A large timber framed house
A brief introduction to A spotter's guide to Architecture Housing Your Home's History

A Guide to Traditional English Buildings

Traditional buildings, known as vernacular, originally made up the vast majority of the structures that ordinary people lived and worked in.

Traditional buildings made from local materials are known as vernacular architecture.

They are typically not designed by architects or built for high-status occupants.

A 19th-century family stand outside a house.
A 19th-century family outside housing built for workers in Darshill, Shepton Mallet, Somerset. © Historic England Archive. DP148231.

What is vernacular architecture?

Vernacular buildings originally comprised most of the structures where ordinary people lived and worked.

The buildings are usually made of local materials. They vary in construction across the country depending on what was available nearby and cheap to use.

Two timber-framed houses with thatched roofs.
Vernacular timber-framed buildings in Abbots Morton, Worcestershire. © Historic England Archive. DP034909.

Many of these buildings are now considered highly desirable as homes and can command high prices on the property market, somewhat at odds with their more ordinary origins.

What are the earliest surviving vernacular buildings?

The earliest surviving examples of vernacular buildings are from the late 12th or 13th centuries. These tend to be much altered, with only parts of the early structure surviving.

A photograph of a 2-storey stone house.
This Grade I listed building on Steep Hill in Lincoln, also known as ‘the Jews House’, is a late 12th-century shop and residence, much altered in later centuries. © Historic England Archive. View image DP393389.

Vernacular styles continued to be built until the 18th or early 19th century, when the advent of mass-produced materials and standard designs brought on the demise of regional building traditions.

But although newer buildings have moved away from traditional materials, today, surviving vernacular buildings often still provide the dominant character of a town or area.

For example, the Cotswolds’ limestone, the Sussex Weald’s timber framing, and the cob (earth) of north Devon.

A high street of shops in Stamford, Lincolnshire
Stamford, Lincolnshire is still dominated by the character of its vernacular buildings, particularly in the use of the local stone. © Historic England Archive. DP217286.

How to identify vernacular buildings

  • They are usually ordinary, everyday structures, such as houses
  • A very broad category, they are less defined by precise architectural features than by the materials used to build them, timber, stone, cob, earth, mud or brick, though these materials are sometimes concealed
  • Vernacular buildings were not just used for housing, with early industrial and agricultural buildings also likely to have been built in the local vernacular style

Examples of vernacular architecture

The examples below show the range of building types and materials this broad term covers.

Buildings made from timber

The traditional timber-framed cottage is a common vernacular building type. It characterises much of the Midlands, East Anglia, the South East and parts of the South West.

A view of the timber framed Guildhall in Thaxted.
The Guildhall in Thaxted, Essex, with other timber-framed buildings in the town. © Historic England Archive. DP261785.

Across the regions, there are varied traditions in the form of timber framing.

A public building: the Old Grammar School, Ledbury, Herefordshire

The Old Grammar School in Ledbury is a 15th-century building in the heart of the town, close to the church.

A view of the timber framed Old Grammar School.
The Old Grammar School, Church Lane, Ledbury, Herefordshire. © Historic England Archive. DP039622.

It may have originated with a public function, as it does not have a traditional house layout. It was later used as the town’s grammar school, with the schoolmaster living at one end of the building.

Its box framing is typical of timber-framed buildings in the West Midlands.

Along the front of the building, the first floor projects over the ground floor. Known as a jetty, this feature is seen in many timber-framed buildings, mainly in towns and some rural areas.

A wealden house: the Yeoman’s House, Bignor, West Sussex

The Yeoman’s House is a 15th-century timber-framed building. It’s called a wealden house because this type of building was first identified on the Weald (the high area on the border of Kent and East Sussex).

A view of the thatched Yeoman's House with clear timber frame.
The Yeoman’s House, Bignor, West Sussex. © James O. Davies.

Wealden houses can be seen across England, but the greatest concentration is in the South East.

The style typically features projecting first-floor wings on either side of a recessed central area, the hall, with the roof line continuous over all three elements.

The hall provided the main living area, rising to the full height of the building with an open hearth at its centre.

Buildings made from stone

Where good local sources were available, stone was one of the most obvious sources of building material. In vernacular buildings, it was often used in rubble form, without any work to form it into regular blocks.

A view of the grey stone longhouse with corrugated iron roof.
An early 16th-century longhouse at Old Pizwell Farm, Lydford Pizwell, Dartmoor, Devon. © Historic England Archive. DP277236.

Stone buildings often characterise upland areas of England – from the sandstone of the Cheviot Hills in Northumberland to the granite of Dartmoor.

The expense of transporting such a heavy material often meant that stone was extracted close to the buildings it was used in. This led to much variation in stone buildings, even in small areas.

A bastle house: Low Park, Alston Moor, Cumbria

Low Park was built in the early 17th century. It’s an example of a stone building type seen on both sides of the England/Scotland border: the bastle house.

A view of the grey stone bastle house.
Low Park, Alston Moor, Cumbria. © Historic England Archive. DP109864. 

Bastle houses were built to protect farmers and their animals from frequent raiding across the border. On the ground floor, there would be a cattle shed (known as a byre), with accommodation for the farmer and his family above.

For security, the byre usually had narrow ventilation slits rather than windows. They were built of local sandstone, with larger pieces of stone on the corners (quoins) to help to make the buildings strong and fire-proof.

Reconstruction drawing of a house
Reconstruction drawing showing the original layout of Low Park. © Historic England Archive. IC288_001.

When border raiding ended, these buildings fell out of use or were adapted into farmhouse buildings with domestic accommodation on the ground floor.

