A New House
Elizabeth was enjoying her daily walk about the grounds of Rosings. The only mar on the constitutional would be if she were to be interrupted by Mr. Darcy. He had appeared three times in the past four days, and Elizabeth was unable to account for this new annoying habit of his.
"Speak of the devil," Elizabeth murmured to herself as Darcy appeared in the path not far from her.
"Miss Bennet, I hope you are well this morning?" Darcy asked as he stepped besides her.
"Indeed, Mr. Darcy, I had been enjoying my walk," Elizabeth countered.
Darcy was silent a moment, then continued on, "How do you like Rosings Park?"
"The house or the grounds?" Elizabeth asked, determined that conversation would be Darcy's task on this outing.
"Either...or...which ever you prefer," Darcy replied.
"I can say that I found the house to be everything Mr. Collins described," Elizabeth supplied. "I have dutifully admired every window pane, fireplace and staircase in the dwelling."
Darcy grimaced. "I can assure that the house is much more than the additions made by Sir Lewis or Lady Catherine. When I was younger, I was greatly interested in the architecture of the place. Would you care to know some of the history of the house?" he asked.
"Do tell, Mr. Darcy," Elizabeth said, prepared to bored, but it saved it her the neccessity of making conversation.
"Imagine," Darcy began, "we have gone back to the closing years of the fourteenth century, and to a tiny corner of the County of Kent. See the high chalk hills curving gracefully down to the clay vale, and the wide, shallow river? At the top of that hill is a road, an ancient way that once marched Roman soldiers from Londinium to Dubris, and now carries woolpacks - to London, to the Cinq Ports, on the way to the weavers of Flanders. For wool production is a major economic activity in England, and the some of the best comes from here.
Although villages in the North and the Midlands still groan under the yoke of feudalism, most of the inhabitants of our little valley are free men. The Black Death of 1342, and later plagues, killed so many serfs, villeins, Lords and Ladies in this corner that the whole feudal system crumbled, and two generations later, the land is full of prosperous, independent sheep farmers and tradesmen. The Lord of the Manor, one Henry Delahunty, widower and childless, is a farmer, too. He is still a force to be reckoned with - the main upholder of law and order, and one of the few who can read and write and reckon. He is standing over there, talking quietly to the well-built, balding farmer who is the hero of our story. His name is Thomas Rowe. Thomas is about to make village history.
He comes from a long line of farmers who have prospered steadily from sheep, and has, over the last few years, invested some of his wealth in a monument to his prosperity. He has just built a house for himself and his heirs. This house began several years ago, when he purchased some land from his friend Delahunty. It includes some acres of chalk downland, perfect for sheep grazing, but too dry for crops. There's also a parcel of clay land, ideal for growing vegetables, and keeping fowl and a pig. There's a water-meadow, too, flooded in the winter, protecting the tiny tender blades of spring grass that are so good for making hay. The meadow reaches right down to the river, of course, just where the lane crosses it at its shallowest point, and meanders into the village and up to join the Great Road.
Eighteen months earlier, Thomas sat down with the master-builder, on a tree-stump in this field, and waxed eloquent on the subject of houses. His mind, full of dreams, was formulating designs that included every modern convenience a house could have. The builder listened, nodding from time to time, shaking his head occasionally, and once or twice asking a question with a puzzled look on his face. He agreed to some suggestions, vetoed others, and scratched his head more than once. In his turn he spoke at length to Thomas, of the sizes of rooms, the possible length and cost of trees, the uselessness of chalk as a foundation for a modern house. He spoke of the ease of the older style, where the smoke curled up from a central hearth to a hole in the roof, and Thomas countered with the advantages of chimneys - yes, chalk rock could be used for that. The builder drew a house-plan in the dirt as they talked. If we could have seen it, it would have looked like three little squares joined together in a line, representing the three rooms. Dimensions would depend on the size of the trees to be used. The central square would have one door for the front of the house, and another directly opposite at the back. This was so that animals could be moved from one side of the house to the other, or penned in in bad weather, without making any derangement of the parlour, at one end, and without invading the pantry at the other, which was used for food storage. The wall which divided the central "Hall" from the parlour was to have a fireplace, open to both rooms, and a stone chimney that wandered up past the upper bedroom to the roof. There would be another room above the pantry, but the hall itself would be open to the roof, as tradition indicated. Tom was delighted with the results of the discussion, and agreed a provisional price with the builder.
The Master Builder had cut down several oak trees and a chestnut, and had had them dragged to the site. They then lay there for about a year, to season. Then his workmen set to with adze and axe, then two-handed saw in a pit, cutting timbers skillfully to make the best use of the natural curves and branches. They fabricated the four pentagonal "bays" that were to be the load-bearing walls and roof of the house, and erected them with pulleys and ropes, locking them solid with cross-beams and purlins, with principal and secondary rafters, with arches and tension-braces, all carefully mortised and tenoned and fixed with wooden pegs, not iron nails. Then the skeleton stood alone, to be admired by all the village. The two end rooms had upper floors, the boards jutting out over the walls front and back. The upper walls, counterbalanced the floorboards which might otherwise sag under the weight of furniture. The jutties also made these rooms a little bigger than the ones on the ground floor.
