This page last updated: 08 July, 2016 11:59:42
Fairfield House & Kitchen - An aisled Hall House c1400
An Article by Angela Crane.
In the mid 1900s Fairfield Cottages in Lower Street were an unremarkable row of very old cottages. When Tony and Anna Crane bought No.1 they were looking for a bolt-hole to escape from their busy lives in London. What they actually bought turned out to be a slice of Eastry's history that would keep them extraordinarily busy for many years to come.
The three Fairfield cottages had started life over 500 years earlier as a yeoman's home; an aisled hall house, with the weight its massive, heavy roof taken downwards by a series of aisle posts. Without these posts the immense weight would simply push out the walls and the whole structure would collapse.
The large central hall was open to the roof; flanked at either end by two storey extensions, as shown here:
The hall house where the roof truss is extended to the wall plates of aisles so as to provide extra space.
It was common practice in medieval wills for a husband to leave the "posh" end of the house to his widow and the rest of the house to his eldest son to carry on the business - the start of the division into cottages. No.1 had been this "posh" end, the parlour and solar of the original family.
In time the Cranes were able to buy the freeholds of Nos. 2 & 3 and when the elderly tenants finally moved on they started to realise their dream of bringing Fairfield House back to life.
From then on their peaceful visits to Eastry were always filled with meetings; meetings with planners, architects specialising in ancient buildings, with representatives of societies to protect ancient buildings and often with all of them together. By now, the experts were excited! Fairfield's great merit, they said, was that having remained a row of cottages for so long, it had not been "improved". No extensions were added or grand staircases inserted. In fact its footprint had remained unaltered since 1400; the approximate year it was built. It was therefore firmly asserted that so it should remain.
These learned gentlemen then raised their eyes, looked around and could hardly contain their excitement. They had espied No.4 Fairfield Cottages (by then known as just Fairfield Cottage), lurking behind the main house. "A kitchen block!", they cried.
The kitchen block
Because of the high risk of fire in timber-framed buildings cooking was often done in a separate building close by; often connected by a covered walkway. Maybe because the fire risk was very high, or maybe because later generations disliked having another building so close, the kitchen blocks largely disappeared over time. So Fairfield House was special in two ways: its purity and its kitchen. The kitchen block was a smaller. less elaborate hall house, built at the same time as the main house. In time the Cranes were able to acquire the freehold of this as well and reunite house and kitchen.
After much consultation the planning phase was complete and the restoration work started. It was slow and frustrating in many ways. Every alteration had to have the blessing of the protectionists and the approval of the planners before and after it was done. John and Gilbert Kemp were entrusted with the work; two very skilled local builders who were sensitive to the needs of such an ancient building.
First the "cottagey" trappings had to be removed, the flowery wallpaper and linoleum floor coverings had to be ripped out and then the revealed beams and plasterwork carefully cleaned and repaired as necessary. In the solar, the upper room in No.1, they found traces of medieval wall painting
...showing the medieval wall painting.
a simple design of black and white diamonds and on the beams were faint traces of red pigment. Not a particularly restful decor for a sleeping chamber.
Work moved on to No.2, the original central hall. Here an upper chamber had been formed; a dormer window inserted to light it and a massive tie-beam sawn through to provide headroom. A partition divided the downstairs into two rooms with a fireplace replacing the original central brazier. It had all happened centuries before, as the wonderful wide oak floorboards testified. The experts all agreed that these alterations could remain as without them 20th century living would have been difficult!
The 15th century hall would have had wainscoting; a rather primitive form of panelling; along the wall at the parlour end, with a long refectory table in front of it. A search revealed a section of this:
The wainscoting revealed.
The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) had made careful, measured records when a house of a similar age to Fairfield had been demolished. They provided the plans for the front door and Gilbert Kemp crafted a new one for Fairfield out of solid oak and used similar square-ended iron nails. He said that it made the hairs on the back of his neck stand up when he thought that another carpenter had stood where he was, doing exactly the same work, years before. The door fitted perfectly.
To fit the new door a lot of plaster had to be chipped away to reveal the original door frame and this exposed the lovely silvery timber framing of the house. It was decided to continue to remove the external plaster so that the structure of the house could be clearly seen.
Cottage No.3 contained the original screens passage shielding the hall from draughts. The two rooms at this end of the house were traditionally called the buttery (bouteillerie or bottle store) and pantry (from the French "pain" for bread or dry goods store). There was a small cellar below and two rooms above, where retainers would have slept. At this end of the house were the only surviving examples of the original windows; square upright oak glazing bars, set at an angle as can be seen on the right of the photo below:
Original oak windows can be seen clearly on the right of this photo.
There would have been no glass; the inhabitants had to choose between fresh air and daylight or drawing across an interior oak shutter (which survived) to keep out the chill.
It's good to see that the new owners have continued the restoration by replacing the random array of unsuitable windows installed by the cottagers with replicas of the original ones: albeit, it is hoped, with glass!
