Building on Tradition

L.A.S. March talk was a very informative and interesting one delivered by Andrew Lowe who is the former “Buildings Conservation Officer” for “The Lake District National Park”.The subject of the talk was vernacular building in the national park. Andy said at the start of his talk that what he was delivering to us in one hour was usually spread over a course of lectures so it was inevitably distilled and compressed. He asked us to be house detectives.

He opened his lecture by showing us a beautiful view of a lake and mountains with buildings in the foreground. He contended that the observer usually comments on the beautiful geographical features without commenting on the buildings but he wanted to show us how the buildings contributed to the beauty of the landscape. In his talk he unfolded the history of the vernacular buildings and their organic growth from their surroundings and how the functionality of the buildings and their origin in the local geology creates a beauty that enhances the landscape.

The earliest buildings still standing date from the end of the 15th century and early 16th century, but however this can be misleading because the frugal habits of the builders would always look to reuse and recycle so that a house or barn would be continually altered and updated: indeed in Ambleside many of the houses are built of stone robbed  or reused from Galava Roman fort nearby. Andy Lowe explained how the remoteness and relative poverty of the area determined the construction and materials used. In the earlier periods there was much more wood available, particularly oak and therefore the buildings were of cruck construction sawn or split from tall oak trees  and these have stood the test of time. Bone pegs were used to fasten the wood together often with square pegs in round holes because they fit better when using wood.  The occasion of constructing these roofs would often be done communally and a feast would be laid on – which is the origin of the expression “raising the roof“. They were also built with steep pitches to hold the bracken thatch that was ubiquitous locally: however these were made less steep to hold slates when the farmers had a little more money (mainly due to the success of sheep farming),  which enabled the great rebuilding which occurred here mid 17th century until 1720 approximately; a century or so later here than in the south of the country.  When the inhabitants were feeling  more affluent  and wanted to demonstrate their conspicuous consumption, chimneys would become a status  feature. In the Lake District they took the form of tall cylindrical towers almost like miniature cooling towers. These were scaled down copies of chimneys on high status buildings in the area.

Later on in the talk Andy discussed and illustrated various features of buildings such as windows -the materials used (wood mainly until the 17th and 18th centuries) and the construction techniques. He explained how the availability of glass determined the size of window panes and how in the earliest periods the windows were unglazed but shuttered of which still remain examples. He introduced us to many fine and beautiful details on houses, the architraving, porches and decorated datestones which are a characterful and pleasing  aspect of the wonderful vernacular architecture which is such an integral part of the Lake District National park’s unique identity.

Posted by Jeanette Dobson

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