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Architecture: Black and white houses

14th century op-art!
I just spent a week in Herefordshire in the Welsh Marches (border country between England and Wales) and was thrilled to find some of my favourite vernacular architecture - half-timbered black and white houses built between the 13th an 16th centuries. I love the graphic look of these facades with their (albeit wonky) geometrical, abstract patterns.
And I discovered something very interesting about how this style evolved in England and Wales.

These houses are a true case of 'architecture without architects'. Every house is totally individual, built by the person who was going to live in it. But at the same time the builders clearly complied with the vernacular 'style' which had developed in that particular vicinity.
I love the curves below the roof in this one and the very unusual windows.

The houses weren't built and conceived as a final entity as houses are now, but added to as function required and presumably wealth allowed. That's what makes them so quirky and such a fascinating jumble of shapes and patterns.

Some of the houses date back to the 13th and 14th centuries making their massive timbers up to 800 years old - and add to that the age of the tree which was felled! Surely this tells us something about endurable building materials - less of the UPVc I say!

This house is in Normandy (northern France). I've visit Normandy quite frequently and always look out for these half-timbered houses to photograph. When I saw similar houses in Herefordshire I started to wonder if it was just a coincidence to find the same architectural style in countries separated by 500 miles and the English channel. I discovered that of course it was all down to the Normandy invasion of Britain in 1066. The French settled in many areas of England including the Welsh Marches and brought their building skills and traditions with them.

This house in Normandy looks much more elegant and sophisticated than the English versions. Notwithstanding the function and technical concerns during construction, you can't help but believe this builder's ambition was to create a beautiful, decorative facade for his house.

Back to England. Altogether more humble and seemingly without an initial 'master plan' in 'design' terms. But of course that's part of the charm as we are so used to seeing symmetrical, uniform houses with no element of individuality or quirkiness.

I like this very simple style with the straightfoward, square patterns and I love the two front doors of different sizes.

In the English countryside you can always tell the houses still inhabited by original country and village dwellers as they keep their front doors green which was the traditional colour in the early / mid 20th century. Now of course, townies move in, do up old houses and choose colours from the so-called 'heritage' (?) paint charts for their front doors.

France. The Normandy houses are usually much taller with higher, steeper roofs.


Normandy. This was the gate house for a massive old chateau (now gone) and dates back to the 11th or 12th century. The crosses make a great pattern across the front.

England. I visited a tiny local museum in a Herefordshire village and the curator told me that originally the houses weren't black and white. Instead the wattle (mud and straw mix) which was used to fill in between the timbers was often dyed with ox blood. Painting the houses black and white apparently became fashionable in the late 18th & 19th centuries.

In Normandy the country houses are usually not painted at all - the yellow is the original mud in the wattle mix and the timbers have that wonderful washed out grey colour of weathered untreated wood.

I particularly like the way the windows of these houses are all different shapes and sizes. Why don't modern architects and house builders think of doing that? You can tell by the reflection on these window panes that the glass in extremely old - the lead in the glass make it look almost like molten metal.

Normandy. These patterns are amazing - what an effort to build. French houses always have shutters so that too creates a different look to their facades. (I do wonder about shutters - given climate change and increasing temperatures why aren't shutters added to all modern buildings? So simple and a lot cheaper and more sustainable than air con.)

Herefordshire. This is the village of Weobley where I photographed lots of the houses. Really amazing to walk down a high street which has hardly changed in over 500 years.

Weobley - the local pub - more than likely serving ale for half a millenium as the use of some buildings never changes.

Normandy. This house had 9 mansard windows! I love mansard windows which are typical of most French vernacular architecture. This house is surely the piece de resistance of half-timbered architecture with its complex, patterned facade.

France. The sad thing about hunting for half-timbered houses in Normandy is that most of them have gone, destroyed during the 2nd World War. Entire villages and ancient town centres were razed to the ground and when you see pictures of cities like Liseux and Caen before the war it makes you want to cry that so many exquisite old timber buildings were reduced to piles of ashes.

Talking of the Norman Invasion, this is a statue of William the Conqueror who beat King Harold at the Battle of Hastings. He was born in the town of Falaise which we visited during our Normandy trip. His massive castle remains but most of the rest of the town was bombed to nothing in 1944 and re-built in the 1950s like so many towns and villages in northern France.

England. The houses were a work-in-progress over decades if not centuries. This one has the date 1442 over the door. Unbelievable - but so fantastic - that we can adapt these places for 21st century living.

This house was my favourite because of its simplicity and its setting right on the edge of the ancient village churchyard.

I was glad to see signs of life in this rather run-down old place I came across up a country track - the best thing about these old houses is that for the people who live in them, despite the beatuy and the history, it's just home!.


  1. Thank-you for another very interesting post. I always enjoy what you have to say and show.

  2. Beautiful houses you have shared. Great to anyone of them.


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