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An Englishman's Home Is His Castle - A History of Domestic Architecture In Britain

Bronze Age House at Flag Fen, Cambridgeshire

Before the Roman invasion of Britain people generally lived in the kind of buildings that made preservation unlikely. The hunters who followed seasonal movements of animals across the land bridge into Britain would have lived, for the most part, in temporary shelters. People were basically camping in Britain for many thousands of years, making the most of warm periods between ice ages, and retreating when weather conditions became too cold. Around 4500BC, once the climate had improved, people started farming. Whether this was due to an influx of farmers from Europe, or whether the people already living in the British Isles changed their ways, is not known. Whatever happened, life became more settled. The first houses were generally round houses. In lowland areas the favoured design was a ring of timber uprights supporting a wall of wickerwork, with a roof of thatch or turf. Recreations of Bronze Age houses of this type, dating to between 2100BC - 700BC, can be seen at the Flag Fen Bronze Age Centre in Cambridgeshire. Here two Bronze Age houses have been recreated, one of them using the post holes left by an original building. In upland areas, in the west and north, houses were similar in appearance to their lowland counterparts, but roofs could be made of stone. There are hundreds of collapsed hut circles of this type dotted around Dartmoor. Although they are not typical of houses at this time, stone houses dating to 3000BC have survived beneath sand dunes at Skara Brae in Orkney.


Iron Age House at Flag Fen

From about 750BC the Bronze Age culture gave way to improving technology during the Iron Age. There is a recreated Iron Age house at Flag Fen, and with the Bronze Age houses close by, it is easy to see the change that occurred in house building techniques. Roofs became steeper, so that rain water drained off more easily. The steeper pitch also meant that the internal circle of supporting poles could be done away with, giving more space.

To see original Iron Age buildings you will have to go to somewhere like Carn Euny Ancient Village at Sancreed near Land's End in Cornwall. Stone foundations of houses are preserved here, along with an underground passage known as a fogou. At nearby Chysauster Ancient Village at Madron there are Iron Age houses in a state of even better preservation. There are also many sites where Iron Age hill forts are partially preserved. With the possible exception of Hengistbury Head, Iron Age forts are the closest that ancient Britain came to a town. These places were in the words of Julius Caesar "a central rallying point from hostile incursion, formed of some inaccessible piece of woodland that had been fortified with a high rampart or a ditch". Iron Age round houses were built in the vicinity of these hill forts. Castell Henllys Iron Age Fort in the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park, is one of the most famous of the hill fort sites. An Iron Age round house village has been recreated here, and was featured in the BBC series Surviving The Iron Age. Maiden Castle in Dorset is beautifuly preserved.


Mosaic Floor at the Roman Palace of Fishbourne

Iron Age society in Britain came to an end with the arrival of the Romans. Bigbury Wood Hill Fort at Hambledown near Canterbury, Kent is the site of a hill fort which is thought to have seen Caesar's first battle with the Britons during his second reconnaissance expedition in 54BC. The Roman period produced a revolution in architecture, and remains of Roman buildings can be seen at many sites. Silchester is the best preserved Roman town in Britain, and the best place to see Roman houses. For Roman domestic architecture on a bigger scale, the remains of a grand Roman house can be seen at Fishbourne Palace near Chichester, Sussex. Many other sites and museums around the country would be relevant, and details are available on our pages devoted to Roman Britain.

