Welsh farm found to be 600-year-old hall
Aderelict Welsh farmhouse that was in such poor condition that rainwater ran through its rooms has been revealed to be an exceptionally rare 600-year-old medieval hall house, after conservation experts used a groundbreaking new dating technique originally developed by scientists studying climate change.
Llwyn Celyn, in the Black mountains on the border of England and Wales, was completed in 1420, analysis of its timbers found, making it one of only a tiny number of domestic buildings to survive from one of the most destructive periods in Welsh history, immediately following the failed revolt of the Welsh prince Owain Glyndŵr.
Conservation experts from the Landmark Trust, who first encountered the building in a parlous state but still inhabited by two farmers in 2007, had believed it was built much later in the 15th century. But attempts to date its timbers with tree ring analysis failed, in part because the technique is less effective on trees that grew in Wales’s well-watered climate. Instead, they turned to a cuttingand edge technique developed in the geography department at Swansea University to study historical climate change.
The experimental technique, which had never before been used on an undated historic building, analyses the oxygen, hydrogen carbon isotopes preserved within the cellulose of tree rings to determine the climate conditions in which the tree grew. Each ring has a distinctive isotope signal that can be used to determine very precisely the age of the timber, even on samples that would be undateable by conventional methods.
The new technique, according to Neil Loader, professor of geography at the university, is potentially “transformative” for the dating of historic buildings and timbers back to the arrival of the Romans, and potentially into the Bronze Age.
“What is also important is that every timber we analyse and date does not just tell us the age of the sample – important though that is – it also provides a record of the climate experienced by that tree through time. In dating a sample we are also enhancing our understanding of the climate of these islands.”
Caroline Stanford, a historian and head of engagement at the Landmark Trust, said the building had been “the most important at-risk building in Wales” when the trust began a painstaking process of restoration, partly thanks to a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund.
“Even in that gloom and dereliction, there were things shining through that said, this is very special, in particular some decorative wooden door heads. But it was also the fact that it didn’t seem to have changed at all since a ceiling was put into the hall, which we thought was sometime in the 17th century.”
Investigation revealed that the once open hall had been altered to include an upper floor in 1690, but the fixed bench on which the original lord of the hall would have sat at his high table was still in place.
The building has now been fully restored and is available to rent through the Landmark Trust.
Stanford said the Swansea technique was “a hugely important breakthrough”. “It’s an absolutely fascinating crossover between science and the humanities, and transformative in our understanding [of buildings], but also in our understanding of the planet.
“From the point of view of a buildings historian, it is breaking us out into the sunlight of a much bigger world, in terms of our understanding of how humanity has evolved.”
£4 Million Restoration: Historic House Rescue is on More4 on 16 January at 9pm
‘It is breaking us out into the sunlight of a much bigger world’ Caroline Stanford Landmark Trust
The sitting room in the Llwyn Celyn hall house, below, and a bedroom showing decorative door heads