The Olde Country Cottage

Country cottages. Warped ships' timbers, honeysuckle, pixie-cut thatched roof, a misshapen chimney, the aroma of baking and Vaughan Williams 'Pastoral' drifting out of the small paned window. Very twee. 

Do you ever wonder whether they are really ancient or just more recent fakes? 

This post is about the oldest, visible surviving rural housing used by the common people and in particular how much you can see from the road. It is impractical to include much detail in a post aimed at mobile phone readers so I have added notes and links in a postscript in case you peek behind the floral curtains and take a closer look, 

It isn't easy. The main survivors from medieval times are the stone buildings like churches and mansions which I am not concerned with here. There are few details, let alone complete houses, that have survived extensions, reconfigurations and improvements; and no clear  distinction between a renovation and a rebuild.  Look at the place below. It seems to have had an extension, new windows, rebuilt walls and the thatched coiffeur includes a combover for the garage! The only original part of my old bike is the custom frame, and even that has been messed about with. Every other part has been repaired or replaced. So is it still my lovely old bike? Old cottages are much the same.

You also need to keep in mind that what we might now assume to have been the homes of rustic peasants, were more likely to have been the spacious and durable houses of their day. Most people had basic shelters, little different from their Saxon predecessors, quick to build and quick to decay and disappear where there was no stone to hand. 

Most would have been were more inclined to think of their houses as places to live in, rather than as an investment. Those priorities still hold in many parts of the world. We are the outliers. 

A heroic generalisation might be that if you squint you might see a few medieval details in a very limited number of buildings, but most of the oldest houses in the villages in and around the northern Home Counties probably originated in the 1600s, i.e. around the time of time of the reigns of the Kings James & Charles.  Many more originated in the Georgian period that followed in the 1700s. (I tested this assumption by checking numerous listed building records for a selection of local villages. A link to these records is in the postscript). The pic below is Cordwainers in Long Crendon, thought to be a mish-mash of parts from over three centuries. 

Transporting materials was difficult and expensive so the building materials used were usually whatever could be found locally, either naturally or by pillaging older structures. One result which is still evident is that house styles can vary over quite small distances depending on what stuff was available. On my Midsomer Murders bike route you might notice that the houses around Chalgrove are 0ften timber framed while in the nearby Haseleys they are Portland Stone. This didn't really change until the coming of the railways. 

There are two basic ways of weatherproofing a house and holding a roof up. Some types of stone can do both jobs, such as Cotswold limestone, but in many places, a common approach was to make a timber frame often using either freshly cut oak which was easier to cut and shape, or reused oak which was tougher. But its popularity made it expensive and in some places elm was used instead. Joints were formed using the ancient technique of mortise and tenon. 

Walls were useful, so if you weren't using stone, you needed something else!  Bricks didn't appear until later on and were expensive and planks, which had been used in some places for centuries, required a lot of valuable timber. So the common choice was usually between rubble or malleable clay in the form of 'wattle and daub', a lattice of smaller branches smothered in a mix of sand, mud, dung and anything else that was handy. In some areas, but more commonly in the counties south of the Thames, weatherboarding added extra protection.   

Rubble lasts better than wattle & daub and many places first replaced it and then outlasted it. What counted as rubble depended where you were. Limestone and Sandstone were both useful, chalk less so because it was soft and friable. A lump of flint is durable, hard and unbothered by water. But as a building material it isn't so useful because it is hard to shape  and needs a lot of mortar to set in place. Working it became something of an artform, as you can see in churches, where it is often used decoratively with the problems with corners resolved by framing it with brick.

Roofs were usually thatch, gleaned from arable land or reed beds for want of local and affordable alternatives. As a cover, it works well, but can catch fire too quickly and provides to comfortable a home for some wildlife. Tiles are made with burnt clay, like bricks, and were more commonly found in towns and later, after transport and manufacturing methods improved. 

Wattle & daub or simple boarding was also the standard way of creating internal partitions. It is the ancestor of the lathe and plaster that was still in use until plasterboard became ubiquitous 100 years ago. 

Timber frame, wattle & daub

But to make sense of the later buildings it helps to understand how they came to look like they did. 

A good late Medieval or Tudor 'long' house might typically be arranged around a large rectangular central living area or 'hall', open to the apex of the roof and with a hearth in the middle. Lacking kitchens, chimneys and often windows, they would have been gloomy and smoky. Better places might have crudely partitioned spaces for working, sleeping and preparing food at each end. Some would have been divided into two by a central corridor. Poorer farmers might divide the building to house livestock. Here is one large and one small example from the Weald & Downland Museum in West Sussex. You can see how the basic form of the building might survive while almost every other detail does not. Notice, no chimneys, so if you worry about particulate pollution, avoid these places when time-travelling! 

Hall Houses

The Museum has a wonderful collection of houses, moved from their original location and rebuilt. They give you a good idea of how they were built and what they looked like both inside and outside. If you can't visit, check out this page on their website. 

