Tithe Barns by Joseph Rogers
In the years prior to my time in the railway-tourism industry and before I had learned to drive, my spare time was often filled through extensive use of regional Westcountry bus services, trains from Taunton Station and, somewhat extensively, my own two feet. During July of 2014, I found myself on a hot, dry summer's walk between Wells and Glastonbury, with a tent on my back and aged, worn sandals pounding the fields and lanes of rural Somerset.
I eventually ended up in the village of Pilton, which I had admired annually through the BBC's Glastonbury Festival coverage – Pilton's Worthy Farm being the event's host. I wanted to see what, if anything, of the village held signs of this mythical gathering of musical talent each year, but instead found something far more intriguing. Signs through the village referred to the local 'Tithe Barn' and through curiosity, I became side-tracked and wanted to find out more.
What lay before me at Cumhill Farm would later form the basis for my interest in medieval tithe barns. The immense, cathedral-like structure seemed far more than a mere barn and stepping through the unlocked door to admire the vast, cool interior was simply a breathtaking experience. At home the following week, I was keen to learn more and after some creative Googling, I discovered that these tithe barns were a product of the Church, largely medieval and central to the tithe system of tax payments which were paid to local abbeys, monasteries, and priories such as Glastonbury Abbey.
I also discovered that this barn at Pilton may not have been a tithe barn at all and that the term had become confused and overused, much in the way Hoover is now to describe all vacuum cleaners. It turns out many such barns never stored tithes at all and the Pilton Barn, though fourteenth century and built by Glastonbury Abbey, was most likely built to store produce farmed from the Abbey land itself. Nevertheless, the post-dissolution history of the barn was equally fascinating, with use during the Second World War, a devastating fire and restoration in the 1990s in part thanks to the Glastonbury Festival itself and its founder Michael Eavis CBE.
Fast-forward to 2018 and I was grateful to Amberley Books in allowing me to embark on a book about this very subject. Surely, other such barns had similar tales? I proposed a book detailing 30-40 barns, with a focus on those legitimately used to store tithes – Tithe Barns. As it turns out, some 200 such buildings are thought to remain intact in Britain and though many are neither medieval nor proper tithe barns, they all have an amazing story to tell, particularly around the villages, towns and sometimes cities that they sit in. Over two years of writing, driving (which I had since learned to do) and researching through visiting and talking to many barn owners, I would end up seeing some 120 barns with approximately 100 mentioned in one form or another in the book.
Perhaps my favourite encounter, bar the initial one described above, was at an equally dubious tithe barn (in terms of its title) at Drayton St Leonard in Oxfordshire. It is likely to have been built by nearby Dorchester Abbey in the fifteenth century and was at one time called the Haseley Barn. Today however, it houses a modest collection of Aston Martin vehicles as part of the Aston Martin Heritage Trust which is, on occasion, open to the public. As a keen motorsports fan and someone who once attended the UK launch of the DB11 model, this visit was a combination of many passions, namely motors, history, and UK travel. There was something wholly appropriate about such icons of British heritage sitting neatly between the bays of a building also steeped in history.
Other notable experiences whilst discovering Britain's tithe barns were; talking to someone who had paid outstanding tithes in the 1960s upon buying the Tythe Barn near Tetbury, now a wedding venue; seeing the lengths gone to, to cater for the wedding industry, at the Tythe Barn in Launton near Bicester; climbing hay bales in the Estate Barn at Frocester Court and being given an unofficial tour of the Beverston Castle grounds, including the corn-filled Tithe Barn, by the groundskeeper during a period of vacancy whilst it was up for sale in 2019.
Medieval agriculture, the Dissolution of the Monasteries, Civil War, the Spanish Armada, both World Wars, music, weddings, and today's local communities all played their part in the histories of many of these amazing buildings and it was my absolute pleasure to bring many of them together in what is thought to be the first book about tithe barns on a national level in over 20 years. There are, of course, over 80 more to visit and I certainly intend to continue viewing them where I can. I'd very much encourage others to do the same.
Joseph Rogers's new book Tithe Barns is available for purchase now.