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Thursday, 24 October 2013

Digging around West Wycombe

The National Trust has uncovered evidence of what may be an early manor house pre-dating West Wycombe Park within West Wycombe Village.

National Trust archaeologist Gary Marshall has discovered using tree-ring dating that cottage number 25 dates back to 1531-32. And the adjacent no. 24 is an even older building, possibly the remains of an early manor house for the Bishop of Winchester. During the Middle Ages, the Bishop’s diocese, based in Winchester Hampshire, was one of the wealthiest.

Winchester Cathedral: Wikimedia Commons
The Bishop would have been lord of this early manor until the time of the Dissolution. No. 24 lies directly opposite the Church Loft, recently dated by tree-ring analysis to 1465. It would appear that the core of the medieval village was actually to the east (High Wycombe end) and then expanded westwards and north toward the hill and caves.

Gary Marshall shared this revelation and other thoughts with me about the historical complexity and gradual evolution of West Wycombe Village.
Gary Marshall, National Trust archaeologist on the roof

NV: How did you become involved with the West Wycombe Village project?
GM: When the project was conceived a few years ago, it was considered to be quite invasive into the buildings and so the surveyor approached me asking about the archaeological implications. We had to bear in mind that you’ve got 23 listed structures as a collection of buildings of great historical significance illustrating the evolution of timber framed buildings from the late 15th century through to brick buildings of the 18th and 19th centuries.

We had to consider the archaeological impact. We had to consider what we knew about the buildings and consider what opportunities might arise for further understanding the village. We knew it would mean taking roof coverings off and further invasive work. If we were removing historical fabric because it had decayed or because of necessary upgrading we would record evidence before it was actually removed. Yes, it was a great opportunity.

And how has this compared with the other projects you have worked on, what’s unique about this?
There were buildings in West Wycombe we had looked at piecemeal in the past and we have the studies of the vernacular building surveys (VBSs) from the 1990s so we already had a core of understanding and evidence for the buildings. But by taking the roofs off, we were looking deeper inside the buildings. Of course we've also got the opportunity to try and get more accurate dates for the buildings through the dendrochronology dating (tree ring dating which measures widths in the growth rings of the timber to determine when it was felled).

Dendrochronology drilling (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

This far into the project, can you describe the archaeological impact, the risks and opportunities?
We've had great opportunities to look at the timbers. We’re looking at the types of joints in the timbers and the type of timber they actually used - how it’s been configured and used. But we also get to look at the phasing of the roofs because you can actually see the relationship between timbers and work out how the roofs have evolved. We’ve asked: are they just one phase or are they more complicated than that? And the dendrochronology dating has thrown up some surprises that we might not have known about before. Approximate dates had been given by the vernacular building surveys and where we've been able to get dates we’ve now got much more accurate assessments of those buildings.

One of the frustrations has been that some of those roofs just haven’t dated, even though we've got fantastic old looking big timbers which you might think are suitable for dating. The problem is that the ring structure is such that there’s not enough rings in the timbers or the pattern is too fast grown for the dendrochronologist to asses them properly. 

How long have you been working with dendrochronology dating?
Quite a few years. In fact some of the earliest opportunities I’ve had for dendrochronology were in West Wycombe. It was number 25 on the High Street where we had a date from the 1530s. The technology gives us the chance to accurately put dates on things you would be guessing at otherwise.

Have there been any surprises?
The Crown Court complex is the more challenging property. We know from previous assessments that cottage number 24 is a very significant building. When the timber frame was looked at some years ago we recognised some quite elaborate moulding (shaping on the beams) which is something you wouldn't put on a building unless it was significant with someone who had money to invest in high quality carpentry. A standard domestic building is not going to have elaborate mouldings so we knew it was a building of some importance.

With the tenants’ permission, we went into that building recently to have a look around and I think the dendrochronologist (Dr. Dan Miles of the Oxford Dendrochronology Laboratory) has recognised that he can get some good samples so we’re hoping we can get some good dates.

