The Merchant Adventurer’s Hall (York): discovering what “half-timbered” means

The Merchant Adventurers Hall is where the overseas tradesman of York and vicinity would gather. In the undercroft an alms house functioned. The Victorians claim to have ‘restored and beautified’ it.

When I visited it the undercroft and main hall had been taken over by a Vintage Fair.  It is a half-timbered structure dating back to 1357.

Due to the event the hall wasn’t properly open (I wasn’t able to get an audio guide).  However, I noticed a copy of a van Dyke of Anne of Denmark, James I’s queen, a smattering of oak furniture and an Italian stone fireplace.

This house allowed me to entertain the little one we were with: he learned about ‘poo houses’ and how the timber structure was infilled with a plaster made from mud, dung, straw, milk and hair (whatever was around really that would stick to little sticks and could form a structure, known as wattle and daub).

We spent the return journey home spotting poo houses and I had to assure him that poo houses don’t smell once they have dried.  He’s only five so we didn’t go into the difference between ‘mock Tudor’, Tudor and medieval houses original nor lime plaster.  He already knew that old houses had roofs of straw.

D queried why the term “half-timbering” when the whole house is made of wood?  This refers to the fact that the oak logs used for the frame were halved or cut down to a square inner section. Outside of England, tough oak wasn’t such an abundant resource and so therefore log cabins or houses using the whole log were built.

A typical English half-timbered house has a wood frame, an impressive hall with open-beamed ceiling and an over-hanging first floor.  This offered weather protection to the lower floor in a world that didn’t use drainpipes or gutters but also was a form of tax-avoidance: when houses were taxed according to the length of façade at street level, a little bit of additional interior spaced could be acquired by creating an overhang on the upper floor(s).

With age the wood blackened and so ‘mock’ buildings are generally painted black and white/yellow/cream to recreate this.  Over time the wood warped, creating the wobbly houses we see today, such as Smallhythe in Kent.

As construction techniques improved, the Tudors and later the Jacobeans, used timber frames for aesthetic effect and it is perhaps the Jacobean black and white houses that we see more often when ‘poo house spotting’.  However, by the time these houses were being created English oak had been over-harvested and the Tudors had rediscovered brick making, which meant bricks became the primary construction material.

During the last 20 years or so, some firms have offered a service to build oak-framed ‘barn-style’ houses.  I wonder if they will still be standing in 600 years?

When visited: March 2013

House * out of 5: **

Garden * out of 5: **

Website: http://www.theyorkcompany.co.uk/

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