Sunday, 24 November 2013

The Crucks of the Matter

House building is not something at the forefront of the modern mind. House buying/renting/prices perhaps, but not so much the building part. Personally I haven't had much cause to think about any aspect of houses; but this changed over the summer when I helped to build a house with the National Trust. Naturally because I'm a bit nerdy it was a replica 17th century cruck house, but nonetheless it was a house. And from my experience of house building I can safely say that it's hard.

Example of a basic cruck frame
What is a cruck house?
A cruck house is a house with a timber frame made up of pairs of beams that curve inwards to form an arch shape, these are then stabilised by horizontal beams which results in 'A' shaped crucks and the crucks are then joined together using slightly lower cross-beams. These frames were used across Britain up until the mid 17th century and they were most commonly used in the construction of barns, although they were also used as the supports of peasant houses, such as the cruck house that I helped build.
Walls made up of tightly woven osiers
(long sinewy shoots of willow)
The cruck house that I helped to build was in Scotland and was being built using historically authentic techniques so there wasn't any heavy machinery involved or even any nails! Instead ropes and carefully fashioned wooden pegs were used to hold the structure together and all the digging was done by hand. When I was helping out we started to build up and insulate the walls by cutting squares of turf and layering them against the weaved willow walls that were already in place. The turf was layered dirt side-dirt side and grass side-grass side so that over time the house would be left with living green walls. This was certainly hard work and once cut the turf had to be carried on wooden pallets to the house where it was then flipped, shoogled and patted into place.

That was the extent of my house building experience, and after that morning I may have been muddy, tired and thoroughly blistered but it also gave me a new sense of historical understanding. I suppose it is easy to write in an essay 'life in the 17th century was hard for the peasantry', but it is difficult to imagine the extent of their hardship. Certainly before having this experience I might have listed their hardships as things such as poverty and disease but I wouldn't have included house building. However, on reflection surely house building and maintenance would have been a hardship faced by peasants given the importance of the home as a place of shelter. There wasn't a housing market in the seventeenth century like there is today, if you wanted a house you would have to rent one from the landowner or rent land and with permission build your house. The process of building and maintaining such a house is strenuous, difficult and hazardous but it was something that people would have had to do in the seventeenth century.
The cruck house that I helped to build before the turf was
put on top of the stone base wall and before the roof was thatched
with bracken

So given my experience of building a house like a 17th century peasant I take my hat off to them and their fascinating building techniques; and I am now extremely appreciative of the construction industry for building houses for us so we don't have to!

I am not an expert on house building, past or present, so if there are any inaccuracies in this please comment and let me know.

Tudor Houses Explained by Trevor Yorke
Period House Fixtures and Fittings 1300-1900 by Linda Hall