A water mill: Malvern Mill, Blockley, Gloucestershire

The village of Blockley in Gloucestershire is notable for its high number of water mills. In the 16th and 17th centuries, there were over 10 sites, remarkable for such a small settlement.

A view of a yellow brick water mill.
Malvern Mill, High Street, Blockley, Gloucestershire. © Historic England Archive. DP137106.

Water mills were used for corn milling and early textile production, particularly silk weaving.

Malvern Mill is a 16th or 17th-century building, now a house, which appears to have been used for cloth production. Its form is typical of Cotswold vernacular buildings, with sandstone walls and a stone slate roof.

Buildings made from cob, earth and mud

Earth or clay was probably originally used as a building material across the country. However, in many areas, there are few, if any, surviving examples.

Mud and stud barn
A 17th century mud and stud barn at High House Farm, Moorside, Tumby, Lincolnshire. © Rebecca Lane.

The use became associated with specific areas. Notable examples include the cob of Devon, the mud and stud buildings of Lincolnshire and the clay dabbins of the Solway Firth in Cumbria.

Whatever the local earth-based material, it generally needed some form of stabilisation to help build it up to a useful height. Mixing it with straw or small stones helped to give it a stronger binding.

A view of the mud boundary wall with a tree in the foreground.
A mud boundary wall in Whittlesey, Cambridgeshire. © Historic England Archive. DP301034.

In some areas, using it together with timber framing provided greater stability. The material can last for centuries as long as it is well sheltered from the elements.

It is usually given a stone plinth and is often rendered with plaster to protect it. This means that many buildings built of the material are well concealed. Sometimes its use only becomes apparent when the building is demolished or altered.

A farmhouse: Westacott Barton, North Tawton, Devon

Westacott Barton is a late 15th or early 16th-century cob-built farmhouse with a thatched roof.

A view of a thatched cob house, painted white.
Westacott Barton, North Tawton, Devon. © Historic England Archive. DP113768,

The cob (mud) structure is given stability by a timber frame formed of jointed crucks. Crucks are curved timbers which run from the base of the wall line right up to the tip of the roof and are usually found on the western side of England.

Westacott Barton originally had an open hall at its centre with an open fire, proved by the roof’s timbers being blackened with soot.

A detail of one of the roof timbers
A detail of one of the roof timbers at Westacott Barton, showing blackening from the open hearth that originally heated the hall. © Historic England Archive. DP113796.

While the upper level of the thatch roof has been regularly replaced, the lower levels have been left since the building was constructed 400 years ago, which shows how long vernacular materials can survive.

Buildings made from brick

Brick was used from the 14th century onwards, although in some regions of England it was introduced later, more widely from the 16th and 17th centuries.

A view of several red brick houses.
18th-century brick cottages at Buckler’s Hard, Beaulieu, Hampshire. © Historic England Archive. DP139541.

Locally made bricks took particular characteristics and colours. Regional variations became established, such as the ‘London stock brick’, a pale, yellowish colour in London and surrounding areas, through to the stronger reds in brick produced in the Midlands.

A brick house: Church House, Wormgate, Boston, Lincolnshire

Church House in Boston is an example of a brick building from the 17th century.

A view of a red brick building.
Church House, No. 1 Wormgate, Boston, Lincolnshire. © Historic England Archive. DP165490.

The house uses a style known as ‘artisan mannerist’, particularly found in the eastern part of England. Moulded bricks were used to imitate the Classical style that was becoming popular in larger houses of the time.

The distinctive gable is sometimes called a ‘Dutch gable’. Trade with Holland and the low countries led to some stylistic features of Dutch buildings being copied in the east of England.

An almshouse: Almhouses, Ewelme, Oxfordshire

Almshouses emerged as a building type in the 15th century. They typically formed groups of cottages, which could be arranged around a central courtyard.

They were sometimes provided to house the elderly, often under the sponsorship of a wealthy individual or family.

A view of a red brick building.
Almhouses, Ewelme, Oxfordshire. © James O. Davies.

The almshouses in Ewelme, Oxfordshire, were built in the early 15th century, sponsored by the local landowners, the Earl and Countess of Suffolk.

The surviving building is one of the earliest brick buildings in Oxfordshire, and the brick is used in conjunction with timber framing and decorative patterns.

A view of the Almhouses
An 1880 view of the Almhouses at Ewelme, Oxfordshire. © Historic England Archive. CC73/01143.

A school was also provided as part of the complex. The almshouses and schools are still used for their original purposes today.

4 comments on “A Guide to Traditional English Buildings

  1. I have learned so much today with a glance into Vernicular housing. Such a tiny country offering such wide variations in style use and its materials. Thamk you to those people who own these properties and who give us the chance to see the beauty and i feel enriched. M Read

  2. I love the vernacular and the various kinds of materials used. Here in East Devon we have a lot of flint rubble buildings with limestone quoins – from Beer Quarry situated above the village of Beer – plus the odd remaining cob buildings too. The ones shown here are fabulous. Thankyou, I really enjoyed this article. 🙂

  3. Paul Young

    A delightful synopsis of ‘the vernacular’. Our Cornish stone house from 16thC comes – as most do – from a small nearby quarry dug for the purpose. We also have the partial remains of an earlier cob-on-stone building. Fascinating stuff.

  4. Thank you for your informative article. I will share it with my fellow Trustees at Romsey & District Buildings Preservation Trust. We are currently restoring and conserving a late sixteenth century timber frame cottage which offers a great insight into the materials and life of those that have lived in it. Amazing how durable vernacular materials can, especially if they are looked after.

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