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Welcome to the West Wycombe Village Project Blog written by a National Trust volunteer and supported by the National Trust. If it's your first visit, find out more about the project in our about section.

Friday, 3 May 2013

Homes and Manor homes

I love my home even though it's not a grand old historical house. Half my living room used to be a car park garage which was converted sometime in the 1980s, while the spacious wood conservatory is a replacement of the previous plastic one which was built circa 2001. Tracking the history of my house is all quite straightforward but historical houses can often be more challenging.

Chastleton House, a Jacobean house in Oxfordshire
It's impossible to find an old historical home which is unchanged. But when I asked Richard Fillmore, one of the National Trust's most knowledgeable building surveyors, a real walking encyclopedia, he called to mind Chastleton House. This Jacobean country house in Oxfordshire was built in 1607 by a family in the wool trade. Ownership of most homes like this usually change hands and shape from time to time. But Chastleton House was owned by the same increasingly impoverished family until 1991, so did stay unchanged for nearly 400 years although slightly ravaged by age. The dynamic village of West Wycombe couldn't be more different in its evolution.

West Wycombe Village forms a complex collection of buildings from a range of dates from the 15th to 16th century. To help tackle this complexity the National Trust has commissioned Oxford Archaeology to investigate and record the buildings with conservation work. Their investigation includes dendrochronology dating to determine the age of timber wood.

The map below shows the current West Wycombe Village refurbishment programme but not the historical dates of each building which could be available by the end of the project. This map helps visualise the scope of the project. 

Refurbishment Project Map for proposed building works

One of the village's larger cottages next to Band House (possibly Number 57) was actually three different smaller cottages. While the Old Vicarage in its earliest form was a traditional 'hall house' dating probably from the early or mid 15th century. There are few if any hall houses which have survived unchanged. These houses which centre around a main hall have generally all been extended by successive owners over the generations.

All interesting stuff but National Trust Archaeologist Gary Marshall has been analysing documentary evidence and previous surveys and has made the potentially most interesting architectural discovery so far. The cottages at numbers 24-25 High Street may have formed the core of a manor house or high status building dating from the late 15th century. Evidence consists of high quality mouldings applied to a timber frame embedded into the west wall of number 24 facing the village hall across from the Parish Church. I'm not alone when I say I can't wait to see what Gary discovers next. 

No pressure then, Gary!

It's May and soon we might be lighting barbaques instead of log fires. This got me thinking about chimneys which I've learned only became commonplace in domestic homes during the 15th century, possibly because the bricks to build them were expensive until mass produced. So during this time, unless you were a very wealthy landowner, your fireplace would have been on the floor in a fire pit or iron brazier and the smoke would have filtered out through your thatched roof causing smoke blackened rafters. No wonder life expectancy was shorter.

Sometimes the archaeological recording can throw up interesting and contradictory evidence. For example at Number 27 Crown Court where the roof was found to be composed of smoke-blackened rafters indicating a cottage dating to the 1400's. But with tree ring dating, or dendrochronology, the roof timbers at 27 Crown Court have been dated to 1560 or early 1561, which is relatively late for smoke-blackening. To further confuse, the blackening extends to the feet of the timbers extending outside the building where one would not expect blackening. And so this appears to be evidence of timbers re-used in the existing building.  Clearly today's 'modern conservation' approach to reuse and retain is not modern at all.

This post was originally going to be a background note about dendrochronology dating.  Maybe next time. But in light of the developments which Gary Marshall has been piecing together I get a better idea of how this technique is just one of many archaeology tools in the box. Accurate and precise, dendrochronology can help confirm or debunk conclusions based on architectural analysis. 

For example, roof plan analysis of the High Street Cottages Number 11, 12 and 13 next to the Butcher shop reveals four different phases of building construction from the 16th to the 20th century by looking at the materials used and the style of construction. For example, finding wattle and daub indicates 17th century construction. Dubbed as the poor man's brick 'wattle and daub' was a common form of infill to timber frames with clay or lime-based daub applied to pliable sticks of woven willow. Below, a photo of Cottage number 11 with detail of wattle and daub infilling.

wattle and daub infilling, No. 11
In the sketched roof plan below which is not drawn to scale: the oldest part is in the middle and marked in red covering cottage number 12 and half of 11. Cottage number 13 is marked in yellow and is mid 17th century. The blue is 19th century and the green 20th century. Further down, photos of their roofs after tiles were removed.

Roof plan of #11-13 High Street West Wycombe, not to scale.

Detail of gable wall for #14 and Truss 1 which sits adjacent

View of #11 & 12 roof High Street frontage following removal of tiles

Roofs and Roads

Some good news aside from the sunny bank holiday weather:  The scaffolding on Number 35 on the High Wycombe end of the High Street should go by mid-May. But scaffolding for Number 59 near the Apple Orchard will arise by then (although this will not affect road traffic as it will be on the footway); this is expected to be down by end of June. The street scaffolding may be bad news if you enjoyed the way it calmed traffic.

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