Sir Nikolaus Pevsner, the indefatigable German immigrant in the 1930s who was passionate about English vernacular architecture, founded the indispensable Penguin guides to the buildings of England’s towns and villages. It may be legend or fantasy that he wished to dedicate the first series of such guides in the world to the country inns that provided him and his wife with a chair, table and lamp. One could imagine his relief as he sat down to note every architectural detail after a long day driving about the countryside, except that his wife did most of the driving. He should have dedicated the series to her!
‘The moulding round the east window is clearly mid-seventeenth century, he wrote meticulously of the small, carefully tended ‘chapel of ease’ in the Yorkshire village of Clinton Huthwaite. Sir Nicklaus, as he later became, was entranced by the survival of so much vernacular architecture in England and Wales – he did not live long enough to do the same for Scotland.
By Shakespeare’s time, England’s population was increasing so the country was bursting its maritime seams. Infant mortality led families to produce large families. Hard work and the end to serfdom meant that by the time Shakespeare was born in 1564 there were prosperous yeoman farmers like Sir Walter Raleigh’s Devon family. Overseas trade produced families of ambitious merchant traders in ports from Bridlington in the north-east to Bristol in the south-west. Among the gentry, the tradition was that the eldest son inherited the property and land, the second one signed up for the army, usually with money to secure a commission, the third became a clergyman and, if there was a fourth son, he sailed abroad to seek his fortune. The daughters married the most prosperous men they could find, often to manage their husbands’ affairs while they were abroad. Some even settled overseas and so colonies were born.
We thought the chapel of ease in Carlton Husthwaite was locked. The worn oak door had a rusty wire grid over it. The yellow sandstone wall had been hollowed out by wind and rain. Outside a mown lawn spread down to the village street where, almost opposite, was an immaculate thatched and whitewashed house, just like the one outside Stratford-on-Avon where eighteen-year-old Shakespeare met his wife, Anne Hathaway.
Built in the mid-sixteenth century when Shakespeare was born, this two-storey thatched building would have stood apart from the single-storey wattle and daub hovels on either side of the street. Wooden beams would have provided the frame with the areas between filled with ‘wattle and daub’. Whatever brushwood could be found was twisted in and out and around branches to create a weave of twigs and small branches and much else, including horsehair. This was called ‘wattle’ and was then covered with a ‘daub’ of clay and lime, to keep off the bugs, and then whitewashed. Some say horse dung was included in the mix as that kept the vermin away. I have also been told that hazel branches were included if available as they were supposed to keep the witches away, though hazel bushes do not thrive in the colder climate of north England.
Leaving the chapel, I paused to imagine the village when it had just been built with the hustle and bustle in the farmyard round the thatched yeoman’s dwelling and the street furrowed by horse carts with groups of villagers chatting outside just over a hundred years ago. Now there are roses, hollyhocks and foxgloves in the carefully tended front gardens but not a soul in them, still less in the village street on this balmy summer evening. So they must be inside watching tennis or cricket on television.