First things first, what is a vernacular house? These are houses built to reflect local customs and traditions using locally available materials like wood, stone and brick. They are ordinary, rather than monumental buildings and so different from region to region that they are a vital part of England’s local distinctiveness, defining the country’s much-loved landscape.
Some of these simple houses are now listed and celebrated as nationally important. They are irreplaceable evidence of how our ancestors used to live, build and make their homes.
Timber, brick, stone and mud
English vernacular buildings have either mass walls of stone, brick and mud, or timber framed walls filled in with a lighter material like plaster or wattle and daub, which is a woven lattice of wooden strips (wattle), daubed with a combination of wet soil, clay, sand, animal dung and straw.
Oak was the main wood used to build timber frames, like that of Harmondsworth Barn, though elm, chestnut and even willow were occasionally used. Good-quality building timber could not be found everywhere and in areas where stone was readily available, wood was never popular.
As tastes changed over the centuries, in some areas timber framed buildings were considered unfashionable. Many were re-fronted in brick or covered in render, so a centuries-old timber building is sometimes hidden within an otherwise ordinary looking house, like Cooper’s Cottages in Essex.
Stone quarrying became more widespread from the late 16th century so it could be used more for vernacular houses, not just monumental buildings and churches.
In areas like the Pennines in the north, where good quality stone was readily available, many houses were decorated with carved stone details. Often windows and doors had moulded surrounds, fireplaces could be beautifully detailed, and winding stone staircases were created.
The Romans made bricks in England but when they left they took the art of brickmaking with them, so we had to learn it all over again. The earliest English bricks were used for high status buildings and were long and thin, more like tiles than the bricks we know today.
Bricks weren’t used for vernacular houses until the 16th century when they first appeared in the East of England. Their use gradually spread across the country, encouraged by the development of canals then railways, making them the most widely used building material by the mid 19th century.
Bricks could be moulded, fired into different colours, and patterns could be created using different bonds, like the Flemish bond or English bond.
A cunning plan
Large, rural medieval houses were usually made up of 3 parts: a hall in the centre, which was basically the living room and was open to the roof, plus service rooms at one end and the private rooms at the other end. The roof which sheltered all this would have been covered in various materials, depending on the area. It could be reed thatch or straw thatch, welsh slates, cornish slates, stone slates or tiles. Sometimes thatch is hidden under later coverings and can be very old: 14th century thatch still survives in Devon.
Throughout the 16th and 17th centuries increasing wealth meant people wanted more comfort, privacy and convenience. Chimney stacks began to be inserted in the halls, where once there was simply an open fire. Sometimes we can tell the age of a building by smoke blackened roof timbers which once would have been above the hall’s open fire.
The end of vernacular
From the 19th century, as living standards rose, architectural journals encouraged particular fashions and new transport systems made mass produced materials more widely available. Even the homes of the poor lost their regional variety.
Not many early houses survive and some, if not all, have been changed and adapted over their long lives. This means the buildings gather layers which are readable and contribute to their special character. A long history of gradual change combined with the use of local materials, from timber and brick to stone and tiles, make vernacular houses both typically English and wonderfully unique.