But the Roman revolution, impressive as it might have been, led to nothing lasting as far as British architecture was concerned. When the Romans left around 410AD their civilisation and architecture vanished with them. Roman buildings fell slowly into ruin, and largely disappeared. Archeological excavations in Billingsgate, London have revealed a large house in which people were still living at the beginning of the fifth century. Careful study of the area has revealed how the house began to decay, the roof fell in, and silt and rubbish slowly swamped the rooms. In Chester it appears that rubble from Roman buildings littered each side of the street, and buildings were created within, and on top of, the bank of rubble. This produced the unusual two level houses that can still be seen in the Chester Rows today. The Saxon invaders who came into the country after the Roman withdrawal were not urban people. They brought their own habits of house building with them. The Saxons lived in timber houses, or in houses sunk into the ground, called "Grubenhauser". Traces of these buildings have been found at West Stow in Suffolk, and based on the evidence of excavations an Anglo Saxon village has been recreated. The Vikings, who in their turn invaded Saxon England, added little to architecture. York has the best Viking remains in Britain, which can be viewed at the Jorvik Centre. But the Viking houses in York were no different to typical Anglo Saxon buildings. Building did not change much as Viking and Saxon areas of the country began to work more as a single country. The majority of the population was rural, and London was the only town of any size. In the tenth and eleventh centuries Londoners often lived in sunken floored huts. There were some slightly more substantial timber framed buildings, almost all of which were roofed with thatch.


Alfriston Clergy House

By the twelfth and thirteenth centuries the wooden huts of early Anglo Saxon settlers had developed into timber framed buildings, usually of a "crucks" type. A curving tree was cut in two to make matching supports. A frame was then erected, and the gaps filled in with a weave of oak staves or hazel branches. This weave was then coated with a mixture of mud, clay, straw, animal hair and cow dung. Paint was applied, usually a lime wash, although bulls blood was sometimes added to give a pink colour. The oak timbers of the frame were left unpainted. Painting them black was a Victorian fashion. The house still enclosed one undivided space, and smoke from a central fire was still vented through open eaves at the edge of the roof. Obviously only bigger and better built varieties of this building have survived. One of the most complete surviving examples in its original location is the fourteenth century Baron's Hall at Penshurst Place in Kent. The fourteenth century Great Hall at Great Dixter in East Sussex and the mid fifteenth century hall at Stoneacre in Kent are also impressive, though both are surrounded by later additions. The Weald and Downland Open Air Museum in West Sussex, has the fifteenth century Bayleaf Farmhouse from Chiddingstone, Kent.






Chilham, Kent

From about 1400 the old manor houses that survived the decline caused by the ravages of the Black Death were modernised and extended. First chimneys were put in. At first these were made of wattle and daub, as at the Alfriston Clergy House, but these tended to catch fire. It is the later brick built chimney that we see at the Alfriston Clergy House today. At Stoneacre, built around 1450, a chimney went in soon after the house was built. The next change was the division of living space. People now wanted more privacy, which meant that old communal open halls were becoming less popular. The most usual way to modify an old open hall was to build a wing at one or both ends. Some of the best examples of these new extended halls are the Wealden Halls, so called because of their popularity in the Weald of Kent. This type of house can be seen at Chilham in Kent, where there is a beautifully preserved group of fifteenth century houses around the market square. A street of sixteenth and seventeenth century houses is preserved at Chiddingstone village in Kent, and the Bayleaf Farmhouse at the Weald and Downland Open Air Museum illustrates sixteenth century changes, with a wing of rooms at each end. Anne Hathaway's Cottage, in Warwickshire, not usually visited for its architectural interest, was modified by Anne's brother in the sixteenth century, with a new wing to keep up with the new fashion for separate rooms. A few buildings have had a history long enough to tell much of architecture's changing story in one building. Ightham Mote, a large moated manor house near Sevenoaks in Kent demonstrates changes in architecture over a five hundred year period from the fourteenth century. Haddon Hall in Derbyshire, built in the eleventh century, and showing progressive change up until the early seventeenth century, also tells a lot of the story of domestic architecture in one building.

Incidentally, in looking at any of these houses it should not be forgotten that they were owned by wealthy people. Little remains of houses occupied by the majority of England's medieval population. In Scotland some traditional long houses survive from medieval times, built of stone with a turf roof, a "but" at one end for livestock, a "bin" at the other end as a living area. Examples can be seen at Kilmuir near Inverness, and on the Isle of Skye. A medieval charcoal burners hut can be seen at the Weald and Downland Open Air Museum in West Sussex.

