Mill Hill Cottage is located in the medieval village of Little Steeping, in the rural heart of the East Lindsey district of Lincolnshire. Constructed in the vernacular 'mud and stud' tradition, this diminutive and delightful building was probably built in the late 17th or early 18th century. It comprises a ground floor of two principal rooms with an outshut or lean-to and attic accommodation under a thatched roof.
The cottage in its vernacular context
The building in its original form would have appeared much as it does today. Its simple plan consists of a lobby entry onto the central chirnneystack with a room to either side. A lean-to was later added to the south bay, part of which still houses the privy. The building retains a horizontal sliding sash window in its south gable wall while the rather grand sash windows now adorning the front of the cottage were probably added in the late 18th century.
The cottage occupies a significant place in the evolution of the vernacular house. As a domestic building of the late 17th/early 18th century, it is a direct descendant of the late medieval timber-framed house. Post medieval timber-framed houses were less solidly built than their medieval counterparts and are found throughout the country. The pattern of their occurrence suggests they were the houses of the poor, constructed by social groups whose poverty could not sustain a local stratum of craftsmen skilled in timber working and construction. Simple earth and timber structures such as Mill Hill Cottage are present in numbers around East Lincolnshire, in the coastal plains of Lancashire and Cumberland and in some parts of the Midlands and the North Riding.
Mud and stud construction
Regional differences in the vernacular earth-based building tradition arise from local geology and the availability of timber. Two main types of earth-based building are found: those with solid earth walls and those with earth covering a timber frame. Of the latter, 'wattle and daub' is perhaps the best-known. It employs panels of woven hazel or willow rods fastened to the timber frame and covered with a mud mix. The form of earth and timber building unique to Lincolnshire and employed in the construction of Mill Hill Cottage is called 'mud and stud'.
Mud and stud differs from wattle and daub in that the earth mix is supported by vertical riven lathes nailed to horizontal rails between the studs of the frame. The elm timber frame consists of a series of upright posts (studs) placed at approximately two metre intervals. Studs also frame window and door openings. The wall fabric is basically a daub consisting of an admixture of earth, chopped straw and water. The mix covers the whole external framework and usually all but the wall posts and braces of the interior. The exterior is painted in a traditional coating of lime-wash or lime-based paint which would have been given an animal fat or linseed oil additive for additional weatherproofing. A low plinth of stone or brick provides some protection from rainwater to the base of the mud walls.
The thatched roof
The roof at Mill Hill Cottage retains a covering of historic thatch and reed fleeking or under-thatch. This historic roof covering has survived because it was preserved in a dry state under a corrugated iron roof, installed by 1924. The thatch consists of the fleeking or base layer of water reed (Phragmites australis) with a minimum of four overlying weathering coats of threshed wheat straw fixed with twisted wooden spars.
Water reed for the fleeking or under-thatch was cut from local ditches, dykes and marshes. It was laid horizontally and held in position by a thicker, base layer of reed stitched vertically to the underlying roof rafters using twisted rush rope. The first layer of wheat long straw thatch was sparred or pinned into the reed base coat. Inspection of the roof revealed that the base coat and two overlying thatch layers had at different times been repaired and consolidated. The renewal works were identifiable because tarred twine (as opposed to rush rope) had been used to stitch the reed to the underlying rafters. There is a panel in the main bedroom through which the historic thatch is visible.
The date of Mill Hill Cottage
The cottage is a humble vernacular building with few architectural clues as to the date of its construction. There are however a number of indicators to guide us towards an approximate date for the building's origins. One such piece of evidence is the carpentry joints linking sections of the wall plate. Information gathered by the Heritage Trust of Lincolnshire during the restoration describes the wall plates as substantial and as employing a stop-splayed scarf joint, believed to have gone out of general use around 1650. The waIl plates are large and fashioned from elm. The timber frames of later 18th and 19th century cottages are generally less substantial and, after the 18th century usually made from imported Baltic pine.
The specialist report on the roof thatch concluded that the building may originally have been thatched in circa 1750. The available evidence therefore suggests a construction date for the cottage of circa 1630 to 1750.
Restoration of the cottage
In 1997, the owner of the cottage, Mr Richard Matthewman, contacted the Heritage Trust of Lincolnshire with a view to ensuring the preservation of this historic building. The cottage had by then been unoccupied for nearly ten years. It had no mains services and was in need of extensive repairs.
In 1999 the Heritage Trust of Lincolnshire devised an imaginative scheme to restore the building and to maintain it by letting it as holiday accommodation. The Trust's work gained them a coveted Civic Trust Award. In September 2001 The Vivat Trust assumed the management of the building. These Trusts now work in partnership to safeguard the cottage for the future.
The Heritage Trust of Lincolnshire
The Heritage Trust of Lincolnshire was established in 1991 with the principal aim of advancing the understanding, knowledge and appreciation of the heritage of Lincolnshire, in particular its archaeology, architecture and landscape, social history and traditional skills. As an active building preservation trust, the Trust also rescues threatened buildings of historic or architectural interest such as Mill Hill Cottage.
The Heritage Trust of Lincolnshire would like to thank the following for finding the restoration of Mill Hill Cottage: The Architectural Heritage Fund, East Lindsey District Council, East Midlands Development Agency, European Regional Development Fund (LEADER II), Heritage Lottery Fund, Waste Recycling Environmental and LincWaste Ltd.
Heritage Trust of Lincolnshire
The Old School, Cameron Street, Heckington,
Sleaford, Lincolnshire, N034 9RW
Tel: 01529461499 Fax: 01529461001
E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org Web: www.lincsheritage.org
The Vivat Trust would like to thank the following for their generous support in the furnishing of the cottage: Bentley Brushes, Brabantia, Cally & Co, Donna, Laura Ashley, Morphy Richards, Neff (UK) Ltd, Newcastle Furniture Company, Slumberdown, The White Company and Toshiba.