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From grand houses to farm worker cottages, there are several historic buildings ready for the next photographer or artist exploring The Ridgeway and nearby villages and towns. One of the most picturesque surprises along the Trail is the village of Bishopstone near Swindon, where cottages crowd along footpaths that trace a meandering chalk stream.

Traditional buildings reflect the building materials available locally – chalk, flint, sarsen, timber, clay for brick and tile making and straw for thatched roofs. Often, a combination of materials is used which adds to the diversity of architectural styles and creates distinctive local character. Read on below….

Banner image: Cottages in Letcombe Regis, Oxfordshire.

Standing proud, Ashdown House near Ashbury in Oxfordshire is an unusual grand house for being constructed with chalk block and limestone (see image gallery above). Generally, chalk is too soft, porous and friable to be used as a building stone, but harder bands of chalk such as Melbourn Rock occur along The Ridgeway in the Lower and Middle Chalk. The creamy-white chalk blocks in Ashdown House were quarried from nearby Compton Beauchamp in Oxfordshire. Chalk block was also used for more ordinary homes, including several cottages in nearby Ashbury which feature brick and sarsen foundations and thatched roofs. Another good example of chalk construction is a school house built in 1617 in Uffington – now Uffington museum – upon a sarsen stone foundation (see image gallery above).

Chalk block buildings have resisted the weather for centuries because they were built with ‘good shoes and a hat’. This described how the chalk was set on stone or brick to stop rising damp and topped with a roof featuring overhanging eaves. Chalk was also ground into a powder to mix into a slurry with chalky clays, chopped straw, horsehair and other binders to make ‘cob’. It was used to make broad boundary walls and lime-washed white, as seen in Blewbury in Oxfordshire where a cob wall along a footpath has its own thatched roof!

The most common building material was flint since it was so readily available – flint bands are found in the Upper Chalk and the flint nodules weather out of the chalk so easily that fields can be seen scattered with them. Being very hard and resistant to weathering, flint is often used as a protective facing stone. Some flints were used in their natural nodular form to create lumpy walls, whilst the more expensive construction projects involved knapped flint whereby it was shaped and fixed to create a flat surface.

Materials such as limestone and brick had to be transported into the area and so they were reserved for prestigious buildings such as churches and for cornerstones and framing to add strength and decoration. Churches often combine limestone cornerstones and window frames with flint walls. Brick became more readily available by the 16th and 17th centuries and so, in some places including Monks Risborough (see image gallery above), brick was used to replace the earlier wattle-and-daub infills of timber-framed buildings. Modifications and extensions to existing flint or chalk built houses were also often in brick. By the 18th century, brick was becoming the dominant material and glazed bricks added decoration.

One of the most unusual and distinctive materials used in the area is sarsen. Sarsen stones are difficult to cut and shape and so sometimes they are used in their natural state. Roughly broken sarsen stones can be fitted together and also used in combination with other materials such as brick, flint, chalk or limestone. However, a sarsen cutting industry was thriving in the mid-nineteenth century and this made regular blocks available for walls, corner stones, lintels and paving.

Recognising value in retaining or reinforcing the area’s local character, modern construction projects often seek to replicate traditional styles along The Ridgeway. Sometimes local quarries are re-opened, especially in the restoration of listed buildings including Ashdown House in 2005.

What materials can you spot in buildings along The Ridgeway?

Notes: More information about chalk, flint, sarsen stones, pubs, churches and industrial heritage such as quarrying along The Ridgeway is available in other Top 50 entries (not all Top 50 entries will be available until end of December 2023).

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