Annular Further – Britain – Traditional and vernacular building culture
Britain is home to a long tradition of timber building dating back thousands of years, and is popularly identified with oak framing and a symbolic connection to the oak tree. This flowering of heavy timber carpentry from the late medieval into the early modern eras – from around 1050 through to 1550 – is usually seen as the high-water mark of English timber carpentry, the great medieval period of timber building which has not been equalled since. It is also wholly pre-industrial in character. These master carpenters worked with green, unseasoned roundwood, passing down learning in the body of knowledge through generations, a way of working which has almost disappeared in today’s world of machine led pre-cut dimensional sawn timber. Medieval carpentry also required a presumed knowledge and experience of working directly with trees and with logs and using the tools of the carpenters’ craft and tradition; broad-axes, adzes, augers, and other woodworking tools.
Medieval carpentry stands on literally thousands of years of working with wood. For material on prehistorical timber structures see the next section, to times millennia earlier than the known timber framing tradition. That known tradition is often dated to the beginning of the 13th century, generally accounted for due to there being so few recovered timber buildings predating the 1200s.
The English tradition is often divided into three distinctive regional timber frame accents or schools; the Eastern, Western and Northern schools, each featuring characteristics specific to their respective regions. In the Eastern school, ‘close studding’ is a feature up until the 16th century, with studs placed equal measurements apart. An example of the Western school are square panels and also decorative elements, such as decorative patterns of stars, lozenges, and crosses worked into the framework. In the Northern school one finds posts standing on foundations rather than sill beams, and studs sited decoratively in chevron or herring bone shapes.
A good introduction and encyclopaedic overview of English Medieval Carpentry is presented on Robert Beech’s Encyclopaedia of English Medieval Carpentry website.
Cruck frame distribution across England and Wales from
N. W. Alcock’s 1981 Cruck construction – An Introduction
and catalogue (see further below.)
The Medieval timber frame tradition
The early 1200s is identified as the beginning of the medieval timber frame era because the first structure to set its posts on stone pads rather than into post holes in the ground, derives from this time. This precipitated a major transformation of building practice and out of what might appear a minor modification in building practice, the timber framing tradition rapidly emerged, adapting a wide range of new building approaches including new jointing techniques and assembly systems for frames, even though some techniques – such as mortice and tenon joints – had been in use for millennia, and were integrated into the new timber frame systems.
Timber frame building became the widespread way of construction for the next four hundred years, until the advent of brick technologies. The growth of brick buildings in the 1700s led to the gradual eclipse of timber framing. The principal wood used was oak, valued for its strength, durability, and long grain. Other hardwoods included sweet chestnut, elm, and hornbeam.
Four different types of timber frame construction are generally identified as the most common and popular; box frames, post and truss, aisled construction and cruck frames (this discussion is primarily drawn from a useful University of West of England report – in more depth here).
Box frame buildings are comprised of vertical posts joined by horizontal beams, which create separate bays. The bays consist of wall frames and at each bay interval cross-tie beams the opposite wall. A more flexible and straight forward design than cruck frames, box frame design features allow for the construction of two or more storeys, which often overhang out from the ground floor, a practice known as ‘jettying’. Wings to the sides of box frame buildings can also be added. Whatever the number of floors roofs were constructed separately comprised of a row of rafters rather than purlins gradually moving beyond what could be achieved with cruck-frames.
A well-known example of box frame buildings are the Wealden Hall Houses, found across the East Sussex and Kent High Weald, so called because of their hallway interiors, were primarily built by wealthy yeoman between the late 1300s and the 1500s. Bayleaf House, at the Weald and Downland Open Air Museum in Singleton, West Sussex, is one preserved example, as is the National Trust’s Clergy House in Alfriston, East Sussex.
An overview and map of Wealden Hall Box frame houses across the South East can be found on this Geograph webpage.
Post and truss
Post and truss frames are the most popular form of timber framing, with more surviving in Britain than any other timber framed building forms. In post and truss buildings, the roof and wall elements are structurally combined, with the posts supporting a horizontal wall plate jointed at the eaves by a tie beam. The roof incorporates trusses at each end, which carry horizontal purlins the length of building, reinforcing the rafters’ structural role. The principal rafters are jointed into the tie beam forming the roof trusses.
