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Barn Hunting Across the Pond: British Barns Part I

Due to my many blunders, you might assume that I am a barn hunting novice, but I actually cut my barn hunting teeth this past summer in Great Britain.

Though its exterior esthetics are sort of humble compared to Saskatchewan barns, this is one of Britain’s most famous barns, Coggeshall Grange Barn, which was built more than 700 years ago, making it one of the country’s oldest surviving barns.

My research there wasn’t as inclusive and far-reaching as my current barn study, but it was a start in barn hunting. This past summer, I was fortunate to spend six weeks in Essex, England participating taking a course which consisted of study trips around the country, in addition to my own research on barns which was also part of the course requirement. So, this barn hunter ain’t no rookie.

British barns are completely different from western Canadian barns. The word barn itself is derived from the Old English bere (barley) and ern (house/place), thus the word itself originally meant “the place for barley.” Historically, barley and wheat were the two most important crops in Britain. Nowadays, agriculture is just as industrialised as here in North America, but prior to about 1800, crops were sown, reaped, and threshed by hand. The barn was an incredibly important building in that it was a sheltered place where the grain could be processed throughout the winter and stored. In that era, every single grain was precious. Failed crops meant famine. To see how grain was threshed by hand using a flail, check out this short YouTube video with accompanying cool English folk tune.

Thus, the barn was vital to the entire functioning of society. Very few barns from the medieval era (roughly 1000-1500) still survive, and those that did tend to be exceptional barns, ones that were built as store houses by religious orders, such as Coggeshall pictured above.

One of the informants I interviewed in Britain, upon hearing that I was from Saskatchewan (he just so happened to have taught here in the ’70s) remarked “your barns have got the doors in the wrong side.”

In this photo of Upminster Tithe Barn (ca. 1450), which is now a museum of nostalgia, notice there is a door in the long end. All British barns have doors like this.Note also the thatched roof, which desperately needs to be replaced at a cost of close to $200,000.

He was referring to the fact that most barns here have the doors in “short side.” This is because barns in this part of the world were primarily meant for horses and other livestock. Thus, stalls run both sides of the barn, necessitating an alley in the centre for care of the horses. British barns were intended for a completely different use. They are divided into bays, sometimes alternating between threshing floors and storage floors.

Coggeshall Barn is dressed up for a wedding, but you can make out the bays, which are the spaces between trusses (the squarish things composed of posts and beams which support the entire building).     

The doors were in the long side because carts loaded high with grain were driven in, relieved of their burdens, and driven out again. The doors were often left open to allow a draught to blow the chaff away. Interestingly, the doors on one side of the barn were often taller than their opposites. This was because the cart came in with a high load, but emptied out, didn’t need such a tall door on the other side.

Carts like these (displayed in Coggeshall Barn) hauled precious loads of grain from field to threshing floor.

 The comment about doors, and the ensuing explanation, demonstrate how widely buildings can vary according to their intended use. Some Saskatchewan barns are still bring used for what they were originally intended, but no British barn is. The focus of my paper in England was the adaptive re-use of British barns. I will discuss this more in a future blog, and if there are any lessons Saskatchewan barn lovers can learn from the Brits in terms of preserving and/or re-purposing barns that are doomed to neglect.

You may have noticed the gigantic size of these barns and the huge timbers that were used to build them. When I showed my dad the photo below of the timber in Upminster Tithe Barn, he remarked, “Ten million dollars!”, meaning it must have cost a fortune to build. They did even in their time, but now such timbers like that (all oak) simply don’t exist anymore, especially not in England.

Ten million dollar trusses? These ancient oak timbers are a treasure, and many Brits are passionate about preserving these buildings in part because of that. Truly, they make the posts and beams in Saskatchewan barns look rather spindly in comparison. 
Timber-framed barns in Britain employ joints like these to hold the timbers together; there’s not a nail to be found. Vernacular architecture fanatics get really excited about joints like these, because they can help date buildings based on knowledge of joinery techniques of different eras.
Not all British barns are built of timber. Architecture varies widely in England depending on local materials. Here in my ancestral home in the Peak District near Glossop, barns were built of stone. This is a later barn (by British standards) from the 18th or 19th century. Its roof type and shape look more like what we’re used to in Saskatchewan.

Now that you know what British barns were originally intended for, I will follow up this discussion with another blog about how British barns have been re-purposed for use in the 21st century, at some point. You’ll have to check back here multiple times every day to find out when! In the meantime, I’m hoping for one last gasp of nice weather so I can finally finish up my survey. One R.M. down, a fairly vast swathe of the other to go!

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