Saturday 6 October 2012

Old wood sheds new light

Richard Suggett, from the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales (RCA&HMW), gave an excellent lecture to the Meirionnydd History Society titled Searching for the Oldest Houses in Wales.

1402 seems to be the date of the oldest (dated) house in Wales that we know of and that’s Hafod y Garreg, near Builth Wells, described on the Alastair Sawday website as a particularly fine B&B! It’s thought that during the crushing of the Owain Glyndŵr rebellion (1400 to 1410) all (or just about all) other buildings of any significance were destroyed.

Tree ring dating, or dendrochronology, is the technology that gives us the scientific certainty of 1402. This involves taking a fat, pencil-shaped core out of beams and then measuring the growth rings of the tree to match the rings with known growth norms. In a cold year the rings are very thin, whereas in a warm year, with a good supply of rain, the rings are thicker etc. There’s a lot of skill and know-how in doing this including taking a sample which starts from the outermost skin of the tree towards the centre of the trunk. The outermost skin of the tree is called sapwood and this, especially in a 400 to 500 year old beam, can be very crumbly and prone to disintegrate. If the sapwood crumbles away, the best you can achieve, because these represent the final years of growth, is a date range as opposed to a specific year.

The technology is relatively new but since the 1980s its use has grown dramatically with about 250 houses in Wales now dated. Of these, about a third have been tree-ring dated as part of the Dating Old Welsh Houses Project which has been led by Margaret Dunn. This has radically changed our understanding of the local architectural scene and in particular the ‘Snowdonia house’.

After Glyndŵr the first significant houses or ‘hall houses’ to be built were quite grand or very high status buildings – built by people with the most power and wealth. Examples include Abbey Farm (1441) by Cymer Abbey, just north of Dolgellau, or Plas Uchaf (1435) which is not far from Corwen. Plas Uchaf was restored by The Landmark Trust and is now available as holiday accommodation. 

From 1450 to 1500 most of the surviving buildings are referred to as ‘gentry halls’ i.e. quite posh whereas most of the buildings from 1500 to 1550 are ascribed the term of ‘peasant halls’ - the same basic shape or design as the posh version but much smaller and less grand. Then came the ‘Snowdonia house’, built on two floors with a substantial staircase.

The earliest Snowdonia house, with the date of 1585 inscribed on it, was thought to be the start of the era for this style of building. New evidence has blown this wide open and we now think the Snowdonia house started to appear in 1515 and that the style was fully matured by 1557. An example being Plas y Dduallt (trees chopped down between 1559 to 1565) with farm buildings now converted into excellent self-catering accommodation called Campbell's Cottage - historic homes and holidays are a good match!

Without the research of the Dating Old Welsh Houses Project with the support of the RCA&HMW we might never have known this. Whereas northwest Wales was previously considered an architectural backwater it is now considered to have been an area of great innovation, not just a belated follower of fashion.

Thank you Richard for an excellent lecture. Thank you Margaret for leading our project and congratulations on being made a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London. For she’s a jolly good …..

If you’d like to know more about, or get involved with, the Dating Old Welsh Houses Group - click here.  

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