One of the first questions most people ask when they stumble into the cottage and view the destruction, is “has it got a damp proof course”. Rather than my immediate response, which would be “are you f**king blind, its a 300 year old pile of stones with an earth floor, of course it hasn’t got a damp proof course”, I usually explain that no, it’s old, and through the miracle of breathable materials, it shouldn’t need one. Of course, when we first arrived, the presence of massive amounts of fungus growing on the walls was an indication that not all was well in the breathable materials department.
When cottages like this were first build, they were simple stone structures, held together with a mixture of earth, and lime plaster (clay rich earth went into the gaps to bind it all together, and presumably save on lime mortar). They were limewashed on the inside and outside, and would originally have had earth, and later tiled floors laid directly onto the earth. A thatched roof of reed or straw laid over turf scraw kept the weather out.
What happened to our cottage is probably typical of the history of many others. At some stage, water got into the thatch, rotted some of the timbers, and a patch of the ceiling basically fell in. Maybe the place fell into disrepair. Rather than repair the thatch, and wanting either to save effort, or keep the insulation, someone decided that the best thing to do would be to raise the gable walls a little, and put a new tin roof over the whole lot. This they did, using nice new concrete blocks to raise the stone walls a foot. While they were at it, they did the same around the tops of all the walls, and made the windows on the road side bigger, putting in concrete lintels as they went.
|The original turf/thatch roof, with roundwood larch
truss. You can see the newer ceiling line there on the
wall. Top left is a view through to the tin roof.
Then they went inside, and created a new false ceiling under the old timbers and thatch, which hid it all nicely. The walls were probably a bit of a mess, so they were treated to a good thick coat of cement render, inside and out. Lastly, that old earth floor got the concrete treatment too, to iron out some of the undulations. This meant that the floor would be between 1/2 and 4 inches thick, depending on where you were.
Over the years, more layers of render were added, and in some places, the walls were dry lined, hiding windows, and making the rooms smaller, and smaller. Meanwhile, the concrete rendering kept damp within the structure, causing dry rot, wet rot, and general deterioration.
At the same time, debris build up around the cottage, and successive generations added just a little more concrete to the area outside the walls. The ground level crept up, until on two sides it was higher than the floor inside. Capilliary action would carry yet more water up into the walls.
Add in some little leaks around the chimneys, and you have the cottage as we found it, back in February. Of course, back then we had no idea even that a thatched roof existed, or what lay behind those hollow sounding stud walls……..
NB – Although we can only surmise about the history of the cottage, we now think that at some stage it was a barn, and that along the way it had fallen into disrepair. The internal walls, once stone, have been replaced with brick built walls, which included wide doorways with shallow arches. The stone from the walls is lying in the floor to either side of the walls. Additionally, there are very few artefacts to be found in the earth floor, and in one room there is a distinctive burned layer in the floor, so it seems likely that there was a fire there, covering much of the floor. However, there are bricks in the floor layer, so the brick built parts must be relatively old. The granite bedrock upon which the cottage is built is never far down, so the floor hasn’t build up over a long period of time.
The oldest timbers, which are all hewn rather than sawn, are all from the oldest, dampest end of the house, although curiously this is where the burned layer occurs in the floor, and there isn’t the evidence of soot on any of the timber. This room also contains a chimney stack, but the stone wall inside, which has been long rendered, shows no evidence of the hearth or opening at all. I fully expected to see one there when removing the render.