Saving the Six Bells Barn

by John Callcut

If you parked your car in the Six Bells car park on a rainy day in early 1996 you would have seen a sorry and neglected looking barn. It had a leaky, corrugated iron roof and the rain poured through on to piles of rubbish lying on the floor. A closer look would see that the south side had completely collapsed and all the sill beams had rotted away as a result of the barn having been dragged off its brick plinth sometime in the 1960s, to enlarge the car park. Much to the chagrin of our friends we decided that this was going to become our ‘dream’ home. We were warned that the project would create many arguments and possibly divorce but we went ahead and the six months in which it took to complete the project proved to be a most interesting and rewarding period. We were determined that this poor barn was going to be restored to life.

Six Bells Barn - 1996       Six Bells Barn - rear in 1996

Six Bells Barn prior to renovation - 1996

The barn was originally built in the late sixteenth century and was a three bay threshing barn. Corn would have been piled high on a cart and driven through the high double doors at the front. The grain was then separated from the husks and straw by beating on the threshing floor and the two sets of doors to the back and front would be left open to provide a through draft for winnowing. Corn sheaves would have been stored on one side of the barn. A picture taken of the pub in the 1920s shows the barn much further back than its current position and a picture taken in the 1960s shows it further forward and another barn at right angles to it adjacent to the road. Thus the barn had been moved at least three times in the previous century. The late Charles Smith used to keep his car in the barn next to the road and he remembered it being demolished – he also remembered in the late 1920s that a tramp lived in our barn!

Six Bells c.1960 - 4 Six Bells c.1960 - 3

The owner of the pub and barn at the time was Tony Pugh and he had a dilemma. The barn was Grade Two listed, in a conservation area, and had to be kept in good order. It was going to cost thousands of pounds to put it back into some sort of repair to satisfy Surrey Heritage and having done so, what could he use it for? It was a millstone around his neck so he applied for planning permission to convert it into a private home. At this time in 1996 the Council’s preference was for barns to retain their original form and although this was clearly impracticable the plans were approved by just a single vote on the 23rd January 1996. At this time we were living in rented accommodation at Misbrooks Green so we were in an ideal situation to make an offer for the dilapidated barn and a piece of the pub car park. There was a problem in agreeing the price as the owner had an idea of what he wanted to get for the plot and we had an idea as to what we wanted to pay which resulted in a £10000 discrepancy. The funds obtained from the sale of the barn were intended to be used for building the restaurant on the back of the pub so Tony came up with a compromise which suited both parties. When the diggers were in doing the footings for the restaurant he would instruct them to dig all our footings and remove the waste without charge – thus a satisfactory agreement was reached.

With the help of Barbara Capel, on a cold, frosty February morning, we surveyed the timbers in the barn and although a number of beams were totally missing it became clear that it was completely symmetrical so it was not difficult to make a drawing.

Six Bells Barn - Timber Frame

We identified that the barn was constructed using 213 different oak beams. Both tie beams clearly came from another building and probably pre-dated the barn by several hundreds of years – one of them had rotted and had been held together by a metal brace which in turn had failed to do its job and the whole beam was supported by two pieces of timber which had been wedged in. There were originally eight jowl posts (the carpenter selected the trunk of the tree where a branch was growing and this enlarged head was used for supporting the tie beam and wall plate) and only four remained complete, three just had the top section intact and one on the south side was completely missing. All the sill beams were lying wet and rotten on the ground thus there was nothing to support the frame and the south side had totally collapsed and the rest of the frame would surely have followed in a short period of time. There are 57 timbers in the east elevation (facing the road), including the roof, out of which only 28 were completely intact. Similarly in the west elevation 28 timbers out of 66 were intact, in the north elevation 16 out of 30 were intact and in the south elevation 1 out of 30 were intact. In both cross sections all the timbers were intact. In total about 40% of the timbers were intact, 20% needed major repairs and 40% were either completely rotten or totally missing.

            North Side 1                                North Side 2 South Side 1 South Side 2

The purchase was completed on the 13th May 1996 and we formally appointed Les Fidler of Leigh as our main contractor. We had got to know him when he was building Chestnut Tree Cottage and he was very proud of his family’s history in the building trade going back several generations. He was also very enthusiastic and keen to start on the project.

We had to attend to the preliminaries such as arranging contractors insurance and public liability insurance and we had to arrange finance through the Midland Bank. One of our very first meetings was when we showed the site to the bank manager, Malcolm Browne, and Les said to him ‘very nice to meet you – you must be a man with a very vivid imagination’ !!

Work started on the 10th June 1996 on a pleasant warm day. Les Fidler and his team of Steve Chapman, Mark Newell and Darren Hooper assisted by our son, Richard who was back from University, started removing the corrugated iron roof.

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They then built a frame from scaffolding poles and covered it with tarpaulin and carefully numbered and stored each timber in this temporary store. The main tie beam, which had been wedged in place and braced, was severely bent so it was placed on two trestles in the opposite direction to the bend and left in the open. Within a week the site was cleared and a trench dug for archaeological inspection.

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We made a decision to work very carefully with the local council, the building regulation people and Surrey Heritage and as a result had our first meeting on site on the 20th June. We found that we would need a fire wall on the south elevation due to the nearness of the building to our next door neighbours. It was found that we were eight inches too close and everyone said that the barn had to be in the same place. When I showed the meeting the photographs of the barn in two different positions they instantly agreed that they could not object to the barn being moved slightly to the north. Thus by working with the officials as opposed to against them our first obstacle was overcome.

