Period Property of the Month - February 2008
Mac Dowdy uncovers an ancient hall house in Kent which is full of historic treasures
I was driving along the M25 heading for Goose Green. It was during the period of the Falkland's conflict and the name held aggressive connotations as the site of a battle at that time. When checking my route in the road atlas, I had discovered that there were six Goose Greens in England, two of which were in Kent, where I was heading, and one, which I already knew, in Essex close to Thorpe-le-Soken. My Kentish Goose Green was not far from Mereworth . actually pronounced Merryworth, which sounds a very nice name. I was actually going to stay at a hotel in Goose Green, but to work on Mereworth Castle, a beautiful Palladian villa designed by Colen Campbell in 1723.
The castle is far removed from being fortified, but an elegant rotunda joined to two pavilions. The hotel at Goose Green was very agreeable, and particularly comfortable; though my room, the bridal suite with a bathroom big enough to dance in, was wasted on me. The purpose of the trip was successful, and I felt that I deserved a treat on my way home. Coming into Kent, shortly after turning off the M25 on to the M20, I had been delighted to see a wide stretch of totally rural countryside far removed from the great urban and industrial sprawl I had noted from up on the motorways. So it was that on my return journey I made a detour into this rich, pastoral country with its timeless landscape, and following a very isolated track, I discovered Rabbit's Manor.
It is what is termed a hall house with two crosswings. A large, timber-framed building, with steeply pitched roofs in very mellowed plain-tiles. One of the crosswings had been cased in brick around the late-16th Century, at the same time as two of the three chimneypieces had been inserted. The whole house had been rendered over in a plaster-cement to give it a visual unity at some time in the early 19th Century, when its earlier mullioned windows had been replaced with more fashionable casements, with modern glass panes in neat glazing patterns. Surviving souvenirs from Elizabethan times were two projecting rainhoods, termed labels, above now filled-in windows in the crosswing, and the tall chimney-stacks conserved to retain their imposing moulded forms. The overall appearance of Rabbit's Manor, its size and proportions, suggested that this house was likely to tell a much older story within its walls.
Indeed, the interior told the classic story of such a timber-framed building. The earliest structure had been an open hall, exposed right up to the roof, with one end of what is now the central range in two storeys. This upper floor has always been supported by two broad tie-beams extending across the width of the house. Throughout the whole of the building the timbers in their horizontal wall-plates, vertical studwork and very fine beams, exude quality, and through their sturdy dimensions, age. The extreme conservative date to be given to them is very early-15th Century, and I would never blink if dendrochronology gave them a date around 1300.
The upper floor was placed in the open hall in the last quarter of the 16th Century at the same time as the central chimneypiece, and the one in the brick gable-end of the crosswing, were inserted. The third chimney in the other crosswing was inserted in the 17th Century, and was later remodelled to be in keeping with the other two. The central chimneypiece was given double hearths and, above the one on the hall side, the axial-beam stretches the length of the room between the chimney-beam and the inner wall of the crosswing. The room on the other side of the central chimney has two tie-beams.
An extraordinary feature of the chimney-hearths, later termed inglenooks, is that they are built of stone, which was the only material used until the 15th Century when brick was re-introduced. Bricks were expensive and therefore exclusive until the early 17th Century. So many features pointed to this house being really very old.
The owner of Rabbit's Manor at the time of this chance visit was an American lady who understood from the Doomsday Book that the manor had royal connections. Subsequently, I made a few archival enquiries as to why Rabbit Manor was so called, and at the same time why so many places throughout England had variations on the name Goose Green. Perhaps you are already ahead of me? Rabbit's Manor had been, since the Conquest the residence in this part of the county of William I's warrener, a nobleman watching over the royal forest, including its rabbits. Over many centuries, it was known as Warren Manor. The second search showed that throughout the Middle Ages, geese had been walked hundreds of miles to the markets. It was the practice to rest them and feed them up to a good weight again on rich grassy pastures before selling them. Need I go on?
If you'd like to contact Mac Dowdy about investigating the history of your house then you can contact him on:
Tel: 01353 665491 or write to him c/o: Wolfson College, Cambridge CB3 9BB.
Mac's fee is usually between £500 - £1,000 per house, but each case is treated individually.