So far in this history it has been rather inaccurate to talk of architecture, since there were few architects to design buildings. Domestic buildings were "home made" to an established form. But this was to change. By the mid eighteenth century "polite" cottages were being built, that is buildings designed by architects or taken from builders' pattern books. This trend began on the great landowners estates in the cottages built for estate workers. Examples of early planned cottages can be seen at Chippenham in Wiltshire (1696), Houghton Hall, Norfolk (1729), and Nuneham Courtney near Oxford (1761). The Industrial Revolution was now gathering pace and people were living more frequently in towns. This hastened the move towards a more standardised form of architecture (see Historical Britain by Eric S. Wood).


Carlton House Terrace

The idea for the terraced house took off in the 1670s. The English seem to prefer living in their own houses, at ground level, preferably with a garden. To achieve this as efficiently as possible terraced housing was the best solution. The Great Fire of London in 1666 forced a vast rebuilding programme. The stability of the Restoration period following the English Civil War also contributed to this revolution in housing and living. In 1661 the Earl of Southampton let twenty four lots at Bloomsbury Square, and in 1662 the Earl of St Albans erected St James's Square. These two developments set the pattern. From 1670 until 1700, entrepreneur Nicholas Bourbon purchased huge areas of building land all over London, on which he built a standardised design of terraced house. His work can still be seen, in Bedford Row, numbers 36 - 43, and in St James Street. Incidentally, next time you renew your house insurance, you can thank Nicholas Bourbon, who, following the Great Fire of London, thought it was an idea that might take off.

The terraced design reached its culmination in monumental schemes of the nineteenth century, which included Carlton House Terrace on the Mall, Lower Regent Street, Portland Place and the terraces on both sides of Regents Park. All of these were the work of John Nash.

The Georgian fashion for terraces left its mark on many towns. Bath has many famous terraces, and the New Town of Edinburgh has a Georgian townscape centred on George Street, with Queen Street and Princes Street on either side. These streets were laid out initially by James Craig in 1767. Brighton is well known for its terraces, clustered around the John Nash designed Royal Pavilion. York, Chester, Bury St Edmunds and Stampford also have Georgian terraces. Grey Street in Newcastle, once voted the most beautiful street in Britain by BBC radio listeners, has Georgian architecture by John Dobson.

Many houses in Georgian terraces are now hotels. If you wish to stay in an historic building like this try the Grey Street Hotel in Newcastle.



Rhyd-y-car Terrace at the National Museum of Wales: St Fagans

The same fashion of housing used for the rich was also used for the working classes. Workers' houses were also terraced. To save space the lines of houses were often built back to back. These houses have now largely been demolished and replaced, although some back to back streets remain in northern towns such as Manchester and Leeds. A street of terraced houses from Rhyd-y-car in Wales has been preserved at the National Museum of Wales St Fagans near Cardiff. These houses were built in 1800 for iron ore mine workers, and give a good idea of how the style of terraced housing spanned the classes.








Park Crescent, Regents Park

Some writers, such as Eric S Wood, see a characteristic spirit of compromise in the appearance of terraces. An avoidance of extremes is reflected in the way long lines of buildings are broken up by upright lines of doors and windows. The uprights are often emphasised by such detail as dividing lines of bricks, or by vertical columns as in the John Nash terrace pictured here at Regents Park. I also think the way terraces have been curved in some of the most famous of these buildings, is a way of compromising the brutal length of the building. See the famous terraces of Georgian Bath for example. There is a visual sense of the building being shortened, made less extreme. Many attractive terraces are also built on slopes. In the 1970s a popular commercial for Hovis bread was filmed against the backdrop of a striking row of terraced houses on a steep slope. This was Gold Hill in Shaftesbury, Dorset, where houses step up one after the other, following the gradient. This gives each house definition over its neighbour. Terracing is a style of housing which has been embraced by all kinds of people, from the wealthy owners of John Nash terraces, to miners. It allows people to live closely together at the same time as preserving individuality, a typical British compromise. Perhaps it is no accident that the longest running and best loved drama series on British television, Coronation Street, is set on a terraced street.






