Except for the nearby parish church, Rectory Cottages seems to be the oldest building in Bletchley.
It was built about 1475 and has been lived in ever since.
Once upon a time Bletchley was a little village on the green. Its name means Blecca’s ley or field, but we have no idea who Blaecca was though his name is Saxon. Bletchley was once quite a large parish, but at some time in the Middle Ages, the parishes of Fenny Stratford and later Water Eaton were hacked out of it, leaving the bit around the church and the green as the only part of Bletchley east of Rickley Lane and Church Green Road. If you look across the green you can see some low humps and bumps where the houses stood; when the green was laid out as a park in the 1960s, pieces of fourteenth century pottery were found. You may imagine these houses as low cottages with walls of ‘cob’ or ‘witchert’ (rammed clay) having a steep thatched roof with overhanging eaves to keep the rain off the clay walls, and each having a hole in the roof to let out the smoke from the cooking fire. A better sort of house might have had a chimney. The Rector would have lived in a house, perhaps a little better than some of the others, where the Old Rectory stands now, but we don’t know what sort of a house it was because the new house of about 1834 covers the place where it stood. The village pond which was at the corner of the green under the rose bed next to the War Memorial was filled in during the 1970s but the water is still there under the flower bed. Across Church Green Road stands Free Folk Cottage, which although it is later in date – probably of the sixteenth or early seventeenth century – gives an idea of how one of the better houses in the village may have looked, though you have to remember that glass windows were rare and expensive in the Middle Ages, so most people would only have had wooden shutters when they wanted to keep out the wind or the wet. In the dip behind Free Folk Cottage the village stream ran down the hill towards the Eight Bells, which of course was named after the bells in the church. It was rather grand to have a ring of eight bells in your church, so Bletchley Church was considered to be one of the best churches for some miles around.
The manor of Bletchley was owned by the de Grey family, who lived in a house at Saffron Gardens, at Water Eaton. At first they were knights and later they became lords and ladies: one time they became so grand that one of them was proclaimed Queen of England. However, in the days when Rectory Cottages was built, the Greys were in trouble because of their family connections. The lord of the manor, Richard Lord Grey de Wilton, had died in 1442: his effigy is on his tomb in the church. His son Reynold succeeded him, and married well, his wife being Iacina, the daughter of Owen Tudor and Queen Katherine de Valois, the widow of King Henry V. But Owen Tudor had his head chopped off in 1460 during the Wars of the Roses, so Reynold de Grey had every reason to keep his head well down.
Iacina may be a Latin version of the French Jacinthe, meaning Hyacinth. When we look at the carved heads in the roof of the hall in Rectory Cottage, we often wonder who they may have been – and if you were to guess that two of the heads might be Reynold de Grey and Hyacinth Tudor, your guess may be as good as anybody’s.
We do not know why Rectory Cottages was built; we don’t even know its original name. But we have been able to find out from tree-ring dating of the timbers from which the house was built, that the trees used to build it were felled in 1475, so the house would have been erected that year or the next. It must have been a rather grand house for those days; instead of having thatch, it had a tiled roof. The tiles may have been made locally, or they may have come from elsewhere: a house built in 1355 at Salden near Newton Longville had the tiles brought from Penn near Beaconsfield.
Rectory Cottages nowadays is an L-shaped building, with a hall in the long part of the L and rooms for living in the short leg of the L. We wonder if at one time there was another short leg making an E shape, having the main kitchen in the top leg of the E.
When you go in through the front door, pass through the lobby with its ‘stable door’ on the right and go straight into the Hall. This is about 30 feet long, 20 feet wide and 25 feet high. It is open right up to the roof, and you can see how it is built. At the ends the roof is held up on triangles of timber: the flat one straight across is called the tiebeam and the ones from its ends to the roof are called the principal rafters. However in the middle the roof is supported on a different arrangement of timbers. It is as if the middle of the tie beam had been sawn out, leaving the stub ends or hammerbeams which have carved heads on their inner ends. These are supported from below by curved braces and they in turn support vertical posts upwards from the carved heads, called hammer posts. A collar connects together the upper ends of the hammer posts, and arched braces hold the hammer posts and the collar firmly in place.
The end or tiebeam trusses and the hammerbeam trusses between them are held down the length of the hall by wallplates along the top of the walls and by purlins in the roof. The purlins have curved weatherboards to hold them rigidly in place. Then the whole structure is covered by common rafters and laths, and lastly tiled on the outside.
You will notice the honey coloured oak wood. There is not much soot in here – perhaps a little from rush or tallow candles in olden times, but not nearly enough soot for there ever to have been a cooking fire here: in any case there is neither chimney nor hole (or louvre) in the roof. So we wonder what the place was used for. It may possibly have been used as a hunting lodge for Bletchley Park nearby, but it is perhaps more likely that it was used as a manorial court house. Perhaps a junior member of the Grey family or maybe the lord’s steward lived in the house, collected the rents, kept the village in order, settled disputes and carried out the various paperwork chores which seem to be the rule in any sort of organisation. In any event, Rectory Cottages is a rare survival: there are not above a dozen true hammerbeam roofs in English houses (there are more in churches). A list of the mediaeval hammerbeam roofs of England reads like a roll call of great places: Westminster Hall, Hampton Court, Eltham Palace, Dartington Hall, Chester Cathedral Refectory, the Pilgrims’ Hall at Winchester, and so on until last and least you come to Rectory Cottages Bletchley – but it keeps some very distinguished cousins. In later times, the hammerbeam roof was considered a noble structure, and several Oxford and Cambridge colleges built their refectories or eating-halls with them. Even later, town halls and other buildings intended for imposing purposes have been built in the same way.
