Probably the biggest barn in Britain

28 May 2018

A while ago Commando came back from a Sunday bike ride with the fast boys raving about a giant barn he’d seen. John, fast boy, founder of the Itchen Spitfires Running Club, Parkrun ED, history buff and keeper of interesting facts told him it was the biggest barn in Britain. Commando said he’d take me to see it one day. Today was that day, although I had no idea where he was taking me at the time.

After a fairly lazy morning we set off in the car on one of Commando’s famous mystery tours. Unusually for a Bank Holiday Monday, the day was glorious, with barely a cloud in the sky, so I didn’t much care where we were going, it was just nice to be out in the sunshine even if I was in the car. Pretty soon I realised we were heading for the New Forest but that didn’t really give me any clues. The forest is huge, it covers two hundred and nineteen square miles, we could have been going anywhere. For a while I thought we might be heading for Exbury Gardens, then Bucklers Hard, both places are well worth a visit.

We kept going past signs for several other places I wouldn’t have minded visiting and drove out into the countryside. The winding forest roads with their tunnels of trees were dotted here and there with ponies, cows, occasional glimpses of green fields and one or two isolated houses. Then, suddenly, there was a sharp bend ahead and I could see the barn. It was hard to believe the fast boys had ridden so far.

Throughout our drive I’d been wishing I could take photos of the wonderful scenery we passed. Now was my chance. We parked up on a handy verge at the start of a narrow lane where a young couple were having a picnic on the grass beside their own car. Then we crossed the road and stared up at the barn. It was in ruins and another, much smaller barn had been built within its stone walls. It was, undoubtedly, the biggest barn I’ve ever seen.

This behemoth of a barn is actually in St Leonard’s, near Beaulieu, and once belonged to Beaulieu Abbey. It was built in the thirteenth or fourteenth century to store grain and possibly even animals belonging to the lay brothers who farmed the land here. This impressive structure is two hundred and ten feet long and seventy feet wide, so the brothers must have been extremely successful farmers.

The remains of the barn are thought to be the biggest in England, possibly in Britain, and it is a listed building. It was a seven bay, aisled barn but all that remains of the original building today are one and a half gable ends and one and a half walls.  Apparently, there is a model in Beaulieu Abbey showing the barn as it would have looked when it was complete.

No one is sure exactly how barns were used in the Middle Ages although some were tithe barns. Back then, farmers had to give one tenth of their produce to the church and this would have been where it was stored. Although many of the medieval barns that remain in the England today are often called tithe barns, according to English Heritage, not a single one actually survives. In fact, all the ancient barns still standing, or partly standing as in this case, were actually Farm barns, or monastic barns, used by monasteries.

We strolled slowly down the road, hoping to get a better look at the barn, but a long stone wall blocked our view. It was a rather lovely wall, probably as ancient as the barn itself, topped by a growth of valerian and wild roses and covered in fabulous lichen. Sadly the roses were not in bloom.

When the wall made a sharp left turn away from the road we followed it along an ever widening grassy verge. Here the wall was a little lower, or we were a little higher, and I did manage to get a view inside. Sadly, the barn was now a touch too distant to get a really clear view but we could see the smaller barn inside it. This was built in the sixteenth century and is also listed. The newer barn is about half the size of the original with four bays using the north wall and west gable of the old barn and stone taken from it. The roof timbers of the new barn were also pilfered from the old so, although this is a sixteenth century barn, it is mainly built of thirteenth or fourteenth century materials.

Not far from the barn we could see a large house. This, I later discovered, was St Leonard’s Grange. Like the barn, this once belonged to Beaulieu Abbey. It was one of several granges, owned by the abbey and is yet another listed building. The house was built in the seventeenth century on the site of the medieval monastic grange. The word grange is derived from the Latin granarium, meaning granary, and this grange would have been run by the lay brothers of the Cistercian monastery at Beaulieu until the dissolution of the monasteries. In the nineteenth century, the house was extensively modernised and is now a private dwelling.