The building work for the restaurant at the pub coincided beautifully with our planning and the men came in and dug all our footings and spread the waste on the field behind. In order to create sufficient head room it was necessary to dig down by one metre, thus although from the front the barn appears to be the same height as originally built, it is actually lower and this can clearly be seen from the rear. Concrete was laid in the footings and a ‘raft’ built to form the floors which was completed by the 12th July. This had been slightly delayed because early in the month we had incessant rain and water was lying everywhere in dirty brown puddles. The trench which had been dug out for the services next to the road completely collapsed but Les and his team just calmly looked on and dealt with the problem.

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The first brick work was put in and the outline of our back patio and retaining walls could be seen. It was decided to build the garage first so that it could be used for storing equipment and brewing tea.

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A timber frame was built as a platform to support the original timbers and two oak trees, which had come down in the 1987 gale, were purchased for the price of £2500. We wanted to use local timber as the original barn was made from Newdigate oak, so it seemed right that replacement wood should come from the same source. Also the colour of new and old would eventually be the same. A complete ‘cutting list’ of all the required timbers was made and new sill beams were laid on the platform.

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On the 21st July the very first original timber was replaced – the main post of the north side. The bent and damaged tie beam was hoisted into position and a metal tension bar was inserted so cleverly that it could hardly be seen. The beam slotted perfectly into the jowl post probably for the first time in decades. Rotten pieces of timber were cut away from beams and new pieces were scarfed and pegged in prior to re-erection. Gradually all the old beams were replaced and the frame could be seen again in all its glory.

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The interior rooms were constructed from timber and an exterior, load bearing frame was built on the outside of the structure giving the building the appearance of a packing case.

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The first feather edge was put up on the exterior on the 20th August and by the beginning of September it was complete and the interior planning took place. At this stage we did not know whether the bedrooms would be upstairs or downstairs neither did we know where the stairs would be situated and we did not have provisions for a front door! It became much easier to make decisions whilst standing in the actual building rather than from looking at drawings.

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.We had a meeting with Dr Nigel Barker of Surrey Heritage with three items on the agenda. We had discovered that from the angle of the mortices in the roof collars that the barn would originally have been half-hipped, we had decided to have the stairs in the front of the barn and needed a front door, and the recommended exterior paving was originally going to be Staffordshire blues but they were very expensive and we would rather use brick. Dr Barker agreed to all these changes. We also decided to have the bedrooms downstairs and our living accommodation upstairs which meant that all the roof timbers would remain exposed.

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We ordered the handmade roof tiles from Keymer Tiles and these were all in place by the end of September. The cladding had been inserted and electrics and the under floor heating was installed and at the end of September the plaster boarding was started. When this was finished and painted and doors and railings put in, the place really looked habitable.

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Mark Newell, the carpenter, then went away and built all the window frames which were double glazed. The two front windows were deliberately sloped downwards so as not to reflect light from the sky and thus would not be noticed by a casual passer-by. We then discussed with him the designs for the kitchen, fitted cupboards etc. and we asked him to imagine that he was a carpenter in the year 1900. Using illustrations from Gertrude Jekyll’s book ‘Old West Surrey’ he produced all the furniture in that style. Choosing tiles and bathroom and kitchen fitments was great fun and gradually our home was nearly complete.

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On the 2nd December amid much excitement we moved in.

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When renovating an old building a decision has to be made as to whether to use old tiles and old timber or whether to use new materials. In conjunction with Surrey Heritage we opted for the latter course which means that in two hundred years time a researcher would be able to say ‘ah that was part of the 1996 reconstruction.’ There could be no confusion.

The project was pretty well completed to budget. The original purchase price was £60000 and the total construction costs came to just over £103,000. Les Fidler and his family later bought a marina in Earith in Huntingdonshire and moved away but we are still in contact with Steve Chapman.

The Six Bells Barn was commended by The Surrey Historic Buildings Trust and the citation read as follows:

‘The assessors were impressed by the enterprising and well researched manner in which the conversion of this sixteenth century timber framed barn had been carried out by the owners with their son and their builder. The barn appears to be the only survivor of a group of timber framed buildings relating to the adjacent Six Bells Inn. It was very severely dilapidated and would probably have been lost had it not been obtained for conversion by the present owner.

The frame was measured, analysed and its condition recorded timber by timber. It was completely dismantled and the ground below excavated to a depth of one metre to obtain head height for the two storey accommodation. Foundations and retaining walls were built and plinth walls constructed to receive the re-erected frame.

Roof and frame members were carefully repaired, retaining the maximum amount of original timber possible, and using traditional jointing techniques. In one position a damaged tie beam was saved by using a discreet steel tensioning rod.
The barn was rebuilt with a new load bearing frame and a small wing added at the rear to house a bathroom and utility room. The exterior has been lap-boarded to traditional finish, new openings being kept to a minimum, and from the front in particular great effort has gone into preserving the original barn appearance rather than presenting it as a house.
The assessors admired the enthusiasm of the owners and their close liaison with the County Conservation Officer and applauded their success in saving an important landmark in the village. It was felt that in re-building with a new load bearing frame the exterior of the building had lost something of the appearance of age which repair in situ might have retained, but it was recognised that this had been a necessity in order to achieve the accommodation required. Overall it was considered a remarkable achievement, fully deserving a commendation.’

In reality the load bearing frame was built not to achieve the required accommodation but to support the original frame which would not have had the strength to hold up floors etc. However, if the new frame was removed, in the words of the Conservation Officer ‘the old frame would still retain its integrity’. In other words it would not fall down.

Hopefully our little barn will be safe for many hundreds of years to come and I hope that future occupants have as much fun and enjoyment in living here as we have had. Certainly more than the tramp of 1920!

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