General information on Bayleaf: Wealden House

Most Wealden houses were built in a single operation, but Bayleaf appears to have been built in two separate stages. In the first phase, which has been dated to about 1405–30, the open hall and the service end of the building were probably attached to an earlier structure, which stood where the solar end bay now stands. Some time later this earlier structure must have been removed and the solar end bay built in its place, giving the building its present form.

The open hall

The open hall is of two bays. Its floor area is not large but its height and proportions create a sense of grandeur — the central open roof truss is an important feature of halls such as this. Visitors with an eye for symmetry will notice that the crown posts in the centre of the roof trusses are not central to the width of the hall itself, because the roof extends two feet outside the recessed front wall.

The tie beam is supported by two massive arch braces. The original braces had been removed to create more space upstairs when the hall was floored over in the late 16th century, so new ones had to be found for the Museum reconstruction. They are each thirteen feet long and weigh nearly four hundredweight, and were cut from a tree which had grown with a suitable curve.

Bayleaf sections

The position of the hearth in the open hall is conjectural, but is based on the evidence of hearths discovered by archaeologists in similar houses. The smoke from the fire may have escaped originally through the triangular gablet at the service end of the house, this being the usual arrangement in other hall-houses with hipped roofs, or through apertures formed in the ridge of the roof. In practice most of the smoke seeps out through gaps between the roof tiles. There was evidence in the rafters that a louvre had been built on the roof at the service end of the hall, but this was possibly an intermediate stage of improvement prior to the insertion of the brick chimney stack in 1636, rather than part of the original open hall.

The main pieces of furniture in the hall are the table, laid with a cloth, and the cupboard, on which pewter is displayed. This reflects the wording of probate inventories of the period, which often contain an entry such as: ‘In the hall, one table and a form, three stools, one cupboard …’

The open hall in Bayleaf

The open hall in Bayleaf

Parlour and solar

Beyond the hall are the two rooms traditionally known as the parlour and solar. The solar — the upper chamber — was probably used as the family’s private bed-sitting room. It is dominated by a high quality arch-braced tie beam, and has its own privy, suggesting that it was considered the most important private room in the house. The tie beam in this room is a particularly interesting feature. Instead of running across the building, as it normally would, it is parallel with the line of the roof, changing the axis of the chamber and giving it the dignity of a two-bay cross wing.

The window shutters in the solar slide vertically in grooves cut into the timbers. Normally medieval window shutters were either hinged, like those in the hall, or were designed to slide horizontally.

The reconstruction of the privy is partly conjectural, being based on mortices in the main timbers of the wall and on other surviving privies. It is not clear whether it originally emptied straight into an open cess-pit or whether there may have been some kind of covered conduit, but the contents were used as garden manure. Another privy would have stood outside the house.

Service rooms

Below the passage, at the other end of the hall, are the service rooms, traditionally known as the buttery and pantry. The buttery seems to have been used mainly for storing vessels and utensils, while food, especially flour, was stored in the pantry. Some cooking may have taken place on the fire in the hall, but by the mid 16th century most houses of this size in Kent also had a kitchen — in many cases detached from the house for fire safety — which was used for baking and brewing.

Above the service rooms is a large chamber. Its original use is not known, so we have used it to house an exhibition describing the creation of Bayleaf’s replica furniture, equipment and landscape.

Cutaway drawing of Bayleaf showing structure and plan

Cutaway drawing of Bayleaf showing structure and plan

A medieval illustration showing a garderobe

A medieval illustration showing a garderobe projecting from the wall of a house, with a cesspit below. The unfortunate person in the cesspit has fallen through a broken floorboard. From a 15th-century French translation of Boccaccio’s Decameron.

Wealden House

Bayleaf is an example of a type of house which is common in south-eastern England, and particularly in the Weald of East Sussex and Kent — hence the name ‘Wealden’ house. Its characteristic feature is the recessed front wall of the hall. The two end chambers are both jettied out at the front of the building but the hall has no upper floor and no jetty, and the upper part of the front wall is therefore recessed. Most of these houses were built by prosperous traders and craftsmen in towns, and by yeoman farmers in the countryside.

Bayleaf Wealden House

The entrance door opens into a cross passage, which is divided from the hall by short screens at either side of a wide opening. The open hall is of two bays, the ‘lower’ bay and the ‘upper’ bay. The lower bay has no windows, while in the upper bay double-height windows throw light on the high table — in the centre of which would have sat the head of the household. The fire on the open hearth produces smoke which deposits a thick layer of encrusted soot on the beams.

A doorway by the high table leads to the ‘solar’ end of the house. The upper room, traditionally known as the solar, probably provided the family’s private bed-sitting room, while the lower room (which became known as the parlour) may have been used variously for sleeping, storage and working.

At the lower end of the hall are two service doorways with arched heads, opening into the two service rooms — traditionally called the buttery and pantry. These rooms were for storing food, vessels and utensils. A third doorway at the back of the house opens onto stairs leading to the service chamber.