Wealden Hall Houses: The Medieval Vernacular Heritage of Britain

‘Vernacular architecture’ is a term used to encapsulate utilitarian and domestic buildings constructed using locally- sourced materials. Traditional heritage sites including buildings (#builtheritage) often feature this type of structure, which is created using local techniques and design and built by local craftsmen.

One example which can be found in the United Kingdom is the Wealden Hall Houses. These vernacular buildings are commonly seen in certain villages and towns in the counties of Kent, Sussex and East Sussex in the south of England, roughly 90 km southeast of London.

The vernacular tradition of the Wealden Hall Houses is evident in the use of locally-available timber, mainly oak, with thatched or peg tile roofs and timber-frames constructed in the medieval pre-16th-centry era. These #builtheritage were built for and occupied by yeomen [1] and parish priests alike.

One classic example of a Wealden Hall House is The Old Clergy House (also known as Alfriston Clergy House) in Alfriston, East Sussex, which sits on the bank of the River Cuckmere and surrounded by an English country cottage garden.

Photo Credit: National Trust. Left: Alfriston Clergy House during c.1896. Right: present Alfriston Clergy House
The Alfriston Old Clergy House is a timber-framed open-hall house built in the medieval era and dating back to around the 14th-century and the reign of Edward III (1312 – 1377). Although some parts of the building were rebuilt, reconstructed and added at a later date (in 16th-centry, 18th-centry and 19th-centry), the original form has survived unaltered after restoration.

According to the South Downs National Park Authority records (2015), during the Anglo-Saxon period the land was owned by the Saxons who had been dispossessed after the Norman Conquest but subsequently replaced the Norman lords who had previously settled there. The medieval village started to emerge through the 12th- and 13th- century through the auspices of the Abbots of Battles [2] who then played an important part in creating village tenements. The house was initially built by a private individual as a farmer’s house after the Black Death [3]. The house lies adjacent to St. Andrew’s Church, which later took over the ownership and used it as a residence for the parish priest and his housekeeper although it was rare for priest to live in farm house. However, the house was sometimes rented out to other occupants to raise funds for the church.

FEATURES OF THE HOUSE (Berry, 2016; Heritage Gateway, 2012, National Trust, n.d. a; Oast House Archive, 2009; Ross, n.d.)

Photo Credit: Left: Bould, G. Oak leaf carving, Right: Ross, D. Passage
The original features of the house (14th-century) included an exposed timber-frame, two storeys, an open great hall and box frames (bays) at each end with jettied first floor end bays, wooden slatted windows, and a steep thatched hipped roof.

The additional elements and restoration created in 16th-century and also 18th-19th-centuries featured extra details (Martin & Martin, 1993):

A service bay on the west side was replaced with a cross wing with two bays for the parlour and chambers, along with a fireplace, a single chimney and glazed windows in 16th-century. A bay cross wing at the back of the house was replaced by a rear lean-to and a further house was divided into two cottages in 18th-19th-centuries.

Oak timber frames cut by lathes, covered with daub, wattle and cement render and a chalk floor and moulded and crenulated beams. The hipped tiled roofs are steep thatched with straw and reeds as a base. A brick chimney place and stack, and unglazed casement windows (which were later glazed) with added diamond-shaped panes, one of which is an oriel, were added and changed during the 16th-century.

The house was built as great open hall with two storeys, of which the first floor has wings. One bay at each end of the house was split into two storeys which were jettied all around and used as a service room on the west side and a private room on the east side for the owner of the house. The great open hall has service rooms at each end accessed by a pair of doors (the ogee-headed doorways) – a typical structural layout of Wealden-type vernacular architectural buildings (Stewart, 2011).

On the east side of the hall are the family rooms with a parlour and garderobe (toilet). On the west side of the house, there were the traditional service rooms (buttery and pantry or milk-house). The buttery was used for storing vessels and implements and the pantry for milk processing and storing of goods. At the opposite end of the hall are small chambers, some of which were used for storage and food preparation and others as quarters for servants.