Aisled construction expands on the post and truss template, by turning the post and truss into a central aisle – or nave, in religious buildings – and creating two outer aisles or spaces. With aisled structures, common to church buildings, where one side of the wall post faced the outside world, these became the near internal walls of the side spaces, the posts became arcade posts, and the roofs extended lean-to roofs at pitches matching the main central roof.
As the additional aisles of such buildings provided greater volume, the construction type was used on larger structures, such as market halls, and is the principal structure for many medieval barns.
There are various famous surviving aisled barns, including the largest medieval barn in England, Harmondsworth, in Hillingdon, West London, and the oldest, a barley tithe barn at Cressing Temple in Essex, dated to 1205/1235. Others include Great Coxwell, Oxfordshire, and Titchfield Abbey Barn, Hampshire, with many others across the South and East, particularly in Kent and Essex, as well as examples in the north, mainly of stone construction.
Photographer and medieval barn enthusiast Ken Bonham runs Great Barns, a website dedicated to barns across the British Isles, which includes various maps of medieval barn’s by region, county, and geographical spread.
Silent Spaces: The last of the great aisled barns – Malcolm Kirk (1994), Thames & Hudson Press, a photo-documentary of aisled barns.
Dating from the late 14th Century the Nero coffee house in Taunton, Somerset, features a three cruck frame base
holding up crown posts – Photo – Somerset Vernacular Buildings Research Group
Rather than vertical posts and horizontal beams, cruck framed structures use, as the word suggests, crooked or curved (or inclined) timbers or blades often from the same tree, forming an A-frame and meeting at the apex, where the blades are held in place by a collar brace. Purlins run horizontally from the cruck timbers, which also transfer the roof load to the ground.
There are an estimated 6337 cruck frame buildings in parts of England and Wales, although their origins remain uncertain, particularly since so few buildings remain from before the 13th century. This has created something of a trade in detective work, with differing theories as to their spread, and historians of timber frame buildings quite open to arguments that the structural system may have originated separately in several places around the country.
The geographical spread is primarily in the west of the country, with true cruck frames appearing in the West Midlands, the North-West and the West itself, but completely missing from the South and South-East, while jointed crucks are mainly found in the South West; Devon, Dorset, Somerset and Wiltshire, appearing to have originated in Somerset, with some spread northwards up the west coast. Their absence both from mainland Europe and the south-east suggests that cruck-frames were indigenous to Britain. Others, such as archaeological historian N. W. Alcock argues that it is likely the influence worked the other way around, with mainland Europe influencing England’s most economically and culturally dynamic region – the South-East – with more advanced building forms. By the 1700s cruck frame construction had become a less efficient and outdated building technique, compared to the elaborations of box frames. As wood supplies diminished, new build cruck-frames faded away, except for a few isolated examples in the north.
Cruck construction – An Introduction and catalogue, by N. W. Alcock (1981), CBA Research report, 42. (click on title for link to online pdf version.)
N. W. Alcock is a contributor to the considerably more recent Cruck Building: A Survey (2019), edited by Nat Alcock, Paul Barnwell and Martin Cherry (Shaun Tyas Publications.)
See the Fourth Door Unstructured feature on the Return of the Cruck Frame – exploring two examples of contemporary cruck frame sustainable architecture and building
See also, the Annular Archive feature, Into Phase 2 – Flimwell Moves On, on the Flimwell Woodland Enterprise Centre Phase 2 cruck frame buildings.
Museum of Welsh Life, St Fagans, Celtic Village – Photo – Immanuel Giel/Wikipedia
Prehistory and pre-medieval buildings and structures
Wood began to be used in Europe in shelter, storage, and other structures during the mid-Neolithic between 6000 and 5000 BC. A part of the transition from nomadic hunter-gatherer communities to settled farming and sedentary living, various prehistoric building forms emerged, not least long houses.
Long houses were single roomed long rectilinear buildings of between 5.5 to 15m in width, and of variable lengths, from 20 up to 45m. Though outer walls were mainly wattle and daub, some featured split logs, while the pitched, thatched roofs would be supported by poles.
