Last edited 14 Mar 2021

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Institute of Historic Building Conservation Institute / association Website

Small vernacular agricultural buildings in Wales

This article originally appeared as ‘A pigsty’s hidden history’ in IHBC's Context 149, published in May 2017. It was written by Cyllene (Cy) Griffiths, the listed building caseworker for Wales at the Council for British Archaeology and director of the Griffiths Heritage Consultancy.

Small vernacular agricultural buildings in Wales, almost all unlisted, many at risk and often the subject of planning applications, may have more to tell us than meets the eye.

Any historic environment professional who deals with casework will recognise that there are frequent and persistent applications for the conversion, alteration or demolition of the smaller agricultural buildings. This is especially true of those located in the Welsh landscape.

The types of buildings we are considering are the pigsties, small barns, stables, dairies and other working buildings which were essential elements of the historic farmyard. The number of applications may be due to changes in agricultural practices, the selling off of rural holdings as residential properties, and perhaps a lack of understanding of whether these modest and seemingly insignificant buildings are important to our understanding of the historic landscape. Most of these buildings have no statutory protection, while others may be within the curtilage of a listed building, thereby requiring listed building consent for their alteration or demolition. It is virtually unknown for the smaller buildings to be listed in their own right, although larger barns or other agricultural buildings might be.

It is widely asserted that these small vernacular agricultural buildings ‘may be as important as early, large or architecturally ambitious buildings (Cadw 2006) and that ‘in the built environment, just as with social history or material culture, what was typical of past generations is now becoming scarce’ (Cadw 2004). Not only do they contribute to landscape character or the setting of another historic building, but they also greatly enhance the significance and understanding of a traditional farmstead or rural site if they are retained. While the lack of understanding, recording and recognition of the importance of farmstead buildings is slowly being addressed, they remain a ‘vulnerable and relatively unprotected category of building’ (Scottish Executive Central Research Unit 2001).

National legislation, policy and guidance require planning authorities to consider the impacts of planning applications on the setting of listed buildings as well as the potential impact of works to structures within their curtilage. Welsh Office Circular 61/98 states that when a building is listed, protection is also afforded to any structure within its curtilage built prior to 1948, and requires retrospective applications to be considered as if the works had not already been carried out. The same document also sets out the considerations which local planning authorities should address when considering applications relating to the substantial or total demolition of a listed building. These include the condition of the building; the adequacy of efforts made to retain the building in use; and the merits of alternative proposals.

More recent advice from Planning Policy Wales 8th edition (2016) confirms that where a proposal affects a listed building or its setting, the primary material consideration is to have special regard to the desirability of preserving the special interest of the building or its setting, or any features of historic or architectural interest that it possesses.

In my experience, overworked and under-resourced local authority planning and conservation officers generally need to prioritise their workload, meaning that some applications with seemingly more minor impacts may not be given the attention they require. The continuing loss of experienced conservation staff across the UK has also inevitably had some impact on the numbers of applications which can be fully investigated, and local politics impacts on the weight given to the lone voice of conservation in authorities. There are simply not enough resources to research every historic building thoroughly. Reliance is placed on the material submitted by the applicant, which is often sparse or poorly researched, or the requirement for justification is not fully understood. Officers often give priority to preventing harm to larger buildings and structures which are listed in their own right, and the impact on curtilage buildings or setting is a less weighty consideration.

This, and the general lack of any protection for small vernacular buildings, has led to the loss or unsympathetic conversion of many of the agricultural or rural outbuildings which help to refine our understanding of previous economies and social structures, and which contribute to the landscape character of particular areas. This is of course not solely a Welsh issue: much attention has been given to the significance, condition and potential re-use of field barns in Yorkshire, for example. However, a recent application for listed building consent for the retrospective demolition of a pigsty in rural Powys brought the issue to my attention in my capacity as the Council for British Archaeology’s listed building caseworker for Wales.

Coedtrewernau, near Abbey-cwm-hir, Powys, is a Grade II listed mill with attached cottage (Listed Building ref 83357). It is recorded on the RCAHMW’s Coflein system as a small farmstead on the north bank of the Clywedog Brook, consisting of a house (NPRN 81118), corn mill (NPRN 40284), pigsty and other buildings. The site is first mentioned, as Coed Trewerny, in 1623, and Coed-Trewernau Mill (corn) is shown on the first edition Ordnance Survey map, along with the positions of the associated leat, mill race and pond. The OS map from 1887 shows these features more clearly and also a small outbuilding in the location of the pigsty.

The remaining machinery within the mill has been dated to the 1730s, although the listed building description dates the present building to the mid-19th century. A reference is made to the existence of a ‘corn mill and fulling mill’ in 1770, but whether these were the same building is not known. The corn mill ceased working between 1895 and 1903, and the waterwheel was removed around 1940. There are therefore some inconsistencies in the records, but because the mill machinery dating is thought to be reliable it would seem that the 19th century date for the mill is unlikely.

It is also generally believed that due to the efforts of construction, presumably especially for the races, leats and ponds, and the careful selection of sites, that ‘some post-medieval and early modern mills occupy sites that were in use in earlier centuries. Medieval mills are relatively rare, and it is generally assumed that many must lie beneath or very close to their post-medieval successors’ (CPAT 2012). It is therefore possible that the mill at Coedtrewernau was built on the site of an earlier or perhaps medieval mill, and that the mill itself, or at least its machinery and site, dates from the mid-18th century or earlier.