Between the grange and the barn was a ruin that looked very much like a chapel, which is, in fact, exactly what it was. Like almost everything here the chapel is also listed and was built in the fourteenth century of the same stone as the barn. It is largely intact apart from the north wall, east gable and roof. Later I discovered an FGO Stuart postcard of the chapel, giving a far better idea of it than my photographs. As neither the grange or chapel are open to the public, so this is one postcard I’m not going to be able to recreate.

The verge we had been walking on turned out to be the beginning of the driveway for the grange. There were impressive gates, complete with a cattle grid, and a small pond to one side. All in all it was a house that would have provoked a severe case of house envy had Commando not pointed out how far I’d have to walk to the shops if I lived there and how much lawn there would be to mow. If I was ever fortunate enough to own such a property, I think I’d keep sheep to avoid all that mowing and maybe a cow or goat so I wouldn’t have to keep going back and forth to the shops.

So far we’d seen one side of the barn but, before we got back in the car, I thought it would be a good idea to walk around the corner and see what, if anything, we could see from the other side. As we passed the gable end, CJ suggested we might be able to get a view inside the barn through one of the many square holes we could see. In theory this was a very good idea. Putlog or putlock holes, as they are called, were used in medieval buildings either to support beams or the wooden scaffolding support poles called putlogs. In the case of scaffolding the putlogs were usually sawn off when the building was completed, or the holes filled in, but some did penetrate the entire wall, usually when scaffolding was needed on both sides. In a building like a barn, such holes may well not have been filled in or, if the putlogs had been sawn, the wood may have rotted away.

Although we were able to get right up to the wall, the putlog holes, at least the ones at a height we could easily see, did not go right through the wall. All we got for our trouble was a few nettle stings.

Around the corner we had much better luck. Here, instead of a wall, there was a fairly low hedge running along the edge of the road.  Over it we could see the whole south wall of the barn, or what remains of it. We could also see the smaller barn built inside it. While I was admiring the arched door with a slightly bowed wooden beam above, CJ was getting excited about a little Shetland pony wandering around on the grass. Despite all his clucking and calling, it didn’t come up to the hedge, which is just as well, as it was run through with sharp barbed wire and prickly brambles.

On the far side of the barn there were a conglomeration of farm buildings. All looked relatively modern and, according to the sign on the gate, were occupied by Natural England a public’s body sponsored by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. They ensure England’s natural environment is protected and improved. Sadly, this does not seem to include giving members of the public access to the barn. Then again, this might not be a bad thing, given how the public treat such places when they do have access.

We had now seen as much as we could of the barn, the grange and the chapel but none of us wanted to get back in the car straight away. Just beyond our parking spot was a narrow lane with an intriguing sign. It was called Gins Lane and the sign said it accessed the Royal Southern Yacht Club, Gins House, Gins Barn, Gins Old Farmhouse and Gins Farm Cottage.  There was a cattle grid but no private sign and no gate, so we decided to explore a little.

It was a beautiful place to walk. The gravel road was bordered by trees and narrow verges bursting with wildlife. Over ramshackle fences and hedges we got views of tree lined fields, some grass filled, some ploughed. We saw distant cottages and, in one field, a pheasant strutting around proudly. In the far distance, towards the end of the lane, were masts and low buildings. We supposed this must be the yacht club. We could also just about see one of the tall chimneys of Fawley, on the oppose side of the Beaulieu River.

Tempting as it was to keep going forward and see exactly where the lane led, we had no real idea how long it was so, when we reached a sign for Gins House, we decided to make it our turning point.

Later a little research told me what we might have found if we’d kept on going. The name Gins, may, or may not, refer to gin gangs, the semi circular farm buildings added to barns after the invention of machine threshing in 1786. These were used to house the new threshing machinery. Gins Barn and Farm are right on the Beaulieu River, where it joins the Solent and can be rented out as a self catering holiday home. Gins Farmhouse is another listed building, built in around 1700 and Gins House is, as far as I can tell, a rather swish private house. Maybe we will come back another day to explore a little further. If we do, we might have to dress up a bit because I’m not entirely sure we were really allowed to walk along that lane at all.

Commando’s mystery tours are legendary and, despite a sad lack of real walking this time, we all enjoyed our little jaunt immensely. At least we can now say we have seen the largest barn in England.

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Writer, walker, coffee drinker, chocolate eater, lover of nature, history and the little things that make me smile

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