Penybont and District History Group Notes 13th April 2015 Main Topic: “Early Cruck Houses of This Area” – Nigel Topley

Geraint welcomed, what was again a good turn out, and including 2 new members. Brian Guest from Llandrindod, Lecturer in FE – engineering, and Stephen Ashley – Retired Building Surveyor.
Geraint asked Judith if she had made any progress with the ‘stories’ initiative. Judith was pleased to be able to report that she had cornered Ray and Sylivia Price and they had agreed to be interviewed.
Geraint regaled us on his ‘facebook’ prowess and the fact that he had come across some interesting photos of the local area on three sites:
• Memories – Old Photos – Llandrindod –
• Retro Rhayader –
• Photos of Crossgates and District –
He reminded members that the next meeting would be on the 11th May (a week late due to the May Day Bank Holiday) and that he would be leading a session on “Penybont Police Station and Magistrates’ Court.
Humph and Geriant relayed a request from the group who have taken on the redesigning of the gardens at Penybont Station for photos of the gardens as they used to be. They are working towards an anniversary celebration and would be grateful for any help. George Scarf, of Geraint or Derek would be happy to receive any information for the group.
Main Topic:
By way of introduction Nigel recounted an experience he had in Iceland when he attended an Educational Conference with representatives from all over Europe. The Conference started with an ‘ice-breaker’ session when each delegate was asked to introduce themselves by saying something about themselves that at least some of the other delegates might share, and a second thing that might be ‘unique’ to them. The latter was a bit of a challenge but he settled on the fact that he lived in a 500 year old house – a Cruck House.
Background to the building of Cruck Houses in Radnorshire
Nigel explained that he would spend some time exploring: the economics factors that led to Cruck Houses being built in Radnorshire these factors also impacted on their subsequent development.
It is probably only in the last 25 years that Wales has realised that Radnorshire has a significant number of late medieval houses. There was an economic boom during the late mediaeval period when the people of Radnorshire began to feel quite comfortable and they looked to consolidate this through building what was fashionable in the period. Inevitably boom time was followed by a slump and a ‘make do, and mend’ period when many of these houses were adapted and changed out of necessity. With a sparse population living in isolated homesteads Radnorshire was one of the smallest counties with very little land under 500 feet and a considerable amount over 1000 feet. The scenery is spectacular, as Nigel is often reminded by his Spanish visitors who want to take pictures at every twist and turn on the road, but there is little good agricultural ground, but it runs with rivers and rivulets. Nigel remembered that when he first moved to Wales that it seemed to rain for 4 months solid! Nigel and his wife were intrigued by the landscape which showed little evidence of being arable but with open common spaces on the hillsides complete with sheep that were a familiar site and obstacle, to worry the visitors, on the roads. In fact very little has changed over the last 500 years. The Enclosures Acts in the nineteenth century did not affect the upland commons in Radnorshire as much as they did in other parts of the UK. For more information on the Enclosures in Radnorshire see Radnorshire Transactions:
Cattle and sheep both grazed the upland commons. Cattle were prized for the richness of their milk and the quality of the meat. Sheep had a fine form and the wool was also a valuable commodity.
People lived in isolated farmsteads or in small, a few spread-out settlements or towns. The 4 main towns were little more than villages; Knighton, Presteigne, New Radnor, Rhayader. The economy is generally poor and the count has often been referred to as ‘bandit-country’. The traditional method of transporting heavy loads was by horse drawn sledges.
Nigel read a somewhat unflattering description of the indigenous population which went something like: “Poor, tall and personable, unruly, spoilt by idleness and an excess of laziness, and with a propensity for theft and little thrift.”
Examining some of these factors Nigel quickly discovered that what seemed like idleness related to the fact that the climate demanded that the animals needed to be at home over the cruel winters, their unruliness could be reinterpreted as being independent minded. Theft however did probably come from a certain propensity for rustling and poaching in the past. Despite the harshness of the living conditions there was a desire to enjoy life and real ale.
Whatever the truth Nigel and his wife were drawn to the area and have lived here for many years.
There were 3 phases in the story of Cruck Houses in Radnorshire:
1. Late mediaeval – ca1575 was a boom time locally. The lean cattle that grazed the uplands were highly valued in the West Midlands. The profitable cattle businesses meant that the local farmers invested in more substantial dwellings that were comfortable to live in and where their animals could be managed well.
