Saturday, October 23, 2021

Fires, Hearths & Cooking

The earliest signs of fires in Wychbold were found at the Iron Age site in Stoke Lane, now buried under Centurion Way. Here sites of burning and pot boiler stones were associated with the cooking areas or hearths placed in the centre of the round houses. The fire was vented through a hole in the centre of the thatched roofs. The pot boiler stones were used in cooking by first being heated in the fire before being transferred to the cooking pots where they would heat up the food.

A sophisticated under-floor heating system was discovered at the Bays Meadow Roman villa site. Archaeological excavation revealed an under-floor hypocaust system typical of high status buildings. A stoke hole/fire was accessed from outside the building and the heated air circulated under the floor and through vents up the walls. The cooking or kitchen area was outside the villa.

At the nearby Avoncroft Museum of Historic Buildings a collection of timber-framed buildings may be viewed. Hearths can be seen here which were used both for heating and cooking. In the Merchants House the earliest form displayed is a fire on a central hearth with a cooking frame/spit over. The smoke would have risen to the roof and escaped through the thatch – keeping vermin and bugs at bay. However the room below would have quickly become smoke filled and a vent was constructed in the roof ridge. What is believed to be the remnant of a vent or smoke baffle has been found during our historic building research in Dodderhill.

The earliest fires caused layers of soot to build up on the roof timbers. Sometimes known as smoke blackening, this is a relic of the past and an important historical feature. Ideally this blackening should be left in situ as the cleaning of such features without proper historical recording destroys much vital evidence.

Smoke blackened roof timbers

Smoke blackened roof timbers.

Over time the use of central hearths changed and chimneys were constructed – firstly within the building where the brick or stone became a weight bearing feature supporting the roof timbers. These old chimneys may appear to be leaning or bent. Indeed they are, for as the chimney heated up, the mortar between the bricks would dry out causing a distinctive curve of the chimney towards the ridge of the roof. The chimneys were often decorated to make a visual display of the wealth of the owner.

© Richard Harris - development of chimneys

Keeping fires was costly. Some properties had no internal fire. Others contained one hearth whilst the more affluent families built homes with many fires. As always the government needed to raise taxes and during the 17th century a Hearth Tax was introduced to raise much needed income. One property in Dodderhill was listed with 12 hearths in 1662 indicating that Sir Thomas Nash, gentleman, enjoyed great wealth.

The hearths provided both heat and cooking facilities. Again we are able to find signs of these historic features in Dodderhill. Within the inglenook fireplace bread-ovens may be found. These brick built upturned domes were first heated by fire, which was removed, and loaves were then placed inside the cavity to be baked in the residual heat. Various kitchen tools have been found including the spit for turning the meat whilst cooking, and even an old kitchen range.

As the smoke rose to the chimney it was sometimes diverted into a smoke bay. This enclosed space trapped the smoke which was used to preserve meat. A number of inventories of local landowners list flitches of bacon (sides or legs of pork which had been hung in a smoke bay). During our building research we located one of these ancient smoke bays.

smoke bay

For more information about the Hearth Tax, click here

Dodderhill chimney 1
Dodderhill chimney 2
Dodderhill chimney 3
Dodderhill chimney 4
National Lottery - Heritage Lottery Fund© Dodderhill Parish Survey Project 2007 | Site Design & Build: Red Box Consultants Ltd.