Walking in Glamorgan, South Wales. Guided walks, routes &
Last updated 30.03.09
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A typical barn near Goytre showing the large entrance doors and slits to allow air to circulate
There probably isn't a walk on this website that doesn't involve passing the odd barn or two. None is likely to be in use for its original purpose although they may be used for storage of farm equipment or other miscellaneous purposes. Many are in an extreme state of dilapidation whilst others have been altered into barn conversions, some sympathetically, some not. But whatever their condition it is usually possible to recognise the basic features of a barn and you might be lucky enough to spot the occasional less common design element. Whilst the word 'barn' may be used to describe any old farm building, it should refer only to the building used for threshing and storing wheat, oats, rye, barley and some pulse crops.
This ruined barn near Aberbeeg allows you to see the large entrance and exit doors
Although barn shapes and sizes vary throughout Britain, most retain these basic features. Horse-drawn waggons loaded with corn would be brought into the farmyard and then through the large, main doors into the barn. The doors would be around 12 foot wide to accommodate the width of the waggon and high enough to allow a fully-laden waggon to pass underneath. Once the corn was unloaded, the horse and waggon would proceed out through a similar-sized pair of doors at the back of the bar. A few barns only have one set of doors but backing a horse and cart out the way it has come in is far from easy.
Despite the modern conversion on this barn, the basic features are still visible with large entrance door and narrow slit windows
Either side of the central area of the barn, sometimes called the 'middlestead', would be the storage areas where the corn would be kept until it was threshed. Once the harvest was gathered in, the barn would be sealed up until the threshing was done, often sometime in the winter.
Threshing involves beating the corn with a flail so as to separate the grain from the stalks. The grain would then be 'winnowed' which involved tossing it in a draught - the dust and the chaff would be blown to one side, the grain dropping to the floor. Another advantage of having two sets of doors front and back was that it helped to create a draught.
Below the doors, which would be a foot or two off the ground so as to open clear of the manure in the farmyard, would be some planks, the width of the doorway, which slot into grooves and could be lifted in and out. This held back the threshed grain - hence the word 'threshold'. It also helped to keep the pigs and poultry from getting in when the doors were open.
On the left double barn doors showing on this barn near Maes-y-Llech. On the right a substantial barn door near Radyr
Another feature of some barns is a series of holes visible in the walls. The most common are air vents designed to allow air to circulate and prevent mould developing in the crops. These were generally single holes although vertical slits are also very common. The holes might be grouped in geometric patterns, particularly on brick barns.
Occasionally you will see a larger hole, up to 9 inches across and often either square or circular, set high up in the gable. In South Wales they are commonly triangular. This was an owl hole to allow owls into the building to control the vermin. Some farmers included a smaller hole in the threshold around 5 inches across to allow cats to enter for the same purpose.
To the left an owl hole in a barn near Llangattock. Below it is an inscription 'J P' and the date, 1859. To the right a barn near Goytre combines owl hole with pigeon holes.
You might even spot a wooden-shuttered opening similar to a window. They were to allow sheaves of corn to be pitched into the barn from a cart standing alongside and are known as pitch-holes. They were originally square in shape but circular ones started to appear after 1825.
Barns have been around for hundreds of years but were already becoming superfluous when threshing machines started to appear towards the end of the 18th century. Often they ended up housing the equipment that was to make them redundant.
Throughout Britain you will find barns with the same basic features described above from the small ones found in virtually every field, as with the haybarns of Wensleydale, to the huge tithe barns that existed in places like Llatwit Major, many still surviving as heritage buildings.
Large barn at Pentre Bach near Bettws, once Cefn Fynach, a grange under the auspices of Llantarnam Abbey
Suggested further reading on barns follows but many books on the history of farming and farm buildings will include information on barns.
Discovering Traditional Farm Buildings by JEC Peters. Shire Books. ISBN 0 85263 5567
Barns and Granaries in Norfolk by Sheridan Ebbage. Boydell Press. ISBN 0 85115 0799
Old Farm Buildings by Nigel Harvey. Shire Publications. ISBN 0 85263 865 5