks or pastel coloured artificial stone.  In short the seventeenth century stopped at the threshold and something out of the Stepford Wives was on the inside.

Not being daunted by first impressions the assessment continued and in one ground floor room to the north of the front door there still remained a rather nice stone fireplace on an external wall.  From the style of the stone surround it was difficult to be exact about its dating, being possibly early C17th  at the latest.  What helped confirm the earlier date was the coffered ceiling over the room.  This was a heavily moulded (the carving along the sides of the beams) arrangement of beams where they ran all around the perimeter at ceiling level and then others spanned from side to side to form a criss cross pattern.  Between the beams there were plain plastered ceiling panels.  By dating the ceiling stylistically it was not late seventeenth century, but closer to mid sixteenth century in origin.

Pressing on with the assessment the remainder of the ground floor was as equally dismal as the entrance hall and exuded the 1960’s throughout.  On looking out through the back door it was noticed that there was a small window to a larder that appeared to be within a blocked-up doorway, which is not an unusual thing to find in an old house.  What was of interest was that the original doorway had a plain three centre arch or ‘Gothic’ pattern head.  Again this was not a seventeenth century feature, but could have a date range easily extending back to the mid sixteenth century or even a hundred or two years earlier.

The first floor was even less interesting than the ground floor with more painted hardboard, fitted nylon carpets everywhere, smooth plastered walls and ceilings, and pale pink bathroom suites surrounded by white glazed tiles.  About the only thing of some interest was the foot of what appeared to be a roof truss that projected down below the ceiling level on one side of a bedroom.  This was only a relatively small piece of timber, but had a chamfer on both sides and so denoted a possibly old piece of the structure.

It turned out that there was a trap door to roughly the centre part of the roof space and after managing to get it open the next part of the assessment started.  On first looking through the hatch into the roof space it was difficult to see anything because the area was only lit by a very fly blown low wattage bulb and there was a wall just in front of the top of the ladder that closed off the roof space from side to side.  The wall was of interest because it was timber framed and infilled with wattle and daub panels that had been painted with limewash at some time so suggesting it had been seen at some point in its life.

Peering into the gloom away from the wall (to the north) it was possible to make out a fine timber arch brace truss (a structural item in the shape of a curving arch on the inside and straight sided to support the roof above it) spanning across the roof space.  This had purlins (horizontal roof members) running between it and the dividing wall and also it had curved wind braces (a strengthening timber fitted between the purlins and the sides of the trusses) that are a common feature of good quality medieval roofs.  All of a sudden this house was starting to reveal its origins, and they were not the late seventeenth century.

Once into the roof it was possible to see the space in more detail to the north away from the wall.  This comprised a three bay (the space between a roof truss or dividing wall) structure with arch brace trusses between each one and an end gable wall built of stone.  The two trusses were of a similar pattern to each other, although the furthest had slightly simpler chamfers to the edges and then only on the south side and signs of where wattle and daub panels had been inserted below it.  This indicated it had been an end wall and that the stone wall beyond was of later date and because of its position was associated with the coffered ceiling room on the ground floor.

It was possible to crawl through an existing hole in a panel in the bottom of roof wall and get into the southern section.  This was found to be a four bay structure with arch brace trusses between each one and also with purlins and curved wind braces spanning between them on both sides of the roof.  All the timbers in this part of the roof were black from being heavily encrusted in soot.  That indicated that this part of the roof had been over an open hall that would have been open from the ground floor to the underside of the roof with no intermediate floor.  The soot came from fires on the ground floor that would have been used for cooking and heating and the smoke from which would have filled the upper part of the building and escaped through the roof covering if it had been thatched, under the eaves, or through a louvered vent at the ridge.

The roof covering was most probably thatch as that has for long been the commonest material in this area.  Alternatively the roof may have been covered with large stone slates as these were used on high quality properties in the area where status was displayed in the form of conspicuous spending.  It some cases where budgets were restrained a border of stone slates may have been used around the bottom section of the roof and thatch covering the part above.

The sides of the trusses were decoratively moulded with a pattern that suggested a construction date of around 1450 -60 by comparing it to proven dates in other houses in the area.  The timber truss over the dividing wall was only decorated on the hall side indicating that the status or use of the space on the other side was not of such importance.  There was also very little soot staining on this other side that showed that there had not been an open fire because there would have been a first floor built in and what soot there was probably came from smoke that had seeped in from the hall side.  This was because it was the domestic part where the ground floor had storage rooms (the buttery where beer and wine were kept, and pantry where food was stored) and the first floor would have been the private quarters of the owner and his family.  The remainder of the household would have slept on or under benches and tables in the hall.

