I have never been very keen on heights: I have to tell myself to breathe and climb steadily as I go up ladders or, indeed, on ski lifts. Much to my surprise therefore, I remained remarkably calm as I climbed a very long ladder to look at the restoration work currently being done on an ancient barn on the Estate. So many visitors and guests admire the Castle, its setting, the landscape and gardens, yet that only represents a proportion of what Geordie and I are restoring and sustaining. This is not a “normal” investment with a chance of a revenue stream, but an investment in supporting our visible history – a sort of journey in life and a love of a place if you like.
This most extraordinary medieval barn is perhaps our biggest challenge yet. It is like a cathedral and the dendrology tests suggest it was last rebuilt in about 1450. The footprint has an unusual width as well as length and it’s possible that the Bishops of Winchester, who owned Highclere for 800 years, likely employed carpenters who were also working on jobs in Winchester Cathedral and in colleges in Oxford which would account for this.
I find the principles and construction of the barn utterly fascinating. It has 8 bays with great oak trusses which span the width with king posts at either end and queen posts which link to the curved trusses thus creating the shape of an arch, whose compressive stress gives maximum strength and support to the building. High up in the roof every truss is notched ready for a purlin but left unused which suggests that the foreman and carpenters changed their mind and divided the top supports into thirds rather than halves to use two levels of purlin support. The result is a cathedral like interior which maximises space.
I suspect the barn replaced a smaller one which had been there already. This had always been the main area for farming enterprise at Highclere. In 1348, and then again in 1361, the English population was decimated by the plague which swept through Europe and across the English Channel. Whole villages around Highclere disappeared altogether and, due to the resulting lack of manpower, some field s ceased arable production and very little building work took place. Fields re-organised and new tenants found, just 70 years later, in the 1430’s, a further crisis occurred with another outbreak of the plague and a series of hard winters. Wheat, barley and oats were scarce, prices steadily rose and thus storage became ever more important. Given that tenants remained hard to find, the Bishop of Winchester took back responsibility for the buildings and they carried out some inward investment. Manor Farm Barn was rebuilt.
Nearly 600 hundred years later we are again restoring it, augmenting the trusses, leaving visible the structure, using oak as needed, and marvelling at our predecessors. It is a great project. Climbing down from my ladder and carefully not walking underneath it, I suppose I am a bit superstitious. So were our predecessors and we have found at least two witches marks. One is clear to see near a door to stop any bad spirits coming in. They are supposed to have been so transfixed by their eyes by following the never-ending circles that they cannot enter. Now the restorers have strict instructions to look out for other ancient graffiti and we are back to my favourite subject; history!