The beauty of function

Image of Harry Eyres

The poet Philip Larkin refers somewhere to a church, disparagingly or half-disparagingly, as “an accoutred frowsty barn”, which you could translate as a tarted-up musty grain silo. Who would go out of their way to see one of those? A Canadian friend of my Barcelona years talked about Spanish cathedrals, which he steadfastly refused to visit, in similar uncomplimentary terms. The implication, when you tease it out, is two-fold: (a) a church is no more (or less) than a barn, with added unnecessary trimmings, and (b) a barn is not worth visiting.

I don’t know whether Larkin ever visited Harmondsworth Great Barn, in a village squeezed precariously between Heathrow airport and the M4 and M25 motorways. This majestic building, recently acquired by English Heritage as part of the national collection of historic sites and monuments, might just possibly have changed his mind.

Surely that other English poet, friend of Larkin and passionate heritage conservationist, John Betjeman, was going too far when he called Harmondsworth Great Barn “the Cathedral of Middlesex”? Well, no: the immense barn is not just reminiscent of a cathedral, with its tall “nave”, its aisles, its great oak piers and gracefully curved braces, but it is a comparably awe-inspiring architectural achievement. The sheer size, only truly appreciated from the inside, takes your breath away: it is nearly 200ft long, 40ft wide and 37ft high. That makes it the second-biggest medieval barn surviving, and the ninth-largest ever constructed in England.

I was inspecting the building on one of those bitterly cold grey English spring mornings that can cut everything down to size or make you want to retreat to the nearest pub and nurse a pint. But then Edward Impey, head of heritage protection and planning at English Heritage, pointed out the horizontality of the course of ferricrete on which the barn rises; it hardly seems to have shifted a centimetre in its 600 years. The enthusiastic Impey was only exaggerating slightly when he said, “these medieval masons and carpenters didn’t just build for a century or two, they built for ever”.

Mind you, the Great Barn was erected – between 1425 and 1427 – by a rather special set of masons and carpenters. It formed part of the endowment of Winchester College, founded by William of Wykeham between 1379 and 1382. Although the former Bishop of Winchester and Lord Chancellor of England had been dead for 20 years when the barn was constructed, we can assume that his exceptional care over building standards was still in force. An astonishing 95 per cent of the medieval fabric of the barn is estimated to be intact.

In the traditional hierarchy of aesthetic values a barn comes low on the scale. But traditional aesthetic values were turned on their head, along with so much else, in the tumultuous first decades of the 20th century. That was the time of the Bauhaus, which preached functionality in building, the removal of unnecessary ornament. What could be more beautiful than a building which perfectly achieves its human, non-transcendent function in the world, whether that is providing dwelling or storing grain?

In that sense, a barn could be better – for a world suspicious of transcendence – than a cathedral. Certainly a barn has advantages as an educational resource: it can teach you more about medieval capitalism than a cathedral can. We talk about globalisation as something recent and entertain a sort of Whole Foods Market view of life in the Middle Ages as predominantly local and organic. But the story of the barn, as Impey pointed out, gives an insight into medieval monasticism and capitalism as big, national or international machines.

For centuries before its acquisition by Winchester College the great barn belonged to a priory in Rouen, an arrangement which broke down when Anglo-French relations deteriorated: there’s international monasticism for you. As for the nationwide mechanics of capitalism, the timber for the barn came from Winchester estates in Isleworth (the college possessed property scattered over southern England). Moreover, while medieval cathedrals and castles were built with revenue, the barn shows the process by which revenue was extracted: it is a kind of medieval factory.

For centuries the barn survived for two quite simple reasons: it was built with immense sturdiness and strength, and it was used for storing wheat before threshing until the early 1970s. Its survival since then has been more problematic and reached a low point in the 2000s, when it was acquired by an offshore company more interested in land values than heritage conservation.

But a concerned local MP – John McDonnell – and that essential element in preserving threatened entities, an active friends’ group, raised the alarm, with the happy outcome announced in January. There are plans for carol services, amateur dramatics, Morris dancing and medieval fairs; the barn, after decades of desuetude, will live again, and become the secular cathedral its magnificent architecture fits it to be.

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