Tithe Barns: Britain's hidden gems

Show notes (summary)

In 2014, Joseph Rogers stumbled across a special kind of medieval building that awakened an enduring passion and literally changed his life. Now an author of several books, Joe’s research into ‘Tithe Barns’ has revealed all kinds of modern day uses for these fascinating structures, including village and community halls. Could you help Joe find more of these hidden gems?

Transcript: Season 1 / Episode 12

Johnny Thomson 00:00
Hello and welcome to The Village Halls Podcast sponsored by Allied Westminster, the UK’s largest specialist provider of village hall insurance and the home of VillageGuard. Every now and then at The Village Halls Podcast, we like to delve into some of the history and background of Britain’s wonderful village, church and community halls. And for today’s episode, I’m joined by author, wandering nomad and all round interesting guy, Joseph Rogers, who is going to tell us about a particular kind of building, which in more recent times, and by that I mean, over the last century or so, has quite often being adapted and transformed into a village hall. It may even be the case that your community building was once one of these. So first of all, hi Joe, thanks for joining me today.

Joseph Rogers 00:48
Yeah, hi Johnny. Thanks. Nice to be here.

Johnny Thomson 00:50
Brilliant. Okay, so let’s not be any more mysterious here. We’re talking about something called tithe barns. Now, explain to me Joe, how you first came across a tithe barn and also kind of what you were doing with your life at the time?

Joseph Rogers 01:05
Yeah. So I mean, it’s quite quite a nice story, really, in a way although at the time, it wasn’t so nice. I was between jobs and kind of wandering around the UK. At the time, I didn’t know how to drive. So I was spending a lot of time using bus services and trains and my own two feet and kind of exploring what the UK landscape had to offer really, just to try and refresh my mind and try and figure out where exactly I was going next. So this was back in 2014. And I was based in Devon at the time, actually, where I’m based now in Seaton, and I’ve made my way up to Somerset up to Wells and Glastonbury, had a tent on my back and I’d spent some time camping in the county and it was a really hot summer’s day. In fact, about this time of year sort of June, July, summer time. And I walked from wells to Glastonbury and on the way I wanted to stop by the village of Pilton. Now a lot of people will know the village of Pilton because it’s the village where the Glastonbury Festival takes place. It’s where Worthy Farm is, where the Eavis family live at Worthy Farm and so I wanted to go and have a look because I’ve always been a big fan of the festival on TV and very much a big music fan. So, enjoyed all the coverage that you see on the on the television. And when I got to the village, I saw all these signs saying tithe barn, and I’m a keen history person. I like my history. And I like to go and see churches and cathedrals and castles and those kinds of things. And I’d never heard of a tithe barn. So I thought that’s interesting, I wonder what that is. So wander through the village and got to this incredible building, which is, it’s described as Pilton Tithe Barn, and we’ll get onto what it actually is at some point, I’m sure but it’s, it’s referred to as Pilton Tithe Barn. And I was totally blown away by this building. It is monumental. And if you read any sort of 18th or 19th century guide book or a Victorian guidebook to, you know, the UK, a lot of people describe these tithe barns as cathedral like and that’s exactly the feeling I got when I saw this barn at Pilton. It’s huge, and it was open to the public, the door was unlocked and there was a sign saying, you know, if you’d like to come in the barn, you’re welcome to step in. And again, I was just totally taken in by this building. It was cool. It was vast. It was just incredible to view inside, because it wasn’t like a barn you know, you expect a barn to be kind of iron clad modern building that’s got tractors and combine harvesters in and this was this phenomenal, medieval structure, you know, totally, totally not we’d expect a barn to be and yeah, I was totally, totally taken in by it. So, after that week of kind of ambling around and being a bit of a nomad, as you described at the start of the show, I went back home and I did a bit of googling and I did a bit of, you know, research and looking at books and maps and that kind of thing. And found out what these tithe bars really were or what what these medieval barns really were. And, yeah, that’s kind of where it went from there really, but this this particular barn in Pilton had an amazing story. I mean, it was not only a medieval building from the 14th century, built by Glastonbury Abbey, but post dissolution of the monasteries and sort of more recent history it had been used in the Second World War and it was struck by lightning in the 1960s. It burnt down and Michael Eavis had to run in and save his tractor because he was, you know, a villager in the village back then. And then in sort of more recent times in the 1990s, the Glastonbury Festival actually helped fund the restoration of this barn, which was basically totally ruined. All the wood had burned and the thatch had gone and all that kind of thing. And obviously, the current state, and certainly the state it was in in 2014, was of this highly restored local Somerset monument. So, that whole story of that barn was really interesting for me, and I learned an awful lot and I thought, I wonder if there are any more of these buildings in the UK that I could go and see and I wonder if they all have such an encapsulating and amazing story behind them both historically and in the present day. And so I went off and a few years later, I was travelling around the country trying to find where these buildings were.

