Tom and I have been friends since our secondary school days in Devon in the 1960’s. Have known his wonderful wife Janet since they were married and in recent years they’ve become firm friends with Kim too, cemented by their mutual understanding and shared vocation as hill farmers. A trip back to the western flanks of Dartmoor is not complete if we don’t meet up. Nothing quite matches a traditional farmhouse lunch where the lamb is home produced and beats anything you’d ever sample at the finest restaurant for flavour and texture.
Kim’s stone litho print of a pair of Blue faced Leicester tups has a special place on the farmhouse kitchen wall, as our friends keep rams of this breed themselves.
Before Tom could get back to join us for that exquisite lunch Janet had invited us to join here in the all terrain vehicle on a jaunt down the lanes to their riverside pastures for an inspection of their herd of South Devon cows with calves at foot. The sire, a pedigree Beef Shorthorn bull – informally dubbed Anthony – was beached recumbent on the sward. Janet got out to give him a firm but gentle poke so he’d heave himself up and walk on a few yards before resuming his rest. That way she’d know he was in good working order with no mobility problems.
After a great catch up conversation over lunch we stepped out again, pausing to admire the terrace of house martin dwellings under the eaves before a trip down to the track to the original farmstead over the brow. The new farmhouse where our friends live is a Duke of Bedford model farm dating from the 1850’s. Tom’s forebears were the Duke’s tenants, who’d come up from Cornwall to run this then state of the art agricultural holding. The new structures superceded the old longhouse style dwelling, partly embedded into the field beyond, and connected at right angles to its barn.
Following the passing of Tom’s parents, who had retired here when management passed down the line, the old farmhouse has been undergoing a gradual programme of repair and refurbishment to bring it up to modern standards. The barn, which qualified for heritage grant aid, has been beautifully restored to peak condition. Renewed lime mortar re-pointing and electrical wiring has allowed installation of interior strip lighting to greatly improve working conditions for lambing and other routine tasks.
The old barn has been expertly re-roofed in a traditional ‘graduated’ style where the slates vary in length and width, with the larger slates closer to the eaves and the smaller ones closer to the top of the roof. This style was developed in the days when local quarries produced slate on an ‘as available’ basis, rather than in specific sizes, which required the roofer to sort the slates by hand when they arrived on the job site. By laying the longest and widest slates at the eaves, where they carry the most water, and ‘graduating’ to several other lengths closer to the top, water is more effectively diverted away from the building. A properly constructed graduated slate roof like this one shows no obvious disconnect between the different sizes of slates used as the eye moves up the roof.
The winter storms had ripped the rusted corrugated roof from its moorings on a shed set into the lower side of the yard across from house and barn. Looking more closely at this much altered rectangular building my attention was drawn to some curious features. Small square windows and, more strikingly, regularly spaced stone pillars set within the oldest looking wall. Presumably the pillars preceded the wall, indicating an open structure and a load bearing capacity. So why this feature, and what was the original function? Did some research in my friend Michael Gee’s library at our next port of call in north Devon and was able to get back to my friends with what I’d discovered.
Their humble building must originally have been a linhay and tallet. These were once common in Devon and Somerset but today you’d be hard put to find one in anything like its original condition. (As with many redundant old farm buildings they have been converted into attractive holiday accommodation). A linhay is a two storey open fronted building that housed cattle through the winter months with a tallet, or hayloft, above. First recorded in the 17th Century they went on being built well into the 19th so they clearly served a very practical purpose. Today large prefabricated metal and wood farm sheds sheltering bigger numbers of livestock have dispensed with such structures. The true original Linhay had circular wood or stone piers (either granite or mortared stone) at the front with no internal divisions within; examples varying from one to eighteen bays in length. (Each bay being approx. 8 – 10 feet square. The tallet, normally constructed of wood and 6-8 feet above ground level, with the eaves of the double pitched roof some 4-6 feet above that). Hay could be easily loaded from a cart drawn up alongside and conveyed to the animals housed beneath through the winter. An added advantage was that hay provided extra insulation for the stock below. In some farms the linhay was adapted to garage carts when not used for cattle.
Here’s an example on a farm at Holwell, mid Devon, which has had wall infill for the linhay part and whose pillars stretch right to the top of the tallet section.