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In this section I want to look at some buildings in Downton. I do not intend this to be a rambling description of the architecture nor a chronology of who lived there. Rather, I want to give you a feel for them and, as a way of looking at how we explore buildings, to consider why they are as they are and what was important to the people who built, altered and lived in them.
Buildings are living artefacts that continually change as people’s needs change and this is often forgotten. Think of how houses you’ve lived in have changed from your grandparents’ or even parents’ time - and why?
THE WHITE HORSE
The White Horse illustrates two points when looking at buildings - context and status.
The White Horse dates back to the 15th Century and was subject to many changes over the centuries. You only have to look at it to see that it is well placed within the village and is an imposing building. Its position and size are important. Whenever you study buildings you must not look at them in isolation, as they are there, and in that form, for a reason. Some important questions are: what buildings are around them; what sort of settlement are they in (agricultural, industrial, rural, town); what is the geology (so building material available); what, and when, were the high and low points of the settlement (wealth, poverty)? In Downton, it was Bishop Roches in the thirteenth century who planned the development of Downton as a market town, where people could rent plots (Burgage plots) and have a right to vote and a say in the running of the town. So it started with high ideals.
As you can see, the building was well placed on a cross roads of the Borough (Gravel Close and South Lane, having been more important roads in the past than they are now). Its size is also large in comparison with others in the village so it was clearly a very important, high status, building.
This is certainly suggested by the evidence. Look at the sketches of what it was like in the 15th century and look at the detail of the roof timbers in the photograph – and you can see this was no ordinary building. Indeed the roof that exists now is of the finest quality and early timbers are extremely well preserved. The building clearly changed its use throughout its life and was probably, at one stage, two separate buildings. It has been, variously, a public space (market, meeting place), a house and large hall open to the roof serving, at some time, a civic function. But, by the 1600s, it was an inn and has remained so to this day.
The original timber walls were replaced, probably in the eighteenth century, by brick as timber tends to rot and those occupying the building then, like us, wanted to upgrade it. What survived is the roof – it was not visible from inside, so if it was sound, why replace it? In looking at old buildings the roof is often the key to the age of the building.
In short, the White Horse Inn is a good example of the evolution of a building and illustrates why studying its context and structure helps us to understand its historical significance.
In subsequent articles I will look at other aspects that help us appreciate and understand buildings
Nigel Walker (Dec 2018)
Sketch by Edward Roberts 1993
The roof @ Wiltshire Buildings Record
Creel Cottage is situated on the north side of the Borough by the iron bridge. What you see today is largely eighteenth century and was at one time two cottages. I am interested in the part at the eastern end, next to the bridge, which has a carport in it giving access to a parking area at the rear of the house (the double brown doors in the picture) and the white windows. This ‘opening’ was created in the latter years of the 20th century by knocking out a room. The house was originally built in the Middle Ages when this part of it was a room open to the roof. In the centre of the room was a hearth supporting a fire and the smoke simply drifted up into the roof and through the thatch or out of some holes in the gable end. We know this because the timbers in the roof are smoke blackened.
You will be aware of the great halls in castles where the more public aspects of life took place. Here, the Lord would both entertain and plan affairs of state; and although persons of all ranks would mix, hierarchy was still very strictly followed: for example, at meal times, important people were on a high table and lesser folks below.
This status and use of the “hall” was reflected throughout the social scale and was still found in modest houses such as Creel Cottage where such rooms were open to the roof.
Another important practical reason for rooms being open to the roof was the lack of a chimney; smoke had to go up through the roof as there was no alternative.
By the sixteenth century, for a number of reasons, building styles were changing, but the critical factor was technology and, in this case, the ability to produce cheaper bricks. Bricks meant you could build chimneys and thus provide better warmth and controlled smoke. The open hall could also be floored-in to create more space – we all want an extra room. There was another stimulus in that there were a series of very severe cold spells. As people needed warmth and heating an open roof space was not a good idea.
The nobility and upper classes also started to want privacy and did not wish to conduct all their business in public areas. This preference filtered down to the lesser nobility, yeomen and merchants. So, as well as practical reasons, we see the impact of shifts in culture and fashion determined by how people chose to live.
At some stage in Creel Cottage, an upper floor was inserted. We know this because there are brackets on wall beams in the ground floor used to support an inserted floor, and beams supporting the roof have been altered to allow access along the first floor.
None of this happened overnight. The rate of change varied according to the spread of fashion, technology and the availability of local craftsmen. So, while bricks may have been used in the great houses in the fifteenth century, it was probably not until the seventeenth that the flooring-in of open halls and the use of chimneys was widespread. Of course, at a local level in Downton, the availability of clay and sand meant bricks were probably in use early on, and continued to be produced locally up to the 1980’s.
