A majestic link with the agriculture of medieval England

In the village of Bredon, nestling at the foot of Cotswolds outlier Bredon Hill, and alongside the River Avon (of Shakespeare fame) in southern Worcestershire, is an agricultural treasure from medieval times. From 1350 or thereabouts.

This is the Bredon tithe barn, constructed from golden Cotswolds limestone, with beams from local oak trees, and a stone roof. Oriented north-south, and measuring more than 130 feet long, by about 44 feet wide (and at least 50 feet or more to the apex of the roof) this tithe barn is one of the best remaining examples of its kind – there are others dotted around England’s landscape.

It’s not so easy to find. Although a National Trust (NT) property, there are no detailed directions in the NT Handbook, and in the village of Bredon itself there are no signs to indicate its precise location. We drove through the village and I thought I saw it in the distance, but actually finding a way to it was almost impossible. Eventually, we had to ask the church warden who was working in the churchyard.

Open 7 days a week, it’s possible just to wander around the barn and take in its magnificent woodwork and construction. Occupied by quite a large population of doves, it’s best not to wander round with one’s mouth open when looking up at the roof.

Here’s what is written on one of the National Trust display boards just inside the barn’s open door:
The name Bredon comes from bre, the old British word for a hill. In prehistoric times a fort stood on the hilltop, and the valley below was already being farmed.
   Bredon was an important place by the 8th century, when a minster, or monastery here was granted a great deal of land by the kings of Mercia. Its properties extended as far as Cutsdean in the Cotswolds and Rednal (now on the outskirts of Birmingham) to the north. Gradually this great estate declined and the monastery was reduced until it became no more than a rich parish church. The Bishops of Worcester took over the land and remained lords of Bredon from about 900 until 1559.
   The Bredon barn was built for the Bishops about 1350, at a tragic time in medieval history  The Black Death, the terrible plague that swept across Europe from the East, killed more than a third of the people of England. Half the population of Bredon died, and Bishop Wulstan de Bransford, who probably commissioned the barn here, himself fell victim on 6th August 1349.
   Although the barn at Bredon has traditionally been known as a tithe barn, recent research indicates that it was almost certainly a manorial barn, used for storage of crops from the large and important manor of Bredon.
   Tithe barns were attached to churches, and were used to store tithes (tenths of the produce of the land) paid to parish priests as part of their income. The fact that the Bishops of Worcester were lords of the manor here for more than 600 years probably accounts for the misapprehension. The Bredon barn was well-built and large – 132 feet (40.2 metres) by 44 feet (13.4 metres) – because it was vital to the economy of a large and important estate.

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The barn was badly damaged by fire in the 1980s, but the National Trust was able to raise the money for its restoration, using locally-sourced oak for the beams, and quarried limestone. It really is a gem, and worth 45 minutes or more of anyone’s time in this lovely riverside village.

Veni, vidi . . . and took lots of photos

Despite dominating ‘England’ for only 400 years or so, the legacy of the Roman invasion and conquest of Britannia – first by Julius Caesar in 55 and 54BC, and then by the Emperor Claudius in AD43 – is quite remarkable. A Roman imprint can be seen in many of our towns and cities, at various fortresses (in the north along Hadrian’s Wall at Vercovicium, or Housesteads Roman Fort and Vindolanda, for example), and in the modern roads, some of which still follow the ancient Roman routes. And there are, of course, other ruins of settlements (such as Wroxeter – Viroconium – in Shropshire) and residences dotted around the countryside. Yesterday, we visited one of the most impressive and significant of the ruins of a private residence, at Chedworth Roman villa in the heart of the Gloucestershire Cotswolds.

Lying just north of Cirencester – Corinium, which was an important Roman town, and linked into three major roads, the Fosse Way (now the A429 to the east), Ermin Street (the A417) to the west and Akeman Street, Chedworth villa was undoubtedly the important and sumptuous residence of a wealthy family – but who? We just don’t know.

Lying hidden for centuries since its apparent abandonment in the late AD300s, the ruins were discovered in 1864, on land belonging to the 3rd Earl of Eldon, a 19th century landowner. The first evidence was some colored stone cubes – tesserae – from buried mosaics. Once uncovered, several beautiful mosaic floors were revealed in all their glory. The archaeology continues today, and while other mosaics continue to be revealed, most of the walls of the remaining ruins have been uncovered.

These are topped by ‘roofs’ to protect them against the elements. But an idea of what the villa must have looked like has been interpreted in a model at the entrance to the villa.

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Today all that can be seen are the outline structures of the west and north wings, and a small part of the south wing. But what treasures lie inside the west wing. Some of the best mosaics are there, today protected by a National Lottery-funded building in which visitors are able to walk above the mosaic floors on a raised platform. The mosaic on the south side of the west wing covers what is regarded as the dining room. But to the north, there are bathrooms, plunge pools and the like for relaxation.

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The central heating genius of the Romans is exposed in several locations, but particularly on the north wing, where pillars that supported the floors can still be seen.

Lying in the valley of the River Coln, a source of clean water would have been one of the main reasons for siting the villa here. And in the northwest corner of the villa, in what has been interpreted as a shrine or temple, yesterday’s trickle of water from the spring didn’t seem sufficient to sustain a large community that must have lived at Chedworth all those centuries ago.

The site is also a haven for wildlife, but we didn’t see any of the large edible snails (Helix pomatia) that are found at Chedworth and which were introduced by the Romans. I’ve never heard of these elsewhere but there surely must be other populations around the country. At Chedworth they’ve survived – even as a local population – for two millennia.

No doubt the continuing archaeology will eventually tell us more about the life and times of Chedworth, one of fifty or more villas in the Cotswolds. Another – but important – link in our rich history.