Beauty for the beasts
Cows and horses once shared a rare Devon longhouse with their owners. Now it's strictly for two-legged animals, says Penny Jackson
Wednesday 26 May 2004
It is hard to imagine a more idyllic rural scene than a whitewashed and thatched cottage in the Devon countryside. Voted the country's favourite county last year, many of its villages still have the clotted cream, roses- around-the-door appeal of a picture postcard.
It is hard to imagine a more idyllic rural scene than a whitewashed and thatched cottage in the Devon countryside. Voted the country's favourite county last year, many of its villages still have the clotted cream, roses-around-the-door appeal of a picture postcard.
More often than not, if a thatched property that comes up for sale is a farmhouse, it will be described in glowing terms as a "Devon longhouse", a type of local building that people instantly recognise. But behind their façades are differences that are as sharp as those that divide "softer" Devon from its rugged moorland parts. The genuine longhouse is a rare creature these days, with fewer than 125 surviving, nearly all of which are on Dartmoor.
One of those is Tor Down House, a Grade II-listed property on the edge of the village of Belstone. Now for sale, it is described as a "magnificent example of a real Devon longhouse", and there is plenty of evidence to prove that it is just that.
The defining feature of these medieval buildings is that they housed people and animals under one roof, separating one from the other by a cross passage. At the time they were built in the late Middle Ages, they would have been single storey and usually three rooms, which is where the confusion has arisen. Although most Devon farmhouses of the period would have been built along those lines, they were purely for domestic use.
At Tor Down House, though, it is clear that it was an animal shelter as well. John and Maureen Pakenham, who own the house, have visible proof that the shippon (cow-house) end slopes downwards, an obvious necessity for drainage and mucking out. "The rooms are on different levels with steps in between, because a longhouse is invariably on a slope. Having a slurry drain running down the middle of the floor is a way of proving you have a genuine longhouse."
The house, of course, still has the distinctive cross passage, on one side of which is the drawing-room and dining-room with three bedrooms above, and on the other side a study in the former shippon with another en suite bedroom on the first floor.
It was Doris Lessing, the author, who converted the shippon into a writing-room in 1968. The house itself had been close to collapse until 1960 when it was given emergency treatment. When Lessing took it over in 1964 horses were still occupying the shippon.
The longhouse's structure is a mix of unhewn granite and slate rubble with walls of an average thickness of 20 inches. "They taper away from a wider base so none of our furniture is flush to the wall," says John. "It has a wonderful feeling of history. For instance the thatch on the inside is never renewed and in some old houses it is smoke-blackened in the middle of the roof from the days before there were chimney stacks."
These features were not added to Tor Down House until the 16th or 17th century - around the same time that the stone wall was built to divide the cross passage from the animals, and the upper level was fully floored. "Until then people would have clambered up to sleeping chambers by ladders from the hall room with its central hearth," explains John.
These were later replaced with staircases and huge granite fireplaces. The grandest is in the hall-room, now the sitting-room, where the original bread oven is lined with cloam, a coarse pottery. "One staircase by the side of the dining-room fireplace has been walled up but you can look down into the shaft from the loft," he adds.
Since the Pakenhams moved to Belstone 10 years ago, they have built up a thriving B&B business. It is particularly popular with walkers, who relish being in the highest part of the moors. The 365 square miles of Dartmoor had more than a passing appeal to John, given that he has covered well over a thousand miles of Africa on foot. He regarded the explorer and writer Wilfred Thesiger as a mentor, staying at his camp and walking with the same group of people. "Here we are on the doorstep of the biggest uninhabited space in north-west Europe. I can stand in the garden and have a 25-mile view to Exmoor," he says.
The three-and-half-acre garden has been a focus of much of his time. The half that isn't wildflower meadow has been planted with unusual trees and plants. The area around an ornamental pond is shaded at this time of the year by a canopy of wistaria and laburnum.
But the real labour of love for the Pakenhams has been the rebuilding of the ruins of a second longhouse, which is now a two-bedroom cottage. "We found the original granite floor during an archeological dig and used all the stones that were lying inside when the walls collapsed. Even the nails we used were handmade. It took a wonderful stonemason a year to build," says John.
Isolation and the relative poverty of the hill-farmers in part explains why the longhouse has survived in its moorland stronghold. They "perfectly express a unity of form and function as they merge into the landscape to provide human and animal shelter against a hostile upland climate", writes Peter Beacham in his book, Devon Building. Only 25 remain with the animal shelter unaltered. These are easy to identify but applying the term longhouse mistakenly undervalues the genuine article. "Unless its specialness is more widely recognised as a matter of urgency we will lose for ever a rich cultural resource of Devon history," says Beacham. At Tor Down House they have tried to ensure that doesn't happen.
Tor Down House has an asking price of £800,000 through FPDSavills: 01392 253344
The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings ( www.spab.org.uk) runs restoration courses
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