Period Property of the Month - July 2010
Mac Dowdy travels along old inland waterway to unearth some fascinating local architecture
Our hythes and lodes
Although many people invite me to cast an historical eye over their homes, in the majority of the cases I work on, I discover them from browsing over Ordnance Survey maps. All manner of features catch my attention, possibly a trackway, an ancient line of communication by-passed by time, or a small settlement with an isolated church, or it may be the course of a river and the settlements that line its banks. They provide the settings for a wealth of very interesting houses, from the homes of millers to the trading residences of merchants.
During the 12th century Bishop's Lynn had been established by a bishop of Norwich as a purpose-built port close to where the Great Ouse tidal river flowed into that wide East Anglian estuary known as the Wash. It was built on a sound area of land just west of the saltings of a small Saxon settlement called Rising, whose trade it quickly superceded. Its success was compounded by the merchants of the inspirational Hanseatic League (the town had German mayors up until the 15th century), but it was Henry VIII who further encouraged its trade by giving it new charters, and renaming it King's Lynn.
From its earliest times trade expanded up the rivers that flowed into the Wash, in particularly the Nene, the Welland, the Witham and perhaps, most important of all, the Great Ouse. Low draught barges travelled over 100 miles inland to beyond Bedford.
The house I surveyed is typical of hundreds that line the banks of the one-time navigable rivers that provided arteries of economic communication throughout the lower lying pastoral lands of England. Fenland lighters, a narrow form of barge, usually working in 'gangs' of four or five boats tied together in line, could carry cargoes from the sea-going ships arriving in King's Lynn way up the river Great Ouse to the large inland ports of St Ives, Huntingdon and St Neots, from where traders moved the goods overland to markets to the north and south. However, there were many individual merchants who seized the main chance of trading in the country between the more important towns. They created hythes, small harbours just off the line of the main river, or navigable lodes, canalised streams flowing into them. The merchant's house in this feature is situated beside the river Cam. In the 15th century it was about seven miles from Cambridge, the manor house in a small hamlet, and it traded with river
The old village is very small and is approached down a narrow access road from quite a minor road that runs parallel with the river. The modern village, with one convenience store and a primary school, stands along this road almost a mile away from the Merchant's House, the church and some dozen long established older houses There is no public access to the river in the village.
The house is early Georgian, well-proportioned in red brick house with flanking wings in a paler brick. All its features follow a classic symmetrical form, and although the crosswings are in different alignments, the general appearance is one of harmony. Curiously the upper floor windows are casements, dating to about 1700, and the ground floor are sash; in style, only five or so years later. The cornice, with its dentils, is in wood, which means the whole front was built before 1710, when an ordinance required them to be built in brick or stone. The garden view shows a similar upstairs/downstairs variation, but part of the east wing folds round to enclose the left bay of the house, thus there are but four bays of windows, yet five dormers. The door into the garden is off-centred and almost in a medieval position. These external variations combined to indicate that the Merchant's House is older than its early 18th century appearance.
The reception rooms display a very high quality of tradesmanship in all details, with immaculate joinery, the Norwegian-pine panelling, the cornices, and the variety of fine, marble-like Portland limestone used in the chimney-pieces. It is as impressive today as it must have been in Georgian times at the peak of the river-trading era.
However, none of these rooms had the height of purpose-built rooms of the period, and I was hoping to discover more definite evidence of an earlier building. I found it where the west crosswing abutted the main house. What seemed to be two separate structures were in fact one. The wall-plates were continuous. The main range had been remodelled from a timber-framed house incorporated in the wing. The fragment of beam that looks out of keeping in a kitchen's ceiling proved to be a dragon-beam, a diagonal structure that carried a 16th century jetty round two sides of the earlier house. The owners had been delighted with my enthusiasm for every special detail in their home, but they became bemused and suspect when I raved over a solitary length of timber. Its all part of the highs and lows of waterways' housing.
If you'd like to talk to Mac Dowdy about investigating the history of your house, you can contact him on tel: 01353 665491 or write to him directly c/o Wolfson College, Cambridge CB3 9BB. Mac's fee is usually between £500 - £1,000 per house, but each case is treated individually.