Welsh farm found to be 600-year-old hall

The Guardian - - NATIONAL - Es­ther Ad­dley

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

PHO­TO­GRAPH: JOHN MILLER/LAND­MARK TRUST

The sit­ting room in the Ll­wyn Ce­lyn hall house, below, and a bed­room show­ing dec­o­ra­tive door heads

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