Discovering the Traditional Cottages of Wales
By Greg Stevenson
Greg Stevenson works as a freelance architectural heritage consultant and lectures on this
subject at the University of Wales, Lampeter. His latest vernacular restoration project (pictured)
is available as a unique holiday let. Call him on 01570 470003 or visit http://www.underthethatch.co.uk
You can't spend much time in Wales without noticing the rich heritage of traditional cottages that are to be found in even remote areas. The mountains and hills that make walking such a joy are also the reason that we have such a wonderful architectural legacy. The rugged landscape meant that until the Industrial Revolution about three quarters of the country was inaccessible to any kind of heavy or bulky load. This encouraged people to source local building materials, such as oak for timber framing in much of Mid Wales, earth for cob or clom walling in the West and stone in the North and other areas. Nothing from the farmland went to waste, and threshed wheatstraw was used to thatch roofs, and the boulders from field clearance were used to build cloddiau (hedge banks).
Mountain topography also separated Welsh craftsmen from the ever-changing fashions of the English cities, and traditions of every kind continued to thrive in the rural West. Rural poverty was probably equally important in protecting the local ways of building, as people adapted native materials in rustic styles. Roof timbers were used straight from the hedgerow without any squaring off, clay was used as a cheap alternative to lime for building, and the gorse that had to be cleared from fields made an excellent material for securing thatch roofs.
The building traditions of Wales are often so localised that hill walkers will pass several types of traditional, or 'vernacular' architecture in a single day. Look closely and you will begin to recognise the stone from particular quarries, or the mouldings on window glazing bars that were favoured by a particular carpenter. The long-lived cottage traditions of Wales caused early travel writers to baulk at the 'un-civilised' and 'primitive' ways of life out West. London snobs writing in the mid nineteenth century couldn't believe that people still lived in simple one-room homes with thatched chimneys and earthen floors. The truth was that Wales had clung to its traditions longer, and in some cases (such as long-houses where the family and farm stock sleep under one long roof) Wales retained a way of life that had died out in most of England centuries before.
Although today the economy of Wales is undoubtedly centred on the M4 corridor, before the industrial age North Wales was more accessible than the South. It isn't uncommon to find cottages in Gwynedd that remain virtually unchanged in their architecture since the sixteenth century. North Wales was also home to a rich tradition of country oak furniture that has become the envy of antiques collectors the world over.
Today most of us have lost the skill or courage to build our own homes, but even as late as the nineteenth century it was common for people to have to erect their own cottage. The ty unnos tradition (literally translates as 'one night house') in the 17th to the 19th centuries allowed people to claim a piece of common land if they could erect a home and have a fire lit by dawn the next day. The simple building techniques employed in the tai unnos (turf walls and thatch roofs) were echoed in thousands of cottages that have long since collapsed or been destroyed.
Today we have lost the co-operative building spirit where communities got together to construct a group of dwellings in earth, building a layer on each and rotating between houses while the clay walls dried. People designed their own homes according to their needs, which are a far cry from modern ideas about space and privacy. A typical cottage of two small rooms with a croglofft (sleeping mezzanine) would commonly have housed families of ten or more. Room sizes would be dictated by simple factors such as the length of available timber for spanning the roof, and internal partitions were as often as not created by the backs of dressers and cupboard beds. The entrance door and huge simne fawr (inglenook) were often the primary source of daylight, as windows would be kept to a minimum, and closed with shutters where glass was prohibitively expensive.
The landscape of rural Wales would have looked very different in the eighteenth century, when most cottages were built. The transition to cattle and sheep farming on large farms only really took hold in rural Wales in the early twentieth century, and before then smallholdings would have had a balanced mix of arable and pasture. A medium-sized holding in the early nineteenth century would have been approximately 18 acres, of which two thirds would have been put over to growing oats, barley and wheat. The straw from these was then used for thatching the roof, bedding the stock, and also making domestic items such as mattresses and some rope seating. It wasn't until the commercial explosion in slate mining in the mid nineteenth century, and improved transport that the roofs of many of the rural poor began to change to the uniform slate that we see today. Of course people used whatever was to hand; some thatched in gorse, heather or turf, others made stone tiles, and slate would have been used where it was readily available. Thatch roofs would be secured with tarred straw ropes, and in very windy areas (such as Pembrokeshire) slate roofs were limed over. Floors would often be polished earth, or stone or slate where the ground was damp, or there was heavy traffic. Some homes were built straight onto bedrock; while others enjoyed decorative pitched floors. Exteriors were often limewashed in vivid colours, such as ochre yellow or deep blood red, as homes vied for attention in the landscape.
Unfortunately the last few decades have seen the wholesale destruction of the vernacular traditions of Wales. Thousands of traditional cottages have been demolished to make way for modern bungalows that reflect nothing of local traditions. Plastic windows replace the Georgian and Victorian sash windows that used to add character to our villages and towns. Limewashes are sand-blasted off walls or cemented over. Despite attempts by Cadw to list the best examples, houses full of historic features are still being demolished and 'modernised' beyond recognition on a daily basis. In the last week alone I have seen two thatched roofs stripped and replaced with concrete tiles. With the thatch went the ancient crucks and wickerwork chimney hoods. What makes this destruction harder to bear is that it is often done for no good reason. I have witnessed the destruction of beautiful seventeenth century wall-paintings because 'the wall leaned', the demolition of a cruck cottage to allow for an extra parking space on a bungalow plot, and a beautiful oak inglenook ripped out because the owner 'banged her head on it'. Features which have lasted for centuries are ripped out in weeks as people strive to make their mark on their homes.
Spare a thought for the hard life of the tyddynwyr (crofters) that once formed the heart of the rural community as you pass the fruits of their labour in the landscape. And if you see a well-preserved cottage that retains its original features, then tell the owner how much you appreciate their home and the part it plays in our historic landscape.
Davies, Martin 1991 Traditional Qualities of the West Wales Cottage (published privately)
Peate, Iorwerth 1944 The Welsh House (recently reprinted by Llannerch Press)
Smith, Peter 1988 Houses of the Welsh Countryside (HMSO, sadly out of print, but worth tracking down)
Wiliam Eurwyn 1988 Home-made Homes (National Museum of Wales)
Wiliam, Eurwyn 1992 Welsh Long-houses (National Museum of Wales)
Anyone interested in Welsh vernacular architecture will love the Museum of Welsh Life, St Fagans, Cardiff CF5 6XB Telephone: 029 2057 3500 Website: www.nmgw.ac.uk
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