The initial structure included an open fire at the centre of the hall and originally there was no chimney – the smoke from the fire was expected to pass through the thatched roof (Ross, n.d.). A brick chimney bay was constructed on the west side in the later 16th-century when the western part of the service bay was demolished and replaced with a crossing wing (crosswing) of two bays leading to the rear part of house. These cross wing of parlour and chambers served as a fireplace within a side stack and inserted single flue chimney at the rear wall against the great hall (Martin & Martin, 1993).

The original unglazed windows throughout the house were open apertures (wind-eyes). Internal slatted wooden shutters were used to keep out the elements (Berry, 2016). Tall windows of horizontal transoms at the great hall were to provide as a main natural lighting for the house. These windows were later divided into smaller individual sections by vertical oak mullions in the 16th- 17th- centuries. Two oak-framed windows with diamond leaded panes and iron casements were horizontally supported behind the leaded lights (saddle bars) and windows tied with strips of lead or copper (Berry, 2016).

The original main entrance was made up of two opposing curved oak timers (durns) with a square at the top (Berry, 2016). A cross-passage entrance created corridor linkage between the front and rear doors. The current main entrance which leads to the great hall initially had another doorway exactly opposite. This was separated by a panel to create a passage providing access to the great hall on the left and to the service rooms on the right.

The house is framed with oak timbers infilled with laths, some of which are covered with lime-washed daub, and also with cement render. The thatched roof is made with long straws and reeds for the baseline and there is a red brick chimney and stack with tiles hanging on one side (16th-century).

The great open hall in the centre has a rammed chalk floor and moulded and crenelated beams. Inside the roof is a high internal roof structure, the crown-post of which is exposed to the great hall, with single rooms on two stories at either end. The projection of the hall roof beyond the wall is flush with the first floor walls of the wings and each end projected by oversailing on brackets on the upper floor. Decorative and interesting use of timber features has been made to create a form shallower than the normal structure of built housing incorporating curved braces, brackets and eaves in the recessed centre and a flying wall plate, as well as detailed cornice wood carving of oak leaf motifs into the beams in the hall.

#BUILTHERITAGE CONSTRUCTION (South Downs National Park Authority, 2015; Stewart, 2011)
These types of #builtheritage were common in Southern England particularly between the 13th-century and 17th-century. These built houses provided comfort and craftsmen and carpenters carried out their construction using locally available materials. The oak timber frame provided both strength and resistance to rot, typically oak from nearby forests. The roof was thatched using long straw and sometimes reeds from a nearby riverbank for the base layer, and sometimes made from a combination of cow dung and clay with straw or cow hair) through a base layer of wattle panels was used.
The construction of these houses was a simple, flexible and box-type of building (using rectangular sections of two vertical posts with two cross beams), and erected with space between two box frames (a bay). The materials used to construct house included straw, sticks and bricks to thatch the roof, wattle and daub for the walls and bricks for the fireplace and chimney. The frames were built using mortice and tenons and the joints secured by wooden pegs (no nails were used).

When visiting the #buildheritage site, some of the interesting features to be observed include the following (National Trust, n.d. a):

Photo Credit: Left: Bould, G. Oak leaf carving, Middle: Ross, D. Passage, Right: Ross, D. Timber-framed hall
  •  Overview of the River Cuckmere and reclaimed marshland and drainage channel representing the natural state of the marshal tidal estuary,
  • The delightful tranquil cottage garden with a diverse range of flora and fauna which surrounds the site,
  • The chalk floor in the great hall of the house made from a mixture of chalk and 30 gallons (136 liters) of sour milk,
  • The oak leaf wood carving claimed to have inspired by the National Trust’s emblem which was represented in the first premise purchased by the National Trust [4] in 1896.

There is a lot more to discover whilst visiting this #buildheritage house and the village of Alfriston. The Old Clergy House is not the village’s only vernacular traditional building, #buildheritage, and the village itself is surrounded by many #buildheritage sites, natural reserves and wildlife, as well as a nearby vineyard (Rathfinny Wine Estate). The picturesque village will take you back in time to the medieval era of old historical England, and is classified as one of the Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) [5] in the British Isles.

Photo Credit: Ross, D. Alfriston Clergy House view from the garden

[1] Yeomen – old English social class including people who were landholders, guards, attendants, retainers or subordinate officials (Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc., 2016).