The south end truss of the hall was also only moulded on the inner or hall side and it was also possible to see where there had been wattle and daub panels fixed within the framing.  This indicated that it had originally been the end wall of the house, but there was a stone gable wall beyond, at about the same distance as the trusses were spaced.  There was some soot staining to the interior of this space even though there was an unstained stone chimney built up against the outside wall, so indicating that the flue was more recent than the wall and there had been an open fire in the area before it was built.  The soot staining was not as heavy as that seen over the main hall area and that suggests it was not in use for a long period.

What was seen here was a feature known as a smoke bay that was often added onto the end of medieval houses from the early sixteenth century in this part of the country when open fires in the centre of halls started to become unfashionable, as it was a cost effective alternative to otherwise large chimneys.  It was formed by just building a new wall a distance away from the original end wall of the hall of the house.  Then all or part of the ground floor wall against the new bay was removed to create a very large fireplace and wide chimney that rose to the top of the gable where there was either a smoke louvre or simple chimneystack that may have been built of timber.  The wide smoke bay would have allowed for ham, bacon, and other foodstuffs to be hung within it to be preserved by smoking.

At the same time that the smoke bay was added a floor may have been added over the hall to create a new area of living accommodation, but the time available during this assessment did not allow us to determine that.  This may have been the case because there were big changes taking place in how the various members of the family and general household, were housed, with many now having their own or shared rooms, and the owner having more deluxe space in the form of a suite of rooms.  On the ground floor separate kitchens were also being considered as a necessity of a modern household once the central fireplace had been removed.

From what we had seen on the inside of the house then led us back to reconsider the front of the house, by which time the phases of the development started to be seen very clearly.  This resulted in a concise outline history of the house starting to be seen and in synopsis consisted of:

  • Original house constructed in the early to mid fifteenth century with a four bay open hall and a two bay domestic part.  This probably had the main door entry towards the fire end and a back door opposite it on the back wall.  The house had a ground floor structure built of stone, the first floor was timber framed with infill panels of wattle and daub, and the roof was probably thatched.
  • In the early to mid sixteenth century a smoke bay was added to the end of the hall and possibly the main hall had a new first floor inserted over it to create new living space and keep up with social fashions.  The ground floor of the former may have remained as a large open room with the space on the upper floor being divided into two or three dormitory type areas.
  • In the latter half of the sixteenth century a new extension was added on the end of the previous domestic quarters.  By the quality of the room’s coffered ceiling and fireplace this was obviously a high status room and was probably used as an office cum parlour for the owner to show his status and impress visitors and servants alike.  He probably had a new and more comfortable bedroom built on the floor above.  As the roof structure over this upper area is still quite ornate it was probably still open to the underside of the roof at that time.
  • Then the house appears to have remained much as it was for about a hundred years till the mid to late seventeenth century when the last big historical make over was undertaken.  At that time we can assume the timber framing, that by then would have been unfashionable, was removed and the upper walls of the house were rebuilt in stone with a new fenestration pattern being formed.  It is possible that there was some rearrangement of the internal spaces to create a room pattern that was also more fashionable.  The smoke bay is likely to have been adapted with the insertion of a smaller stone flue within it so as to allow more space to be released into the house.
  • It is possible that it was at this time that the roof covering was changed to clay plain tiles as by then these were becoming more affordable, but not cheap enough for the common man.  Therefore it was a new fashion and wealth statement that was made at the time of this make-over.
  • From the end of the C17th the house appears to have had only relatively minor alterations and changes applied to it as most houses do when they adapted to suit the living requirement of their occupiers over the years.  This included some small extensions and general alterations to the living space.
  • Then in the 1960s the house was again subject to a makeover to suit the fashions of the time, and a two-storey extension was added to the north end at about the same time.  Whilst the style that resulted and the potential damage that it suffered may not to be to current tastes or historic building conservation philosophy, it was probably no worse than what the house has gone through in the centuries before and we can see in the historical changes to the fabric as noted above.  It was simply the house taking on the trappings of fashion as perceived by the owner of the time.

What was our client’s reaction to what we could reveal?  Basically one of delight, although they soon realised they were taking on a greater responsibility than they had previously considered when it was a fairly anonymous and simple late C17th house.  It also created an enthusiasm to learn more about the house and explore how they could reverse much of the modern ‘improvement’ and reveal its hidden historical fabric.  In terms of property value there was probably little difference made by its discovered heritage, but it was certainly a factor that would make it more saleable in the future, even if nothing more was done to it.