Cowclose House, Barningham: Building Survey

County Durham


Edward Milbank


Building survey: Documentary research

Cowclose House lies on the edge of Barningham Moor, part of the Pennine uplands of County Durham. The building is a typical example of what is known as a Yorkshire longhouse, combining both domestic and agricultural space under one roof. Most longhouses in the area have either been lost or converted, but Cowclose House was a relatively rare example with a cowhouse surviving in situ, and as such had been Listed Grade II (National Heritage List No. 1160281). The farmstead currently consists of a single-storey building comprising four bays: two south bays formed the domestic accommodation; the two north bays were a barn and byre, including a lintel stone dating to 1697. The property was occupied until the early 20th century, after which it soon fell into disrepair. It remained unoccupied until 2014, when the first bay of the structure was made watertight for use as a shelter for anglers at the nearby lake. However, by 2018 the building was in a semi-ruinous state and in urgent need of repurposing to ensure a sustainable future.


The owner obtained planning permission and Listed Building Consent to convert the building to holiday accommodation. In response to a condition laid out in the planning consent, NAA was commissioned to carry out a survey of the structure conforming to a Historic England Level 2 ‘descriptive’ record, using both documentary and physical evidence to explore the origins and development of the building in order to mitigate against any potential loss of significant heritage assets arising from the conversion of the building.


The work involved a detailed assessment of primary and secondary documentary and cartographic material to understand the original layout of the farmstead and subsequent phases of development, and a written, drawn and photographic survey of the property to act as a permanent record of the building. During the fieldwork, a written description of each feature and room was produced together with a full photographic record, both internal and external. All elevations were photographed as parallel to the buildings as possible, in order to avoid distortion, and used as a basis for preparing a series of accurate elevation drawings.


The survey confirmed that the building is a traditional stone longhouse, aligned from north to south with a protruding wing to the east, which was a later addition. Although the structure has seen considerable modification there was no evidence that the lintel stone at the entrance of the building, dated 1697, was not an original feature. Wall scars in the southern bay indicate that the building originally had a second storey, at least over the domestic part of the structure. The building was primarily accessed from the east, with three doorways on the east-facing elevation, and only one on the west. The east-projecting wing now stands separate from the main range, although presumably at some time it would have been joined with a single roof covering both buildings.


All of the rooms retained original features indicating their former functions. In the domestic accommodation these included blocked windows, lamp niches, fireplaces, wall plaster and evidence for the position of shelves or cupboards. The former barn had ventilation slits in each wall, while the northern bay, formerly the byre, retained a large drain, traces of wood marking the position of stalls, and fittings probably associated with mangers or a feeding trough.


Drawing together the strands of evidence, it is possible to suggest a sequence of development of the structures. The original longhouse was presumably constructed in the late 17th century during a period of agricultural expansion resulting from enclosure of land around the edges of Barningham Moor and foundation of a number of small farmsteads.


There was some evidence (including a blocked window and traces of wall plaster) that the domestic section of the building was originally larger and incorporated the southern part of the later barn.


The basic layout of the extant structure appears not to have altered significantly, except for the addition of the east-projecting wing. The two (or possibly three) southern bays would have provided domestic accommodation for the family, probably with a second storey.


Changing farming practices in the 19th century resulted in the barn being expanded (at the expense of part of the living quarters), in order to accommodate a larger farming operation run by a smaller family. Census data indicates a change in the running of the farm, with sheep replacing cattle as the primary focus of production; the barn may have been enlarged to make more space for storing hay and other products. The expansion was achieved by removing the north wall of the third domestic room. The remaining accommodation was enhanced by insertion of sash windows. The new expanded barn had ventilation slits inserted through the walls, and a row of putlog holes in one wall suggest there had been a raised platform, perhaps a loft for storing grain or hay.


Cartographic evidence shows that sometime between 1838 and 1856 two projecting structures were added on the east side of the original longhouse, forming a courtyard or foldyard. While the remains of one of these wings survive, the north-east wing was depicted as unroofed on a map of 1914, and today no remains of this structure are visible.


This project has provided a good example of how, with careful recording and interpretation, the fabric of a derelict structure can provide a record of the development and decline of a small farmstead over a period of three centuries. This represents an important addition to the social history of a remote upland area for which there is otherwise little evidence. The full report on the work is available on the Archaeology Data Service website, here.

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