Building Is Gone But Old Roof Still Lingers On (26 October 1973)
A development which has pleased me greatly during my time in North Bucks has been the restoration of the so-called Rectory Cottages in Church Green Road, Bletchley, and in particular the conversion of the attached barn with its rare and ancient hammer-beam roof into a useful and pleasant hall.
My interest was aroused early through coming into possession of a book on the history of Bletchley parish written in about 1931 by the then Rector, the Rev. F.W. Bennitt, and illustrated with line drawings by a Mr. Nightingale.
The book’s 200 copies were printed by H. Jackson and Co., a Leighton Buzzard firm subsequently taken over by Home Counties Newspapers Ltd., and were bound by Mr. E.C. Cook’s senior boys at the Bletchley Road Schools.
The drawings include an exterior view of the cottages and barn and also an interior view of the barn and its remarkable roof, which is of the same construction as that of Westminster Hall and one of the few secular examples surviving in this country.
The cottages are 17th century, but the barn roof is several centuries earlier. How the roof came not only to cover the barn but also to be partly included in the much-later cottage or cottages is one of Bletchley historical mysteries.
Mr Bennitt’s book states the theory that the roof first covered the ancient hall of the Greys at Water Eaton and that when the 14th baron, Arthur Grey de Wilton, left there in the 1560s to build a much bigger hall at Whaddon he took all the materials with him except the roof, which he placed more or less in its present position instead.
In support of that theory it may be significant that the earliest known reference to the property – which originally belonged to the lord, not the church – is in a document dated only about 50 years after the big removal. The re-siting of the roof would have presented no great problem even in those days. In our own time, the roof could still have been saved and incorporated in a brand new building on some other site.
In this connection it may be interesting to note that current removals of old houses to new sites by means of caterpillar vehicles and so forth as seen on television are nothing new in principle. Wooden-frame houses, minus their infilling, used to be re-sited by whole villages getting together and carrying them on poles. There are said to be houses still in existence which have notches in the frame for that very purpose. They must have looked rather like Bletchley Council’s steel-framed Trusteel houses did when they were being erected. The Rectory Cottages roof, however, has no ridge-pole remaining – if it ever had one – and the restorers had to install two metal cross-rods to hold things together.
As to the origin of the roof, another possibility has recently been advanced. It is pointed out that in the 14th century the manor, which had been co-extensive with the parish, was divided between two members of the Grey family into separate manors. Roughly speaking, Water Eaton and Fenny remained together while Old Bletchley was separated (for a time) and became the manor of “Church Bletchley.” Presumably the new manor would have had its own demesne farm and house – which raises the possibility that the roof is indigenous to Old Bletchley.
One, or perhaps two, much respected old women occupied the cottages in 1946. Eventually a tennis pal of mine, Mr. Arthur Moseley, took over the tenancy and showed me the barn and its roof. From that I wrote a story based on Mr. Bennitt’s book and pointing out the barn’s deteriorating condition and that something ought to be done about It. It was the first of several I wrote from time to time.
Now let me say at once that I do not believe in preservation for preservation’s sake. There is a lot of romanticism about thatched roofs, for instance. I have known several thatched cottages in Bletchley which were not fit for habitation by modern standards, could not reasonably have been made so and being by no means unique were rightly demolished. I have also seen the almost hopeless tussles firemen have had with thatched roofs, especially with those encased in wire netting, and later I have noticed that most of them have looked just as attractive when re-roofed with suitable tiles.
The Rectory Cottages and barn were in a different category. They had that almost-unique roof and something good and useful could be made of them.
Mr. and Mrs Peter Gladwin followed the Moseleys in occupation and were followed by Mr. Denning Howard, as the last pre-conversion occupier. The cottages were then threatened with demolition to make way for other proposed development. By that time, however, a new archaeological and historical society was in being in the town and their members protested strongly.
How the trust eventually obtained grants and other moneys to begin the restoration and conversion and then continue it to its present happy conclusion on a long lease is modern history.
The premises, which look as good from the rear as from the front, now comprise a hall with ante-rooms and a separate, occupied flat. The hall is well booked by a number of organisations and the carved faces on the old roof occasionally look down on something they can understand in the way of a cheese and wine party or a wedding reception.
Another bit of wood-carving about 600 years newer is the “Rectory Cottages” sign just outside the door. This sign, in Roman lettering, is the work of Mr. Southam, the well-known Bletchley monumental mason (what a wonderful title!). I suppose it made quite a pleasant change from his usual job.