Barns are our rural cathedrals

The Gothic nave and aisles of Harmondsworth Barn (Photo: English Heritage/Boris Baggs)

John Betjeman called it the Cathedral of Middlesex, and the romantic old poet wasn’t using poetic licence.

Grade I-listed Manor Farm Barn in Harmondsworth – which English Heritage has just saved from collapse – is one of the great buildings of Britain, one of the biggest, best, oak-framed barns in the country. And, until now, one of the most ignored.

We British are admirably deferential to our grand buildings – to our country houses, our royal palaces, churches and genuine cathedrals. No other country in the world has an architectural preservation body as popular as the National Trust, which has just recruited its four millionth member.

But we neglect the buildings which produced the medieval wealth behind those country houses and cathedrals. Until the Industrial Revolution, it was farming that financed Britain. And the barn was the farm’s much-valued treasury – Harmondsworth Barn was built in 1426 to store the grain that paid for the upkeep of Winchester College, still one of the country’s most famous schools.

One of the richest institutions in medieval England, the college was founded 40 years earlier by William of Wykeham, the Bishop of Winchester, who also set up New College, Oxford. Wykeham’s principle – of founding a school and an allied university college – made for a powerful precedent, emulated by Henry VI at Eton and King’s College, Cambridge.

But new schools and universities don’t come cheap – and barns like Harmondsworth’s were the cash cows that paid for them.

The Manor Farm Barn could hold an awful lot of grain – it is almost 200-feet long. With all that grain, and money, at risk, the barn had to be built to the highest standards – cathedral standards, in fact. Betjeman was architecturally correct in his praise. The 15th century barn was constructed by cathedral joiners, using the same principles that lay behind Westminster Abbey and Canterbury Cathedral.

Like our Gothic cathedrals, Harmondsworth has aisles running along either side of a nave-like, central passage, all supported by a dense web of pointed arches. “Nave” comes from “navis”, the Latin for boat, because people thought church roofs looked like the upturned hull of a boat; and Harmondsworth’s soaring roof is just like the hull of a medieval galleon.

The quality of the timber and craftsmanship throughout is exceptional, thanks to the status and wealth of its owner, the Bishop of Winchester. Unusually comprehensive documents, still held in Winchester, confirm that the master carpenter, William Kipping, was sent to Kingston, Surrey, to get hold of the best timber.

The barn was clearly built to impress, too, with much more elaborate joinery than on the vast majority of farm buildings. 13 fat, load-bearing timber posts are carried by square blocks of Reigate stone on delicately-sloping bases. The end walls of the barn are further supported on foundations of local stone, a pebbly ferricrete. That elaborate, ocean-going roof is wrapped around an unusual double frame, with extravagant use of purlins – horizontal timbers.

Harmondsworth wasn’t just built at vast expense – the other vanishingly rare thing about it is how much of the original structure has survived. Over the centuries, most medieval barns, like most working farm buildings, have been heavily patched up with new materials. But, using dendrochronology, it has emerged that 95 per cent of Harmondsworth’s timbers survive from the original building. Even the external weatherboarding – inevitably more battered by the elements than the interior – is thought to be original.

The barn’s beauty and survival are that much more staggering, given its location – in the shadow of planes taking off from Heathrow. The north wall of the barn is only 15 feet from the boundary of land earmarked for the airport’s doomed third runway.

In recent years, the barn has lain, neglected and unloved, hovering on the verge of extinction, as rural Middlesex has been swallowed up by commercial and residential development. It has passed through several hands – most of them a lot less steady than the Bishop of Winchester’s. After the Reformation, Henry VIII nabbed the barn to expand his hunting grounds, before passing it on to the Paget family who owned it until the late 19th century.

The building remained a barn and store room until 2006, when it was bought by an off-shore company, more interested in land values than architectural rarity. So the barn gradually fell into disrepair until the end of last year, when English Heritage bought it for £20,000. Since then, it has undergone extensive repair work, before it was unveiled yesterday. It is appropriate that the revived, restored building will open to the public for the first time on Easter Sunday. The barn, which sits beside Harmondsworth Church and the village green, will be run by and for the local community.

The renovated building will stand at the top of the pile of Great British Barns – and many do still survive intact, even if we have butchered a high proportion for barn conversions. English Heritage also looks after Prior’s Hall Barn, Essex, and the early 14th century barn in Leigh, Worcestershire, carried on 11 crucks – mammoth curved timbers, each sawn from the stem of a single oak tree.

You can find distinguished barns across the country. The biggest are often tithe barns – used for storing the tenth of a farm’s crop that was given to the church. The Great Tithe Barn at Great Coxwell, Berkshire, was one of the favourite buildings of the modernist architect, Mies van der Rohe. With its stone walls of 1300, it is, if anything, even more churchlike than Harmondsworth.

But even the more humble barns of Britain have charm and individuality, with architectural fashions varying from county to county. Staffordshire barns have chequered patterns, produced by absent bricks, to ventilate the hay, straw or grain. Square holes in the barns of the Yorkshire Dales let owls in to take care of the rats; Cotswold stone barns favour triangular holes. In the Lake District, Yorkshire Dales, Derbyshire, Staffordshire and Devon, you’ll find field barns – sturdy, 18th and 19th century, stone buildings built in the middle of fields to store hay or corn where it was harvested.

There are, though, shared features across counties: double doors on barns are usually positioned to allow carts in on the windward side, to blow away the chaff and dust when the winnowing and threshing were done. Even the simplest barn has a powerful, pragmatic beauty, born of the close attentions of a landowner keen to protect his most important asset – his crop.

And, if that landowner happened to be a medieval bishop, it shouldn’t be surprising that his most cherished barn should be of such celestial, heart-stopping proportions.

Leave a Reply