Farming the Historic Landscape

3. Caring for Farm Buildings

This leaflet has been designed to help farmers, land managers and farm advisers recognise the importance of traditional farm buildings and provide some guidance on taking care of one of the countryside's important assets.

What are traditional farm buildings important?

The countryside of today and tomorrow is also the countryside of yesterday. Its historic buildings and sites are fundamental to its diversity, attractiveness and fascination, and traditional farm buildings are among its most numerous and dominant historic features. The history of much of English agriculture is encapsulated in traditional farm buildings. Farmsteads and buildings are as important to the character of the countryside as the field patterns and boundaries associated with them, helping to create local identity and sense-of-place. The great diversity found in English farmsteads and buildings relates to the varying geology, farming practices, settlement patterns, land tenure and building techniques found across the country.

Modern farming practices have led to major changes within many farmsteads. New machines require larger buildings, and animal welfare and hygiene require new standards in buildings. Economic pressures may mean there are limited resources available for maintaining increasingly redundant traditional farm buildings while amalgamation of farms has left some farmsteads totally redundant.

How do farmsteads and farm buildings reflect the history of farming in an area?

Although farmsteads and their buildings generally serve the same function - the production and processing of crops, animals or animal products - there has long been regional variation in the balance between these activities. Historically, most farms would have been mixed to an extent, but some areas increasingly specialised in stock rearing, fattening or dairying while other areas concentrated on grain or the production of crops such as hops and fruit.

The sites of historic farmsteads in the landscape can show how agriculture developed. In some areas, most farms are in villages and hamlets, as they have been since Saxon times. Woodland clearance by the 14th century in some areas resulted in farmsteads set within small irregular fields scattered across the landscape. Such historic farm sites, often held by freeholders, can have a range of buildings of different dates representing investment in the farmstead over centuries. Great landowners with capital to invest in improving large areas of poorer land, such as heath or moor, developed new farmsteads in accordance with the ‘modern’ ideas of the 18th and 19th centuries. Enclosure of the open fields and commons sometimes resulted in the creation of farmsteads on the new holdings.

The layout of the buildings within the steading is also important in understanding how historic farm buildings functioned. Linear farmsteads may have a range of buildings, including the farmhouse, built into a row or two parallel ranges. On some farmsteads, the buildings are randomly located near the farmhouse, whereas planned farmsteads have their buildings arranged around a yard and positioned to save labour. Some 19th-century planned farmsteads incorporate mechanisation such as steam engines and tram-ways, and the yard may be covered to protect the manure from the rain.

The barn is often the largest and most important building on most farmsteads, although there is great diversity in barns across the country. The large timber-framed aisled barns of the south-east or the Cotswold stone barns of Gloucestershire, for example, demonstrate the importance of cereal production in those areas. In dairying and stock rearing areas, the barns tend to be smaller and often incorporate other functions. In the north-west and south-west of England, bank barns were commonly built into a slope to allow level access into two storeys, to provide a threshing barn over the cattle housing or stables.

(A) Agri-environment schemes are a major source of funding for the repair of historic farm buildings, such as this cow house in the Lake District National Park. Photograph: Defra.

(B) Historic farm buildings contribute to the diversity, attractiveness and fascination of the countryside. Field barns are a particularly distinctive and valued feature of the Yorkshire Dales landscape. Photograph: Peter Gaskell.


Other buildings of the farmstead can also show regional differences. Granaries are usually free-standing buildings on staddle stones in the south-east and East Anglia, but they are typically built above other buildings such as cartsheds or stables in the west.

Specialist buildings such as oast houses are regionally distinct. Other buildings with specific uses include dairies, cheese lofts and cider houses. Although not as distinctive as the oast house, they are characteristic of their regions. Farmsteads can also include a wide range of other buildings, such as dovecotes, pigsties, well houses, ash houses, workshops, stores and mill buildings, which all contribute to their historic character.

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© University of Hertfordshire, 2011