Ancient timber-framed buildings have always held a fascination for me. Its something about the craftsmanship needed to convert an oak tree into a structure that I continually find astonishing – especially when you realise that you are standing within a building that has stood on the same spot for over 500 hundred years. During a rather mad September 2018 I managed five conference and seminar trips in four weeks – three of them on consecutive days, 250 miles apart (not recommended). One benefit of all this dashing around, though, was the opportunity to visit a site I’ve been keen to see since I started researching medieval timber buildings in the 1990s: Cressing Temple Barns, south of Braintree in Essex.
Here, two barns were built for the Knight’s Templar in the 13th century (Barley Barn and Wheat Barn), the centre piece of a 14,000 acre estate. In 1309 the estate was transferred to the Knights Hospitaller, before at the dissolution being in 1541 to Sir William Huse and John Smyth. The Granary was one of the post-reformation structures, and was built around 1575. All three structures are Grade I listed buildings now in the care of Essex CC, and have been carefully and skilfully restored. Along with the Tudor walled garden and farm buildings, the site is now used as a conference centre and a wedding venue amongst other things. It is though, the barns that dominate the landscape, the post-medieval hall having been demolished in the 18th century.
They are huge structures, the timber framing of the oldest, Barley Barn, being built around 1220, making it the oldest surviving timber-framed barn in Britain. There is evidence for two major rebuildings in this barn: around 1400 the structure was shortened by half a bay at each end, whilst around 1500 a crown-post roof was installed. Even so, the surviving structure is still 36m long, 13.6m wide, and at its tallest 11.3m high. Throughout, carpenter’s marks and assembly marks can be seen on the timbers.
When I visited the low late afternoon sun allowed a diffuse light into the barn, supported by some subdued contemporary lighting, throwing the deceptively simple lines of the timbers were thrown into sharp relief. Standing in the threshing area with the vault of timbers above makes you feel small, insignificant, and not a little intimidated by the antiquity of the enclosing structure. Not even the great storm of 1987 could bring this structure down.