In the 1970s I visited a lot of farms in the South West of England. This was both through working for an agricultural contractor and, later, for a government organisation. A bonus of these jobs was the range of old farm buildings that I was able to work in or explore.
These included examples that had been built as ‘model farms’ in a previous century, and some great timber framed barns. Sadly, some of the former were falling into disrepair as the courtyard format and limited size of the internal space was incompatible with the contemporary farming methods.
Close to where I grew up was the great barn of Abbotsbury Abbey. The etching above is from a Cassells publication dated 1892, which I am fortunate to have on my bookshelves. Nearly 700 years old, Abbotsbury Abbey barn is reputed to have once been the largest in England. Being a listed building in the care of English Heritage, it has escaped the fate of so many others I visited. They have become domestic dwellings with much of their structure and charm lost and hidden in shrouds of contemporary chic.
In recent years I have spent time walking and cycling in the Chilterns – no doubt seeking the familiarity of chalk downland. This has included taking the London Underground train to Chesham to walk the length of the River Chess.
I have also gone by train to Watford and then cycled along the Ebury Way to Rickmansworth before going further afield, or dropping onto the Grand Union canal at Lot Mead lock. Usually this was so that I could obtain some very fairly priced (cheap) coffee and cake from the Rickmansworth Waterways Trust at the Batchworth Lock Canal Centre.
Both of these examples provided glimpses of a wonderful looking barn at Croxley. A little research quickly revealed that this was Croxley Great Barn and, better still, it was open to visitors once a month. Eventually, one Saturday last summer, I was able to visit before walking the Grand Union Canal back to Uxbridge and a train home.
I took the train to Rickmansworth. After leaving the station, I passed under the overbridge on Station Road and turned left onto a footpath. This ran alongside the railway line to High Street, which I crossed over on to Caravan Lane which, in turn, gave access to a continuance of the footpath. It was now tree lined, with the playing fields of St Joan of Arc School on the side opposite the railway.
After crossing the River Chess, I came to what was the original entrance way to the barn and was immediately distracted by the adjacent byres especially the rooves.
This gave me access to the North End of the barn. When I tried to open a door, a voice from inside shouted through to tell me that I was on someone else’s property. I was given instruction to return along the footpath to a hole in the fence, and then walk across the playing field to the barn. I may have missed instructions in the carpark of St Joan of Arc School on how to approach the barn.
I entered the barn on the East side close to the North End. Oh, wow. It was stunning to see so much of the original fantastic structure still in place. I’m putting external and matching internal views of the barn adjacent to each other to assist in interpreting them.
Historic England has categorised the barn as a Grade II* Listed Building describing it thus:
Tithe barn. Probably built 1396-1401 for Abbey of St. Albans during abbacy of John Moote, restored 1975. Timber frame. Flint, clunch and brick base walls. Weatherboarded. Tiled roof. 5 bays with nave and aisles, 2 bay entrance porch. 101ft by 38½ft. Central gabled entrance porch to E with double doors. C17 brick buttresses to base which has a low door to E. Doors to N and to W with two 16 pane fixed windows. Half hipped roof with gablets. Interior: hoggin floor, lime washed, 5ft high flint walls with clunch quoins and coping separate each bay in aisles.
An additional contribution from Historic England Research informs us that: “The dendrochronological study of this barn revealed that fast-grown young oaks were used in its construction. Five timbers dated, with one retaining complete sapwood. This timber was felled in the winter of AD 1397/8 and the others have estimated felling dates which include this date. It seems most likely therefore that the barn was constructed during the short abbacy of John Moote (AD 1396-1401)…”
On the day I visited, a representative of The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings was present to share the story of the barn. The first thing he explained was that it was one of the surviving barns which originally belonged to St. Alban’s Abbey. As monastic institutions could not raise tithes, it is not actually a tithe barn. As an occasional vintner, my ears pricked up when he mentioned that the farm of which the barn was part, was responsible to the abbey’s cellarer. It provided the abbey with cereals for both cooking and brewing.
By now a couple of other people had arrived at the barn and we were told that the Abbot, John Moote, had provided 100 marks to build a large barn and other buildings at Croxley. In today’s money that’s about £70! With the dissolution of the monasteries following Henry VIII’s hissy fit with the Pope, the Manor of Croxley became crown property. The King’s military endeavours meant that he needed money so, in 1557, it was sold to a Dr Caius. He gave it as part of the endowment to Gonville College, Cambridge, that saw his name added to its. From then, until 1972, the barn was owned by the College. It and some of the land was granted to Hertfordshire County Council to become part of the St Joan of Arc School. The barn was in a pretty dire state. The Council had it restored to good condition before passing it to the school.
Thinking back to my days of driving tractors and trailers, I noticed that there was only one entrance way for a horse and cart. Normally there were entrance/exits on opposite sides so that horses and carts could roll in and roll out rather like a RORO ferry. We were told that, when built, the barn was the largest in Hertfordshire, with internal bays so large that a cart could be turned around inside it. Heavy horses are probably more agile than tractors.
If you would like to find more about Croxley Great Barn, the Croxley Green History Project website has a wealth of information, This includes plenty of historic photographs, some taken more than a century ago.
Currently, open days at the barn are suspended due to the Covid 19 related restrictions. Normally details can be found on the Three Rivers Museum website.
The adjacent Croxley Hall Farm is private property but can be seen from the track the runs from the Barn to Lot Mead lock on the Grand Union Canal. The farmstead has a 16th century, rebuilt in 19th century, farmhouse which, for aficionados of these things, retains some early red brick. Also, there is a 19th century weatherboarded timber frame staddle barn, on cast-iron staddles; a granary of similar construction; and a 17th century weatherboarded timber frame barn on a brick base. A brief view of these structures can be seen near the start of the video below, which is of the opening of the barn to the public.