Candida Lycett Green finds hidden architectural glory in north Gloucestershire
In this little known and unfashionable corner of Gloucestershire where the River Severn winds down from Worcestershire among strange hills which rise suddenly like mole hills on a lawn, the village of Ashleworth straggles around a green, a quiet mile away from the main Gloucester to Ledbury road. It seems an ordinary enough village, and not the sort to attract tourists. The noble golden limestone of the Cotswolds, which outsiders associate with the Gloucestershire villages of their imaginations, has given way to red brick and half timbering. Here begins a flavour of Midlands architecture with taller houses and black and white barns in apple orchards. (In the neighbouring village of Upleadon, there is a good early 16th-century timber-framed church tower.)
Ashleworth’s hidden glory lies a quarter of a mile down a tiny road which leads to the great tidal river. Here beside the quay, is a perfect group of tithe barn, church and house, ancient and unperturbed. Because of their importance at the time of building they are all of stone which would have been brought up the river by boat. The church of St Andrew and St Bartholomew is predominantly in the perpendicular style, but contains many other periods including some herringbone masonry of about 1100. It is wonderful and captivates you the moment you enter; I can’t recommend its atmosphere too highly. It was restored well in 1869 by the architect Thomas Fulljames who built himself the fanciful gothic mansion of Foscombe high on one of the giant molehills outside the village.
Next to the church is Ashleworth Court, a sombre and restrained looking house which, apart from some minimal outside alterations (it is now tiled instead of thatched), has survived virtually unchanged since it was built in the middle of the 15th century. It is rare to find houses this early which have not had radical alterations. The Court’s general demeanour is suitably pious and ecclesiastical and fits its setting to a tee: the antithesis of the flamboyant Elizabethan house which began to be built a century later.
The gigantic and magnificent barn finishes the great stone trio. It was built during Abbot Newland’s time in the late 15th and early 16th centuries and cannot fail to amaze. Its structure is so simple, powerful and durable. Much of the timber is original and there is no reason to suppose it will not last another 600 years. A barn of this spectacular size and grandeur is, as William Morris justly described the barn at Great Coxwell, ‘As noble as a cathedral’. Unlike the latter however, the outside of a great barn seldom tells of the extraordinary scale within. Who could not but be awestruck by the sheer height and volume of space?
I think barns are the very best of our architecture without architects. When Hardy was writing about Bathsheba Everdene’s barn in Far From The Madding Crowd, he wrote of the functional continuity of such structures as opposed to castle and church. ‘For once,’ he noted ‘medievalism and modernism had a common standpoint. The lanceolate windows, the time-eaten archstones and chamfers, the orientation of axis, the misty chestnut work of the rafters referred to no exploded fortifying art or outworn religious creed. The defence and salvation of the body by daily bread is still a study, a religion, a desire.’ Ashleworth bam was full of pigs and sheep when I went — a tribute to the National Trust who owns it. A barn’s adaptability is endless. At Frocester, south of Gloucester, there is a sensational early 14th-century barn of not less than 13 bays, and it is as invaluable today to its owners as it has always been over the last seven centuries. It serves at one end as a grain store and at the other as a winter cattle shelter.
I was going to write about the tithe bam in the village of Harmondsworth, two or three stones’ throw from Heathrow airport. It had long been a secret place of mine to which my father first took me years ago. There, stranded as the village is, between motorways and runways, was a pocket of untouched rural Middlesex with a pretty flint and brick church among great yew trees, and beside it a working farm which just happened to possess the greatest wooden, tile-roofed barn in the country. One hundred and ninety foot long, 36 ft wide and 36 ft tall.
Last week I took my son to see it. The farmhouse had been converted into ‘units’ and fine gravel abounded where once there had been mud. The changing of the farm into a business centre had all been done in the ‘best possible taste’. It was another country. Discreet English Heritage signs pointed to the beached whale of a barn, which, though beautifully restored, was dead. Running to seek solace in the church we found it locked. There was no notice as to where the key was and the vicar was not in his vicarage, where groundsel flourished in the flowerbeds. Stick to Ashleworth. It is what Harmondsworth used to be like, unwrecked.