Then the main walls were filled in with stout chestnut "studs" or stakes, the window holes and door sills placed and fixed. The wood was for strength, but the builder knew how to make them decorative, too. At great expense, Thomas commissioned a lintel stone with the initials of himself and his wife, and the date, which was place above the front door. If you walked through that door, you could have seen the great wooden beam that held up the chimney stones, stretching from the front of the house to the back , making the hearth five feet high and wide enough to hold two settles, cooking pots and a huge iron potholder. Hooks and spikes were hammered in over the hearth for the curing of meat in the smoke. At this point a steep staircase was built against the chimney leading up to the main bedroom above the parlour, and a step-ladder made to connect the pantry with the room above. Any gaps in the walls were filled in with wattle and daub. The wattle, woven from stout ash poles from the coppice up on the hill, and springy, flexible hazel wands from the same source, was also used to divide the pantry, and to fix partial walls in that bedroom above the parlour. That room, with the most modern of conveniences, demands particular attention on our part.
The back wall juts out about two feet, more than any other wall. The extra room, partitioned by the wattle screen, has no floor. Instead, a solid wooden bench, in which a round hole about a foot wide has been carved, is suspended in the air, and looking through the hole, you may see down to the ground. Thomas and his wife will have no need to walk to the river in a winter's night. Notice too, that the windows are not glazed, but covered with flaps of translucent vellum, that can be rolled up if required. There are shutters on the outside, another modern convenience.
The wattle, of course cannot now be seen because it has been covered with "daub." This is a mixture of lime (from Chalk), manure and boiling water which has been stirred to a thick paste, and then thrown by the handful onto the wall. After it has been smoothed with a piece of wood, it dries to a kind of plaster. It does not need a master- builder to make and apply daub, and all Thomas's family have taken their turn at it. Perhaps it is lucky that the stream is so close. Certainly, most of the inner surfaces of the house are now covered by a coat of this mixture, then coated with white-wash. Over the fireplace, a few small flintstones from the chalk have been embedded to shape the letter "R."
The daub has to be protected from the elements, and whilst the Rowe family were daubing, the thatcher was completing the roof. Thomas has ordered the best oat straw, three feet long, and lasting up to thirty years. Wheat straw only lasts twenty, heather thatch less than two. The roof has a steep pitch, to encourage run-off, and the ends are not gabled, but hipped, sloping at a similar angle from the roof-line, down to , and over, the end walls.
Sometime during the building process, the priest has come to bless the house, and once the wise-woman came, to bury a cat she had killed under the door-step to ward off the fairies who might otherwise cause mischief. Thomas wants to have the bedroom walls painted in diamonds and flowers, but that can wait until after they have moved in. Only one thing remains to be done to the house, and for this, Thomas has recruited the whole village. He has called them to his house today, plied them with cakes and ale, and they are now ready to do the final work. They carry no tools, no stones or wood, yet they are ready. To finish the floor of the house.
Watch now, as the crowd assembles at the front door. Thomas and Henry face each other on the doorstep, as the traditional exchange begins. Delahunty, with only a slight tremor in his voice, cries, "Thomas Rowe, by what name is this house to be known?" Thomas takes a deep breath, sensing that his friend is a little nervous. This is a serious matter, and one to which he has given some considerable thought. He has a free choice, of course. The house might be named after the Long Bourne, the clear stream that springs from the base of the chalk and trickles past the house, ensuring a constant supply of water. Or he might call it Nether Field, since it is built on his lowland acreage. He could pick something like Rowe Hall, to glorify his own name. But the truth is that this site already has a name, has had the same one for as long as anyone can remember. It refers to the river shallows, and is the name of his best friend. To change the name might be considered disrespectful and inconsiderate. He replies, in a ringing voice, "It shall be known as Hunt's Ford House!"
With a roar of approval, the crowd surges inside. Henry hands Thomas a flitch, a side of pork that has been pickling in brine for two weeks, and together they ram it on one of the spikes above the hearth. The fiddlers strike up, the pipers give an experimental whistle, and the jovial mob form lines and stamp their feet. For what better way is there to smoothe and harden an earth floor than by dancing on it? The dancers, young and old, are full of ale and new cider, and their enthusiasm is obvious. It takes one afternoon to build an earth floor in this way.
The shadows have lengthened , and the two men step outside into the last rays of golden light. Thomas looks with satisfaction on his new domain, and his gaze travels over the ford to the village and the older home of his friend. Henry follows his gaze, and a sense of a small wrong righted, an equilibrium regained, swells in his breast. For while Thomas has chosen to uphold the honour of his friend's name in his new house, Henry's family have been living under Thomas's name for generations. Almost nine hundred years before, it was Thomas's Saxon forbears who called this site "Rheosingas" - meaning "the place of Rheos's people". Yet the Domesday book records the manor of Rhosinges as being in the ownership of one Guillaume de la Hunte, a Norman knight. And it was a Hunty, not a Rowe, that signed the Magna Carta. The village, like the manor itself, is still the place of Rheos's people, but also the place of Delahunty's. Of course, Saxon English and Norman French have now melded and evolved, and when either man speaks the name of his village it does not sound quite the same as in Saxon times. If we could hear them speak it, it would sound very familiar to you and I. It would remind you of something far greater than either of these men. If you heard them speak it, it would sound suspiciously like - 'Rosings'."
Darcy stopped. "Forgive me, Miss Bennet, I have run on. You have know doubt been bored to tears."
"No, indeed, Mr. Darcy," Elizabeth said, in some amazement. She had fully expected to bored, and to find that she was not disturbed her. "It was a very interesting history, and I am glad to have had the opportunity to hear it."
Noticing that she was not far from Hunsford cottage, she said with unexpected reluctance, "Good day, Mr. Darcy, and thank you, again, for the conversation." She turned into the cottage with the disturbing notion that Darcy could be a pleasant companion when he wished to be.
She paused at the door of Hunsford cottage, glancing back she could Darcy staring after her with great intent. Shaking her head slightly, she entered the cottage.
© 1997 Copyright held by the author.