History West Lynch Farmhouse
THE HISTORY OF WEST LYNCH FARM
In many ways the history of West Lynch Farm is somewhat of a mystery. Although it is undoubtedly an ancient dwelling place, there is no pre 19th century documentary evidence relating directly to the Farm. This includes the Chapel, about which nothing is known prior to its restoration in 1885. Previous to this it had been used as a barn, possibly since the Reformation; and even its dedication has been forgotten. However, due to its various characteristics and studies of local field patterns, it is generally agreed that West Lynch Farm was the manor house of Bossington with the Chapel of Ease for private worship around 1430AD
Around 900AD Bossington appears to have been given to Athelney Abbey by King Alfred (who burnt the cakes!) Bossington Manor is mentioned in the Domesday Book (1086); of particular interest is that in the case of Bossington the Domesday Book was in error! The Book states that in the time of Edward the Confessor the Manor was still held by the Abbey “and it was set aside for the monks food”, and that after the Conquest it was given to a Ralph de Limesei. However, contrary to this, ample evidence shows that either the Abbey lost Bossington for only a short time, or more likely, never lost it at all, and that Bossington was held by the Abbey right up to the Reformation (1536).
What we do know is that at some point the Abbey ceased to have direct involvement with Bossington and ‘rented’ out the Manor and its manorial rights and dues to private individuals, the first recorded being a Talbot de Etfeld in 1146. Then from 1452-1694 the Sydenham family held Bossington, and after the Reformation (from 1517) held “of the Crown” rather than “of the Abbey”.
From 1745-1944 West Lynch Farm and most of Bossington (as part of the Holnicote Estate) belonged to the Acland family, then in 1944 it became National Trust property but there are very few records at this point in time, apparently all 'destroyed in a fire' at the end of the second world war.
Luckily, the buildings themselves can tell us something about their past, and the lives of those who lived and worked here.
Late Medieval : the Open-Hall Manor House
The earliest identifiable phase of the House is characteristic of the 1400’s. Whether there was a dwelling here previous to this is impossible to say but there is evidence that there was a Manor of Bossington around 800AD and this is an area of extremely ancient settlement patterns, remembering that only the wealthy or those 'of position' had substantial dwellings - many people lived in shacks and tiny dwellings.
The positions of smoke-blackened roof trusses show that before the introduction of chimneys the central part of the House was an open-hall. This was a ground floor room open to the roof timbers, necessary to allow smoke from an open-hearth fire to escape through openings in the roof. In the centre of the room there would have been a cast iron cage for the fire similar to the picture below!
Story tells that the curved beam in the centre of the room was recycled from an ancient shipwreck off the Exmoor coast. The ornate windows dates back to 1760 and the skirtings are made of slate, apparently used in damp houses to prevent rising damp and wood rot!
On either side of the open-hall were two floored ends; here the roof trusses show no evidence of smoke. The first floors of these two ends would not have been connected, and there is evidence of two external stair-turrets on each end of the back of the House. Neither of these stair-turrets is in existence now, but a small wooden lancet window, with a diamond shaped head, can be seen high up at the south end of the rear wall of the House. This is the window of one of these stair-turrets, and if you look closely you can see where the turret wall has been incorporated into the present wall.
The main front door probably dates from the 15th C or early 16th C or perhaps even earlier? This door was not designed to be opened from the outside, and on the inside there is a heavy sliding timber bar that acted as an extremely large bolt; security was obviously an important consideration when this door was installed! Typical of an open-hall house of this time, this is the front door of a cross-passage that went straight across the House to a back door of similar design. The passage no longer exists, but the opposite back door remains, the frame and door comparable to that of the front; this doorway is now contained within a later extension to the House.
On the north side of this cross-passage was the ‘lower’ or service end of the House - our current Kitchen/Office. On its S side was the open-hall, on the other side of which was the ‘upper’ or private end of the House. There is some evidence to suggest that a door opened from this end room (now Otters Holt) to the Chapel Yard to give easy access for the ladies of the house (and maybe the monks) to walk across the yard to the Chapel of Ease!
