Architecture can help you to understand the history of a place, as I discovered when exploring the timber framed houses of Herefordshire. These are so plentiful that the villages are known as the “black and white villages”, and they can be visited on the appropriately named Black and White Trail.
Black and White Trail
The official Black and White Trail is a 40 mile drive (or cycle ride, if you’re feeling energetic) through classic English countryside. It takes in some of Herefordshire’s loveliest towns and villages, which are full of old black and white houses, many of them dating back to the 16th century or earlier. The drive begins at Leominster, where we spent some time exploring the medieval alleyways and the old buildings in the town centre. Then we moved on to the villages, starting at Kingsland, where the houses were not black and white at all but orange, or pink (more about that in a minute).
The Trail passes through picture perfect villages with tearooms and craft shops, giving you plenty to enjoy even if you are not particularly interested in history or architecture. And this is cider country: you can visit a cider mill along the way or just stop to sample the local produce. Look out, too, for old apple trees, their branches weighed down with massive clumps of mistletoe.
What are Black and White Houses?
The construction of timber-framed houses goes back to the Stone Age, but by the Middle Ages builders had developed ways of making them more substantial. Different techniques evolved, such as cruck frames (massive curved timbers fashioned from a single piece of wood) and Wealden houses with their roofs supported by curved straps.
But they aren’t necessarily black and white. When these houses were first built the wooden frames would have been left unstained and the infill would have been the colour of the local soil, perhaps mixed with ox-blood to produce a brighter colour. Painting the exteriors in the black and white style only became fashionable in Victorian times, and more recently some houses have been returned to their earlier appearance.
Houses Give Clues to the Past
There is still a lot that we don’t know about these buildings and the villages they were built in. I was fascinated to read about the way in which historians are using dendochronology (tree ring analysis) to try to determine the age of the houses. But there are lots of clues if you look hard enough. For instance, the village of Pembridge has a large church and the remains of a market hall, indicating that it must once have been a much bigger and more important settlement than it is today.
Look out for details too. In Leominster the names of the alleys, like Ironmongers Lane and Cordwainers Lane, paint a picture of the industry that must have existed here in the Middle Ages. And a plaque on the Pembridge almshouses recalls a time when the poorest members of society were entirely dependent upon the patronage of the rich.
There was a lot to see on this tour but ultimately it was just a very enjoyable day out. And there was no better way to end the trip than sitting in an old village pub with a glass of the local cider.