The building of the Great Barn is lost in the mists of time but the barn was probably originally built in the middle ages; when Devon had only been a part of England for a few hundred years, was still divided up into 'hundreds' and governed by sheriffs, stewards and lords of the manor. In Turkey the Ottoman empire was in its infancy, the Pax Mongolica held sway from Vienna to Shanghai and the Aztecs were building their capital city of Tenochtitlan to rule their expanding empire. Today you can take a trip to visit the ruins of these empires, the Great Barn has outlasted them all.
Building of the Barn
The Great Barn would've been built from timber harvested from the estate woodland, it's clear that the trusses have been used more than once and the barn has waxed and waned with the use it was required for. Set into the hillside, the barn was built from the clay that once filled the area where it now sits. Probably 'cattle trod' in a corral situated just meters from the building, the clay was transformed into cob and then lime washed to help keep its contents safe from rats and parasites. Even the stone to build the foundations came from the quarry in the estate and topped with thatch from the surrounding area, the Great Barn is completely organic and very locally sourced.
A Very Locally Sourced Building
It was most likely built by the Wood family, who inherited, by marriage, the Ashridge estate from the Valletort Lords of North Tawton, around 1320. The Wood family were a well to do family who counted amongst them a Justice, at the time of the Prayer-book Rebellion in 1549, and who were patrons of North Tawton church until the family name died out in the 18th century.
The Great Barn contains various examples of 'witch marks'. Common in the middle ages, some were put there to guard the grain from evil spirits and malevolent intentions whilst others were to ensure the fertility of the crop. The marks in the Great Barn are likely to be the latter, with a threshing hole and a donkey mill, the building seems to have been mainly used to store cereals. The symbols were made on clean plaster, high up on walls, often above doors and windows. They are always the same size and are often incomplete, as only God can produce perfection. These pagan symbols were a way for people to hedge their bets, merging older traditions with the new fangled Christian ways, a new mark for each crop, offering protecting and encouraging proliferation down through the ages to the present day.
Use in the Last Few Centuries
By the time the tithe maps we have were made in the 1840's the Great Barn was the size it currently is and clearly contained a donkey driven mill for grinding crops. The fire pit of today nestles against the curved stone wall which the donkey would've walked past on his small circuit. More recently, the Great Barn has continued to be used to store corn, with a brick silo built in the middle of the building and two galvanised steel silos on concrete footings added later. The grain came from the surrounding area, including from Burston Manor close to Bow. Cattle were sometimes kept in the cobbled end of the Great Barn, close to the corn on which they were fed. Although now home only to party animals, the Great Barn retains a rustic charm in keeping with its idyllic rural setting.
Renovation of the Barn
When we bought the Ashridge Estate in 2012 the Great Barn was in a deteriorating state. Overgrown and damp, a lean-to shelter had been constructed along the back and this was conspiring with the bad gutters to badly erode the cob walls. The interior was divided into four sections with a concrete extension over the double doors at the end of the building. Removing the lean-to was a priority as it was degrading the walls at an alarming rate but after a bit of patching the barn was no longer in danger of collapse and was used for storage.
A few years later, our daughter was getting married and we had (rashly!) offered to host the reception at Ashridge Court. Excited, but unsure how it was going to work, she invited a gaggle of girlie friends down to help her hash out a plan. The original plan was to have a marquee, but when the women saw the Great Barn they were adamant that, with a little bit of work, the barn would make a gorgeous venue. Work on renovating the Great Barn started in April of 2015, continuing apace to finish the week before the wedding at the beginning of August. We think that the Great Barn turned out to be an excellent venue in practice as well as theory but don't take our word for it - why don't you visit us and see for yourself!
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