Property / Wooden heart of Old England: For nearly 600 years, houses have been built around timber frames. Caroline McGhie examines the ancient bones of the first middle-class homes

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THE CLASSIC timber-frame house that tilts like an architectural drunk, and which seems to symbolise ye olde England better than almost anything else in the landscape, comes in many guises. Most of us think of such a house as typically black and white, with the timbers painted black like the bars of a cage and the walls between them white, in startling contrast. This was not, however, always the case. In parts of the country the timbers would have been painted a deep red; in others, they would have been left to weather to a silvery grey. And many were plastered over, leaving the timber skeleton exposed only on the inside.

The mania that we now have for exposing and blackening timbers is a 20th-century one, based on a tradition that evolved in and around Cheshire, where homeowners started painting their timbers with tar as a by-product from the coal industry. What was a local fashion has somehow become the look for the timber- frame house, though conservationists are trying to spread the word that they can be decorated in different ways.

Timothy Easton, an artist with an academic interest in early house decoration, is one of the vanguard. He and his wife, Christine, live in a moated Suffolk farmhouse which is unashamedly clotted-cream in colour across the whole of the front facade. There isn't an exposed timber on show, yet the house looks entirely at peace with its surroundings.

The building of the house spanned four centuries, since it was first erected in the 15th century, extended in the 16th and 17th centuries, and then given an 18th-century facade. It has therefore presented Mr Easton with a range of period styles to re-create as accurately as possible in his restoration of the house. The exterior colour is an attempt to match plain limewash. 'It is an off-white that is as close as we could get to what the 18th-century colour might have been, similar to that which we see in Constable's paintings,' he explains.

When the Eastons bought the house it was painted a bright pink, like many other Suffolk houses, blending in with the ochres, greens and blues to make the patchwork of colours we associate with East Anglian villages. But here another romantic notion of period properties bites the dust. 'I have to tell you that these colours are mostly modern, since limewash was used well into the Fifties and then modern paints took over,' says Mr Easton.

Inside the 17th-century rooms of his house he has gone to strenuous lengths to get the colours right, basing them on tiny fragments of paint found in the cracks of timbers or within the plaster. Beneath coats of whitewash on the upright timbers in the main bedroom he found the original red-ochre paint. It overlapped on to the walls as if in an effort to 'straighten' the edges of the timbers; it was also used to create the illusion of classical columns at the tops and bases of the timbers. He has copied this effect in grey paint in other rooms. 'Colour and decoration were used in the 17th century to give a hierarchy to the rooms. Red ochre or green ochre was for the most important rooms, while grey was for the less important ones.'

Like many other owners of ancient houses, Mr Easton has a curiosity about those who owned it before him, and who made changes to it as he has done. Thomas Dunston, resident between 1605 and 1657, and buried in the churchyard next door, might have been thrilled with Mr Easton's efforts. For Dunston overhauled the place substantially himself, replacing the roof timbers and decorating one of the fireplaces with a rare black-and-red imitation marble that Mr Easton was able to identify as a rare 17th-century paint technique.

Dunston lived in superstitious times and he left behind him signs of how deep those primitive fears ran. The kitchen ceiling is covered with an assortment of strange celestial symbols that look like spirographs and patterns of holes. Mr Easton has made a study of them and believes Dunston put some of them there to ward off evil spirits. Three rows of regularly spaced holes were probably made for hooks to hang herbs and food on, but the larger openings that contain sets of three stones buried within the plaster may have been some kind of trinity symbol, Mr Easton believes, placed there to protect the household against the Devil. Mr Easton has also come across other strange deposits of shoes, dead kittens, rats, clothes and the odd clay pipe, hidden away in chimney breasts and attics of other houses that he has looked at. These are what he calls 'spiritual middens', and he believes they too were put there to keep witchcraft at bay.

The 16th and 17th centuries were also wealthy times, however - times when a good timber-frame house was seen as the ultimate status symbol in a post-plague society that was now able to spend its energies on lifestyle as well as survival. As W G Hoskins wrote in The Making of The English Landscape: 'The English village, in so far as it still remains untouched by the acid fingers of the 20th century, with its farmsteads, cottages, school, almshouse, and perhaps a decent early chapel, is essentially the product of these two centuries between about 1570 and 1770.' For seven generations, he says, rural England flowered.

The making of these houses, out of the trees that covered the country at the time, required an extraordinarily high degree of craftsmanship. Each timber was cut specifically for its final place in the frame, which was laid out on the ground at the workshop like a medieval prefab before being moved on site to be pinned together with oak pegs, cut from the densest part of the tree. The magic lay in the many joints used to fix the timbers together, that went by names such as mortise-and-tenon, half-lap, scarf, tie-beam and lap-dovetail.

As the centuries passed, the layouts of the houses changed. The earliest were single, full- height halls in which the family lived and slept with the servants at one end, with a hole in the roof in the middle for the fire smoke to escape through. Gradually this was extended to include a buttery and pantry at one end and solar (or private room) at the other. Then first-floor 'jetties' were added, small extensions jutting a few feet out from the building. Chimneys came in the second half of the 16th century, which meant that the smoke-hole was no longer needed and upper floors could be inserted. And so the double-decker house had arrived.

Modern architectural historians have made great strides in dating timber-frame buildings. The biggest breakthrough came during the Seventies, when new studies that concentrated on joints showed that many houses were two centuries older than had previously been thought. Jim Boutwood, an architect best known for his rescue of a spectacular tithe barn at Coggeshall in Essex, feels that previous assessments of timber-frame buildings had simply massed them all together and collectively placed them in the 16th century. His findings were as momentous to period-home lovers as the theory of evolution to natural science.

But now his theories, based mostly on research carried out in Essex only, are being tempered by the research of others who insist that regional variations also need to be taken into account. Different parts of the country used different joints at different times. Professor Ronald Brunskill, the country's leading authority on timber-frame building, has mapped the variations in his new edition of Timber Building In Britain but has so far been unable to draw any firm conclusions as to how they affect dating the buildings.

The local differences in timber-frame houses can lend immense visual appeal. In the South, for instance, the upright timbers (or studs) were used to create patterns of squares and parallels, while in northern counties such as Cheshire they make elaborate quatrefoils, zig-zags and criss-crosses. Whole villages are decorated with particular patterns. For instance, Abbots Morton and Pembridge in Hereford and Worcester are full of black-and- white houses, many of them with frames made of curved timbers that meet at the top like upturned boats, known as 'cruck' frames. Each of them is decorated with timbered squares, circles and four-leafed clovers.

Timber-frame houses masquerading as barns or half-derelict ruins still come to light like Old Masters discovered in the attic. Philip Aitkens, a historic buildings consultant in Suffolk, who likens his work to vertical archaeology, discovered one only last month. 'I was looking at a barn which wasn't a barn at all. It was the wing of a Tudor manor that had been left behind, with all its brickwork and its gallery inside,' he says.

'It had probably once been part of a range of lodgings. Often the owners who took over lavish Tudor manor houses later found they couldn't maintain them, so they knocked down three wings and kept the fourth, or demolished the whole thing and built a new house on the site. Some of them owe their survival to the fact that they found use as agricultural buildings.'

A rare timbered hall, built in 1260 at Purton Green in Suffolk, survived in this way. It was bought as a ruin in 1969 by the Landmark Trust and restored, to let to enthusiasts of period architecture. They have to pad back and forth across the great hall from sleeping quarters to cooking quarters like the 13th-century occupants. And it can't be reached by road. Cars have to be left 400 yards away . . . but a sturdy wheelbarrow is provided to bridge the gap between past and present.