‘Guerrilla’ Conservationists Assemble to Save Devon Longhouse

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Press release issued by SPAB: 9th January 2018

The future of a hugely significant Devon longhouse dating from the late 14th century was made more secure last weekend (Jan 6th/7th) after a group of volunteer architects and building craftspeople, alerted by SPAB (The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings), gave up their weekend to carry out vital repairs.

The 22-strong group assembled at the Grade II-listed building - situated in Exmoor National Park between Barnstaple and Tiverton - to carry out essential work to prevent the remote medieval farmhouse from passing a point of no return.

The closed truss with central post

The closed truss with central post

The farmhouse is a remarkably unspoilt example of a medieval cob dwelling. Probably dating from the 14th century – the period after the Black Death - the building also incorporates elements from remodelling carried out in the late 16th or early 17th century and has a long and fascinating story. A closed truss at the upper end of the hall is an extremely rare example of its type. So rare, in fact, that only two others are known to exist in Devon. These are to be found in medieval buildings in Kennerligh and Tedburn St Mary. However, the truss in the threatened building is the only complete survivor making the farmhouse regionally important.

Sadly, the building’s current plight is an example of an all-too common story. When the last person to live there died in 2009 the farmhouse was left unoccupied and subsequently fell into a state of significant disrepair. Despite the best efforts of the executors, there is still uncertainty as to its ownership. In addition, abandoned to the elements, it simply fell off the radar of various authorities. Thanks to SPAB’s intervention it has now been placed on Historic England’s Heritage at Risk register and the Society is working with the support of Historic England and others who live locally to save the building from further collapse.

Cob, the earthen material used to build much of the structure, can decay rapidly when wet. Unfortunately this longhouse had several sections of its roof that were no longer present or doing their job allowing water into the walls resulting in some severe deterioration and partial collapse. The work carried out included propping perilous walls in the farmhouse and adjoining linhay, repairing the roofs and extending the eaves, dealing with rain water drainage and covering elements of the earth-built building that were exposed to the weather. Our volunteer group further helped prepare the site for more repair work to take place in the future.

The morning briefing before work starts

The morning briefing before work starts

Each year SPAB, Britain’s oldest and most practical conservation body, deals with hundreds of old buildings facing threat – whether through inappropriate development, ignorance or neglect. The Exmoor longhouse came to the Society’s attention through its Casework team which helps and protects buildings in need.

Recognising the importance of this remarkable survival, SPAB contacted Historic England and the local authority conservation officer for permission to assist and gained local support. Within days, in the depths of January, a group of expert volunteers travelled to Devon from far afield to carry out a targeted schedule of ‘guerilla’ conservation.

The Volunteers congregate after finishing the emergency repairs

The Volunteers congregate after finishing the emergency repairs

Emma Lawrence, SPAB’s Head of Casework, said:

The farmhouse was at serious risk. Our main aim over the weekend was to make it watertight and head off the worst structural threats to ensure it doesn’t suffer further damage or even the possibility of total collapse over winter. When we left on Sunday we’d made a huge and positive difference.

Jonathan Garlick, SPAB Technical Officer explains:

With a hard winter ahead, its poor condition meant that we had to take immediate action. As a charity we have a huge network of tradesmen, architects, surveyors and people passionate about preserving Britain’s historic buildings. We put out a call to arms and quickly gathered together a group of expert volunteers who were more than willing to spend two days carrying out immediate remedial work which would ensure this amazing house makes it through to spring intact.

The future for the farmhouse remains in the balance as a plan is developed for its future ownership and use.

Emma Lawrence concludes:

“The SPAB has existed for 140 years. Our main message has always been that decay can be halted through maintenance and careful repair. Unfortunately this wonderful farmhouse has fallen victim to neglect and the weather. SPAB is an organisation uniquely placed to act with agility and purpose to save a building in a perilous state. We have the expertise and support of dedicated members, supporters and staff and, in this case, were able to mobilise a ‘guerrilla’ working party using donated time, tools and materials to prop perilous walls and make the building watertight until more long-term works can be undertaken. We continue to support all the stakeholders involved and are in discussions over the future of the building.”

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Is Britain’s oldest building conservation body. It was set up by William Morris to oppose the destructive restorations of the Victorian era and promote the alternative of “conservative repair”. By law it must be notified of applications to demolish listed buildings in England and Wales and comments on hundreds each year. Today its broad remit is to advise, educate and campaign.  The Society, a registered charity, also trains architects and craftspeople; produces a range of helpful publications and campaigns on issues affecting our built heritage.