[2] Abbots of Battles – William of Normandy defeated the army of King Harold of England and conquered Abbey Battle during the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Various abbots were appointed as spokesmen of kings until the suppression of the Abbey in 1538. (British History Online, 2016; English Heritage, n.d.) [3] Black Death – a mortal disease which spread across Europe from 1346 to 1353 (Benedictow, 2005). [4] The National Trust – A national charity serving to protect and look after historic ancient buildings, nature reserves and archaeological remains across Britain (National Trust, n.d. b). [5] Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) – designated recognition and preservation of outstanding landscapes with distinct character and natural beauty of the British Isles (NAAONB, 2016).

Benedictow, O.J (2005). The Black Death: The Greatest Catastrophe Ever. Access 9 Aug 2016 [http://www.historytoday.com/ole-j-benedictow/black-death-greatest-catastrophe-ever]

Berry, N (2016). Medieval Clergy House, Alfriston, Sussex. Accessed 7 Aug 2016 [http://www.earlyoakreproductions.co.uk/news-blog/wonderful-sussex/alfriston-clergy-house-by-nicholas-berry.php]

Bould, G (2007). Oak leaf carving of Alfriston Clergy House. Accessed 9 Aug 2016 [https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Alfriston_Clergy_House_oak_leaf_carving_2007.JPG]

British History Online (2016). ‘Houses of Benedictine monks: Abbey of Battle’, in A History of the County of Sussex: Volume 2, ed. William Page (London, 1973), 52-56. Accessed 9 Aug 2016 [http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/sussex/vol2/pp52-56]

Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc, (2016). Accessed 9 Aug 2016 [https://www.britannica.com/topic/yeoman]

English Heritage (n.d.). History of battle abbey and battlefield, 1066 Battle of Hastings, Abbey and Battlefield. Accessed 9 Aug 2016 [http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/1066-battle-of-hastings-abbey-and-battlefield/history/]

Harris, R. B (2008). Alfriston Sussex Extensive Urban Survey (EUS), Historic Character Assessment Report, East Sussex County Council. Accessed 7 Aug 2016 [https://www.westsussex.gov.uk/media/1714/alfriston_eus_report_maps.pdf]

Heritage Gateway (2012). National Trust HBSMR Number 142174. Accessed 7 Aug 2016 [http://www.heritagegateway.org.uk/Gateway/Results_Single.aspx?uid=MNA128105&resourceID=6]

Historic England (2016). The Old Clergy House. Accessed 7 Aug 2016 [https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1043360]

Martin, D and Martin, B (1993). Article in Monograph: Clergy House, Alfriston, East Sussex

The National Association Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty: NAAONB (2016). Accessed 7 Aug 2016 [http://www.landscapesforlife.org.uk/]

National Trust (n.d. a). Alfriston Clergy House. Accessed 7 Aug 2016 [https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/alfriston-clergy-house]

ibids (n.d. b). National Trust About Us. Accessed 7 Aug 2016 [https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/about-us]

Oast House Archive (2009). Wealden Hall House, Geograph. Accessed 7 Aug 2016 [http://www.geograph.org.uk/article/Wealden-Hall-Houses]

Ross, D (n.d.). Alfriston Clergy House. Britain Express. Accessed 7 Aug 2016 [http://www.britainexpress.com/counties/eastsussex/properties/alfriston-clergy-house.htm]

South Downs National Park Authority (2015). Alfriston Conservation Area Appraisal Management. Accessed 7 Aug 2016 [https://www.southdowns.gov.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/Alfriston-Conservation-Area-Appraisal-Management-Plan.pdf]

Stewart, E (2011). A History of Historic House Reconstruction: Understanding the Past and Informing the Future, Internet Archaeology, University of York. Accessed 7 Aug 2016 [http://intarch.ac.uk/journal/issue29/3/alfriston.html]

WBSG: Wealden Buildings Study Group (2016). Signature of vernacular building. Accessed 7 Aug 2016 [http://wealdenbuildings.org.uk/your-house/what-do-we-look-for] World Heritage Site


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