For several years I’ve enjoyed our old house with a few pieces of the jigsaw. Visitors get regaled with a fantastic story built on a couple of facts, some surmising and wishful thinking. Bits about the family whose home it was for 3 centuries. According to parish records they paid 5 hearths in 1662. Evan Llwyd, living 1769, was written off as ‘an idiot’. Were Cromwell’s officers really billeted with the Llwyds during the siege of Harlech? Does the symbol in the window frame ward off evil spirits?
I confidently say the old part was built 1500 or earlier and the extension added in 1630, but how do I prove it? My stories are the stuff of historical fiction, the odd nugget of fact to disguise the guesswork.
But now, enter The Tardis, travelling back in time with Margaret Dunn and the snappily named North West Wales Dendrochronology Project. Fresh back from my induction day in the archives at Dolgellau I’m inspired with a better view of what’s required.
The technology is a pencil of wood, from a cruck beam, sliced down its length to reveal the growth rings which are read into a PC and matched against norms. Sometimes they pinpoint not only the year but the season. Other times, if the tree has grown in rich and easy conditions, the rings are too big, maybe quarter of an inch per year. In such cases the average sized beam will not contain the 80 or so rings that are needed to make a conclusive match.
The date of the tree being felled will mark the start of building, green oak so much easier to work than when seasoned. But I’ll want to know a whole lot more than that.
There are many potential sources of information, more so the closer to the present. Our priority is to capture the oral evidence while it’s still there, then to work back in time through maps, legal documents, census returns, parish registers etc. and then to present it all chronologically from the beginning. Along the way I can foresee many red herrings and lots of dots that might not always join up. But I’m looking forward to it, a bit like someone who’d love to have a second chance to study history, but with the added spice of being a pioneer, working with local facts against a background of national events.
I’ll be viewing the dissolution of the monasteries, civil war, industrial revolution and world wars through the eyes of our home. A bit like looking the wrong way through binoculars but so personal and meaningful.