The style of moulding is not dissimilar from what we’ve got in the Church Loft on the other side of the road which dates to 1465. And so I imagine that he’s going to come back with a late 15th century date.

The other interesting thing about that cottage is that when we looked at it ten or 12 years ago, we realised the framing was actually an internal frame for a building that extended westward so we’ve actually lost quite a lot of the original building. We probably lost the high status bit which would have been something like an open hall. I think we might be looking at the early manor house pre dating the existing house West Wycombe Park.

(Below, some detailed elevation drawings of the possible late 15th century timber frame in the west facing front of 24 Crown Court. Gary thinks this frame would have been one of the bays of an open hall house and that it originally extended further west into the car park.)
Elevation drawing of Cottage 24 Crown Court

Elevation drawing of 24 Crown Court
That’s really very interesting. Who would’ve lived in this manor? Crown Court is across from the Church Loft and faces the village hall, is its location significant?
At that time if it is late 15th century then the estate was owned by the Bishops of Winchester. They would have been lords of the manor and may have been represented by a Steward living in the house. And it’s interesting to look at the relationship between that building and the Church Loft on the other side of the road which housed the Church business. They’re directly opposite each other. It looks like the core of the historical village is actually at the east end and probably expanded westwards up toward the hill.

Crown Court is one of a group of buildings so we’re getting quite interesting dendro-dates from the other bits. We had a 1648 date for part of it – no. 35 facing onto the High Street. The timber framing of the carriage archway as you come into crown court has been dated to 1543, and we’ve got a 1561 date for number 27.

(In the first photo below, Gary pointed out the smoke blackened rafters of 27 Crown Court were dated to 1561. But there's a discrepancy and he thinks the roof was rebuilt later. That's because the soot goes all the way to the 'outdoor' end of the rafter rather than stopping where the soot would have been contained internally.)
Exposed rafter beams in the roof of #27 Crown Court 

Exposed roof of #41 Church Lane, its 1920s roof with the earlier 18th century purlin (horizontal bracing beam) beneath
Are the puzzle pieces and dates coming together as you had expected?
Not sure they are really. There’s some complexity because it’s not one single phase. You’ve obviously got lots of layers and a gradual evolution of these buildings as they’re added to and altered. I would imagine that at the core of it is the historic building of number 24 which has expanded eastward. And then you’ve got this 17th century layer added to it. And the date is quite interesting because it falls within the period of the civil war. You might question why there’s a major phase of building going on during this sort of national hiatus. It’s called the English Civil War but of course Scotland and Wales were involved so people now call it the British civil war rather than the English civil war.

Lots of building work during a major war is very interesting. Each of your discoveries opens another story, but more questions too. Can we go back to dendrochronology and why it’s controversial amongst some building purists?
The technique is slightly destructive in the sense that you take samples out of the timber and once you’ve extracted those samples they won’t go back into the building. But the amount of timber that you actually take out is absolutely minimal – it is pencil sized and you take only 6 or 8 samples if you want to spread your sampling around that building to get an accurate corroboration of the timbers.

The Church Loft is a good example where we were able to take 3 samples out and only one of those had the bark edge which is the last growth ring and gives the felling date for the timber. The other two timbers didn’t have the bark edge because it was removed when the timber was placed into the building.

The heartwood/ sapwood boundary is the start of the bark and you can extrapolate – you can generally add nine to 30 years for the bark that you’ve lost. The boundary date that the dendrochronologist got fits within the chronology, or in other words it confirmed that these three timbers are very accurate for the 1460s period.

Does dendrochronology work on all wood?
You need oak timbers because they grow consistently. You can occasionally date elm timbers and pine but it’s most successful with oak.

Are all the West Wycombe Village cottages oak?
Yes, I think so. The only one that was slightly surprising was 40-41 Church Lane. That’s a very interesting building because it is a small sized cottage and some of it was oak but there was also quite a lot of elm in it too.

