“Thatched Cottage” was probably built during the reign of Henry VI (1422 – 1461). It is an example of a single storey, late medieval “Hall House”, consisting of two bays. Only a handful of such houses have survived, and the structure is surprisingly original since no modem extensions have been added. It is likely to remain so as long as we live here, since to destroy such originality would be nothing less than shameful.
Research into its history has shown that the last structural alteration was more than 250 years ago. Most small houses have been so altered and extended over the years that it is sometimes difficult to find the original structure. Within many large old houses there is often a smaller, much older one to be discovered, and underneath tiles and weatherboard there is often an old oak frame. For reasons that are not yet clear, the Thatched Cottage was not altered in recent times and the thatch was not replaced by tiles, as was common with many houses.
During the 1970’s, when the house was owned by Gavin, Lord Astor, it became necessary to carry out internal and external renovations. This work reflected the ideas and standards of that time and was intended to make the house habitable. Many original features were covered by plasterboard. With a little effort, plus some experience gained from other period houses we have lived in, we are now beginning to uncover these hidden features.
During the 16th century the house would have been owned and occupied by a prosperous yeoman farmer and his family. A fire in the middle of the house would have provided the facilities for heating and cooking. Since there was no upper floor, the smoke from the fire would have been expelled through the thatch and through openings in the walls which served as windows. Each ‘window’ would have had a simple shutter for use at night and during bad weather. We have recently found the remains of one of these windows and the groove in which the shutter ran. At some time in the 16th century a small area at the end of the hall was partitioned off to form a simple chimney. This is known as a “smoke bay” and would have been constructed from timber and plaster. Evidence of this can still be seen in the roof, where we have uncovered soot covered timbers.
At some stage the “hall” was floored over and attic rooms were constructed. The crude timber chimney was dismantled and a large brick one, housing a bread oven, was built on one side of the house. The house was also extended in length to provide additional accommodation. Dating of the timbers in this area (by Dendrochronology) suggests that this work took place in 1595. In the late 17th century a dairy was built axially to the house and two-feet away. This is easily visible since it is the part of the house with the higher roof-line. Some time later, this building along with its hay loft, was incorporated into the house to provide more living space. At the same time, the farmer and his family probably left and the house was divided into two cottages. Another brick chimney with bread oven was built to serve a second family. Both bread ovens and their inglenook fireplaces remain today and are in remarkable condition.
It became common practice in the 18th century to cover the timber frame of houses with lime plaster, tiles, weatherboard, or a combination of all these. This provided a weatherproof exterior. The Thatched Cottage received a plaster covering over oak lathes and looks today very much as it would have done in the 18th century. For those of you familiar with the work of Helen Allingham, underneath its plaster coat is such a cottage.
Parish records show that from the end of the 18th century the house was lived in by farm workers, farm bailiffs, domestic servants (employed by one of the larger houses) parish clerks, teachers and rumour has it, the local witch. One lady occupant, we are told, had more than 30 cats and some of their ghosts haunt the house, at least that’s what our cat claims!
From 1800 to 1840, William Chapman lived in the house. He became the Parish Clerk and kept detailed and meticulous records. As Parish Clerk he also had other duties, including oiling the bells and washing the Rector’s surplice and communion linen. During the late Georgian period, he recorded the births and deaths of three children, who were born in the house and who died, each under the age of one year. The parents, whose surname was Bedford, lived in the house for a further ten years. At this time, just before Victoria ascended the throne, the house was known as Scarelands Cottage and nine persons lived here. The name probably originates from the word Scam which was the old Jutish name for mire, very appropriate, since the surrounding land is full of clear springs and natural wetlands. Amazingly, the cottage is “dry as a bone”, but read on…
The “mirey” field behind the cottage has a reputation for being a “healing field” for sick animals, and many local farmers have brought animals to graze there. There is an abundance of wild flowers and herbs and we are attempting to record and conserve them. When the cottage was renovated in the 1970’s, it was converted back to a single dwelling and at the same time the thatch was renewed. Water reed was used for this purpose, and it should last for 60 years. We are often asked what happens when it rains. It’s really very simple; we have a large number of buckets which we move around to catch the drips. Thatch is an excellent insulator and the cottage is cosy in winter when logs burn cheerily in the inglenooks; it is also very cool in the summer months.
A thatched cottage requires a cottage garden and we are attempting to create one, using old fashioned plants and simple materials for paths. We hope that the birds and the wind will help with the process. We have recently found the old well, built in Tudor times. It was hidden under a path and covered by a cement cap and an old “Shell” oil sign. It is 15ft deep and contains 12ft of clear water. Interestingly, the water level did not seem to fall during the long droughts of summer.
A local butcher, Bert Offen, whose wife was a teacher at Hever school, lived in the cottage. After him, and immediately before us, it was occupied by Derrick Sofio and his wife Elsie. Derrick wrote a book “In Earlier Hever” – whilst he was living here, and the Thatched Cottage is surely representative of the title, and has an ambience conducive to historical research. For those who have an interest in old timber buildings, a visit to the Weald and Downland Museum at Singleton, near Chichester, is a must. More than ten timber framed houses, which would have otherwise been destroyed, have been re-erected in their original form. Two of these were from Bough Beech. Another house from Boarhunt in Hampshire, shows exactly what the Thatched Cottage would have looked like when first built.
Bob and Vivien Seaney