Old houses are forever changing: the ground shifts under them, the wind and rain lash at them, insects eat their timbers, families (some of them human) move in, expand, die or move on, never without leaving some trace of themselves. Half of our house — of our wing of Orchard House — is over four hundred years old, perhaps far older than that if you listen to some people around here, though why they are so sure I cannot imagine; most of the rest is definitely a hundred and twenty years old; while the main staircase is dated somewhere in between. So there is a palimpsest to be read by a good eye (that would not be mine)….
Really old houses like this one have likely been empty for extended periods of their existence, neglected for perhaps a century at a time and generally maltreated. Our researches suggest that this house was two or three separate dwellings for most of the nineteenth century, and perhaps partly abandoned at times The images below suggest some of this story.
Our house on the Ordnance Survey map in about 1875, with three paths to it and divided into at least two parts. An 1801 map shows these buildings as separate, but that cannot be relied upon either way
But for centuries before that it had been the farmhouse for what remained a working farm until halfway through the twentieth century. In 1895 the farm was bought by a prosperous local farmer, who built his family a modern place a few hundred yards away, from this house. He then pulled down part of this old place (perhaps it was falling down on its own!) and added a new wing. In 1901, he moved into his new mansion up the hill, and sold this place to the village’s first doctor, who made his own adaptations, including a patients’ waiting-room at the side door. Doctors continued to live and practice here for most of the twentieth century, and our neighbour nowadays is the NHS surgery which succeeded the one in the big hall of this house.
How a place like this has stayed standing is a miracle. Most houses built at that date (1500-1600) have after all long since fallen down. Turn your back for a second and wham!, water gets in. Keeping water out is one way of describing the whole purpose of a house, and I once knew someone who was very convincing on the subject: the day we brought plumbing into houses was the beginning of the end of civilization, he said, and taking it above the ground floor was utter madness. Water is the enemy.
In Part Two of this occasional series, I’ll talk more about what water does to houses….