You can see by the relationship of the timbers and even in the brickwork how the building has been extended northward up Church Lane. At the core, there’s a rafter construction which fits together quite neatly and then it’s abutted by other timbers of elm. We wanted to get dates from that roof because its structure has the sort of appearance of a late 16th late 17th century roof. But unfortunately it didn’t have enough rings. It’s really disappointing that we couldn’t get dates. Dan (the dendrochronologist) has taken some from the floor inside the building which might help to date the wood. It started out as an 16th century timber frame and then became encased in brick, and then enlarged in the later part of the 18th century. It’s surprising how a small building like that can be extended on a number of occasions.

It’s also interesting because the base of the building has a flint plinth and on top is a brick coursing and capping with elaborate moulding around two sides of the building. I just wonder whether it might have started out as something other than a cottage. On the top of the brickwork there are some openings in the gable almost a dovecote so it might’ve started out as an agricultural building or a barn or something like that. It’s quite intriguing.

Quite often with these buildings you get lots of evidence that can suggest different uses. But actually trying to confirm it can be quite difficult.

In 24 Crown Court the moulding suggested a high status manor house but in 40-41 Church Lane the moulding suggests something different.
Yes the Church Lane building moulding is on the brickwork so it’s a sort of finishing detail that suggests they’d gone through a lot of care with the construction and you can see it in the flint plinth. It’s quite well built.

I’m trying to connect the timeline dots. Going back to the east side of the village and Crown Court as the likely centre of the ancient village what about the West side – the hill and the church, mausoleum?
The mausoleum on the hill is much later - mid 18th century around the 1750’s. You’re looking at about three centuries later - after the Church Loft and Crown Court for its development.

Of course we found the Roman graves going up Church Lane which we think are late third century. I suppose the trouble is between that date in the 3rd century and the dendrochronology dates of the 15th century basically you’ve got a gap of about a thousand years in terms of our knowledge. That begs the question: did occupation continue within this West Wycombe environment and if it did we don’t have the evidence for it.

There is this large gap in the early medieval period when you just don’t get any pottery or occupation evidence or anything like that. It’s missing from the archaeological record.  I guess one of the problems is there hasn’t really been that much recorded archaeological evidence and archaeological excavation into the ground which might reveal the sort of pottery and artefact evidence.

I’m sure there was settlement and I’m sure there was continuity. The St Lawrence's Church has fabric dating from the 14th century so if you’re building a church on a hill it is going to be associated with an established settlement. We just haven’t found the evidence. I guess to some extent the development of the later village from the 15th century onwards would have stripped away the earlier occupation evidence.

After finding Roman remains in the graves on the hill, one of the biggest questions is where was this Roman settlement? When the West Wycombe Park lake was dredged up in the 1990s, an awful lot of pottery evidence was found, and a significant scatter of Roman coins. In the early 1990s there was a lot of artefact material found but not actually recorded. There’s probably a villa somewhere in the village that’s never been actually identified. It’s probably lower down within the Park rather than up the hill it just probably hasn’t been found yet.

Is it something the National Trust would actually do as a project?
I suppose it would be on our wish list to investigate further. Whether that would be through geophysics or trial trenching - it’s something we’d like to do. It would require funding and might not be on our list of priorities at the moment.

In terms of this project and its priorities to refurbish how has this compared with other projects and properties you’ve worked on?
I suppose quite often we find that we’re looking at the whole of the building and the tenants are not actually in residence. In some of the West Wycombe Village projects they’re actually only working on the roof, so the tenants will be staying there and we don’t always get a chance to look inside the building. Ideally we’d be looking at the whole building and interiors. Having said that, the 1990s building surveys did that initial assessment for us.

How much are you using the National Trust’s Vernacular Building Surveys (VBS) from the 1990s in your current work?
An awful lot. They’ve given us a frame work for understanding the evolution of the buildings and the roof recordings. Dendrochronology is testing those existing assumptions. The surveys are generally accurate in terms of understanding the evolution of the buildings, and in terms of which bits were built earlier and which bits were built later. The part we’ve had to challenge is the accuracy of their dates. So they would probably be assigning dates to first half or second half of a particular century whereas we can be more accurate.

