Ptolemy Dean explores the magic of local materials in the architecture of our beautiful country cottages.
Near Furson, Devon
The exposed and damp grounds of Dartmoor and Exmoor, with their rolling hills and deep valleys, created a type of cottage that has long been admired by manufacturers of chocolate boxes and biscuit tins. These buildings are often made of cob, the local earth mixed with straw and rammed down to make incredibly thick walls. Protected from the elements, mud walls will remain dry and stable for centuries. After the coming of the railways in the Victorian period, it was possible to import building materials more cheaply. Brick appeared for chimneys (better for fireproofing) and clay tiles for the roofs, which last longer than traditional straw thatch.
The almost pixilated effect of this cottage is achieved by alternating local flint and Hunstanton red rock. This must have taken quite some work, as the red rock and the flint have both required selection and some knapping or cutting to achieve a regular pattern. As neither material can be used very effectively on corners, red brick has been used for the reveals and the corner of the building. More brick was used later to raise the roof level, which was laid with cheery east-coast orange pantiles.
Duncanslate, Burra Isle, Shetland
Heather thatch remained popular in parts of Scotland where no other roofing material was available. Other materials were often too costly to import. Various outranges are huddled close by to protect the livestock and residents alike from a harsh climate. Stone blocks, with the largest carefully laid in the corners of the buildings, make for a building type that often survives in ruined form for significant periods long after the roof has fallen in. Here, some corrugated iron has appeared over the outrange behind, securing the future of the building.
Seaton Delaval, Northumberland
Seaton Delaval Hall was constructed by Vanbrugh in the 18th century and it seems certain that this rather grand farm cottage has been inflated in scale in order to enhance the vista from the main house. The local sandstone has been used here, beautifully cut where required to convey the correct appearance from afar. The close proximity of the sea made the transport of roofing slates from Westmorland possible at reasonable cost.
Rash Mill, Yorkshire Dales National Park
Cottages can enjoy a close relationship with their outbuildings. Here, a public lane passes through a small farm courtyard. It’s overlooked by the cottage, which is set back in between two flanking ranges on the right. The outbuildings are constructed of local moor stone and the front of the cottage is whitewashed. Large local sandstone slates provide roofing, these demanding shallow roof pitches and substantial timber supports.
In villages, the architecture evolves to take account of smaller plot sizes. These buildings in Sedburgh rise up to three storeys, but with a covered roof link across the entrance to an inner court, presumably to protect against a harsh climate. The sense of enclosure provided by this courtyard is highly attractive and yet one wonders to what degree aesthetics played a part. Achieving something half as good in a modern housing scheme appears almost beyond us.
Slindon, West Sussex
The catslide roof is an ingenious way of gaining extra ground-floor accommodation and reducing the cost of building up a back wall. These large roofs are heavy, however, and three brick buttresses (and two more modern props) are in evidence. Windows are confined under the eaves and are painted traditionally in two colours. For the time being, there are no modern roof lights and this tilework remains especially beautiful as a result.
It’s increasingly rare to find ‘un-beautified’ working cottages in the Cotswold area around Cirencester, but here is a pair of working cottages attached to a barn. This long range of honey-coloured limestone in turn defines quite a large farm courtyard behind, whose entrance the cottage appears to be guarding. The roofs are quite steeply pitched to stop water blowing between the uneven gaps of the stone slates. The wall defining the small front garden is made of dry stones probably gathered from the surrounding fields.
Essex is a county that is awash with timber, but with virtually no building stones at all. If brick could not be afforded, plaster or weatherboarding was used instead. The central window of this cottage is a multi-pane sash window with timber pilasters in the very finest 18th-century Classical tradition. Perhaps the craftsman involved built grander houses elsewhere? Above is a humble thatched roof. It goes to prove that good architecture can clearly be achieved with even the most humble of building materials
By the close of the 19th century, the picturesque appeal of the half-timbered cottage was widely recognised. The architect George Devey (d.1886) created this beautiful but perhaps rather self-conscious group of Tudor-styled cottages around the entrance to Penshurst churchyard. These half-timbered buildings are ancestors of the half-timbered semi-detatched houses that continue to appear in some mass-built housing estates.