Park Village East, Near Regents Park, London

Of course not everyone wants to live in a terrace. For the individualists semi-detached houses were first built in Milton Abbas, Dorset in 1773. Detached houses became popular after 1810 when John Nash built a group of small, fanciful detached houses at Blaise Hamlet, Bristol. Nash then built Park Village East, and Park Village West near Regents Park in 1824. These developments had wide influence, and still survive.









Broadway Tower, Cotswolds

For those with even more marked individualist leanings there was the peculiarly British preoccupation with the building of follies. These were fanciful buildings built without any particular purpose. Perhaps they could be considered as ways to show off wealth; but they are an eccentric way of doing this, especially when the folly is built in an inaccessible location. The building of follies began in the late sixteenth century, and reached its peak in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and still persists. Follies might be considered to begin with the building of Sir Thomas Tresham's Rushton Lodge and Lyveden New House in Northamptonshire, built between 1595 to 1600. There are many hundreds of follies throughout the country. One of the most spectacular and well known is the Broadway Tower in the Cotswolds overlooking the Vale of Evesham, off the A44. This building once belonged to William Morris. It is now open to visitors, who can climb the tower to look at the view, and see displays on the building's history.

In the 1950s there was an attempt to leave behind the English taste for living in a house at ground level with a little garden. The ideas of Le Corbusier were influential, following his building of the Unite de Habitation in Marseilles in 1952, a seventeen storey apartment building. The British government at the time thought that high rise buildings were the answer to Britain's housing problems. Architects such as Erno Goldfinger designed huge tower blocks. In 1968 a poorly built tower block called Ronan Point in east London suffered a partial collapse. This disaster hastened the end of the high rise in Britain. It is unfortunate that a building constructed with scandalous incompetence should have destroyed the vision of Le Corbusier, as far as Britain was concerned. The Unite de Habitation in Marseilles, was built to high standards, with varied kinds of apartments, shops, clubs and meeting rooms, all linked by a system of raised streets. The building today remains very popular, and is a sought after address in Marseilles.


Trellick Tower

In Britain the high rise buildings of Erno Goldfinger are perhaps the best known examples of a monumental false start in British architecture. One of Goldfinger's towers, the Trellick Tower in Ladbrook Grove, Notting Hill, west London, is now a grade 2 listed building. Unlike Ronan Point, and many other badly built high rise developments in Britain, Trellick Tower is structurally sound. Problems with security and with the lack of concierges have been rectified and the Tower is now something of a success. The concept of the high rise, however, still has a lot of ground to make up if it is to be accepted in Britain again. The buildings were truly hated by many, partly because so many were poorly constructed and maintained, and partly because they didn't seem to suit the nature of the people. English people continued to prefer living in their own houses, their own little castles, just as they have done since Nicholas Bourbon started building terraced houses to meet English tastes in housing as efficiently as possible. Recently there might be signs that the pressure to provide housing is pushing developers back to the idea of high rise living. Residential towers have been built in Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool by the Beetham organisation. These towers provide expensive homes to the wealthy. It remains to be seen whether towers such as these can revive the fortunes of the high rise in Britain generally. Developments of low rise flats are perhaps more likely to become the norm.

During the Industrial Revolution in the eighteenth and nineteenth century the idea of individual enterprise and self reliance became very important in Britain.The idea of each man's house being his castle was an expression of that. Ironically in the real world, everyone could not have their own castle, and most people had to live in terraces with their neighbours. And in fact most people did not want the loneliness of a castle. They wanted a place that balanced their need for community with their need for privacy. This balancing act is entering a new era.

For an insight into the history of domestic design from the late nineteenth century onwards, see the Museum of Domestic Design And Architecture.













©2007 InfoBritain (updated 08/11)