COVER STORY: EXCLUSIVE
It is one of our finest medieval treasures, an extraordinary survival in almost complete and original condition. Until now. Bought as an investment by an offshore trust, Harmondsworth Barn has started to decay. Pressure from English Heritage has failed to compel the owner to act. Yet this magnificent structure could have been brought into public ownership – for £1. Now, as Heathrow Airport expansion plans add to its woes, the building has never been more vulnerable. By Robin Stummer
Who will save the ‘Cathedral of Middlesex’?
HARMONDSWORTH Barn, perhaps the greatest of the surviving great medieval tithe barns and one of the most complete and original pre-Reformation buildings in Britain, is deteriorating and facing an airport expansion threat that could leave it marooned amid Tarmac and unusable.
The barn’s owner is a Gibraltarregistered trust. It bought the building for a reported £1 in 2006 from a firm which had gone into receivership. The trust has allegedly failed to respond to English Heritage requests that it maintain the barn. The owner has allegedly also not responded positively to EH’s offers of advice and help with potential sources of funding for repairs. In 2003 the barn is believed to have been offered to both EH and the local borough council for £1, an offer which both bodies declined.
The huge barn – an extraordinary aisled structure some 192ft long with 12 bays which stands close to the northern edge of Heathrow Airport – was dubbed “The Cathedral of Middlesex” by Sir John Betjeman. Dating back to the 1420s, the barn was owned by Winchester College for several centuries until the early 1800s. It retains timber framing that is believed to be 95 per cent original.
Yet Harmondsworth Barn is now showing clear signs of deterioration. On a recent visit by Cornerstone, more than a dozen gaps in the tiled roof were seen, some large. The site appeared to lack fire-fighting equipment or alarms, and could be easily accessed. Plants have taken root in the stone-and-brick plinth, and have begun to damage the medieval blocks upon which the barn stands.
Despite being one of Britain’s most precious historic buildings, Harmondsworth Barn is caught in a statutory protection conundrum. It is Grade I listed, but is also a Scheduled Ancient Monument (SAM). Under present historic building law, had the barn not also been designated an SAM, the local council, the London Borough of Hillingdon, could have served the owners with an Urgent Works Notice. Failure to comply with the notice could have led to the council itself authorising repairs, and seeking to recover costs from the owner. However, when a building has both Grade I and SAM status, the SAM designation takes precedence. There are no enforcement powers available for SAMs. Their protection resides with English Heritage, which in turn must seek the consent of government – the Department for Culture, Media and Sport – to proceed with an enforcement order and repair work. This can be a lengthy process. The barn’s SAM status means it is not a matter about which the SPAB is notified.
Harmondsworth Barn is also facing a development threat that could render the building unusable,even if saved. Plans for the drastic expansion of Heathrow Airport,recently approved by the Government, would leave the barn and the adjacent 11th century church of St Mary the Virgin surrounded on three sides by new runways and roads.
Overflights to and from the extended airport, with jets passing only a few dozen feet above the buildings every minute, would make use of both the barn and the church near impossible.
In a statement to Cornerstone, EH voiced concern for the future of the barn. “The absentee owner of the barn has declined to engage with English Heritage (and the local authority) for some years despite our offers of help, support, advice and grants,” said a spokeswoman. “It should be noted that the Heathrow expansion area would surround the site of the barn on three sides but would not, according to plans we have seen, propose its demolition or removal. However, this still leaves questionmarks over the barn’s future and in particular, the issues of viability and setting.”
It is understood that a potential buyer has expressed interest in taking on the barn. However, it is far from clear whether the present owner would be willing to sell at all, or at least for anything less than a substantial profit on the £1 paid for it not long since.
The vulnerability of ancient barns was brought into focus in 2004 and 2005, with a series of fires at another magnificent medieval tithe barn, Frindsbury Barn, near Rochester, Kent. With financial help from the SPAB, the Grade I building, which dates from around 1403 and is the longest medieval timber-framed structure in Britain, was made secure prior to repair and refurbishment. Four of its 13 bays were destroyed in the fires.
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