Building Beginnings

How old is your house – really?

The most common question that people ask me about their house is its age. And I suspect that many of them secretly want the answer to be as old as possible.

Apart from those who want a modern house with all the associated ecological, economical, and low-maintenance benefits, others seeking the dream of living in an old property want as much age and character as they can muster – and to hell with the draughts.

I’ve heard people say that their house dates back to the 14th/13th/12th century and, most popular, Domesday, but even a house that’s a more reasonable 300-400 years old would have plenty of history within its walls. Think of all the people those walls have seen and heard, the furniture that’s been stood against them, the wall coverings from painted cloths to magnolia emulsion, and the pictures and ornaments that have hung there. But if you really want age, then what about the building materials themselves?

Thinking in terms of geological timespans of millions of years really puts building materials into perspective. For instance, I was intrigued to discover that our house stands on limestone formed from a coral reef which 420 million years ago was located in the sub-tropics. Leaving aside the inconvenience of it being under water, the location has a certain attraction and it would have been nice to have our own beach. The sandstone quoins may have originated from material laid down when Britain lay at the same latitude as the present-day Sahara desert, so we wouldn’t have had to worry about those draughts.

I don’t suppose the craftsmen who built properties a mere 300-400 years ago gave much thought to the age of the materials they were using. However the discovery of a set of accounts itemising building work on a Shropshire farmhouse in 1788 gives us concrete evidence, if you’ll excuse the phrase, of its age. William Elcock, carpenter, for example, charged £2 3s 4d, John Page’s lime cost 11s, and Michael Higgins, the mason, sent in a bill for nearly £7 four months later. So although we may not know the age of their materials, it is still a great thrill to discover at least documentary evidence that helps us establish when a property was built.

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