Look Again at Buildings Around You
The featured illustration, Mermaid Street by Brian Hargreaves, is a splendid example in our own town of Rye of varied vernacular building materials and styles. Thanks to Joyce Hargreaves for permission to use it.
Those fortunate enough to attend Dr Geoffrey Mead’s illustrated talk Hearth and Home: Sussex Building Materials and Styles on Thursday October 13th will henceforth look on buildings around us with ‘new eyes’ .
Geographer Dr Mead, of the School of Global Studies at the University of Sussex Brighton, revealed through maps and photos the variety of geological environments throughout our county and their reflection in the buildings emerging within them. We were reminded that ‘vernacular’ architecture does not mean ‘old’ buildings but styles based on local materials, needs and traditions. For those living on England’s south coast it is not only the range of rocks, the variety of clays and silts and coastal cobbles, the forests and agricultural pursuits which have dictated these styles but the long coastline, accessible rivers and creeks and proximity to the Continent which have led to readily available imported materials too. And one mustn’t forget the coming of railways which brought men of wealth able to make the most of available materials to build prestigious manor houses amidst existing humble hamlets.
In the course of the evening we learned something of the geology of East and West Sussex , of rocks of Cretaceous age — sandstones, mudstones, siltstones and limestones, of overlying chalk, of forest and sticky clays of the Weald, of coastal marshes, of flint on and near the South Downs, of regional variations in brick throughout the county. And against these backgrounds we were shown how the homes people built bore testimony to the rocks beneath them, the landscape around them and materials originating elsewhere but available thanks to Sussex ports. Sussex may be the most heavily wooded county of ‘native trees’ today but when the huge demand for wood and iron ore and fuel, particularly charcoal, badly depleted the Ashdown Forest’s woodlands, Baltic timber and ballast came to the rescue.
We saw timber-framed Wealden Hall houses such as Rye’s own St Anthony’s, and houses of stone and brick and weatherboarding, making use also of flint, of gypsum, of rabbit skin in windows, with variations in shapes and colours and styles reflecting their particular localities. We also saw manor houses such as Firle Place, owned for 5 centuries by the same family, which retains its Tudor interior but along the way acquired a Georgian exterior featuring Caen stone from Normandy to look more like a French chateau, and Standen, fairly recently built but constructed of local materials with traditional methods and incorporating medieval farm buildings — inspired by the Arts and Crafts movement.
Along the way we also gained a new appreciation of the hard work and inventiveness required and the dangers risked to make use of local materials. The preference was for small trees as they had to be cut by hand and sent by ox cart, load after load, on poor roads, to their destinations. Existing records tell of 357 cartloads of sand, bushels of charcoal, wagonloads of handmade bricks (in one case half a million!) and tiles, moved from quarries, brickyards, potteries and ironworks to the places they were needed. Waste products of agriculture such as stalks and reeds were used for thatching, and bits of demolished houses recycled. Children helped too — learning their future trades.
There was much more, before the last slide featuring our own Mermaid Street with its full range of building materials and styles, but the overall response at the end of a stimulating evening can be summed up as ‘We’ve got a completely new way to look at the buildings around us. Let’s get started!’