Brian Viner: Country Life

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The Independent Online

Our house was built in 1850, which practically makes it a Barratt show home by the standards of some hereabouts. A semi-retired architect called Michael Phillips, who moved to Ludlow from Wolverhampton 12 months or so ago, contacted me last week to say that extensive renovation work on his house in Corve Street has exposed ancient oak timbers bearing clear scorch marks, apparently a legacy of the Great Fire of Ludlow of 1645, which began when besieged Royalists in the castle started firing on the Parliamentarians below. If only the cannonballs had carried another 50 yards, they would have hit Tesco.

Coincidentally, Mr Phillips's letter arrived in the same post as another one telling me that a former London madam is setting up a discreet bordello in a Herefordshire farmhouse, a subject to which I'll return enthusiastically in the weeks to come. Whatever, it delighted me that I should learn about debauched schemes and scorched beams on the very same morning.

Whether or not I get an invitation to the bordello, I got one from Mr Phillips, and hurried over to find out what it's like to touch timber that felt the lick of fire 361 years ago. Rather stirring, was the answer. It also increased my respect for oak. I'm told that even today, if you happen to find yourself in a burning building, better it should be oak-framed than steel-framed.

It's a truism to say that they knew how to build things to last in those days. From the street, Mr Phillips's house looks classically Georgian, but its frontage dates "only" from 1788. The same is true of many old properties in Ludlow. Broad Street, which Pevsner regarded as one of the most striking thoroughfares in England, is full of free-standing Georgian facades hiding much older buildings. You can see this clearly from the rear and Mr Phillips was able to tell me that the Georgians "weren't worried about back elevations, only front elevations". I couldn't help wondering whether the same principle might apply at the farmhouse bordello, if and when business gets under way.

Anyway, after leaving his fascinating house I wandered across the road to the offices of South Shropshire District Council, and asked for Colin Richards, Ludlow's conservation officer. Mr Richards will shortly receive the MBE for his services to conservation in the area, and it doesn't take long chatting to him to understand why. He has spent 16 years encouraging local craftsmen to learn traditional building skills so that when repairs to ancient properties are carried out, they are done so not only sensitively, but also in a manner that might last another 400 years. He has also overseen the export of these skills to places as disparate as Romania and Sweden, overseeing exchange schemes whereby experts in oak carpentry from Shropshire work alongside Swedish timber-framers, learning from each other. I didn't want to embarrass him, so I didn't say so, but it occurred to me that if it's the arch-conservationist Prince Charles who gives Mr Richards his MBE, he might just give him a kiss as well.

As for Mr Phillips's house, Mr Richards said the burnt timbers showed that the fire - tackled by townsfolk passing pails of water along a human chain from the River Corve - had extended much further along Corve Street than had been thought, another reminder that tranquil Ludlow has known intense trauma.

He also said the demolition of the auction rooms next door had enabled him to organise an archaeological dig, which finished just before Christmas, and that one of the items unearthed had been a comb made out of bone.

"The Romans had bone combs," he said, his eyes sparkling as only those of a conservation officer mentioning the Romans can. "But actually we think it dates from the 11th century. We also found pits full of bones, which was quite worrying, although they turned out to be animal bones. Obviously some kind of butchery took place there, although the strange thing was that one pit was full of front legs, another full of back legs. At first we thought we'd found evidence of some kind of ritualistic slaughter." In Ludlow? Never!