Medieval house from North Cray, Kent

This article is from the Museum Guidebook. © Weald & Downland Open Air Museum

In 1968 the London Borough of Bexley needed to demolish this house for road widening, but agreed instead to dismantle it and put the timbers in store for re-erection locally. No progress was made, however, and ten years later it was decided to donate the timbers for re-erection at the Museum. The site chosen for this is the village area, the building’s original context having been a village. The jettied end and a side elevation both faced a road on its original site, so the building was an ideal candidate for the Museum’s corner site next to the Upper Hall from Crawley.

The house on its original site

The house on its original site, photographed in 1928.
Photo: Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England

The original plan — an open hall

The building is an excellent example of the medieval hall plan which was extremely common in the 15th century, particularly in southern and midland England and Wales. The timber structure is of four bays, two of which form the central open hall. In the two end bays there is an upper floor. The bay at the south end, facing the market place, is divided on the ground floor into two rooms, the medieval buttery and pantry, with a chamber above. At the other end of the hall there are also two doors, that on the left leading to the stairs to the best chamber (known as the solar) and that on the right leading to the room below it.

The entrance into the hall is from a cross passage between opposite doorways, and originally this seems not to have been divided from the hall by a permanent screen or partition. The first alteration to the building, however, was the addition of a full height partition frame between the hall and cross passage to allow a chamber to be inserted above the passage.

Painted elm timbers

Perhaps the most unexpected feature of the building is that the external timbers have all been painted red. Evidence has gradually been accumulating to show that red paint was very often used on the timbers of medieval buildings. The effect would have been similar to that which can still be seen in some French and German towns where the tradition has survived to this day. Several of the timbers of the North Cray house had red paint surviving in protected positions, and traces were found in one position in particular, where they could only date from the original construction of the building.

Another unusual feature is that most of the original timbers are elm rather than oak. Elm and other timbers were often used in later periods but oak is by far the most common timber found in surviving medieval buildings, so the North Cray house is unusual in this respect. Elm is a hardwood which is similar in many ways to oak when newly cut and worked, but it is much less able to resist the combined attack of weather and woodworm. The internal timbers of the building are remarkably well preserved but the external timbers have had to be substantially repaired and replaced in the reconstruction. The lower part of the front wall is a conjectural reconstruction, as the original was completely destroyed when the jetty was underbuilt in brick.

Modifications

A cutaway drawing of the house

A cutaway drawing of the house, showing the two inserted frames: the first separated the entrance passage from the hall and provided a new chamber over the passage; the second divided off a ‘smoke bay’, with an inglenook fireplace.

In the 16th and 17th centuries the house underwent a typical series of modifications. First, a partition frame was inserted just next to the central truss in the hall, forming a ‘smoke bay’. It is not known whether the hall was floored over at the same time, but certainly the smoke bay incorporated an upper floored area at one side in which meat may have been hung and smoked. The next alteration, probably in the early 17th century, was the insertion within the smoke bay of a great brick chimney stack similar to those in the Walderton and Pendean houses at the Museum, and at this stage the hall was certainly floored over as the stack incorporated a chamber fireplace. In its final form, before being dismantled, the front of the building was used as a grocer’s shop and the rest was divided into two small cottages.

For a fuller account of the North Cray house, see an article by P. J. Tester in Archaeologia Cantiana (the journal of the Kent Archaeological Society), Vol. 87, 1972.