Barrington Court and Holly Farm: Money and Fire

Well preserved building archaeology can be found in quiet places. Frugal places where little fuss is made…. families come and go.. the home is kept water tight but apart from that.. small practical changes as the years stretch into centuries. Generations of evidence will accumulate ..gradually… like dust settling on rafters.

National Trust Vernacular Building Survey for Holly Farm completed in 1987. The NT aims to record all of the visible historic architecture of its cottages, farms and outbuildings in this way.

But…fire and money will to sweep the evidence away.

We are in the roof of Barrington Court in Somerset. Dan, the Conservator, Robert the Buildings Archaeologist and I.

A Tudor mansion built between 1538 and 1552.

The mid 16th century Barrington Court (on the right) and the late 17th century grand stables converted to accommodation in the 1920s (on the left) known as Strode House after the 17th century family who commissioned it. The two linked by a 1920s corridor.

In 1907, it was the first large house to be saved for the nation by National Trust. In the 1920s, it was leased to Colonel Lyle (of Tate & Lyle sugar) and he repaired it and turned it into a country home. During his building project, he linked Barrington via a corridor to Strode House…..the huge neighbouring brick stables, built in the 1670s, which he converted into a comfortable residence.

Lyle’s transformation of Barrington also created a home for his collection of carved timber panelling… gathered from many derelict buildings in Britain and beyond.

Adding confusion for the archaeologist… a challenge.

Both the Strode House and Barrington Court needed roof repairs and the three of us had assembled to determine the level of archaeological recording and conservation work required during the repair.

‘Any new service trenches planned for the project?’

‘Probably not’…. so, little chance of spotting anything of the previous medieval house which was glimpsed by Forbes the architect during the 1920s overhaul of the building.

We stood in the hall and grand staircase. The architecture looked like a screen-set, something out of an Errol Flynn movie. Dan opened a panel and revealed a giant iron key.

The dancing hall and staircase created for Colonel Lyle in the 1920s

‘ This adjusted the sprung floor of this room’ he said ‘like Blackpool Ballroom.. for dancing’

Nothing truly Tudor visible here. We ascended the stair and Robert spotted a small door half way up. ‘Garderobe’ he said and reached across the landing and looked inside. ‘still has the loo seat!’ The insertion of the stair had broken through a first floor Tudor room of some status ..which once had its own facilities.

At the top of the stairs, we walked through a doorway into a huge empty chamber, still with a fine Tudor fireplace. The yellow brown Ham stone surround was intricately carved and was decorated with painting.

The painted Tudor fireplace in the first floor chamber. The decorative column on the right is original but the unpainted stone on the left is a copy. How much of this decoration is in fact Tudor?.. we will see.

‘It’s been partly covered and then exposed again’ said Robert. ‘These timber dowels would have fixed a wooden screen. The mock red and white marbling, blues, greys and blacks including traces of gold leaf on the carved flowers .. this could be original’

Detail of the painted fireplace showing red and white marbling.

A historic paint specialist would be employed to record this potentially highly significant survival. We imagined the whole room decorated in this lavish way…. 500 years earlier.

However, the main point of the work was to make the place water-tight.. so we were in the roof…. and as we walked along the galleries we became increasingly disappointed.

The attic galleries of Barrington Court turned out to be largely 1920s repair with imported panelling

Robert shook his head. ‘Modern… saw marks… that one’s Tudor but in the wrong place.. I reckon Colonel Lyle’s builders took most of the old roof off, left a few original bits and pieces and used some of his collection of old carved wood to make this part of the building look Tudor’.

Barrington Court was badly neglected when the National Trust saved it …much of the structure was in a poor state.. but.. we had seen adzed and pit-sawn timbers forming partitions on the lower floors.. so not all was lost.

We would call in a dendrochronologist to check whether secure dating was a possibility in these less altered parts of the building.

At the end of the tour, we went into the cellar and looked at the foundations. There was a corridor at a strange angle which formed a corner. The quoin stones here were unlike those of the building that towered above it.

‘Perhaps part of the medieval house’.

Time for lunch and Robert grabbed a roll of drawings from the back of his landrover on the way to the property office in Strode House. Robert unfurled the black line drawings across a table as the kettle boiled.

The inked in survey drawings of the archaeological recording which took place to salvage the information from the ruins of Holly Farm.

Rare these days, but beautiful: hand crafted Indian ink technical pen drawings. The reassemblage from the ashes of the evidence. Holly Farm on the Kingston Lacy Estate.

In May 2021, a spark from a flue lit the thatch and suddenly…. timber-framed Holly Farm burned. The fire brigade could only save the shell of the building

By the time I got there… a few weeks later, the surviving walls were held up with scaffolding and the burnt interior was a heap of fallen charred rafters, purlins and beams.

Robert had worked with the builders and used his forensic skills to work out how old this building was and how it had functioned.

Tree-ring dating showed that the earliest phase of Holly Farm made it contemporary with Barrington Court… though its occupants were worlds away in the social hierachy.

Holly Farmhouse was the home of a yeoman farmer and his family. Customary tenants of Kingston Lacy, part of the Duchy of Lancaster.

In contrast, the Earl of Bridgewater Henry Daubenay occupied the newly built and huge ‘E’-plan Barrington. He’d ordered the old family home knocked down and had the cash to commission this symmetrical wonder. Very much the latest thing back then.

Like Barrington, there are likely to have been previous houses on the site of Holly Farm… and the timber framing gave this away… a piece had been reused from an earlier building. Most of the dendro dates were 16th and 17th century but one of the corner posts was from a timber felled in 1245.

The next set of drawings enabled Robert to talk through the fireplace technology of Holly Farm.. the beating heart of the building. The fire had stripped back the layers of later centuries of adaptation to reveal the large inglenook fireplace. A bread oven on one side, salt drying alcove at the back and on the other side a brewing vat.. and above it ..and accessed from the first floor… a curing chamber. The hooks, where the meat was hung, were still in place.

Robert will unite the structural evidence with the documentary information and complete his report which is the archive and archaeological essence of all that remains of Holly Farm.

Holly Farm after the forensic removal of the burnt collapsed evidence of the building

After lunch, Daniel led us into the attic of Strode House. Huge plain chunky trusses…very late 17th century…. and with assembly marks in numbered order. Colonel Lyle had not needed to replace these…This roof was largely intact.

‘Elm’ Robert tutted… ‘not much chance of dendro-dating these’

My phone went off … the central heating had stopped working….. I gave my excuses, wished them a Happy Christmas and left.

We would do our best to understand the surviving evidence, to fill in the gaps… but at Barrington Court… it was money…. and at Holly Farm…. it was fire…. which had swept… much of… but not all ..the archaeology away.

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