Woodcut by John Fox

BARN STORIES 1 – There is a stone barn on the fells above Broughton Mills, between the Duddon Valley and Conistion water that has a cruck frame structure inside. As part of our research into cumbrian vernacular building styles for the HOUSE project me and Sue Gill went on a reccy ramble to check the barn out. I remember a rather windy walk up a long track out of the village and that there was no one around the farm when we got there. So we had a sneaky look inside the barn where there were rather ancient looking oak frames simply and elegantly sat on large boulders holding the roof up.

The Broughton Mills barn is reputed to be the hiding place of the only German POW ever to successfully escape from a British prisoner of war camp and return to Germany during WW2. Oberleutnant Franz von Werra, a Luftwaffe fighter pilot, had been shot down and captured in Kent in September 1940. He was sent to the POW Camp No.1, at Grizedale Hall from where he promptly escaped on October 7th. Hiding out on the fells until he was recaptured by two local home guard members whilst sheltering from the rain in the barn. He was then transferred first to a camp in Derbyshire, from which he tried to escape again and then to Canada where he jumped from a prison train and crossed into the USA. Eventually finding his way back to Germany via Mexico, South America, and Spain.

As we left the POW hideout and set off back down the fell to Broughton Mills we saw a spotter plane in the distance and police cars in one of the lanes – very likely to have been a search team looking for an escaped prisoner from HM Prison at Haverigg across the valley – a rather uncanny coincidence or what!

The decision to build a replacement workshop using medieval building techniques, with a largely volunteer labour force, was arrived at by a sort of osmosis of ideas. Our interest in local vernacular building styles, the self-build ethos of Walter Segal, a concern to use local and low impact materials, a particular fascination with hand craft work – all these ideas seemed to leak into each other until in the end they seemed to inevitably lead to the conclusion to build a cruck barn.

At some point in the process of deciding Sue Gill asked me “So can you do it?” After a rather long pause and a moment of self-doubt. During which I ran through the details behind the question: Could I run a self-build training course for semi-skilled volunteers? ( I managed at Greenspace.), Could I act as project manager for a construction project? (I’d been doing it collectively at The Mill so surely with a bit of help.) Did I actually know how to build a cruck barn? (Probably given the techniques we had mastered at the Hardwood Centre.) So I said yes I could..

We proceeded to get planning permission and pass building regs. with help from local architect John Dryden and a structural engineer in Barrow, who didn’t completely loose it when we mentioned that the structural oak frame might well move as it dried out. A volunteer program was started to be planned for the summer. and me and Peter Wilshaw started to work out the logistics and project timeline. Contacting the Greythwaite Estate on the west bank of lake Windermere to source oak trees with the required bend in them and arranging with the Hardwood Centre back in Altham to borrow it’s specialist tools.

July and August 1995 saw the 3rd hottest driest summer in England since the proverbial ‘records began’ with daytime temperatures frequently reaching above 30 °C (86 °F). Which was almost perfect conditions for building a barn. Over eight weeks some sixty volunteers came and worked on the project. We had young architects, artists, musicians, office workers, craft workers, friends …. some with a few DIY skills, others with no building experience to speak of. While others were perhaps the pick of the timber framing world at the time – come hot foot from working for royalty to work with us for free. Tempted by the rare opportunity of working on one of the very few new cruck frame buildings to be built probably in the whole of the 20th century.

Cruck frames being re-erected at Barrowford

BARN STORIES 2 – I had forgotten about another People In Common cruck barn connection. After we had reslated the first half of The Mill roof in Altham we ended up with a stack of old oak beams,that we weren’t quite sure what to do with so they ended up in a stack outside. They were slightly rotten and had been attacked by woodworm – but we couldn’t quite bring ourselves to discard them or burn them. At some point someone connected to the Pendle Heritage Centre in Barrowford got to know we had a stash of old beams and came round to talk to us about them. They were in the process of trying to rescue a old sixteenth century barn from a farm in Cliviger. It was a cruck frame structure, but was missing a number of its original timbers. I can’t remember now whether we sold or donated some of our old beams or whether they were actually used in the end to rebuild the barn. The barn was eventually re-erected in the grounds of the Heritage Centre and is used for lectures and events.


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