The museum also offers an archaeologist's recreation of one of the early hovels referred to earlier. It is pictured below and as you can see in this case, the builder used the flint that is common in chalk areas. It is salutary to think that farmers on the fringes and hills of Wales, Scotland and Ireland were still living in buildings like this in living memory. My grandfather went through the same process of creating a bit of privacy by adding a crude extra floor into the roof space in his single-story 'croft' style cottage and moving livestock from an annexe into an outhouse with the thunderbox loo attached. 

Hangleton House

In rather more prosperous rural southeast England a classic method of construction used a 'cruck' frame. This used large naturally curved, timbers to create a type of 'A' frame that supported both walls and roof. The smaller 'hall house' pictured earlier was built this way and there is a diagram of something similar. I will add a link to better detail in the notes.

Structure of a three-bay cruck house

In the couple of centuries that followed, incomes and houses grew. The reasons why are set out in my post (Link) The Lay of the Land.  The result can be seen in the evidence of what is sometimes called 'the Great Rebuilding'. I don't like the phrase; it suggests that everyone rushed down to Ye Olde B&Q as soon as the plague buboes had cleared and the last rat had applied boot to bucket. Rather, the change took place over time and was facilitated by an approach to building that could be kindly described as 'modular'. In Wales, for the time being,  Jones' lived as they had always done, but here in England, Thomas and Alice wanted to flaunt their increasing prosperity and others followed.

In the better houses, animals were kept in outhouses. The end of the hall could be used for a second storey, accessed by a ladder or stairs, to create more private spaces. New houses might even be built with an upper floor and jettying became fashionable. Fire hoods and, later, chimneys controlled the smoke. Where waxed cloths had once covered the window holes, shutters were used and the better off might enjoy the luxury and light from some glass.-, perhaps pillaged after the dissolution of the monasteries!  The diagram below shows the layout of the larger hall house pictured above. 

Large Hall House, Interior

Upper Floor with Jettying

Again, durability was seldom the watchword and as incomes increased and expectations changed, it is unsurprising that these buildings were replaced or recycled. Elements that were luxurious in earlier times became more commonplace. By 1700 what remained might only be parts of the original structure, often deeply embedded in later buildings and which would be much altered again over time, and parts of the original rectangular layout.

An embedded 'cruck frame'.

So when everything changes over time and some older-looking buildings are all or partly fake, how can you tell what is what? It helps to have some idea of what these houses might once have looked like and of the typical menu of 'improvements' since. Again, you can do no better than to visit the website of the Weald and Downland Museum.

In terms of common 'improvements', wattle and daub external walls have usually been rendered or even replaced to improve weatherproofing and durability. Sometimes rubble walls received the same treatment and in either case, this hides much of the structure. The pic below is Dinton in Buckinghamshire but the 'type' is omnipresent. These are probably 17th / 18th c. cottages built with rubble and wychert which is a mix of white chalk, clay and straw unique to that area. As you can, the white rendering makes it hard to discern the original external features. 

Wychert is a good example of how the earliest houses were built using local materials, typically timber, clay and rubble. While the latter were usually free, timber wasn't and you might use 100 trees to build a good size house. Bricks were around and used grand houses, but they were not more widely used until they became more fashionable after the Great Fire of London in 1666, when people saw the drawbacks of timber. But bricks were expensive to transport and while many areas were blessed with suitable clay, home baking expertise didn't extend to bricks so local efforts were usually limited and crude. Over time that changed, so a general rule is that the more irregular the bricks, the older they are likely to be. 

You can also get some idea of how old houses are from their shape. Many are wonky; especially where a history of alteration has warped the timber or changed the distribution of the loads and stresses. 

Other tips. Look out for floor plans that no longer seem to make much sense and low door and window heights. Do the two ends of a building not seem to match? Does the chimney look like an afterthought? Are the visible timbers rough-hewn, or do they have the regular shape and edges that indicate cutting by machine? Many will have a mixture as a result of repairs over time, so you can compare; but if there are a limited number of older timbers, be aware that they might have been 'recycled' from elsewhere.


Look out too, for tiled roofs with a steeper pitch than you might usually expect. That is often because they were simply replaced thatch, which needs a steeper pitch, over the same frame. 
Cruck frames don't lend themselves to multi-storey houses because it is hard to find large enough timbers and restrict the roof shape. So as houses expanded in the Jacobin period their use was increasingly restricted to outbuildings. So if you see a cruck frame it either points to a genuinely old house or a converted barn! In a similar vein, long rectangular buildings sometimes point to an origin as a hall house. 'Cordwainers' in the piece earlier has a relic cruck frame buried in the structure of the left-hand side only.

Are you gasping for more? In the postscript that follows I have added:
  • Some examples with photographs
  • More on materials and structures
  • Suggested places to visit
  • Where you can find detailed information on individual buildings. 
  • More on stuff you can no longer see. 


This post adds to the detail in its predecessor.  

What came before the cottages? 