The earliest long houses are to be found in central Europe circa 6/5000 BC, although a small number of more recent examples have been identified, including in the British Isles.
The largest reconstructed long house in Britain iis the timber hall at Balbridie, in Aberdeenshire, North-East Scotland, a long house measuring 26m by 13m across, and 10m high. Dated to the beginnings of Neolithic Scotland, between 4000/3400 BC and supports other evidence of pastoral agriculture in the area. A reconstruction of which demonstrates its size. Archaeological remnants of other Scottish long house timber halls have been uncovered in nearby Crathes, although the archaeological record suggests these timber hall constructions were short lived, for a period of only 200 years. Evidence of Neolithic timber halls have been uncovered at various English sites, in Cambridgeshire, Flag Fen, Peterborough, and White Horse Stone, Aylesford, Kent.
Crannogs are artificial islands supporting circular dwellings that are found in lakes and estuaries in western Scotland, Wales and Ireland. Although there are different construction types, Crannogs were usually constructed from materials found in the immediate locale; stone, peat, clay and timbers, often with a raised timber walkway out to the circular timber roundhouse standing on wooden piles or stilts, which were held together by interlocking mortice and tenon joints. Along with the timber, the circular log cabin building often included wattle and daub and was generally roofed with thatch, broom or other comparable materials.
Eilean Domhnuil on the Hebridean island, North Uist, has been identified as the oldest Crannog, radiocarbon dating its construction to circa 3650-2500 BC. A reconstruction of the historically more recent Oakbank Crannog (500 BC) sits on Loch Tay, Kenmore, Perthshire as the heart of the Scottish Crannog Centre, built by the Scottish Trust for Underwater Archaeology and opened in 1997.
Seagull House – Roderick James and Carpenter Oak & Woodland’s very early cruck frame – Photo – Carpenter Oak
The green oak revival and new vernacular building culture
Vernacular and traditional building culture enjoyed a resurgence in popularity from the 1970s onwards, with ripples of this wave of renewed interest in the building cultures of the past influencing the wider culture in different ways. Some elements of this renewal included the green oak timber revival, enthusiasm for and uptake of research into vernacular building traditions, the opening of the UK’s first open air museums, other dedicated centres, and several specialist organisations dedicated to vernacular building culture, specifically oak and timber framing.
Green oak and timber frame heavy structural carpentry
At the heart of the resurgence in vernacular and traditional building culture through the 1970s and 80s was the green oak and timber carpentry revival.
For an overview of timber framing companies see the Timber frame heading in the Forest and timber industries section. See also the Carpenters Fellowship below:
The Annular Archive Timber Carpentry Comes Back feature profiles the green oak revival.
Arborfield cruck frame barn, Chiltern Open Air Museum (COAM) – Photos – COAM
The sawmill at the St Fagans Welsh National Museum of History
Photo – National Museum
Open air and folk museums
There is an extensive network of open-air museums across different parts (and countries) of Britain. Some collections do not include historical timber buildings, but many do. Here is a cross section of museums in Britain with examples of vernacular and traditional wooden buildings and structures, from different times and places.
Avoncroft Museum of Historic Buildings – home to over 30 buildings, the West Midlands museum focuses particularly on historical buildings, including Bromsgrove House, a 15th century timber frame home, a fully functioning windmill, and the elaborate timber roof of Gueston Hall, a medieval monastic guest hall that originally stood adjacent to Worcester Cathedral. The ornate roof been rebuilt to stand over the museum’s education centre and consists of eight trusses, each truss consists of an arch-brace collar, with the central V a quatrefoil.
Chiltern Open Air Museum -set in grounds near Chalfont St Giles, Buckinghamshire, over 35 buildings from the woody shire Chilterns are represented. These include several barns, including the 16th century oak cruck frame Arborfield barn, other traditional farm buildings, an iron age roundhouse, and a High Wycombe furniture factory, which also features tools of the furniture making trade.
Museum of East Anglian Life – although only a part of the collection of buildings, there are examples of a Tudor (14th century) timber frame farmhouse, a fully timber wind-pump, and a large timber framed barn.
