Historic Architecture Of Norfolk & Suffolk, England


By Glynn Burrows


BIG BLEND RADIO INTERVIEW: Glynn Burrows, historian and owner of Norfolk Tours UK, discusses the architectural history of England. Hear his interview on SoundCloud.com, or YouTube.com. This segment was part of Day 4 of Big Blend Radio’s “History, Heritage & Culture” Festival. 

Arriving in a new area, the first requirement is shelter and, the obvious thing to do is to use what is there. If you are surrounded by rocks, you build a shelter with rocks. If there are hundreds of trees, you make your home out of wood.

When the first European settlers arrived in North America, they found a never-ending supply of wood, so, with only simple tools, they were able to quickly build log cabins.

These log cabins required few building resources, just trees and an axe or saw. There was no need for metal nails to hold them together, just basic knowledge of making joints. Most log cabins were simple one-room buildings, sometimes with a lean-to, where the entire family and the animals would live. Once the farm was up and running, settlers often built bigger homes or added on to the existing log cabin.

Building the cabin also had an extra benefit. It helped to clear the land.

Most early cabins were single-story, because the height had to be manageable, for a man to lift the logs to slot together. Inside, the gaps between the logs were filled with mud or clay, depending on what was available, very similar to the daub used in the UK.

As the building was made of wood, a stone fireplace and chimney had to be added at one end. (When the structures were first built, the fire would have been outside, in a lean-to, as stone fireplaces and chimneys need skill to build.) The fire was obviously to keep warm in the winter but was the only method of cooking.

Windows were usually quite small and only covered by a shutter outside and thick hangings on the inside. Glass was extremely expensive, so log cabins seldom had glazed windows. The floor was often just earth, strewn with straw, but planks would be added when time and skill allowed. Log cabins could be built with just an axe, but planks required a saw-pit and a large saw. (Unless you were capable of using wedges to split trees into planks.)

There would be very little furniture. A home-made table and stools and probably a large trunk which was brought over from the homeland. A bed was a luxury.

So, for settlers in “new” areas, they would have needed to start from scratch, but what about places where people have been living for thousands of years?

Funnily enough, the same things applied when it came to building houses. People used what was available unless they could afford to bring things in.

Looking at Norfolk and our local houses, we see that, from the earliest times, we have built houses from wood and thatch. One of the by-products of grain growing is straw and although most of the straw was used for animals and for the floors inside houses, as well as bedding, a lot of it was also used to thatch the rooves of the houses. From the time before the Romans, we were living in round houses built of wattle and daub on a timber frame and with a thatched roof. There would have been a central fireplace and the smoke would have made its way out through the roof.

The Romans brought with them, lots of new building techniques and they even moved building materials around the country for the most important structures, but most buildings were constructed with locally sourced materials.

After the Romans left, we went back to living in little single-story wooden houses, again with thatched rooves and this didn’t change much for well over 1,000 years.

Most inhabited buildings remaining in use the UK date from after the medieval period, with obvious exceptions such as Windsor Castle, which is the oldest inhabited castle in the world. As we are looking at houses, we will leave out castles and ecclesiastical buildings. It may surprise you that we have many houses, with origins that go back over 700 years, which are still lived in today. (One such house is regularly used by Norfolk-Tours for guests, as it offers amazing b&b accommodation.) Many of these houses started as ecclesiastical buildings or major manor houses and many of them used non-local materials, such as imported stone and hand-made bricks, so, to look at local building materials, we need to go down the social scale a little bit more.

In Norfolk and Suffolk, the only commonly found stone is flint and flint cannot be cut, it can only be shaped by breaking it, a process known as “knapping”. Knapped flint can be made into square blocks and these square flints are often to be seen in Church buildings, but, as knapping was and still is, a very skilled process, it was extremely expensive and not used for secular buildings.

Most buildings that used flint, simply used the stones which were found in the fields and these were usually gathered by women and children, after ploughing. There were also many stone pits in villages, where flint and chalk would be dug out for road and house building.

The other main building material was wood and this was obviously in plentiful supply, only requiring labour to make it usable.

Most Norfolk labourer’s cottages were built of flint, with handmade brick corners and door and window surrounds. (This is because flint does not make good stable corners.)

Roofing was almost always thatch, as clay tiles were very expensive. A thatched roof needs to have a much steeper pitch than a tiled roof and you can often see what is called “a fossil gable” in the end wall of old cottages. This shows that the upper floor of the cottage had been lifted, to allow more headroom in the upper floor. As you can see, with thatched cottages, the windows and therefore the bedrooms, are usually in the roof.

In Suffolk, there was less flint, so most Suffolk cottages are built with a timber frame, filled in with wattle and daub, and topped with a thatched roof. The timber frame is often visible both outside and inside the building and, in between the timbers and wattle, is intertwined twigs and branches which are covered with daub, which is a plaster, made of mud or clay, dung and straw.

Many examples of these types of houses still survive in Norfolk and Suffolk.

Glynn Burrows is the owner of Norfolk Tours in England. For help or advice about tracing your family history, or if you are thinking about taking a vacation to England visit www.Norfolk-Tours.co.uk

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Glynn Burrows is the owner of Norfolk Tours in England.

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