Progress Threatens Welsh Farm Buildings

Set in stone: Timeless beauty at risk

| June 2009

Made of stone and slate, traditional Welsh agricultural buildings were built to last, and last they have, withstanding centuries of wet and windy weather.

However, it’s not the weather that is killing them off, but we humans, with our increasing desire for large, modern buildings. These stone relics are as much a part of our rural history as the tractors of yesteryear, but sadly, these beautiful buildings are often neglected or altered beyond all recognition.

The shed as a British institution

Perhaps the shed is a quintessentially British institution. Here in the U.K., just about every outbuilding we use is referred to as a shed, whether it’s the hay shed, the cow shed, the tool shed or the garden shed. Sheds, barns, outbuildings – call them what you like – are an important part of our farming history and rural landscape.

Whilst old farmhouses have often been altered to suit modern living, outbuildings are frequently found in their original state, and they can tell us far more about the history of the farm than the actual house itself. An old-fashioned Welsh hill farm will have a cow shed with ties and dividers, housing perhaps half a dozen cows at the most. Somewhere in the farmyard there will usually be a pigsty, a hay shed and a stable with room for two horses. All of these buildings will have low doorways (reflecting the small stature of both the livestock and the people of yesteryear), and they are almost always made of stone and covered with a slate roof.

In some regions, especially where slate is commonly quarried, dividers and mangers might be made of slate, but more often than not, these (like the hay racks) will be made from wood. Some of these charming, and “easy on the eye” stone farm buildings are whitewashed with limewash, and some are left as bare stone. In areas without natural stone, one might see brick farm buildings, but here in the hills our sheds are rustic, fashioned out of organic local materials, which gives them a character all their own, plus the strength to survive for hundreds of years.

An endangered species

The typical hill-farm format – cottage with outbuildings near or adjoining the house – was once a common sight. Today, however, with people wanting more spacious living accommodation, many adjoining outbuildings have been converted to form part of the house. The traditional picture-book farmyard is an endangered species, and I feel the need to photograph as many of those that remain as possible.

Not only are farm outbuildings under threat from those who want to extend their houses, or who want to convert barns into additional accommodation, they are also under threat from neglect. Sadly, they aren’t always considered very useful in this day and age. The old sheds with low ceilings and doorways don’t in any way lend themselves to mechanized farming. Farmers these days want to be able to drive machines into their sheds for feeding and cleaning purposes, and they aren’t going to pay to have a slate roof replaced on a building that’s no longer much use to them.

These days very few farmers still tie up their cows in a cow shed; most are housed loose in large, modern steel-frame barns, just as horses are no longer tied in stalls, but housed in loose boxes – so the stable and the cow shed are often redundant buildings in the farmyard. It is not uncommon to see these buildings fall into disrepair, which is such a shame when one thinks of the work and skill that went into their construction.

Lost in time

Old sheds, especially the stone sort, ooze atmosphere. There is the sense that time, preserved in a layer of dust, has stood still. Up the road from my home is an old stone cow shed that has fallen into a state of disrepair. Since people don’t tidy up sheds in the same way they do houses, it means things are often left just as they were. A pair of old rusted sheep shears sticks out of a hole in the wall, a remnant of the days when everyone sheared their sheep by hand, and there’s a tin of ointment up on a beam, the label long since gone.

It’s with mixed feelings that I tell you this building is about to be turned into a house. On one hand I feel that this is a move that will at least secure the future of the building (as the roof doesn’t have long before it falls in). On the other hand, I can’t help mourning the loss of history, the glimpse back in time that this building allows us, and the memory of a farmer who walked through the snow with forkfuls of hay to put in the mangers, and who let his cattle out to water, every morning and night.

One never knows what one might find inside an outbuilding, whereas the contents of houses are more predictable. When I bought my first house (which dated to the 1700s, and didn’t much look like it had a good tidy-up since) I spent literally weeks going through the contents of the sheds. To the skeptic it might have looked as though they were full of dusty old junk, but there were all sorts of things in there: bizarre and probably now illegal animal traps, old bottles, broken and not-so-broken tools, pieces of horse harness, old photographs of stern-looking people outside equally stern-looking chapels, several dead birds, dozens of Hessian sacks, a 1950s radiogram, and one of those awful log-effect electric fires from the 1960s.