St Fagans National Museum of History, Cardiff, Wales – is the main open-air museum in Wales and is home to a wide range of reconstructed historical buildings from different times and parts of the country. The museum encompasses Wales’s industrial history, although as the original focus was on rural buildings and culture, there are many timber examples from different historical periods and places. These include iron age roundhouses, several cruck frame farm houses from different periods, a more recent mid-Wales farmhouse dating from 1678, and a 19th century sawmill.
The Weald and Downland Living Museum, Singleton, West Sussex – features a diverse portfolio of buildings from across the South-East, brought from Essex, Kent and Hampshire. Again, only some of these are timber buildings, but they do represent an extensive sample of types to be found through the ages and across the region. These include twelve houses and cottages, and farm and public buildings. The houses include Bayleaf house, a Wealden hall timber house, Pendean farmhouse and several older medieval houses, including Sole Street. Public buildings include a 16th century timber-framed market hall and an upper hall, originally from Crawley. As to farm buildings, there is both an aisled threshing barn and an earlier timber framed barn, each topped with deep thatch roofs.
The museum also includes recent contemporary timber architecture including the celebrated Weald & Downland gridshell.
See Unstructured 5 for a range of features on the Weald & Downland gridshell and related projects and UnstructuredExtra 9’s Crafting CLT feature on their more recent visitor gateway buildings.
West Stow Anglo Saxon Village and Museum – sited on a 125 acre archaeological site, West Stow’s reconstructed village museum features eight buildings, all made from wood, from the Angle-Saxon period, circa 400-650 AD. These include a farmers house, a hall building, a living house, a sunken house, and a weaving house. The buildings are examples of 70 smaller sunken featured or pit house buildings and seven larger halls uncovered during excavations from the middle of the 19th century through to the 1970s. The eight village building examples were rebuilt using only the tools and techniques available in the 19th century, by Cambridge archaeological students.
Willows and Wetlands Centre, Somerset – not an open-air museum but related, in the Somerset levels village of Stoke St Gregory, the centre highlights the craft and culture of willow basket making, the withies they are made from, and the place of willow growing in the history, culture, and communities of the watery levels.
The Carpenters Fellowship workday – Photo – Carpenters Fellowship
Traditional and vernacular building organisations
The Carpenters Fellowship – set up by a group of the heavy structural carpenters who were at the forefront of the timber frame revival, the Carpenters Fellowship is both an educational organisation and a practical space for sharing knowledge, trading tools, timber, and expertise as well as advice on finding work. The Fellowship runs regional events, an annual conference, Frame, and the Mortice and Tenon: The Journal of Traditional Timber Frame Carpentry. They also run regular accredited training courses under the aegis of the Oak Frame Training Forum.
Historic Farm Buildings Group (HFBG) – formed in 1985 to raise awareness and interest in farm buildings at a time when many were disappearing, this is a membership organisation which researches, documenting, and runs membership events and annual conferences connected to farms and farm buildings. While not all farm buildings are necessarily timber structures, the HFBG’s ongoing research and evidence base development regarding various building types encompasses many timber farm buildings.
The HFBG contributes to Historic England’s Farm Building and Traditional Buildings research, knowledge base and design guidance.
See the Annular Archive piece on Architype’s Twyford Barn conversion into their Architype West studio highlighting architectural farm building conversion.
Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) – founded by William Morris in the latter half of the nineteenth century, the society continues its founder’s aims of conscious and caring restoration of old buildings through the generations. There are regional groups, regular meetings, events, conferences, training, campaigns, ongoing research and a knowledge base. As in Morris’s day, older buildings are generally pre-1720.
Furthermore, within SPAB there is a special sub-group focused on water and windmills. Their work includes co-ordination of the annual National Mills Weekend, both a mills and millwrights directory and a repair fund, and millwrights training opportunities.
Vernacular Architecture Group – is a national and regional organisation involved in all aspects of the recording and studying of vernacular buildings. With over 700 members VAG publishes extensive research, runs annual conferences and its website includes a broad span of resources, from guidance on building recording to a thorough recommended reading list, alongside a peer reviewed journal, Vernacular Architecture. Other publications include Recording Timber Framed Buildings: An Illustrated Glossary – click on title for pdf.
The sister organisation in Scotland is the Scottish Vernacular Building Working Group.