The pigsty at Coedtrewernau was included in the site photograph for the buildings at risk survey of Powys in 2009. It is shown as having slipped roof slates but little else is shown of its condition. The application provides several other photographs since this time, demonstrating its gradual decay and ultimately partial demolition in 2011, when the owners considered it to be unsafe. It is now a low pile of grassed-over rubble, on which site the owners wish to construct a greenhouse. A planning application for the construction of several new outbuildings (summer house, greenhouse, shed and wood store) was originally also submitted to the local planning authority. However, because the site of the greenhouse was partially on the site of the pigsty, which required listed building consent for its demolition, the application was withdrawn until the application for demolition had been decided.

Since the structure has been totally demolished, there is no physical evidence left to inform us about the history and use of this outbuilding. The historical maps appear to show other outbuildings and a track leading to the structure. It may be possible that this was a small barn, drying kiln or other outbuilding with another purpose, or that its use had changed over time, leaving behind physical evidence of these changes, which has now been lost. The archaeological evidence of the original mill workings would appear to be considerable. The field patterns in the area demonstrate possible medieval strip fields with their distinctive curved boundaries.

Since there is no evidence to contradict the identification of this building as a pigsty, the historical significance of pig keeping should be acknowledged. Early medieval societies counted their worth in cattle but pigs were a favourite for meat production. They were commonly kept to supplement diet or provide additional income. They were considered so important to the Welsh that the medieval laws of Hywel Dda provide a value for a pigsty of 30 pence when a battle-axe was two pence, and a sword with silver or gold hilt was 24 pence. Even the smaller households would have kept one or two pigs.

Pork was the most popular salted meat in historic Wales, as it used less salt than other meats to preserve it, while staying succulent. The dominance of pig remains within bone assemblages from the early medieval excavation site at Dinas Powys, Glamorgan, has been identified, with over 61 per cent of bone waste coming from pigs. Pigs were easy to keep, being omnivorous, and helped greatly with forest clearance in the Welsh landscape, allowing previously forested areas to be used for goats, sheep or arable. Within the Hywel Dda, allowances were made for owners to graze pigs on common ground or woodland. This reliance on pork and the usefulness of pigs to the smaller householder, as well as the ease of keeping, means that pigs have continued to be kept as a vital source of food and income for small farms right up to the present day.

The financial records and early census returns we have for historic Radnorshire show that mill owning was not particularly financially rewarding. Mill owners are often listed with another role or job (such as innkeeper, grocer or farmer) and with none or only one assistant, often a young boy or the miller’s son. This demonstrates the need for self-sufficiency and diversification for the owner of Coedtrewernau Mill, with the sty and other farm buildings providing evidence of this and a way of rural historic life which has since been mostly lost. An early account of Radnorshire water-powered corn mills was published in the Radnorshire Society Transactions of 1940 and 1941.

The list is not claimed to be complete. However, one of the points which was clearly shown by this study was the noticeable reduction in the number of such mills which had occurred in relatively recent times, with 34 mills reported to be working at the turn of the 20th century and only nine still in use by 1939-40 and only two by 1954.

It would therefore seem that the mill, associated buildings and features at Coedtrewernau are of special historic interest. It is set within a medieval landscape, with a possible medieval mill site, physical evidence of early-18th-century milling, and potential for archaeological deposits relating to the siting and working of the mill from these periods. The pigsty was an important part of understanding the social and economic history and development of the mill site, and of small industrial holdings in Radnorshire and beyond.

Advice from specialist interest groups is also a useful source of guidance. For example, the Mills Section of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) supports the following philosophy on mill repair: ‘Ancillary machinery, engines and buildings, such as the miller’s dwelling, kilns, granaries, cart sheds and other related outbuildings, even if comparatively modern, are all part of the history and development of milling and, where options allow, should be retained and repaired in a like manner, alongside the mills they served’ (SPAB 2004).

It would seem that there is a clear case for refusal in this specific case. However, it is also accepted that without sustainable new uses and regular maintenance, these small rural buildings are difficult to retain. Nevertheless, since the applicants were also applying for a number of new outbuildings, it would seem sensible that the pigsty could have been sympathetically converted into a wood store or shed. It is unusual to be able to investigate the history of a site such as this thoroughly and the scant evidence surviving demonstrates that often there is little evidence to find.

The forthcoming new guidance from the Welsh Government following the introduction of the Historic Environment Act 2016 may help to explain to owners, developers and others the importance of identifying those small vernacular agricultural buildings, which contribute considerably to the significance of historic farmsteads, the historic landscape and our understanding of the development of these. However, it seems from the consultation already carried out on drafts of this new guidance that while ‘setting’ is thoroughly covered, there is little that will move us on from where we already stand with our guidance.

For this particular case, the conservation officer from Powys produced a very thorough report objecting to the proposal. However, considering that Powys has had its conservation staff reduced from 2.5 full-time equivalents to one, it is perhaps surprising that the officer was able to spend this amount of time on a seemingly innocuous application. It is possible that the response from the Council for British Archaeology initiated this. The application has since been refused.

It will be interesting to see whether the applicant goes to appeal and whether an inspector might uphold this decision. It would be a useful precedent if it were, and confirmation that these small rural buildings may have much more to tell us than initially meets the eye.

This article originally appeared in IHBC's Context 149, published in May 2017. It was written by Cyllene (Cy) Griffiths. the listed building caseworker for Wales at the Council for British Archaeology and director of the Griffiths Heritage Consultancy.

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--Institute of Historic Building Conservation

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