Is there anything left that pre-dates the buildings referred to there? The Romans left some traces. I referred to these in my post (Link) Bronze & Iron . And I have pointed to some recreations of the huts of people from the stone age to the Saxons in my post (Link) Britons to Saxons.  Beyond that the answer is no. The Britons and early English didn't live in places that had much chance of surviving. Timber rots, mud walls collapse and useful stones are reused. What we know about them is mostly deduced  from buried stones and the traces of post holes in the ground. 

So I start here in the later Medieval period which lasted from the Plantagenets, the inspiration for 'Game of Thrones', until 1485 when they were elbowed out of power by the Tudors and Richard III carelessly mislaid his corpse in a Leicester car park. You will see lots of churches and some manors and castles still recognisably that old albeit much altered. Quite simply, they were built to last. The houses of the common folk were usually not, but the style didn't change much over the period and the Hangleton House and other older buildings at the Weald and Downland Museum will give you some idea.

Here is a real world example. At Raddun, near West Overton on the Marlborough Downs, archaeologists identified the hillside site of the stone-built dwelling of ‘Richard’ who was probably a herdsman later in the 1200s. It would have been a simple long-house.  All that is left of it now is crop marks and some buried stonework but from this, they deduced that on entering, humans would have turned right and animals left. After he died, perhaps around 1280, his son built a new house nearby in which a solid partition divided the living area from a barn and the animals were in outhouses. Progress!  

 If you want to try a bit of medieval DIY there is a guide here: Link: Build your own Hovel

Examples & Places to Visit 

Tudor period houses are quite unusual hereabouts, and examples in anything like their original condition are hen's teeth. If you want to see some survivors I suggest you look outside the Home Counties, for instance at Lacock in Wiltshire or Lavenham in Suffolk. The latter in particular used to be rolling in money from the wool trade, which might explain the quality of the old buildings. 

Confessions: On the bike trips, I haven't been recording places with this post in mind. So I intend to add better examples in the future, particularly in East Herts and Oxon. Meanwhile, if you want to have a look at some older buildings the villages to the north of the Aylesbury Vale seem to be a good bet. Long Crendon, Chearsley and Haddenham all have strings of houses dating back to the 1600s and 1700s although much altered. In Long Crendon in particular there are quite a few cruck framed buildings and many in Haddenham and aroundabout are rendered with wychert. (See my Metroland cycle route). 

Here is an example: 

Sycamore Farm at 9, Bicester Road in Long Crendon in Bucks started out in around 1205 as a timber framed house. Some of that still exists, and it is thought to be the oldest surviving dwelling of its type in Britain or perhaps even in Europe.  It originally consisted of a central hall with a kitchen and bedroom on either side. Bits were chopped and changed over time and a second storey was added in the 1600s. Progress! But you would be hard-pressed to tell that from the outside. The original fabric is now sandwiched between a brick skin added in the 1700’s and hundreds of years of added plaster.

Sycamore Farm 

In Long Crendon, you will also find the 'Old Courthouse', owned by the National Trust, which is a great example of a conventionally framed building from the 1400's. Links)

NT: Long Crendon Courthouse

Listing : Long Crendon Courthouse

Elsewhere some of the Cotswold towns are made of stone that has lasted well. But they are also made of money which could be invested in covering the old with the new. Burford is a good example and deserves some more attention from me. But you can check anything out with the tools below. 


I doubt that anyone will try this, but you never know! 

The most helpful piece of research that I have found is a detailed study of older houses in and around Ewelme, by Stephen Mileson, from Oxford University. He writes about how the houses were and their interiors used as well as how they were built and laid out. His book based on the research currently costs over £90 but thankfully he has written some much shorter and freely available research, on of which you can download from this link. 

People & Houses in South Oxfordshire

The best comprehensive guide to what is old and what is not is the listed buildings records. Virtually every building dating back to beyond 1700 and in anything like its original condition, is included in this. The easiest way to find them is through this site: (link)  Listed Buildings   The pic below is the map for Long Crendon, you can see a fraction of the old buildings that there are. 

 When you click on a blue dot, you are taken to the records entry. Click on 'View this List Entry' and on the next page 'official list entry'. It is all there. And if you want to cheat you can always take a peak at the place using Street View on Google Maps. 

Timber Frames. 

There are lots of ways of configuring a timber frame. Some are obvious from the outside. Here is a bit more about cruck frames since they are a key identifier of the very earliest buildings. In essence, the base crucks shown in the upper diagram are usually older. You might see them in public buildings or ancient barns and the photo below shows what they look like in that context. But good luck trying to find one of them in a house. If you do find one, please let me know. 

Types of cruck frame 

Internal view
Finally, if you want to see what a timber structure can look like in all its glory, visit the 'Harmondsworth Great Barn, incongruously situated at the end of the Heathrow runway. (Link) Great Barn  It lies beside Harmondsworth Moor which is amusingly described by British Airways who own it as a 'rural idyll'. 


Great Barn 



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