Johnny Thomson 05:10
And I guess it’s fair to say that that tithe barn kind of changed your life a bit didn’t it Joe, because around about that time that’s kind of what kicked off where you are now, which is a fully fledged author who’s written about well, quite a lot of things, including tithe barns as well?

Joseph Rogers 05:25
Yeah, absolutely. I mean, it was actually some time later that I was then in a position where I could actually sort of propose the tithe barns subject as something to write about. As you say, I’d written other things up until that point, but I cast my mind back to 2014 and just how amazed I was by this building. And also amazed by, you know, when I when I sort of sat down and really got into it and tried to find out as much as I could about other medieval barns and other tithe barns in the country, how little had been done to try and generalise the subject for a kind of general audience. A lot of the research that have been done on these buildings was very localised. It was either about specific Abbey’s or monasteries in certain areas, and therefore, talking about the ownership of some of these barns, that and why those establishments and religious establishments built these barns. Or they were about a local area. So they we’re talking about medieval barns in Somerset, or in Devon, or in Gloucestershire, and no one had really, certainly not recently had kind of made a general overview of what these barns were and where they were across the whole of the UK. So yeah, I mean, it did it did, you know, set me on a course really to start this project? And I’m very grateful that I was able to do it.

Johnny Thomson 06:30
Okay. Well you’ve established that the word barn is probably not really kind of correct for certainly for the way that many of these buildings appear. What about the other word tithe, Joe? What’s that all about?

Joseph Rogers 06:44
Yeah, so it’s probably good to just give a bit of a general overview as to what a tithe barn is. So if anyone’s sort of got a Bible at home, or certainly the Old Testament, they take a look at Deuteronomy, there’s a passage from the Bible where God gives a sort of instruction that people have to pay what’s referred to as tithe, and the way that that’s described is it’s a 10th of a farmers produce or harvest or annual yield. And in the Bible, it asks that people build a central focal point in a town where they can store these tithes and the tithes are an offering to God, or an offering to the church an offering to in later history, the rector or an abbey or a monastery. So the tithe was this tax payment, basically a religious tax of one-tenth of the farmers produce. And the central point in the town where everyone was asked to store their tithes was a barn because obviously, that’s what you store producing in, you store produce in a barn. So tithes, barn, tithe barn, that’s what a tithe barn is, as I say, it’s very much a religious construct. Really, it’s something that that stems from, from the religious history of Britain. And, yeah, it’s it’s something that sort of continued through time as kind of the basis in many ways for the tax system that we have today. Not that there’s much to relate in terms of the way it’s paid, obviously, cash and bank accounts and that kind of thing. But certainly the idea of, you know, taking a percentage of your earnings or what you were farming at the time and giving that to an authority. You know, there are some parallels that you can draw between the tithe system and the tax system we have today.

Johnny Thomson 08:18
And I guess that kind of explains why some of them are well, many of them are so ornate, and also built to last as well, because it’s, it’s about wealth and power as well, isn’t it. All of this when you when you look back, the religious establishment was was very wealthy and very powerful. And I guess that was their way of expressing this as well at the time.

Joseph Rogers 08:38
Yeah, absolutely. I mean, you know, some of the detail that goes into particularly some of the stone tithe barns, like some of the ones in Somerset and the Cotswolds, you know, as much detail and attention goes into how they look, and how they’re built as much as it would for the abbey’s or the cathedrals or the churches that were built at the time. And you say about an expression of wealth, there were certain bonds that were built purposely with the idea that they were an expression of wealth so that the local populace would understand who the authority was and where that where those tithes were to be paid. And sort of what where that power came from, really. So yeah, definitely expression of wealth is a term certainly that I use in the book about tithe barns, because that’s very much the aim with which some of these barns were built.

Johnny Thomson 09:22
Roughly how many times bonds or would you say are now used as community buildings Joe?

