'Cathedral' barn is saved

 

Britain's greatest surviving ancient wooden building, a huge medieval barn dubbed "the Cathedral of Middlesex" by John Betjeman, has been rescued for the nation after years of neglect at the hands of an off-shore property developer who bought it for £1.

Harmondsworth Great Barn, on the northern fringe of Heathrow Airport and within earshot of the M4 motorway, is a miraculous survival from the era of Agincourt. It is one of the nation's most important architectural treasures, hailed as a "masterpiece of carpentry" by English Heritage.

Dating from 1426, early in the reign of boy-king Henry VI and not long after the death of Chaucer, the Great Barn was one of several built in an area now largely swallowed up by the outer west London suburbs.

For centuries this was one of England's wealthiest agricultural regions, a source of wealth and power, but wheat, barley and fruit growing have long since given way to a sprawl of housing, industrial estates, roundabouts and major roads.

In 2006, with upkeep costs rising and the destructive expansion of Heathrow Airport seemingly imminent, the Grade I listed barn was offered for sale for £1 by receivers winding up the then owners of the barn, a local firm. It was snapped up by a property developer through a company, Harmondsworth Barn Ltd, registered in Gibraltar.

A third runway at Heathrow, approved by the last Labour government, would have greatly boosted the value of the land on which the barn stands. But when airport expansion plans were scrapped by the Coalition government in 2010, the barn and its land became a financial liability for its owner.

The Great Barn was built by Winchester College, which held land at Harmondsworth, during the late medieval "infrastructure boom" as Europe recovered from the Black Death of the previous century.

The development of Heathrow Airport, which began in the 1940s, sounded the death-knell for agriculture in Middlesex, and all but one of the region's ancient barns, that at Harmondsworth, were demolished.

Built with the same skill and attention to detail as the great churches and palaces, the Great Barn was a favourite of the architectural historian and poet John Betjeman, who gave it its informal title, the Cathedral of Middlesex, in the 1960s.

The barn is exceptionally rich in original oak timbers – some 98 per cent of which remain in place. It is more than 60 metres long, 12 metres wide and 11 metres tall, with 13 massive oak trusses supporting the vast, tiled roof. A complex lattice of mighty curved braces and beams above a "nave" and a dozen chapel-like bays give the impression of a large medieval church.

By 2006, time was catching up with the Great Barn. Rainwater had started to seep into the building, roof tiles were falling off, weeds sprouted amid its 700-year old timbers, and no fire alarm system or fire-fighting equipment had been installed.

Historic agricultural buildings, especially old barns, are especially vulnerable to damage, accidental or otherwise. In 2004 and 2005, a series of fires at another huge barn, that at Frindsbury, near Rochester, Kent, destroyed four of its 13 bays. Frindsbury Barn dates from 1403.

Despite pressure from English Heritage and local campaigners, the owner of Harmondsworth's Great Barn failed to carry out any repairs. In 2009, in the wake of coverage in Cornerstone magazine, published by the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB), English Heritage served an Urgent Works Notice on the owner, requiring repairs to be carried out. The barn's owner still refused to co-operate, so English Heritage carried out repairs itself. While seeking to recover the full cost of these repairs from the owner, English Heritage struck a deal with Harmondsworth Barn Ltd to buy the building for £20,000.

"We've long respected our cathedrals and great houses from the Middle Ages, but the best of the great barns, like Harmondsworth, are equally worthy of respect and protection," says Matthew Slocombe, incoming Director of the SPAB, founded by William Morris and which counts Betjeman among its former officers. "These great barns are symbols of the dominance of the rural economy in the past, and the immense investment in craftsmanship and materials that agriculture deserved.

"The imposing tithe barn at Bradford on Avon in Wiltshire, with its lavish, stone-covered roof, is already in English Heritage's guardianship, and the exceptionally early Cressing Temple barns in Essex, dating from the 13 century, are now cared for by Essex County Council after narrowly escaping loss. We're delighted to hear of English Heritage's positive action at Harmondsworth."

Last week, English Heritage, which sees the purchase of the Great Barn as a welcome victory after a long series of drastic cuts in its budget, told the Independent that the building is " a supreme example of late-medieval craftsmanship - a masterpiece of carpentry containing one of the best and most intact interiors of its age and type in all of Europe".

English Heritage will be handing over the running of Harmondsworth's Great Barn to members of local campaign group The Friends of the Great Barn at Harmondsworth. It is expected to be open to the public from this April. Full details will be posted on the English Heritage website.

Arts and Entertainment

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment
V&A museum in London

Art Piece taken off website amid 'severe security alert'

Arts and Entertainment
Over their 20 years, the band has built a community of dedicated followers the world over
music
Arts and Entertainment
The Wu-Tang Clan will sell only one copy of their album Once Upon A Time In Shaolin
musicWu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own only copies of their latest albums
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper, Alessandro Nivola and Patricia Clarkson on stage

film
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
News
art

‘Remember the attackers are a cold-blooded, crazy minority’, says Blek le Rat

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    Army general planning to come out
    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
    Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

    Growing mussels

    Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project