Much of Snowdonia’s famous landscape has been influenced by the generations of farmers who enclosed and managed the land, clearing trees and stones, building walls and selecting areas for arable cultivation and pasture. Some attention has been given to those of their farmhouses and cottages which have survived later modernisation. Vernacular architects have studied styles of building, but until recently there was no precise method of dating their fabric. Now tree-ring dating, or dendrochronology, can often provide the date when timber was felled for use, unseasoned, in building.
FARMHOUSES in SNOWDONIA. Until the early 15th century, most houses probably consisted of a rectangular, timber, open hall on a stone plinth, with a central hearth, small windows and thatched roof. Their size would depend on the owner’s status and wealth. During the famines and wars of the 14th and 15th centuries, many homes were abandoned or destroyed, and very few survive in Wales today. After 1485 when Henry VII became king, security and wealth improved and many farmhouses were rebuilt. Fashions changed during the 16th century and houses in Snowdonia were rebuilt in stone. Gradually the gable-end stone fireplace with chimney replaced the central hearth, thus enabling the development of first-floor chambers, often reached by a spiral stone staircase beside the fireplace. This style of “Snowdonian sub-medieval house” became the fashion in the Elizabethan period (1558 - 1603).
A typical sub-medieval Snowdonia House (P Smith, Houses of the Welsh countryside,Fig 18 *)
Gwastad Annas (Circa 1508 ) by Falcon Hildred
RESULTS. Around 60 buildings were visited and over 40 were proposed for inclusion for research and prioritised for sampling. Funding allowed 28 buildings to be sampled; felling dates were obtained for 26. The earliest was a small single-storied ‘cruck’ farmhouse of 1495 with a later gable-end fireplace. Another single-storied cruck building dating to 1508, had a central hearth prior to the insertion of a lobby-entry central fireplace a generation later. 15 buildings dated to the 16th century; 13 had gable-end fireplaces and six still contained spiral stone staircases in the gable-end wall. A church screen was dated to the early 16th century. Six buildings were dated to the 17th century, and four to the 18th and several or these dates corresponded to secondary building phases. Most of the felling dates suggested much earlier dates for their buildings than were previously thought, some being up to two centuries earlier. The results of this project may lead to a review of the Welsh Tudor buildings protected by listing.
DENDROCHRONOLOGY works by utilising the variation in width of the annual growth rings as influenced by climatic conditions common to a large area. It is these climate-induced variations in widths that allow calendar dates to be ascribed to undated timbers when compared to a firmly-dated sequence. If a tree section is complete to the bark edge then a precise date of felling can be determined. Nigel Nayling of Lampeter University Dendrochronology Laboratory undertook a small pilot study and Dr Daniel Miles of Oxford Dendrochronology Laboratory led the main project.
FINANCIAL SUPPORT This project was part funded by the European Union Objective 1 and Gwynedd Council through the Welsh Assembly Government Local Regeneration Fund, Snowdonia National Park Authority CAE Fund Awards for All Wales, the Millennium Stadium Charitable Trust, the Cambrian Archaeological Association and by the Owners of the buildings sampled.