Joseph Rogers 09:26
Oh, that’s a good question. In one form or another, possibly as many as half or two thirds. It depends what you define really is community use. If we’re talking specifically about community halls and village halls, probably less so, but of course a lot of them are used for businesses and of course, they are an integral part of the community. So you have some that are now converted into cafes and restaurants and wedding venues. But as you’ve alluded to there, there are a number, dozens of tithe barns that because they were built quite often in the centre of villages and towns and were quite a communal point really for people, they presented themselves as quite good community halls and village halls. And so, you know, certainly, I’d say probably as many as two dozen that I’m aware of tithe barns have been converted into village halls and community halls in the last so many 100 years. But there may well be more that I’m not aware of, which is kind of exciting, really. But in terms of the number that I’ve been to see, I mean, I’ve been to see over 120 medieval barns. A lot of those are either described as or were tithe barns, and there are some imposters out there, which is quite interesting. And yeah, some of those were village halls, are village halls, community halls, some of them very important community halls. Arguably the focal point of today’s communities, let alone the communities of the past. So yeah, they’ve become quite important buildings in the British landscape, which is, I think, a really important, or certainly, it was an important point I wanted to make in the book that like castles and railway stations and all these other fantastic buildings that we try and admire where we can and admire the history of, tithe barns can very much fit into those is as a type of building that we should all really take time to appreciate where we can.

Johnny Thomson 09:30
Now come on, it’s probably like asking someone to name their favourite child, but which of the tithe barns that you’ve visited, you know, really kind of stands out for you?

Joseph Rogers 11:16
Well, yeah that is a difficult question. I mean, they want to Pilton obviously, you know, that has the story of being the first one I went to see and of course, also has the slightly strange story in that it may not actually have ever been a tithe barn even though it’s all the signposts say tithe barn in the village. That just just very briefly before I go on to the the sort of favourite one or the one of the ones I have fond memories of, this whole tithe barn dubiousness thing is quite interesting, because in the 19th century and to the 20th century, authorities like the Ordnance Survey were very keen to use the phrase tithe barn and it became a little bit overused. Whenever someone saw an old barn of any reasonable age sort of medieval or 16th, 17th, 18th century they were keen to call it a tithe barn. But actually, what defines a tithe barn is whether or not it’s stored these tax payments, these tithe payments. So going back to the one of Pilton, which is probably my favourite, my favourite barn. There’s no proof actually that it ever stored any tithes for Glastonbury Abbey and in fact the produce that is stored within it was probably farmed from the from the Glastonbury Abbey grounds itself, so not produce that was paid as tithes but produce that that the abbey just farmed of their own accord from their own land. So yeah, I digress. But another one that’s very close to that is the one at Drayton St Leonard in Oxford shared. Now that’s 15th century, it’s got wooden cladding on the outside, it’s quite different to some of the other medieval barns you see around the country, like the ones made of stone. It’s thought to have been built by Dorchester Abbey, Dorchester on Thames, not Dorchester in Dorset. And the reason why I like that one so much is because I’m a big motorsports fan. And the barn is currently used by the Aston Martin Heritage Trust, to store a very nice collection of very rare and old Aston Martin vehicles. So when I found out about that one, a) from a historical travel point of view, but also then from a kind of motorsports and you know, motoring point of view, I thought, oh I’ve got to go and see this one. So I went there, and you can go there as a member of the public and is open on certain weekends. It’s not very much to get in it. I don’t know what the price is now, but was about a fiver I think when I paid to go in. And yeah, you just get to spend the whole time a) wandering around this fantastic historic 15th century barn, but then also admiring these fantastic Aston Martin vehicles. And when I was there, they actually had the world’s oldest Aston Martin, as one of the exhibits, which for me was very exciting. So second to the Pilton barn, I’d say probably that one’s one of my favourites. But it is very difficult because they they’re all so amazing and they all have such a fantastic history. It’s very difficult to pick your favourites as you said,

Johnny Thomson 13:55
I love it, Joe. Is there anything you’re not interested in? You know I know you’ve written a book about bridges as well. Just you mentioned the the motorsport there and everything and I’m just wondering if there’s, if there’s anything that Joe doesn’t find fascinating, you know?

Joseph Rogers 14:08
I mean, I probably could pick something! But yeah, I mean I used to, one phrase that I used to say quite a lot,and I still say it to a certain extent is, I’d rather know one thing about everything than everything about one thing. So I’d be quite happy to learn a little bit of this and a little bit of that about a wide range of subjects, and really get an appreciation for all these things so that basically whenever you’re out and about in the world, there’s always something interesting to look at, rather than sort of narrow down to one subject. I like to appreciate as much as I can about the world. So yeah, there’s loads of different things on I’m interested in bridges, railways, cars, music, everything really.

