Smarden house

Medieval Houses of Kent


The majority of medieval houses in Kent were timber-framed. A large number of such buildings continue to exist in Kent - perhaps as many as a fifth of those which were around in the early-Tudor period, and without doubt many more than anywhere else in England.

Only some of these houses, which range from about 450 to 700 years old, are straightforwardly recognised from the outside as their timber-framed walls have often been altered or re-built in brick or stone in more recent times. Sometimes, the inside has also been so significantly changed that the medieval genesis of the building only becomes clear in the roof. Once a house has been recognized as medieval, however, it is frequently possible to comprehend much of its original appearance and outline.

The Open Hall
The best way to tell if a house is medieval is to glance at the internal structure of its roof. If any of the timbers, mainly those towards the centre of the building, are blackened, it is almost certain that the house was built before the reign of Elizabeth I. The reason for this is that prior to the mid-sixteenth century the main living area of the house, the hall, was made up of a large room, usually towards the centre of the building, which was open from the ground floor to the roof. This piece of the house had no first floor and no chimney. It was just a great open space.

The open hall was heated by a hearth from which the smoke rose unhindered and slowly dispersed through the gaps in the roof covering or through a specifically constructed louvre. The result of this was that the roof was cloaked in smoke and its timbers became sooted, taking on a blackened form.

The hall was approached at one end straight from the outside through one of two doorways which were positioned opposite each other. As the main public room, the hall was often quite imposing. It was lit by two large windows rising almost the full height of the front and back walls. They were not glazed and were closed by hinged or sliding shutters.

The roof timbers, which were meant to be seen, were often painted and where there was an essential support, or crown post, it was usually carved. In the wall at the opposite end of the hall from the outer doors there might be a moulded beam under which the owner of the house sat on a bench which was attached to the wall. Many of these characteristics can be viewed at Stoneacre in Otham, which is owned by the National Trust and is open to the public.

At both ends of the hall there were more rooms which could only be entered from the hall itself. Behind the owner's bench was his private room, or parlour, from which climbed a stairway (sometimes just a ladder) to a first-floor chamber. At the other end of the hall there were three doorways, one of which led to a second stairway to another chamber, while the other two opened into the buttery and pantry where food and drink were stored. Cooking was done out at the fireplace in the hall, or outside, or occasionally in a separate kitchen structure.

In most Kentish houses, the hall and private rooms formed a single area under one roof. Sometimes the first floor was jettied out over the ground floor at the ends of the building to make what is called an end-jetty house. On the other hand, the storeyed ends could be jettied out to the front of the house and occasionally to the ends as well making the hall appear to be set back. Houses like this are called Wealden Houses because they are particularly common in the Wealden areas of Kent and Sussex. A different type of building, which was not so widespread in Kent, had cross wings with separate roofs at the ends of the hall, as at Stoneacre.

These types of houses are typical of the fifteenth and early-sixteenth century. There was an earlier type of house in which the breadth of the hall was divided into three by pairs of posts which made the hall into a nave and aisles as in lots of barns and churches. The posts held the major weight of the roof and were necessary to a degree because early builders were not convinced enough of their construction methods to cover the building with a single-span roof. Although it is likely that a number of such aisled houses were built, not many continue to exist because of their low side walls and free-standing nature.

While there are a small number of medieval houses in nearly every parish in Kent, they are not spaced regularly across the county. There are few in the unhealthy marshland areas of the far north, and not many in the east and north east. The main collection lie between the valleys of the Medway and the Stour, being particularly prominent in parishes such as Charing, Smarden and the Suttons (Chart Sutton, Sutton Valence and East Sutton. If you go down Charlton Lane in East Sutton, for example, there are five medieval houses, all of the Wealden type and all quite easily recognisable from the outside.

There more houses in the central area of Kent then and they have a propensity to be larger than those in the east and west. This is remarkable since houses with proportionately small halls are normally later in date than those in which the hall is larger.  It suggests that many of the buildings in the middle of the county were constructed earlier than most of those further out where the open-hall tradition remained common into the early-sixteenth century. By that time houses in the heart of Kent were already being built to the new, post-medieval, plan in which the hall fireplace was enclosed in a chimney stack and the hall was floored over to make two storeys all the way through the building.

Peg Tiles
The hand-made plain clay tiles of Kent and Sussex are unequalled for their warmth of colour and quality. No where else are tiles used in such abundance, covering not only the roofs of buildings but the walls too. Historic country homes, churches, town houses, village cottages and farm buildings are all made the more eye-catching for the use of these hand-made tiles.

'Peg' tiles have been made and used in Kent since at least the 13th century. The name comes from the process of fixing the tiles to battens with small round, wooden pegs driven through square holes which are punched in the tile at the moulding stage. The variations of material, hand-moulding, drying and firing give each tile a subtleness of colour, shape and texture which gives individuality to the buildings. The uneven split laths on which the tiles are hung also adds to the character of tiled areas.

With the beginning of slate as an alternative roofing material and the development of machine-made concrete tiles, the hand-made tile industry in Kent began to decline and ceased altogether in the first half of 20th century. The recent resurgence of interest in the environment and acknowledgment of the value of conserving historic buildings has brought the need to develop a fresh supply of peg-tiles for both the repair of existing buildings and to enable new ones to fit happily into their surroundings. The market in second-hand tiles was upset on the night of October 16th, 1987 when hurricane force winds stripped roofs and sent tiles crashing to the ground.



Disclaimer: The information in this Tourist Guide has been researched from a variety of sources including books, articles and online information. While every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of the information the reader should check any specific facts for themselves before making any decisions based upon the said information.

Last Updated: 28 Apr 2015