The Trust has been presented with the unfortunate task of recording a significant number of fire damaged historic buildings over the years. Indeed, the very first I recorded for the Trust, in 1986, had suffered a severe fire. This was 26 St Peter’s Street, then Frogs Restaurant. Fast forward thirty five years and the task of inspecting charred burnt timbers presented itself again.
Eastwood House, a grade II listed timber-framed farmhouse, was located in a rural setting surrounded by fields and woodland approximately 1km to the east of the village of Ulcombe, Kent. Until recently the building had been occupied by an elderly gentleman but sadly it had fallen into a poor state of repair. Holes had formed in its roof, letting in the rain, and plaster had fallen from its walls and ceilings. The site had become heavily overgrown with trees and other undergrowth, this encroaching upon and starting to consume the building.
Photo prior to the fire showing dilapidated condition.
The property was sold to new owners in March of 2021, after the gentleman had moved into sheltered accommodation. They had hoped to restore the building but regrettably, on the 2nd April of this year, a fire broke out. The scene left by this conflagration was one of complete devastation. None of the timber-frame remained standing and the central chimney had collapsed, spreading rubble over the site.
The scene of destruction left by the fire.
The Trust was commissioned by the new owners to record and analyse the surviving remnants of the structure and to prepare a set of drawings, reconstructing as accurately as the evidence would allow, the arrangement of the structure prior to the fire. Their intention is to faithfully reinstate the building in new oak.
Photo of the cleared site.
The site was first cleared of rubble, by the owners, to expose the footprint of the building. Although a large part of the timber-frame had been entirely consumed by the fire (almost nothing of the roof or internal floors, for example, remained), several dozen larger timbers, such as the main posts and beams were recovered from the rubble, albeit badly charred and often incomplete or broken. These contained invaluable evidence that could be used in the reconstruction. One of the great advantages when interpreting timber-framed buildings is that one timber can retain clear evidence (empty mortices) for many others that were once attached to it. Remnants of the central chimney, including parts of its ground floor hearths, also survived. In addition to the surviving physical evidence, historic photographs and a video of the property, taken by the estate agents prior to its sale, provided further vital information.
Mid twentieth century photo of restored house.
A surprisingly complete understanding of the main structural elements of the house was gained through the Trust’s investigation, despite the high level of destruction. Enough timbers were recovered from the debris, albeit charred and damaged, to allow a significant part of its frame to be reconstructed on paper, accurately, from actual measurements. Where no fabric had survived, photographs and video evidence were examined closely, to understand the original arrangement.
The investigation revealed this was a late medieval dwelling, built perhaps during the first few decades of the sixteenth century, its heavy oak frame formed in a conventional manner for the locality and period. The structure was end-jettied to the east, and probably also the west, originally, and was covered with a crown-post roof, the most common medieval roof form. The dwelling was reasonably substantial but quite plain, with few decorative elements, such as mouldings or panelling. Even the dais-beam, usually the most elaborate timber in a hall house, was plain.
Cutaway showing timber frame looking south west.
The house appears to have been arranged in the typical medieval manner, its central open hall flanked at both ends by floored, in-line wings. The high-end wing, containing the parlour and solar, was located to the east and was reasonably well preserved prior the fire. The low-end wing was located to the west but had been largely rebuilt. Presumably this contained service rooms (a buttery and pantry) on the ground floor. The front door was located in a slightly unusual position, suggesting a smoke bay or some other feature may have occupied the centre of the property at one time.
Exploded view showing construction of east jetty.
Evidently, the building developed in a similar manner to many other houses of this period, the most significant alteration the flooring over of its hall and the formation of a large central chimney. Probably this happened later in the sixteenth century. In the eighteenth century, perhaps, the property was subdivided into two cottages and a low lean-to, containing a bread oven, formed to the rear. An early twentieth-century photograph shows the building still divided into cottages but in a rather dilapidated state, its timber-frame twisted and distorted. Around the middle of the twentieth century the building was turned back into a single dwelling and thoroughly restored. No significant further work appears to have occurred from this point onwards.
Perspective view of north front of house.