The basic construction and external walls (about 70cms thick) have remained unaltered since the House was built. Essentially it is of a jointed cruck construction with 5 pairs of jointed cruck-trusses. These are still present and visible in the roof space and in places on the first floor. The roof was originally thatched, and probably changed in the early 20th Century.
Other early features include the chamfered trusses, beams and purlins, the partial survival of a plank and muntin partition (or screen) belonging to the cross-passage in the kitchen, and wattle and daub infill between the roof trusses and some of the internal walls.
From 1452-1694 the Sydenham family held Bossington Manor, and it is they who probably built the House. Probably his un-married sister Elizabeth lived in the house for a few years, after which it was probably occupied by their estate/farmSteward, but for its time and place it was still a dwelling of high status and great comfort.
Mixed farming would have been practised; sheep and cattle were very important, and the main crops grown were wheat, barley, great oats and grey peas. The people living here would have also exploited their natural surroundings by hunting, fowling and fishing.
The 17th Century
During the late 16th C or early 17th C the 3 chimneystacks were added, and the open-hall floored over, using the chamfered beams still visible in the ceiling of the main ground floor room. A stair-turret was added, situated slightly to the N of the middle of the rear wall of the House, containing a half spiral staircase (still in use today). It is probably at this point that the stair-turret at the N end of the House was abandoned; the one at the S end probably remained in use. The House would have become warmer, drier and less smoky, with the new first floor providing more space.
Life in the House would have become far more comfortable. The next major upgrade of the heating system was the installation of central heating in 1994!
The window to the right of the main front door is probably early 16th C; for its time it is far too ornate for a service room, and there is evidence that originally it consisted of 4 window-lights. It is possible that this was once the window of the open-hall, re-used when the chimneystack on the front of the house was added.
The 19th Century
The next major changes to the House were made at the beginning of the 19th C, with a modernisation and remodelling of the S or private end of the House. The second front door was added, leading on to new straight-run flight of stairs. The upstairs rooms were remodelled partly to accommodate the new stairway, and the old stairway in the N turret blocked up.
The present windows at the front of the House (except the kitchen window) date from this time; the attractively shaped downstairs windows had interior shutters and panelling, some still in place. Many of the existing interior panelled doors are also part of this remodelling.
Recently, during redecoration, it was discovered that the skirting boards of the central ground floor were made of slate, concealed under layers of paint. This was probably installed at this time and is unusual; although slate skirting boards are a feature of the 1800’s they are generally found in kitchen or service rooms.
It was later on in this century that changes were made to the layout of the ground floor, bringing an end to the cross-passage.
For most of the 19th C the Ridler family occupied the House as tenant farmers to the Aclands. Sheep and cattle were still very important, and their main crops were wheat, barley and turnips; barley became of particular importance in the later part of the century when the Porlock Vale area became famous for its top quality barley. During the 19th C developments in mechanisation, transportation and food processing were transforming agricultural life at a pace never seen before, and the Ridlers must have seen many changes.
It was during this century that Sir Thomas Dyke Acland the Xth Baronet was responsible for the creation of the woodland (including evergreen oaks) on the hillsides opposite the front of the House. This transformed a landscape previously devoid of trees (fields and open moorland), a landscape that is now very hard to imagine. His successor Sir Thomas Dyke Acland the XIth, was responsible for the restoration of the Chapel in 1885.
The 20th end 21st Centuries The extension on the N gable wall of the House was built at the beginning of the 20th century. This was a purpose built dairy; sited here and overshadowed by the House, this room remains cool in all but the hottest weather. Other remaining features typical of a dairy are slate shelving and double-paned inward opening windows. At the end of the 19th C and the beginning of the 20th many farms invested in dairy farming as a response to economic factors, in particular the slump in arable farming and the lure of new milk markets.