“Cruck-trusses are found in most forms of house from the humblest cottage to the most ornate “Hall” house.” See Radnorshire Transactions:
2. During the period ca1575 to 1700 sheep took over from cattle as the main animal grazing the uplands. Sheep were less profitable and so there was less money around to spend on property. The Cruck houses went through a period of conversion under the make do and mend principle.
3. Between ca1700 and 1850 the emphasis on sheep increased and wool and mutton were the main products alongside some investment in growing grain. In this period the buildings were converted into barns, shearing sheds, and grain stores.
Nigel’s own house, in Llanbister, is a classic Cruck House that has been altered and adapted over the years. He drew upon this and his ‘incredible teaching skills’ to sketch out the way in which the oak tree limbs were used to make the matching pairs of cruck for each of the 5 sections (4 bays) that made up the structure on which the house was built.
For sectional diagrams see:
The buildings were usually single storey with very high ceilings. The walls were often timbered off a stone plinth. They had wattle and daub panels and whitewash finishes.
Nigel and his wife had been living in Herefordshire when out on a motorbike jaunt the cam across and immediately fell in love with their Cruck House, Cil y Byddar – ‘Haven of a deaf man’.
During the first phase the houses were often built on a slope with the top end being for living quarters and with a ‘Great Hall’ in the middle where there would be a fireplace in the middle. The Crucks were numbered from the Top end T1, T2, T3, T4, and T5. The top end could be described as the posh end whereas the bottom end was often shared with the animals. At the posh end the Crucks were often decorated and carved. A ‘high table’ would be placed so that those with higher status could be served at the high end. Sleeping was usually over the animals giving added warmth. The buildings were single story but platforms were built for sleeping, access by ladder.
The Radnor word for the area at the bottom end where the cattle were accommodated, the cow-house, was ‘beudy’.
Nigel then showed a series of pictures of his own house, these pictures illustrated many of the features described above.
The chisel marks on the timbers demonstrated the hard work involved in preparing the crucks. Marion was able to tell us that the oaks limbs would be sawn in a pit and it would take 2 men 10 hours hard labour to cut vertically through a limb. This practice led to phrases such as ‘top dog’ that are still in parlance today. There were holes in the timbers at the top end of the building which suggest a bench with a canopy might have been there.
There is a more modern fireplace but some of the ceiling timbers were blackened suggesting that the original fire would have been in the centre of the ‘great hall’. There is a small area of carving as indicated above. In what became the barn end of the building there is some sort of mechanism of uncertain purpose.
In addition to the authentic carving on the timbers there is also evidence of graffiti – a ‘fat’ horse and the initials DD. These initials led into a remembrance of past owners/residents of Cil y Byddar. DD stood for David Davies, this triggered memories of Nora and her cats. Afternoon tea with Nora was memorable not just for the tea and her personality but also for the smell of cats. Steve and Jenny Fields were also remembered.
Nigel recommended the book that he found most helpful – “Houses and History in the Marches of Wales”.
Several other examples of Cruck Houses were mentioned-Llanshay 1432-Cefn Ceido 1475-Bryndraenog1436-Bwlch 1522 (these have all been tree-ring dated), Bailey Mawr, a cruck-framed peasant hall-house, T2 and T3 survive-Bailey Shon Llwyd has T2 remains-Bwlch y Cefn has a barn (ca1800) that uses cruck blades from an earlier building-Y Ffaldau is a peasant hall-house, rebuilt in stone in 1704 reusing cruck trusses from the original building-Llanevan has early, reused cruck blades in its 17th century barn.
Stephen mentioned how the local Oaks – ‘Welsh Oak’ or Sessile Oak – Quercus petraea – that clung to the hillsides were limited in size and so the limbs led many half cruck houses being built. Derek invited people to look at the Meeting House roof which was a more modern version of the ½ Cruck. Maureen also talked about her house which was another Cruck House that shared many of the features that Nigel had detailed.
Geraint thanked Nigel for another excellent session. He warned us that he would be leading the next session which again will be on the 2nd Monday in May (11th) on: Penyb ont Police Station and Magistrates Court. Much will be revealed, I am sure!