THE Worthy villages have joined that select band of places with fine timber-framed buildings which have been crawled over by experts with rule and eye – and is some cases had wooden cores taken for dating – and the results have been splendidly laid out.

A new book, Traditional Houses of the Worthy Villages, is for those who love these things to sit back and marvel at the sheer professionalism and skill of Edward Roberts and Bill Fergie, both celebrated experts in vernacular architecture. And time is limited: this print run, supported by a grant from the Hampshire Archives Trust, will probably not last long.

An interest must be declared: I have contributed a short account of the history of Abbots Worthy. Alix Hickman has done the same for Kings Worthy and Robin Greenwood for Martyr Worthy.

The account for Headbourne Worthy was written by the late Peter Finn, who passed away recently. He was a local historian of the highest standing and a pillar of the Worthys Local History Group and will be greatly missed.

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The new book gives detailed analyses of 25 houses, many of them ‘transitional’ – that is, houses that were built during that period when dwellings with open halls with hearths in the middle were gradually moving in terms of design towards the modern house, with a chimney and upstairs rooms.

Working out the structures of timber-framed houses is often helped by signs of sooting in the roof space and elsewhere, and remains of the wattle and daub used to construct chimneys before brick became available at a reasonable price ¬ which for all but the wealthy meant about 1600.

Speaking recently in a virtual talk to the Basingstoke Archaeological and Historical Society, Bill Fergie said that more than 250 county-wide tree-ring (dendrochronology) dates acquired over the years meant that he and other experts could generally “date a house to within a decade or two, but can still get it wrong”. Hence, the dates of a few of the houses in the new book have had to be revised.

One of these, The Old Rectory, Headbourne Worthy, is the only ‘gentleman’s house’ found in the area. It was recognised to be two separate buildings of different dates, linked together. There were subtle differences in the roof structures, the older having a single ‘crown strut’ under the ridge and the younger two timbers, called ‘queen struts’.

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On this basis, estimates of the ages of the two parts were made, but one of them has now been revised, following isotope-supported tree-ring dating by Professor Neil Loader and his team at Swansea University. The early former open hall has now been accurately dated to 1402, close to the estimate, but the later, parlour cross-wing at 1411-1423, is a century older than originally thought.

Another building that came up with a surprise was The Old Cottage in London Road, Kings Worthy. Analysis of the timbers, especially a typical ridge beam, has convinced experts that the structure originally incorporated cruck frames (an A-shape truss with large curved timbers) and probably dates from about 1400.

A tree-ring date of 1581 for a later section with curved braces in the timber frames, was also a surprise, as it was formerly thought that such features were not seen after about 1550.

Houses with open halls sometimes had kitchens that were quite separate, to reduce fire risks. One such building that may have had this feature is The Old Post Office, which was in business in Kings Worthy until 1966. Externally it has relatively recent brickwork, but timbering inside shows that it was originally two separate small buildings. That facing the church was the main house, but opinions differ on the other, which lay behind and may either have been another dwelling or perhaps a detached kitchen.

A “fine example of a transitional house which displays a number of unusual features in regional terms” is Old Farm Cottages, Abbots Worthy. The original large house had a central hall with a parlour on one side and a kitchen or service area on the other. At the rear it had two jetties that would originally have projected out from the lower wall but have now been underbuilt.

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Careful detective work has convinced the experts that the hall of Old Farm Cottages “borrowed heat from an open kitchen”, because it had no other source of heat. It also had a large shelf in part of the open kitchen, probably for storage and smoking hams. A similar feature has been found elsewhere, in North Cray in Greater London, formerly in Kent, in a house now re-erected at the Weald and Downland Open Air Museum at Singleton.

A beam above the later fireplace shows ‘burn marks’ that were once thought to be caused accidentally by candles. But experiments have shown that the time needed to make such marks is too long for this to be credible and the current view is that they were made to ward off witches and evil spirits (apotropaic marks).

Interestingly, tree-ring analysis shows that the timbers for the original house were felled in a three- year period, 1607-1610. At this time the whole of Abbots Worthy was owned by the 3rd Earl of Southampton, then in his thirties, who was seated at Titchfield. He is known as a patron of Shakespeare, who in the 1590s dedicated two poems to him, Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece.

Another challenge for the experts has come from 6 and 7 Mill Lane, Abbots Worthy. It was originally an open hall house. but gave a completely unexpected felling date of 1610. The result was so surprising that a second tree-ring analysis was carried out and gave exactly the same date. Bill commented: “This has changed our thinking altogether by being the youngest open hall so far discovered in Hampshire by about 40 years.”

A particularly fine example of a transitional yeoman farmhouse off Church Lane, Martyr Worthy, dating from about 1550, appears on the cover of the new book. It was built as a four-section dwelling with an open hall, half of which was floored. The other half is another example of a ‘smoke bay’, which held the fire and acted as a huge chimney.

The Cart and Hoses pub in Kings Worthy has gained considerably from the new study. Its facade proudly displays the date 1760, but that was probably when it became a hostelry. Experts say the building itself is a good 100 years older. A clue is a beam (wall plate) that runs across the middle of the upstairs windows. Built as a farmhouse, it opened its doors to the coachmen and other travellers on the Popham to Winchester Turnpike.

Many other houses are described in fine detail in Traditional Houses of the Worthy Villages, published by the Worthys Local History Group, and available price £12 from:

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