Looking and listening

by Charlie Wellingham

As part of a whirlwind tour through Tewkesbury and Worcestershire (taking in churches, abbeys, bridges, barns, and even a particularly historic Wetherspoons pub), the Scholars were privileged to spend a day learning about medieval timber framed structures with Nick Joyce of Nick Joyce Architects; an expert who has spent his career developing an analytical eye for assessing their condition and required repairs. Nick explained that the traditional methods of constructing timber frames is very much like a language – daunting if you don’t know the dialect but significantly simplified when you establish the rules of the grammar and a few key bits of vocabulary.

The first thing to remember is that every cut made by the carpenter’s chisel has a purpose. Framers were not in the habit of carving additional mortices just to amuse their idle hands. Any vacant pocket or open slot is evidence of an adaptation; be it a loss or addition, demolition or extension. Similarly there has been much academic research undertaken about the evolution of timber framing design and technology and as such the crudeness or sophistication of a particular joint can usually give a good clue to the century in which the carpentry was undertaken. After briefing us on some of these ground rules, and a few other tell-tale signs of aging timber structures, we were taken out to the Worcestershire countryside and introduced to a classic example of a well-used and well-loved timber frame building, and invited to tease out its seemingly incomprehensible former lives.

St Cuthbert's Chapel

St Cuthbert’s Chapel

The original structure on this site was in fact religious – note the low masonry walls of St.Cuthbert’s Chapel, most likely erected in the 13th century, but recorded as being deconsecrated in the 1380s (when the population it supported re-located to a newly constructed river crossing nearby). The only surviving remnant that explicitly indicates this phase of life is easily overlooked; the moulded jamb of a former east window, hidden in a lean-to store room and long since blocked up.

St Cuthberts Chapel east window

St Cuthbert’s Chapel east window

Agricultural use occupied the barn for the next 400 years as farmland engulfed the isolated structure. Adaptations included the removal of the original roof and the construction of the timber framed upper stories directly off of the chapel masonry walls (Dendro dating of the timbers indicating they were felled in the 1520s). Many windows and openings were added and removed, and animal stalls were laid out in what would once have been the nave. Carpenter’s marks in the exposed trusses indicate which were original to this period and which have since been modified; they also indicate the order in which they would have been erected and the way they were temporarily supported as they were raised – having first been joined with oak pegs laid out flat on the surrounding fields.

The final use of the former chapel came in the mid-19th century, when the barn was overhauled to create a drying house for the hops that were being cultivated at the farm. The roofline was altered to accommodate the ventilation cowls, and a magnificent rolling first floor structure on iron casters was installed to allow the crop to be loaded and unloaded, sliding back and forth across the ovens below. Further lean-tos and openings were added, providing covered space for the sacking of the hops and loading directly onto carts.

Rolling floor at St Cuthbert's Chapel

Rolling floor at St Cuthbert’s Chapel

The resultant structure that has survived these adaptations is so rich with history and character that it is almost overwhelming. The decision to reuse rather than rebuild has resulted in a unique building alive with the documentary evidence of over 600 years of the working countryside’s society and culture in its fabric. Reading these clues and interrogating those former lives is an aspect of conserving historic architecture that I find endlessly fascinating. Thanks very much to Nick for introducing us to this hidden gem and for sharing his extensive expertise that gave us the language to understand and appreciate it fully – rather than being deaf to its quiet secrets.

St Cuthbert's by Dearbhail Keating

St Cuthbert’s by Dearbhail Keating

 

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