At some time during the early part of the 20th C the thatch was replaced with tiles. If you look at the top of the north gable wall, you can clearly see where the roof has been raised about 40cms to accommodate this new form of roofing material.
The Robbins family were the main tenants during the first half of the 20th C, and in 1944 Sir Richard Dyke Acland the XVth Baronet gave the Holnicote Estate (including West Lynch Farm) to the National Trust.
The Rawles were the last farming tenants (1953-1980), and in 1980, for the first time in its long history West Lynch Farm ceased to be a working farm. With the Steeds as tenants it became a Farmpark (now with only about 6-7 acres) and dependant on the income of paying visitors.
In 1994 Cathy and Glenn Powell took over the tenancy, developing the House for B&B and setting up Exmoor Falconry & Animal Farm. The Falconry and its activities would have been far more familiar to the original inhabitants of the House than to the vast majority of today’s visitors. When the present House was built falconry and hawking were still a very important part of medieval life, not purely as a sport but also an important means of obtaining fresh meat. The Goshawk (known as the “Cook’s Bird”) was of particular importance for providing table meat. The hunting habits of the Goshawk are similar to those of the Harris Hawks which today accompany guests on Hawking Experiences.
By the time the chimneystacks were added to the House around the start of the 17th C, hawking and falconry was on the decline, mainly due to the increasing use of guns. During the 18th C the sight of a trained bird of prey at work had become a rarity, with few active falconers remaining in the British Isles.
Today, the future of falconry is largely dependant on the appreciation of falconry as an art, and as a unique opportunity to experience a wonderful interaction with birds of prey, and with owls in particular showing their unique features of adaptation and island divergent evolution.
Between 2007 and today (after Glenn Powell leaving the farm,) Cathy met her new partner Rod Smith, and jointly they changed the emphasis of the birds of prey to Owls, and established the Exmoor Owl & Hawk Centre, along with their Exmoor Riding establishment with Barefoot Horses and Gentle Horsemanship Workshops. With greater diversification of business interests there became more opportunity for maintaining a viable business.
The majority of the farm buildings date from between 1876+1889, built by Sir Thomas Dyke Acland the XIth who had succeeded his father in 1871.
This is the building directly opposite and running parallel to the rear of the House. This building has been much altered over time, but elements of it probably date back to the 16th C. It could have been originally built as a detached kitchen for the House (at one time a common practise); inside there is some evidence of an internal stack on the rear wall. Its general appearance today is of a 19th C stockhouse, used to house the more valuable livestock.
Of particular interest are some of the windows. The 2 windows at the front, one set directly above the other, are very early. They have identical frameworks although the mullion and bars are missing from the one above. If you look at the lower window it can be seen that the frame has been packed with pieces of slate, which suggests that these windows have probably been reused from elsewhere. At the rear of the building is another very early window, this one of a very heavy chamfered construction with diagonal stops at the ends of each chamfer. These 3 windows are somewhat out of character for an outbuilding of their time, and have probably been reused, possibly from the House itself.
This is the round-pillared building in the yard by the Chapel, which joins onto the S end of House. The Linhay was built as an open-fronted animal shelter with a store for hay above. There are 7 large round stone pillars at the front, the ends of the floor beams visible at the front of these pillars. The pillars at the lower end of the Linhay have been concealed by later infilling with rubblestone to make a stable area. There are problems dating this building, but it is probably 17th C.
The Linhay and the yard attached to it would have provided a convenient way to shelter and feed livestock, the nearby threshing barn providing straw for litter. It would also have been of great importance as an efficient means of accumulating manure, vital for the fertility of the fields.
The similar round pillared frontage of the smaller linhay at the bottom of the yard is of a later date (probably late 19th C).
The Threshing Barn
Instantly recognisable by its huge pairs of opposing doors, it is difficult to date as the whole roof structure has been renewed, but it is probably 17th C or early18th C. This barn was specifically built for the process of threshing (the separation of the ears of grain from their stalks) by hand with flails, the sole means of threshing until the 19th C.
