Small is beautiful
Dream cottages come in many forms, from the half-timbered to the stone-built. Mary Miers casts her eye across the country and looks at the full panoply of rustic beauty they have to offer
Mary Miers examines the local distinctiveness of cottages
Warm, honey-coloured oolite stone is the leitmotif of the Cotswolds, which form part of the great sash of limestone that runs diagonally up England from the Dorset to the Yorkshire coasts. This terrace in Broadway, Worcestershire, is constructed of rubble, but less modest cottages have walls of ashlar or roughly dressed blocks, stone mullions and drip moulds over doors and windows to shed water. Finely carved stone decoration celebrates the skills of the old Cotswold masons; Pevsner describes Broadway as one of the show villages of England. Roofs are covered in stone slabs, often so thick and knubbly that they remind one of oyster shells.
Suffolk has no stone to speak of, so brick and cob are the traditional building materials, the latter set between timber studs and rendered or weatherboarded. (A delightful feature of East Anglia is ornamental external plasterwork known as pargetting.) Church Cottages in the shadow of St Mary’s, Cavendish, sport the characteristic ‘Suffolk pink’, which harks back to the ancient practice of mixing the limewash with natural pigments, using berries or pigs’ blood, for example (blood was thought to have a waterproofing property). Thick thatch with deep, water-shedding eaves curves deliciously over the eyebrow dormers and irregular forms of this 16th- to 17th-century group, topped with decorative ridges to show off the thatcher’s skills.
West of Cheddar Gorge, which marks the edge of the limestone band running down from the Cotswolds, the palette of the landscape turns a rich, earthy brown. Towns and villages are characterised by the ruddy hues of the local sand- and limestones, as seen in this pair of 16th- to 17th-century cottages. They stand beside the packhorse bridge at Allerford on the edge of Exmoor in west Somerset and were formerly thatched, as is most of the village. Prominent lateral chimney stacks are a familiar feature in Somerset, although this circular topped example dates from a 19th-century phase of prettifying estate improvement.
A typical Devon cottage, with a wheat or reed thatch, whitewashed walls of undressed local stone and timber-mullioned windows. Devon has the greatest diversity of building materials in the West Country, including chalk and flint (south), brick (north), limestone, sandstone and granite. It also has the greatest concentration of structures made of cob (a mix of mud, dung and straw), which you can see here in the little outshoot and the wall on the opposite side of the road. Cob cottages are usually whitewashed or rendered, the giveaway as to their material being the thickness of their walls (indicated by deep window embrasures) and a charming irregularity to surfaces and angles.
These cottages in Burnham Market are good examples of the north Norfolk vernacular, in an area of saltmarsh and former ports so gentrified that it’s often dubbed the Gold Coast. In the absence of good building stone, walls are a mix of flint and pebbles contained by brick quoins. In more elaborate examples, flint is mixed with other materials to create patterns, such as the chequerboard design of knapped flint and chalk blocks notable around Cromer. Red pantiles and thatch are the traditional roofing materials of East Anglia.
Think Helen Allingham’s pictures of rose-bowered Victorian cottages, most of which were painted in Surrey. In this wooded area, walls are timber-framed with brick infills, sometimes with a jettied (slightly projecting) upper floor. When not protected by paint or limewash, tile-hanging often provides an attractive finish. Pegged clay tiles cover roofs that are often picturesquely hipped or (as seen here, at Oakhurst Cottage, Hambledon) half hipped beneath chunky brick chimneys.