Historic home care: A hat and a pair of boots for your home

PUBLISHED: 09:00 16 February 2014

A historic Devon property without a 'hat' can still be transformed into a modern home

A historic Devon property without a 'hat' can still be transformed into a modern home


In the first of an occasional series of articles for Devon Life, specialist architect ROBERT SEYMOUR explains what makes the county’s buildings different to anywhere else

The story of what makes Devon so special begins with our own journey to live here 30 years ago. We were tired of London and wanted a new base somewhere in the UK to start a new life.

We chose Devon. The weather was better than London with warmer winters, and we wanted to be nearer the sea, so we visited the South Hams and found the county’s ‘jewel in the crown’. What we did not know was that Devon is also rich in historic old buildings and dealing with them would to become a way of life for me.

No other county in England has as many old buildings as Devon. There are a large number of intact medieval farmhouses, famous historic longhouses, and towns like Totnes which have a complete range of intact medieval town houses.

There are also large, intact old houses in the countryside, and you can walk down a lane away from the main roads in Devon, and find original houses that are unchanged for 500 years.

"The answer is to understand how historic old houses were built and to work with them to maintain ventilation, and to allow moisture to escape."

That is why when you open the first pages of Devon Life, you find such a fantastic selection of interesting old properties for sale. But how do you choose one to buy, and how do you look after them when you have bought one?

The famous author W.G. Hoskins once wrote that ‘it is better that we know the damage that we do to the old houses of Devon before we do it’. We all know that these old buildings have strange materials like cob, thatch and lime, which with timber framing are all sensitive to the warm damp climate in Devon.

There are also beetles and fungus that like to live in old houses, quietly eating or rotting the timbers, and these need to be understood too.

The main problem with the climate in Devon is the high rainfall. The rolling 
fields and valleys are as green as they are because of it. This means that the roofs must be good and the houses must not sit in damp conditions, otherwise wet and dry rot will occur.

There is a well known saying in Devon, that ‘a house needs a good hat and a good pair of boots’ and the maintenance of both the roof and the ground floor are vital. But how do you achieve that with thatched roofs, with notoriously difficult junctions with chimneys that will leak and the bases of walls that often have no foundations or damp proof course?

The answer is to understand how historic old houses were built and to work with them to maintain ventilation, and to allow moisture that enters old buildings through porous materials to escape.

These houses are different to cavity blockwork or brick houses elsewhere in the county, and unless we understand how they behave, we will lock in the damp and condensation that exists in them and give ourselves an internal environment that is ‘unfit for human habitation’.

There are also techniques that have been developed over many years to isolate damp walls and the insides of windows from where we want to live, eat and wash, and by carefully using these techniques we can improve the environment we live in.

As well as good repairs and maintenance to these old houses the recent initiatives by English Heritage have lead to new surveys in Devon to look at listed buildings. These studies established that many of the buildings in Devon are much older than originally thought, and they are now known to be an important historic vernacular source in this country.

This has lead to more listed buildings and conservation areas being recorded. But listing alone is not enough for these rare, intact examples of our glorious English heritage, and there is no substitute for an informed careful owner who cares and invests in the welfare of their new home.

Robert Seymour & Associates, Totnes and Dartmouth. robertseymour.co.uk

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