The threshing floor lay directly between the 2 pairs of doors, sheaves of unthreshed corn were stored on one side of the floor, and threshed straw for use as animal litter on the other side. Day by day during the winter sheaves were opened onto the threshing floor, beaten with the hand-flails, the straw residue lifted to one side, and the separated ears winnowed by the natural draught between the doors.
Early attempts at pest control can be seen with the owl hole at the top of the gable wall facing the House, and the cat holes in the doors. If trained birds of prey were available they were sometimes housed in barns during moulting; during this time they were generally not flown, but housed untethered in an “airy chamber” or barn and kept well fed to encourage the rapid re-growth of their plumage. The birds would have no doubt added to their diet any pests within the barn.
The right hand door of the W pair of doors has a decorative grille covering a small opening. This would have once held a large stoplock; the contents of a threshing barn were valuable and were securely kept – in medieval records the most common reason for the purchase of a lock was for a barn or granary.
The Barn has been adapted over time, first to accommodate the threshing machinery powered by the horse-engine (see later). In 1960 the huge sliding doors were inserted at the S end of the Barn to allow for the farm machinery of the time.
The modern thatch is of combed wheat reed; the underside of the thatch overhang above the E pair of doors has been finished with bundles of wheat reed with the ears still attached – an appropriate decoration for a threshing barn.
The Horse-Engine Barn
This is the thatched roundhouse attached to the west side of the threshing barn. This was built between 1876+1889 (evidence from maps) as part of major developments carried out to the farm buildings by Sir Thomas Dyke Acland the XIth Baronet.
From the early years of the 19th C threshing machines had been developed that carried out threshing, winnowing and grading in one operation. These machines were most commonly powered by horses (also by water-mill, and on the largest farms by stationary steam engines). Although threshing by hand was still common, especially on smaller farms, these developments were of great concern to farm workers as it was hand threshing that kept them employed during the winter months.
The horse-engine housed in the well-ventilated roundhouse would have consisted of a large overhead crown wheel in a horizontal position, set on a revolving vertical post. Horses were harnessed below this crown wheel and were walked round and round in a circle, thus powering the threshing machine set in the threshing barn (or other barn machinery) via a drive-shaft (or belt) and gearing system.
To build a horse-engine barn at this late stage of the 19th C is somewhat unusual. By this time developments in steam engines (in particular portable ones taken from farm to farm) had largely replaced horse powered barn machinery. It was also during this period that the acreage attached to West Lynch Farm dropped from over 50 acres to under 40, somewhat small to warrant the expense of such an installation. Perhaps the idea was that income could be gained by renting out the use of the machinery to the many other small farms in the area, which might have found the use of steam power uneconomical. At this time across the road from the Farm, at Upper West Lynch, there was a thriving corn mill and malting business owned by the Clarke family; possibly there was some link with this.
During the 20th C the internal combustion engine made both horse and steam power obsolete, and the horse-engine machinery was removed. The development of field machinery such as combine harvesters saw the barn activities of threshing and winnowing etc taken completely away from the barn, and out into the fields as part of one harvesting process.
This is the rectangular building standing alone between the yard at the back of the House and the yard containing the roundhouse. The present building is a granary (now a barn/storagae room), rebuilt between 1876+1889 on an earlier building. This rebuild was carried out using large irregular reddish sandstone blocks; locally this was a type of stone used in construction during the late 19th C. Some of the other buildings of this period, such as the animal shelters that partially enclose the roundhouse, can be identified by the presence of this stone.
Parts of the lower sections of three of the walls are of small roughly coursed stones with larger ones at the corners, the stone very different in type to that used in the rebuild. These are the remains of the walls of an earlier building on which the granary was constructed; on a 1809-1812 Holnicote Estate map a smaller building is shown on this site.
The grain was kept on the upper floor, the ground floor probably used to store farm implements. Today it is used as a staff room above, and storage below.
Written by: Teresa Pratt January 2002
Amended and updated by Cathy Powell 2019