Alfriston Clergy House, nearly lost to England's past

 
   
 

This house was built by a prosperous farmer in 1350 using only natural materials that have now survived for almost seven centuries. In 1395 it was bought by the church and over 200 years later, around 1600, the house got its first glazed windows.

The house is an oak framed home with wattle and daub infill which is now rendered with lime. It was built as an open hall, with single rooms on two stories either side.

   
           
 

Running along the end of the garden of the clergy house is the Cuckmere River (left) where water reeds grow. It's not surprising then that the house was thatched over the centuries with water reed which still forms the base coat of the thatch.

Reeds grows best in salty water and are common in marshy estuaries. It grows 4 to 8 feet (1.2 to 2.4 m) tall. It is harvested in the winter until the young spring shoots begin to grow. Harvesting the reed encourages the production of tall, sturdy and straight reeds ideal for thatching. Harvesting the reed is a demanding job wading through cold water in freezing winter weather cutting 12 inch (30 cm) bundles and stacking them together in a group of six known in England as a 'fathom'.

In the past people would ‘patch up’ thatch over the years. But the affluent new owners of thatched houses can afford to completely overhaul the roof. Sadly this affluent practice, without thought to the environment, is killing off the now rare thatch moss (right).

 
 


The increasingly rare thatch moss is found as dull green patches on old thatched roofs. The tiny leaves are spear-shaped, a unique characteristic found on no other British moss.

 
 
           
 

Matthew Oates, Nature Conservation Adviser at the National Trust says, “It was the rural poor who lived in thatched cottages and would patch up the roof. Now thatched cottages are a sign of affluence and wealth and people can afford to service an entire roof and, bingo, you have something that looks like it is out of a chocolate box.” The beautiful National Trust shop (right) at Selworthy, called Periwinkle, in north Somerset had more than 3,000 plants on its thatched roof, which represents the largest known population of thatch moss anywhere in the world.

 
 
 
   

Thankfully thatchers leave the base coat of thatch on the house adding new fresh reed. This practice goes back centuries, so much so that in Britain there are approximately 250 examples of original base coats that survive from the late medieval period (1350-1600). 

Left is a picture of the entrance to the central hall where a fire would burn in the middle of the floor. The smoke would have floated into the roof space and worked its way through to the eves. The smoke from the fire protected the thatch in the same way the thatch is protected in the gassho homes of Ogimachi, Ainokura and Suganuma in Japan. You can watch a video of the gassho homes on the UNESCO website to get a sense of what the fire in the open hall of Alfriston Clergy House might have been like.

Although it's called the clergy house, most of the time it was rented out as a source of income for the church. The house became a burden to the church who in 1885 asked for permission to demolish it, despite a sitting tenant. The last occupant of the home died in 1888 and eight years later the house became the first building to be bought by the National Trust. The unloved and collapsing building (below) cost £10 in 1896, which today is a few thousand pounds.