The Secret Life of Houses, part one

 

I think this shows all the roofs in the house, each one representing a different phase of the development of this rambling building, but also disguising it

I think this shows all the roofs in the house, each one representing a different phase of the development of this rambling building, but also disguising it

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)….

The layers of history:  the finial is sister to a much more weathered one at the front corner of the house and it looks as though this one was once outside too -- that is, the house was extended around it, enclosing it indoors;  the fireplace seems to have been built at the same time as this upper floor was extended (the one directly below it on the ground floor seems older);  the Delft tiles may be original to the fireplace or added when it was repointed at some stage;  the embroidery was executed by my mother in the 1980s; and the hen and her yellow chick were made of recycled plastic bags in Africa early this century

The layers of history: the finial (silhouetted against the green, top right) is sister to a much more weathered one at the front corner of the house and it looks as though this one was once outside too — the massive brick chimney (which you can see left in the roof picture at the head of the post) was built  around it, enclosing it indoors; the fireplace seems to have been built at the same time as this upper floor was extended (the one directly below it on the ground floor seems older); the Delft tiles may be original to the fireplace or added when it was repointed at some stage; the embroidery was executed by my mother in the 1980s; and the hen and her yellow chick were made of recycled plastic bags in Africa early this century

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 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 wayOur 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

This is possibly the entry for this house in the 1871 census: it was not called Oak Hall in any other census or document that I know of, but it tallies in other respects. I have deliberately not included the surnames

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.

The staircase, which will be beautiful when it is restored, may be eighteenth century, and would have been built when the house was occupied by the farmer. Such things were not built for farm labourers, who would have had to make do with access by glorified ladders.

The staircase, which will be beautiful when it is restored, may be eighteenth-century, and would have been built when the house was occupied by the farmer, possibly in the eighteenth century.  Such things were not built for farm labourers, who would have had to make do with access by glorified ladders.

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….

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