The following is a guest post.
We had our first snow in Kentucky last week – which makes me very thankful for hot tea, warm blankets and a cozy house. Well – cozy enough under the blankets, a dog on my lap and a mug of tea at hand. My historic house is charming in its un-insulated glory.
Despite my despair over cold floors and cold plaster walls, I count myself fortunate to be inside as winter’s chill approaches, a roof over my head.
Shelter is one of humanity’s most basic needs, though its simplest form may vary from culture to culture. Charting the evolution of building can be a dizzying task, and the architectural profession inspires both praise and bafflement. Architecture is sometimes considered a lofty profession.
When you view the awe-inspiring swoops of Gothic arches and ribbed vaulting in a cathedral – “lofty” seems apt. I think on my first trip to London my mouth was open the entire time, as each new building that came into my line of vision was more captivating and splendid than the last.
Westminster Abbey, London
There are plenty of beautiful churches and cathedrals to be found across Great Britain, but some of the most amazing spaces I’ve encountered have been inside…barns. “Inspirational” may not be the first word that comes to mind when considering barns, but the surviving examples of medieval barns in Britain are nothing short of majestic and amazing.
The connection with religious architecture isn’t a far stretch either, as many of England’s vaunted barns originally belonged to the church – as an important part of a monastery and its farm. (Like the Trappists and their beer, most medieval monasteries depended on the fruits of their farm and labor to survive.)
“Tithe barns” might be a term familiar to some people – in the medieval period, one-tenth of each farm’s produce was earmarked for the church. The tithe barns, then, stored the produce and crops from each parish.
According to some sources, around 2,000 tithe barns were constructed in England between 1066 and 1400. (There is some disagreement among professionals about whether any of the surviving examples in Britain really are parish tithe barns, since many of them can be traced to ownership by a monastic community.)
Bradford-on-Avon Tithe Barn, now owned by English Heritage, is one such example of this…it wasn’t a tithe barn at all. It belonged to Shaftesbury Abbey, the richest nunnery in England and the guardian of the relics of Edward the Martyr.
I have no doubt that poor Edward would have been very impressed by this massive stone edifice – at 168 feet long, the barn has 33 foot spans – the scale of the barn might put some church buildings to shame! (As a side note –after the abbey was dissolved, the barn became part of a farm and was used until 1974.)
The first medieval barn I encountered is the Glastonbury Abbey Barn, in that delightful town of myths and legends in Somerset. This stone and timber frame barn, built in the first half of the 14th century, stored crops from the abbey’s 524-acre farm.
The barn is now part of the Somerset Rural Life Museum – so after you marvel at the talent and craftsmanship that created this incredible building, you can learn about a vanishing way of life in England (ever heard of mud horse fishing?!).
Although it isn’t nearly as large as the Bradford-on-Avon barn, the interior space is breathtaking in its spareness. The cruciform-shaped building has a high, timber-framed roof, defined by massive crucks (essentially, curved pieces of wood used in pairs) and intricate stonework.
Each side of the barn was dedicated to a different saint – the west gable end is designated to St. John. If I hadn’t told you this was a barn… what sort of building would you think this is?
Another English Heritage owned barn, the barn at Harmondsworth, is the largest known built in Britain. Unlike the Bradford-on-Avon and Glastonbury Abbey barns, the Harmondsworth barn sits on a raised stone foundation, but is otherwise built almost entirely of oak.
The 192-foot long barn was built in 1426-27 and cost around £50–£100 – I don’t think that’s enough money to buy the lumber to build a garden shed today!
The barn, dubbed the “Cathedral of Middlesex,” was built by Winchester College as part of its manor farm. The proportions of the barn weren’t left to chance – it was carefully calculated based on the yields of the farm. The care that went into the construction can be measured by the fact that it, like the Bradford-on-Avon barn, was actively used for farming operations until 1974.
Most people would not consider barns to be “true” architecture – but if you have a chance to visit some of Britain’s medieval barns, I urge you to do so – and revel in their majestic spaces. A 19th century tourist, the Reverend John Skinner, said it best when he recounted his visit to the Glastonbury Abbey Barn in the spring of 1825:
“A farmer carting manure on the premises gave us full permission to examine this Monarch of Barns… We are not surprised that the Monastic Orders spared no cost in contributing to the beauty of their churches and place of residence, but when we observed the nicest and most finished sculpture employed to decorate a building appropriated to the purposes of agriculture we are not a little astonished.”
Janie-Rice is an intrepid architectural historian with a double first name. She enjoys dark chocolate, old dilapidated buildings, and darting around English country houses in all sorts of weather. She’s a proud native Kentuckian and a farmer’s daughter. Janie-Rice is currently plotting her next trip to England and looking for a patron to sponsor it (landed gentry preferred.) Visit her at www.fhandfag.blogspot.com.