HAMPSHIRE has one of the best-dated stock of timber-framed houses in the country. These delightful buildings are one of the most readily recognisable relics of the county’s past and are part of its essential character. Much of this is due to the funding of costly dating techniques by the HCC and individuals keen to investigate their own property.

Meticulous studies of these buildings have contributed greatly to an understanding of domestic aspects of people’s lives, and how their communities developed over the past eight centuries. Detailed drawings and documentary sources are held by the Hampshire Record Office.

In 1976, following the European Architectural Heritage Year, the county council set up the Hampshire Buildings Preservation Trust (HBPT) to buy up the houses and other important buildings with public money, repair them with expert hands and put them back onto the market.

A lot more was happening in the 1970s, much of it led by Elizabeth Lewis, then the Curator of the Winchester City Museums and the Hampshire Buildings Survey Group. Together with King Alfred’s College lecturer Edward Roberts, Kenneth Roberts (no relation) and Dr John Crook, she pioneered a new interest in old buildings which led to a ground-breaking book, Medieval Hall Houses of the WinchesterArea, published in 1988.

Ongoing work on Hampshire houses was sparked especially by a growing awareness of the power of dendrochronology to give the exact year in which timbers were felled. This is a pattern-matching technique using sequences of tree-rings as seasonally driven “fingerprints”.

The cat was out the bag for a systematic survey of large numbers of buildings, which was led by Edward Roberts, who in 1987 had taken early retirement. He and many others have since explored, drawn, dated and decoded hundreds of domestic buildings, as shown in his book Hampshire Houses 1250-1700, published by HBPT, with contributions by John Crook, Bill Fergie, Linda Hall and Daniel Miles.

Apart from stone-built palaces and the like, very few buildings constructed before the 1300s have survived. “Timber was once very cheap and posts were buried in the ground and the house rebuilt when they rotted. It was only when timber was laid horizontally, on a bed of flints, that houses survived in any numbers – because timber rots from the ends,” explained Edward.

“Hampshire has a few houses built before 1200, and quite a few others later, such as The Stables of Wherwell Priory of 1250, and the oldest house in Winchester, in Chesil Street [No. 42], dating from 1283/4. The numbers increase in the later periods, but it was only in the 1500s – in a period termed the “great rebuilding”– that we find large numbers of houses which are still standing.

“It was the first time since the Black Death that the population had started to recover, profits went up and bricks started to be widely used. These were no longer hall-houses, they had two floors and generally a brick chimney and a comfortable sitting room and were essentially like modern houses.”

Houses were originally built with a hall, with smoke rising into the roof. Later a smoke bay or a timber chimney did the same job, until eventually a conventional brick chimney became the norm. A rare example of a “transitional” house has been found at Catherington. It had a “chimney” that funnelled smoke into the roof space to escape through the thatch.

There is no such thing as the “Hampshire house”, but there is an intriguing pattern that cannot at present be explained, namely, that cruck houses – those with a structure based on two large curved timbers set up to make an arch – are relatively numerous in the county and further west, but are virtually non-existent to the east, beyond the escarpment typified by the original form of Stoner Hill near Petersfield (called the Wealden Edge).

Most houses were probably built without plans, though broad-brush specifications were given on dimensions, jettying and the like, and town houses were constrained by the width of the frontage (often 1, 2 or 3 perches). The Angel Inn, Andover, dating from 1445-53, is an exception and was built according to strict instructions from the developer Winchester College, where the original contract and even detailed building accounts survive.

Despite having investigated hundreds of buildings in the county, Edward believes that there are many more houses to be found. He said: “An example is Frobury Farmhouse, Kingclere, which only a few years ago was found to date from 1263. The really exciting thing is when you get a felling date from dendrochronology and find exactly the same date in the records, such as the Pipe Rolls of the bishops of Winchester.”

Activity is now in the hands of the Historic Buildings Section of the Hampshire Field Club, whose Chairman Bill Fergie, played a major role in the HBPT and in particular carried out outstanding surveys of buildings in the Basingstoke and Deane area. He also drew most of the illustrations for Hampshire Houses and collaborated with Edward Roberts in the latest edition. Copies of the book are available from the Hampshire Record Office, Oxley’s Bookshop, Alresford, and the Weald and Downland Living Museum, or via enquiries@hampshirebuildings.org.uk.

For more on Hampshire, visit: www.hampshirearchivestrust.co.uk