Imposing as our Hall may be, it is difficult to keep warm, and many such halls have had another floor put in half way up. This was done at one end in Rectory Cottages, but the insertion was removed when the hall was restored in 1968. The draught lobby, with its little gallery was put in at the same time. The ‘miller’s ladder’ to the gallery has steps six inches apart, intended for carrying weights on your shoulder up the steps The windows are modern, as the original window was only about one foot square.
From the hall you move through the fire door into the Passage, which is paved with old tiles from elsewhere in the building. At the far end of the passage, you turn either right or left along the side of the Chimney, which is about twelve feet square.
If you turn left, you enter the Back Room which used to be the Kitchen. This room is about fifteen feet by twelve and holds fifteen or twenty people for a meeting. The door is old and has been re-used: it has on it battens which show where it has been widened. Its hinges are of an early type, with pintles just like a farm gate. The kitchen ceiling has heavily carved beams of a style consistent with the late fifteenth century, but we have no tree ring date for this part of the building.
There is a window with leaded lights: note how the leading is fastened onto the window bars by twisted pieces of copper wire: this is a modern replacement for the old windows and is made in exactly the same way. The window hook is outside in the sill.
The kitchen fireplace is about eight feet across and was meant to burn wood. There is a bread oven at the left side, which would have had an iron door on it to keep the heat in. A fire of sticks was burned in the oven until it was red hot, when the ashes would be raked out and a long wooden shovel used to put the loaves inside to cook. Under the oven is the firehole for the copper flue: the copper was a one-woman-powered washing machine which stood in the corner by the back door. Clothes were boiled in the copper and stirred with a dolly-peg or a copper posser.
The hot gases from the fire came from the front of the left side of the fireplace, went round the copper and back into the chimney at a higher level (you can still put your hand into the flue from the top). Further up the chimney you may see the hooks to smoke the hams, and on the right side is a bar from which cooking cauldrons or kettles could be hung.
Returning through the Passage, go straight across into the Front Room, which is about fifteen feet square and holds about 20 or 25 people for a meeting. The windows are leaded, and are modern reproductions of the originals. The ceiling beam is of a style consistent with about the year 1500; the fireplace has been reduced by the insertion of an early nineteenth century fireplace (the one now here came from upstairs) but the overmantel has been here since at least 1723, as someone has wiped a finger in the wet plaster just over the fireplace: with a light from the right hand side, you can see the inscription FS 1723. We think this may have been done at the time when the house was converted from one house into two tenements (which is why it is called Rectory Cottages).
The apartment upstairs is not open to the public, but it has a handsome sitting room with a sixteenth century four-centred fireplace and an authentic priest-hole (we shut Rector in it one time). The kitchen and bathroom, together with the attic bedroom over them, used at one time to be a single upper chamber open to the roof, rather like the Hall but on a smaller scale. Perhaps it may have had a four-poster bed in it. There is another four-centred fireplace in what was once the upper chamber and is now the kitchen.
The walls of the Cottages have a timber frame, and the infilling was originally of wattle and daub. This was made by weaving willow twigs back and forwards in the space between the wooden frames, and then covering the twigs with a sticky mixture of Buckinghamshire clay and cow-pat which was left to dry. If you put a bit of this under a microscope you can even see what the cow had to eat all those years ago (it was mostly grass). When the clay (or ‘cob’) had dried, the wall was whitewashed. Even now we whitewash the walls in the traditional way by boiling up fresh lime and tallow in a big tub and painting it on the walls while the whitewash is still hot. It is a job needing goggles and gloves.
A fuller history with an architectural description
Nowadays Rectory Cottages is used for meetings of the quieter sort: usually some 1000 meetings are held here each year. It is also used as a polling station for elections. If it was a centre for activities in Bletchley five hundred years ago, it still is now, which goes to show that our ancestors knew what they were about when they built it where they did.
We hope you have enjoyed your visit and that you will come again. If you have a club or society which needs somewhere to meet, perhaps we may be able to help you. Our Trust is a registered Charity: our charges are very moderate. We try to make the Cottages available to as many people as possible because, in the words of our Trust deed, our object is to preserve Rectory Cottages for the benefit of the people of Bletchley.
Further information as to bookings may be had from the Hon. Secretary, Rectory Cottages Trust, Karen Lamb on/fax 01908 644432 or by email at email@example.com.
Drawings by Allan T. Adams. Text by Peter Jarvis. Grateful acknowledgements are due to
Sue Jarvis, Edward Legg and John Chenevix Trench for their help. Copyright Rectory Cottages Trust 1994.