So, by looking at Creel Cottage, you can discern another important factor in the how and why of building development - and that is technology, driven by natural environment, weather and availability of raw materials. And, again, we see the influence of status and class - shaping fashion in building use and design .
NO 3 - THE DOWNTON ‘PILLBOX’
In this article I want to concentrate on a question relevant to all buildings – why is it there?
Buildings don’t just appear - they are built for a reason; for instance serving an agricultural purpose such as a mill, an industrial need such as a workshop or factory, or a community need such as a shop, a dwelling or a combination of many.
Firstly, you need to look at the bigger picture. What was happening in the country at the time: was it a period of prosperity, political stability or turmoil? What was happening locally and how did the national picture influence local developments? Was it a thriving rural economy or in decline? Were there particular local factors and how did this all impact on the specific building we are looking at. We saw in a previous article on Creel Cottage how the effects of technology, status and fashion filtered down to influence changes made to a simple cottage.
Our subject for this article is a pillbox, built for a specific purpose during World War Two. It is an important part of our history and we have one right on our doorstep.
Firstly we have to consider the background – what was happening in the country at the time? In 1940 the British army was thrown out of France by the rapid and overwhelming Blitzkrieg tactics of the Germans who relied on fast moving armoured columns of tanks and infantry well supported by artillery and aircraft.
The British army left most of its tanks, guns and vehicles in France and we were faced with almost certain invasion. General Ironsides, the Commander in Chief, had no alternative but to rely on static defences which were designed to slow down any invader until what little we had in the way of mobile forces could counter attack. Beaches were heavily fortified and inland a series of ‘stop lines’ were built. These defensive lines consisted of obstacles that could delay tanks; ideally ones that were already there such as rivers, canals and railway cuttings or embankments. Where none already existed they were created using a combination of anti-tank ditches (trenches dug and designed to stop a tank), concrete blocks, barbed wire and other obstacles. These obstacles were covered by firing positions in the shape of either concrete bunkers called pillboxes (a First World War term as they resembled the shape of a medical pill box), or trench systems.
Secondly, what impact did this have on the local area? One such defensive line ran along the river Avon from Christchurch to Salisbury and beyond and was designed to slow a German advance from the west or up the A338 from the coast to Salisbury. Ringwood was defended as was Fordingbridge (many structures remain) and the crossing at Breamore Mill was fortified by three pillboxes which remain today. You can see the barn with loopholes in it by the bridge. Downton had defences, as did Salisbury.
Downton was important as it was a crossing point of the river Avon and built astride the main road. Though long since removed, there was a pillbox on the A338 at a bend in the road in the corner of the playing field of the secondary school (marked 1 on the map). It would have covered a road block further down the road and it would have fired on any troops moving north up the A338. When the Germans came under fire they would try and bypass the position and not attack it head on. They could move right (east) but would have difficulty going over meadows bisected with drainage ditches and ultimately by the River Avon. The buildings on The Borough would also present obstacles and there would certainly be defensive positions there. Photographs show that the Iron Bridge would have been obstructed by steel rails outside Creel Cottage which were to be placed in sockets in the road (see Reflections). If they moved left (west) there would, in 1940, be open fields and they could possibly bypass Downton via Wick Lane. So, to cover this approach, the pillbox in question was placed (marked 2 on the map - grid reference SU 16992110). There is also some eviderequire_once "includes/dsfooter1.php"nce of a defensive position on Wick Lane (again, see Reflections).
The pillbox we are considering is of a type called a Section Post as it had ten loopholes for ten men (eleven if you count the one in the north face) –the smallest unit of the army – a Section. It is chevron shaped with five loopholes on each of the two outward, west-facing sides and one in the north end to give a good arc of fire. It is, in effect, an enclosed trench, brick lined with concrete loopholes at ground level to enable the defenders to fire out. The entrance is in the rear face and the roof a concrete slab. Such a solid building would give good protection from anything other than a direct hit by a shell. Maps of 1940 (the sketch maps show the area in 1940 less modern buildings as, of course, Catherine Crescent was not built until the 1960s) show it would have been in a hedge line facing open fields to the south and west, so with very good fields of fire. The hedge line would have made excellent natural camouflage and defending troops would have added camouflage nets so it would not have been easy to see.
It would have been manned by local Downton men in the Home Guard. Almost certainly the cottage and woods between the two positions would have been defended.
So, although this strange building, now tucked away in someone’s garden (Green Pastures) was shaped for a very specific, short term, purpose, we have studied it the same way as any other historic building in Downton. Firstly by looking at the national picture, then how this affected the region, and finally the impact on Downton, which became an important defensive position. This pillbox reflects a real and recent part of our history.
The Section Post is unique as only a few of this type have survived. It is Grade 2 listed as an important historic structure and thus protected. The Section Post is on private property so access is not possible.
Conversation with Henry Wills author of Pillboxes, Pub: Leo Cooper 1985.
Reflections by A Middleton and B Blake