The next big job to tackle was the roof:
The Kent peg tiled roof.
Most was tiled, but a small portion over the solar was thatched; so which was original? Enter the learned experts, who were unanimously in favour of tiles. So the search was now on for a source of handmade Kentish peg tiles and someone to fund the whole operation - both of which were hard to find. Eventually a donor (SPAB or possibly English Heritage; it isn't clear) was found as were the tiles. The roof was stripped, the supporting beams checked for beetle infestation and replaced if necessary and the tiles put in place.
The grant obtained for this work was a substantial one and came with strings attached; the principal one being that the house must be open to the public. An entry for Fairfield House then appeared in the official guide to "Historic Houses, Castles and Gardens in Great Britain and Ireland", saying the house was open by appointment only.
The new oak door, circa 1970.
This was, of course, a great honour; but also rather an embarrassment. I had by now joined Tony and, in the way of all good husbands, he delegated the job of "Bookings Manager" to me! Most of the applications came from groups travelling by coach and there was no way a bus-load could fit into our tiny stately home. The solution was for half the party to visit the church and then swap with the other half-party visiting the house. I loved listening in to the comments as we showed people round. Before they arrived I would do a frantic tidy-up; throwing shoes, slippers, dressing gowns and so on into the little bathroom next to the bedroom. I remember hearing one lady confidently assert, nodding at the bathroom door, "...that must be where the family lives, through there..."
Not everyone approved of what we'd done. One local resident muttered, "I don't know what they want to mess about for - they were lovely little cottages. Mrs ******* used to keep her coal in there..." nodding this time at the downstairs cloakroom.
A view in 1980s, before the hedge.
We had a note from the Vicar, the Rev Fred Cooper, to ask if he could bring his little Men's Club for a tour one evening. We were intrigued and slightly disappointed when he turned up with a group of normal sized individuals.
The need to have everything in perfect order for showing to the public could be rather stressful, but we had Ken Austin to take care of this. He was an incredibly strong and versatile man who would turn his hand to absolutely anything and he kept the house and grounds in apple pie order, often helped by his wife Bessie, who still lives in Lower Street.
In 1982 we decided to hold an Open Day to raise funds for the Pilgrims' Hospice and asked the Vicar's "little men" if they would come and be room stewards. They accepted enthusiastically, which gave us the idea of asking if there were any other groups or individuals who would like to raise money for this very good cause. We spread the word through Margaret at the Post Office; offering the use of our back garden for anyone to come and 'do their own thing'. There was an enthusiastic uptake. On the day the back garden was full of stalls; the WI was running a tea-room in the kitchen block, which happened to be untenanted, and I seem to remember a young girl giving pony rides.
A view of the old front door.
At the front the queue to see round the house stretched out into Lower Street and was entertained by Girl Guides dancing on the lawn. Fairfield is a name traditionally given to houses built near the field on which the annual Village Fair is held. That afternoon the village fair came to Fairfield, to the great benefit of the hospice.
It was a wonderful occasion. The humble cottage Tony and Anna had bought over 20 years before was now a listed building and the proud owner of the red diamond badge of a Historic Building of Kent. On that day we felt we had handed Fairfield back to the people of Eastry. It was their ancient monument, part of village history and heritage and Eastry had welcomed it back with open arms.
The photo above shows Fairfield House in 1982. Not a stately home, but home to generations of Eastry folk since before Henry V led his troops on the field at Agincourt.
Carpenters' Shop and Old Forge
There are two more buildings of note in the grounds of Fairfield House.
The Carpenters' Shop is a brick built and clapboard building; probably dating from the 19th century, situated to the left of the main house at right angles to the road. It was in a very dilapidated condition and contained a vast quantity of timber. It was rehabilitated as part of the general refurbishment of Fairfield.
The Old Forge. This is the building facing the road with its back to the hospital grounds. When the Cranes arrived it was surrounded by various lean-to shacks. When these had been cleared away it was revealed as a forge, complete with anvil, bellows and grate, with many hand forged artefacts hanging on the walls. Set in the ground outside is a circle of concrete where wagon wheels were made. The wooden spokes would be set into the wooden hub (made in the carpenters shop across the yard) and when they formed a perfect circle the red hot iron tyre would be brought out from the forge and put in place. As it cooled it contracted and held all the components securely in place.
Oral History note: A very elderly lady told us in 1979, that she remembered as a small girl making trips into Sandwich on a horse and cart which ran a regular service there. It started and ended at the Fairfield Forge.
Forge and Carpenters' Shop - 1960s
Forge and Carpenters' Shop - 1983
The webmaster acknowledges with grateful thanks the kindness and hard work of Angela Crane in the writing of this article and for the loan of the photographs.
References: "An Illustrated Handbook of Vernacular Architecture", by R W Brunskill; "A History of the English House", by Nathaniel Lloyd; "The English Home", by Harold Priestley.
© 2010 Eastry Parish Council. Reproduction of any narrative or illustrations either in part or as a whole is strictly forbidden without permission.