Friday, 13 September 2013

The Beautiful and Enduring Houses of The Weald

Wealden Hall House - Bayleaf House © Weald and Downland Open Air Museum
I’ve just had an enquiry to research the history of a 15th century Wealden hall house in Kent. This is a type of building that I have quite a bit of experience of and one that gives me enormous pleasure to research. Their innate timbered beauty, the quality of construction from so many centuries ago as well as their sheer survival makes these buildings a favourite of mine. As the name suggests they are usually found in The Weald, in south east England. This is an area between the North and South Downs that runs from Kent to Hampshire, through Surrey and Sussex. Of course nothing is that cut and dry and you can find Wealden houses in Essex too.

Wealden hall houses were usually constructed in 4 bays with the 2 central ones enclosing a double-height hall with a central hearth. The smoke from this would escape through holes or specially made louvers in the roof. At one end of the hall there would be a screen, hiding a cross passage behind and beyond that two rooms known as the Buttery and the Pantry; the service rooms. At the other end the ground floor rooms tended to be the Parlor, where guests would be received, possibly with business or with matters to discuss; hence “Parlor” from the French “Parler” – To Speak. Upstairs, the two end bays would provide the private family area such as sleeping quarters. These were known as the Solar and would be jettied, hanging over the length of the ground floor. Eventually a floor was inserted to create a full-length first floor and the central hearth was moved towards the cross passage or outer wall to create a fireplace and chimney stack. Initially, these timber-framed buildings were thatched and would have had wattle and daub walls. As time went on these would have been replaced with tiles on the roof and brick infill in the walls. The 18th century was also popular to add an entire brick skin around the house. This is why often, timber framed buildings can remain hidden and are still being discovered today.

To illustrate, here are 2 examples of Wealden houses that I have researched. Both have changed significantly since the time of their construction, but beneath them are surviving Wealden Halls. The first is in Wadhurst (on the Kent and East Sussex border) and another on the far end of the Weald, in Kirdford West Sussex. Despite the extensive change and alteration in their long lives they still hold the fundamental dimensions and structure of their original construction. The house in Wadhurst is 14th century and still retains soot-blacked beams in the roof, from the days of the double-height hall and the central hearth.
©Ellen Leslie
The Kirdford house is a little more recent, around 1585 and had been in such a bad state of repair it was nearly demolished in the 1990s. Thankfully it was saved.

©Ellen Leslie
So the Wealden Hall House endures. It was a popular style of construction then, and was a form that took centuries to evolve and eventually be replaced by new styles of architecture.

If you want to get up close with such buildings you should visit The Weald and Downland Open Air Museum in West Sussex. This museum has rescued and reconstructed an amazing collection of traditional buildings from the south east of England, including Bayleaf House (see top picture).