Johnny Thomson 14:47
Yeah. And you’ve written a book about tithe barns. So where can where can people get a hold of that? If you know if we’ve captured somebody’s imagination out there and they want to find out a bit more about these buildings as well?

Joseph Rogers 14:58
Yeah, it’s a it’s available online. Also available a lot of independent books, book shops. I’d very much encourage anyone if they’ve got an independent bookshop in their town or village to pop in and if they’ve got it then fantastic. But if they haven’t, I’m sure they could probably order it in, you can find the ISBN number online if you search tithe bonds. But yeah, it’s it’s available pretty much wherever you get your books from really. Some of the high street, you know, big major chains sell it. But yeah, if you can’t get it from an independent bookshop, or any museums or venues that might stock the book, I know there are a couple that have shown interest in stocking it, tithe barn venues or museums, then I’d very much encourage supporting those by buying it from them as well.

Johnny Thomson 15:35
And you’ve got a great Instagram feed as well, which I should mention, and that we’ll provide a link to on the website, because you’ve taken various pictures of the various tithe barns that you’ve that you’ve visited. And so people can really get a sense, a visual sense of the kind of buildings that we’re talking about from that. You’ve mentioned several are used as village halls and community halls and so on and that also you would like to know if there are more out there, so what would you suggest if anyone’s listening now and they’re aware that their village hall is a tithe barn or has a as a past you know with a tithe barns? What should they do?

Joseph Rogers 16:17
Well, I mean, I’d love them to contact me to be quite frank. And yeah, get in touch, you can get in touch as you kindly said on Instagram. I’m also quite big on Twitter. I like I like to be I like to tweet a fair bit. And yeah, the Instagram thing is good, because the visual is always very important with these buildings, I think, particularly the interiors. And I regret that actually, my Instagram feed has more exterior shots than interior shots. I should probably post more of the interior shots, but maybe I’ll do that in the future. But yeah, if there’s anyone out there that has a tithe barn in their village that’s now a village or a community space, yeah, contact me get in touch. There’s a few that have done so already. Dunster Tithe Barn in Somerset, they have events on throughout the year, they’ve just hosted a food and drink festival and they’ve got a I think a Somerset market day or an event similar to that coming up in a few weeks. They also do antiques fairs as well and Christmas events. So, and Dunster is quite close to my heart because I lived in Somerset for a little while.

Johnny Thomson 17:18
Brilliant. And as I say, we’ll get some links on the website so that so that people can do that. And just thanks for telling me about tithe barns. It’s not something that I knew anything about until we came across each other Joe. And next time I think I’m planning to go out for a walk somewhere I’ve never been before, I might just try and look for a place with a tithe barn to have a look at.

Joseph Rogers 17:37
Yeah, it sounds good. Well, it’s estimated there’s over 200 of them left in the UK, so I’m sure there’ll be one you can find somewhere.

Johnny Thomson 17:43
Yeah, not spoiled for choice. Brilliant. And at the end of the day, I guess that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? It’s about getting out and about and exploring and discovering things and, and realising just how much this wonderful country of ours has to offer, including great village halls and community buildings as well.

Joseph Rogers 17:59
Yeah, absolutely go and research it, go and learn more about the history. There are still some out there that might be derelict or ruined or in danger of collapse, certainly a couple of those that I came across, which is sort of quite sad, but also you then look at potentially what might come of them in the future. And who knows, maybe there are some out there today that are ruined that in the next 20, 30 years or maybe sooner become community centres and village halls for people that would be really exciting, as has happened with many others over the last 100 years.

Johnny Thomson 18:27
Brilliant. Well, thanks for thanks for coming on and telling me about about these wonderful buildings. And that’s all for this week. Don’t forget about our Wonderful Villages Photo Competition. Maybe someone wants to submit a picture of a tithe barn, I don’t know. But anyway, it could result in you winning £1,000 for your village hall or £500 for yourself and you can find out more about that on a special page on our website. Other than that, thanks as always to our headline sponsor and specialist insurance provider Allied Westminster for making our podcast possible, and whose services you can discover more about at villageguard.com. And also online booking system provider Hallmaster who also sponsor our podcast and can be discovered at hallmaster.co.uk. You’ve been listening to The Village Halls Podcast, a unique listening community for Britain’s village, church and community halls, and anyone interested in the vital community services they provide. We’ll be back again in two weeks time with another episode. So if you haven’t already, please visit thevillagehallspodcast.com to subscribe, sign up for updates link through to our social media pages and to find out more. Until the next time. Good bye for now.