The dating of vernacular buildings is becoming more precise thanks to the advances made in dendrochronology and to more sophisticated analysis and comparison of decorative features carved in stone and wood. These methods are necessary because few vernacular structures are documented with any accuracy; the site or shape of a building may appear on a map or plan but that does not prove the surviving structure is of that date. The problem of assigning a date to agricultural buildings is even more difficult as on the whole, they lack the datable features which embellish houses. It is therefore something of a surprise to discover that one of the few buildings in Helmdon which can be dated precisely is a barn.
In 1758 the parish was enclosed by Act of parliament [ref. Helmdon Enclosure, Valerie Moir, Aspects of Helmdon no. 2 1998]. The result of this was the disappearance of the open fields with their hundreds of strips of land and their replacement by consolidated blocks of land which were soon separated into smaller fields divided by quickthorn hedges; the modern farming landscape was thus created, although the original ridges and furrows of the medieval system of farming can still be spotted in many places. Now that the individual farmer had his land in one place rather that scattered about the three great fields, it was logical to erect buildings close to that land rather than continuing to use those in the village.
The Church was a modest but significant owner of land in Helmdon and because such institutions generate more - and better preserved - records than individuals it is possible to follow in detail the consequences of enclosure for the rector. Two terriers (from the Latin terra meaning land) or lists of the lands held by the church before and after the enclosure act illustrate what happened. In 1758 the terrier showed the church lands scattered among the open fields: in the East field there were eighteen and a half acres, a further seventeen in the Middle field and fourteen in the South field; in addition the church held some meadow land, leys and commons. By the enclosure act all these were exchanged for two plots of land on either side of the Welsh Lane, one of just over seventeen acres and the second measuring thirty-nine acres, three roods and twenty-five poles.
As one of the village landowners - and the beneficiary of the tithes - the rector had a barn very close to his house. A plan of the glebe allotment of 1758 places his house on the site of the later Victorian rectory; the barn, described as being of ‘seven bays of building’, a long low building with a thatched roof, was aligned north-south with its west wall alongside the road leading up to the church (see photographs below); the structure marked 'Gig House' is on the site of the 1758 barn. By 1764 the Rector had decided that having his barn at such a distance from the glebe land was inconvenient and he was granted permission by the bishop of Peterborough to make the necessary changes. The faculty which licensed the change is dated 8th of October 1764 and described the old barn as being ‘rendered almost useless’; it was to be reduced to half its size by having the north end taken down. The terrier of 1767 confirms that this was done as it describes the barn at the rectory ‘of three bays’. The second part of the faculty allowed the rector to build ‘one new barn upon a Close in Helmdon part of the Rector's Glebe called Middle Arable Close or Falcot Cross Close’.
As well as granting permission for the building of a new barn the faculty specified its dimensions and the materials to be used in construction. It was to be ‘of the length 42 feet and 16 ins breadth within the walls or thereabouts. Side walls were to be built with stone and to be 12' 4 " high and 2' thick and the roof proportionable; the principals and side plates to be good oak and the Rafters to be of sufficient scantlings [this refers to the dimensions of the timbers used]. The barn when built to be covered with wheat straw.’
Just over two hundred years after the barn was erected a friend and I decided to see if the present building matched the 1764 specifications.* The ‘wheat straw’ had been replaced by slates but the steep pitch of the roof indicated the original material, as it does in many of the older buildings in Helmdon. We surveyed the barn and produced some rough sketches to indicate the dimensions. Internally the measurements were within a few inches of those described in 1764: length 42' 1", breadth 16' 4"; the walls are 2" higher than the 12 4" high of
the faculty and their thickness varies by an inch from that indicated. The stone used for the walls is local and presumably came from one of the village quarries on either side of the Weston road. The attractive kneeler stones at the top of the outside walls are replicated in a number of village houses of the same period. What was not mentioned in the eighteenth century was the position of the entrance; the original building had two double doors in its long sides - therefore indicative of the original purpose for which it was built: that is the storage and threshing of corn. However one of these doors had been removed and the gap bricked up; this was necessitated by the construction of later farm buildings
‘The barn was a long low building with a thatched roof’
‘This recotor's house 'may have dated from the early sixteenth century'
Photographs of two of the four wash paintings of the Old Rectory, Helmdon,
dated 1844, now at Northamptonshire Record Office.
adjoining the bam on the south side. However the general appearance of the building and its very sound condition testify to the skill and care of the local men.
No doubt the rector was pleased with this splendid new building but it was to be almost another hundred years before the rector's house was modernised. The building shown on the 1844 wash paintings may have dated from the early sixteenth century: there is a surviving wooden lintel of a wooden fireplace carved with initials and the date 1533 or '35. Certainly the proportions and plan of the building in the drawing make such a date credible. In 1816 the incumbent - the Rev. Charles Milman Mount - wished to improve his surroundings; a faculty was granted allowing him to take down a dilapidated cottage and ‘also a barn contiguous to the Rectory house which are become useless.’ The materials were to be used to repair other rectorial buildings. By the middle of the nineteenth century a new breed of more fastidious - or socially ambitious? - clerics was chafing at the often uncomfortable houses they occupied. So sometime in the latter half of the nineteen century the old thatched rectory was replaced by a commodious Victorian house. A hundred and fifty years later this - like thousands of other large rectories and vicarages - proved unsuitable for a church with shrinking resources and it was sold. Just as the rector no longer lives at the rectory so the bam built to house the products of the glebe has been converted into a private house; both of these symbolic but significant changes happened in the last decade of the twentieth century.
* My colleague on that occasion was Malcolm Airs, then working as an historian with the GLC, and subsequently Professor of Conservation and the Historic Environment at Oxford University.
First printed in Aspects of Helmdon No 6 (2008)