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Wooden performance

technical & practice - Timber construction is experiencing another revival, but its popularity goes back a long way - just ask the Anglo-Saxons

Timber is the most elemental building material for all kinds of historic structures. Without timber scaffolding poles (and without trusses during the period between the two great ages of impermeable concrete vaulting in the late Roman Empire and the turn of the 20th century), a large masonry building could not be raised or covered. Timber is so self-sufficient that it is the only structural material needed for a pegged frame, clad by weatherboarding or wattle-and-daub panels and roofed with shingles.

England's native woodlands provided oak (the 'Sussex weed'), which was the most common timber for structural members and shingles - alder, often used for scaffolding posts;

elm, whose erratic grain can be seen in broad ancient floorboards; and hazel, which was often used for roof battens. And so timber became the most widespread of vernacular materials, not only in the areas of poor stone throughout much of south and east England, but in Newcastle, the Welsh borders and in Devon and Somerset - it can be found in the back streets of even the staunchest stone-built towns like Burford and Stamford.

Such was the rejection of masonry construction in England after the end of the Roman Empire that by the eighth century, the rare examples of stone buildings were referred to by Bede as 'Roman work', while the Anglo-Saxon verb 'to build' was 'timbran' - literally 'to timber'. No Anglo-Saxon timber houses survive, though many examples of preserved timber posts have come to light in archaeological excavations, famously the Viking dwellings at Coppergate in York, and lately in similar remains deep beneath the City of London.

It was believed that just one timber church at Greensted-juxta-Ongar in Essex survived from pre-1066, but its fat log walls were recently subjected to dendrochronology (dating through the study of wood growth rings) and were found to belong to circa 1080. This is an academic distinction, as many AngloSaxon building techniques continued in use well after the Norman invasion, and its chunky palisades still offer us a working model for early timber halls and large houses as well as churches.

Anglo-Saxon church towers were frequently built of timber, and a group of contemporary stone examples from Northamptonshire to the Humber are usually thought to have fossilised the familiar decorative effect of tall timber frames. Essex and Herefordshire retain some medieval timber belfries that perpetuate the tradition.

Today, the importance of timber as a structural material in historic buildings is most visible in the development of medieval facades and open roofs. Facade treatments vary across the country: the Welsh borders host many houses built of A-shaped cruckframes, while some feature expressive patterns of curved timber bracing superficially elaborated in the early 17th century (such as The Feathers Hotel in Ludlow). Others, particularly in East Anglia, were customarily built with close-studding. However, the exteriors of most East Anglian timber structures were originally lath and plastered and colour-washed, which obscured the material's capacity for structural expression; their familiar vertical stripes often represent a spate of ill-advised restorations over a century ago, which sought to expose structural members to meet the Victorian predisposition for stereotypical West Country 'black and white'. (Look for the nail holes of disappeared laths set in vertical rows on the studwork. ) In Devon and Somerset timber buildings were often hung with slate, as was Henry VIII's Nonsuch Palace in Surrey of 1538, though its slates were an essay in gilded Francophilia.

Whatever cladding is used, one feature of timber framing, the jetty, remains much harder to disguise.

This happy opportunity of increasing the floor area of a framed building by increments has never been explained satisfactorily in purely structural terms.

York's Shambles is the most famous survivor of once-common medieval streetscapes with almost-touching upper storeys. Here the proximity of flammable material brings to mind the dichotomy that, although timber seems vulnerable to the odd inferno, it has been known to perform better than steel because its thick char-zone protects the fibrous heartwood. Nevertheless, it does burn, and Shrewsbury's Grope Lane offers a still better example of the means by which towns such as London, Northampton, Warwick and Blandford Forum all went up in flames, and the reason why brick and stone predominated in their rebuildings. The royal palace of Sheen (later Richmond) was burned down at Christmas 1497 thanks to a timber hearth bresummer. Amazingly, East Anglia frequently opted for entire plastered timber chimneys, although, admittedly, there aren't many left.

Elaborately trussed roofs are an English speciality, and none is finer than Hugh Herland's hammer-beam roof of 1394-1400 at Westminster Hall. It is not the earliest hammer beam to survive (that is Pilgrim's Hall in Winchester), but its size and technical virtuosity is unmatched, and it influenced two centuries of great roofs. Medieval halls everywhere were showcases of fine timberwork, but few roofs retain their original louvres that ventilated smoke from central hearths.

One rare exception can be found at one of the country's hidden medieval wonders: Gainsborough Old Hall in Lincolnshire.

Wood panel was the most common support for medieval paintings, and, in a less chromatically challenged age than our own, most architectural woodwork was painted, including roofs. The roof timbers and angels at the beautifully aged Blythburgh Church in Suffolk retain much of their 15th-century polychromy above Protestant whitewashed walls; whereas the lavish gold, blue and red of Hampton Court's great hall roof, painted in 1535, was scraped away 300 years later to reveal the 'honest' woodwork below.

For all the above reasons, master carpenters long enjoyed a status equivalent to master masons, and in Henry VIII's reign James Nedeham was the first to become the king's surveyor. But within a few decades, the role of the architect was redefined along the lines of the Italian theorist Alberti, who recommended that 'I would have you compare [no carpenters] to the greatest exponents of other disciplines: the carpenter is but an instrument in the hands of the architect'. The rise of the architectural profession coincides with the demise of timber framing in England, as masonry was more suited to the Classical repertoire that informed architects for over 300 years, while for trusses and fitting out, Baltic deal replaced native timbers, which were apparently depleted.

But timber is now experiencing a timely revival. As Scandinavia and North America have long recognised, the renewability, simplicity, mutability and lightness of kits are the basic future of timber construction.

Jonathan Foyle is an architectural archaeologist and TV presenter

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