Dendrochronology has been developed since the 1960s but I think it was just a financial thing. There may not have been the funds at the time that the 1990s surveys were completed.

Nowadays if we were looking systematically at a whole village complex like that and undertaking a thorough survey we probably would build dendrochronology into the analysis.

Oonagh (Oonagh Kennedy, National Trust curator) has looked at the RSA’s restoration in the 1930s, what do you think about their work and today’s project.
When the RSA did their work they weren’t thinking about archaeological recordings or evidence. I suppose that illustrates the difference in thinking between how we’d approach building renovation now and how we might have approached it in the 1930s.

How is modern thinking different?
The architects who would have scheduled the repairs in the 1930s would have assessed significance but not actually in a systematic way. What we don’t have is the sort of record of their thoughts or process.
Now we appreciate that one of the reasons for looking, carrying out a thorough assessment is so that we can identify those significant layers. So that when we make future decisions about which historic fabric is significant, and which is not so important then we can make those sort of value judgements about what we should or shouldn't be removing from a building.

In the 1930s they must have gone through that thought process but not actually captured it on record, at least not in a systematic way.

As you've been with the NT for nearly 30 years, how else do you think archaeology has changed through time? Sorry for the reminder of years and the abstract questions.
It’s been 26 and a half years. Thanks.

Although the technology and scientific techniques existed then, there’s a greater use of them now, dendrochronology is just one example. And I think dendrochronology is developing. They’re building up better chronologies so that in the future it might be possible to re-evaluate some samples that probably didn't date very well.

Probably too, the quality of CAD drawings to show phasing with colour. And I suppose you’re using cumulative knowledge. So there’s an understanding of timber framing and techniques that’s been developed since the 1930s or earlier.

What is on your wish list for this project and from your perspective what should the future hold for WWV?
I suppose the approach is at the moment very building by building specific. The next stage is to use the evidence to try and build and synthesise it into an overall village and parish understanding. And I think you’ve asked me before some quite interesting questions which we don’t have the questions to.

We’ve got a Roman layer, a Post-Medieval layer. But actually what happened in the intervening period? Why were the Romans interested in an Iron Age hill fort? There are several thousand years of occupation we need to understand and also what’s happened to the present day. So we need to start thinking about documentary evidence for the village. Particularly why there’s a phase of major construction in the village in the 15th century.

The civil war period is from 1642 to 1649 and we’re talking about more than a century earlier. The major phase seems to be 1460s to 1600. What stimulated that major phase of construction? What are these buildings and what’s their relationship with the road. Some of the suggestions are that the village was owned by the Bishops of Winchester. But were they actually planning a town and planning to expand it so it might have rivalled High Wycombe? As owners of the manor they would have rented properties out and were looking to create an income. Were they doing that commercially by leasing plots, building shops and commercial premises? The commercial side needs more research.

The documentary evidence is suggesting lots of commercial activity, particularly retail activity. These were rental surveys. We know from a mid 18th century map there were 8 inns catering to road travellers. I guess those inns were going to have associated crafts and activities like blacksmiths’ shops. We know there was lots of leather crafting to do with saddle shops. We found leather waste suggesting a shop making or repairing saddles. Lace making was quite significant in the village too along with bakeries, joineries and woodworking shops.

The village has had many changes, but we’re trying to pinpoint the main reason.

It’s that process of change. If you look at it now, it still has a number of commercial premises. It still has a post office, pubs and shops and several architectural practices so it still has a commercial core to it. And the nature of those activities would have stayed the same like the pubs but some have changed to reflect 21st century use. But the core is still the road. If the road wasn’t there it would be a dormant village and probably just cottages and houses not the commercial side as well. The road gives it that commercial stimulus.

Last question, do you think it would survive well without the road?
I think some of those businesses wouldn’t survive without it. It’s critical to some of them. I suppose it’s the tourism aspect too with West Wycombe  Park and the caves.
(July 2013)

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