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Traditional Farm Buildings in National Parks

By Tony Gates, Chief Executive, Northumberland National Park Authority

Traditional farm buildings and their associated farm steadings, yards and paddocks, orchards and associated woodland form a distinctive part of the rich mosaic of England's finest landscapes - our National Parks.

In the UK our National Parks are classified (according to International Union for Conservation of Nature) as cultural landscapes - landscapes shaped by interaction of nature and people. A large part of that interaction has been through farming and land management. Key evidence of the growth and evolution of this inter-relationship is our traditional farm buildings.

Case study 1:  Muker Barns in the Yorkshire Dales

Who could mistake this landscape for anything other than the field barns of the Yorkshire Dales National Park?

Rolling Yorkshire dales on a sunny day with historic stone field barns dotting the landscape.
The Dales - valued for its rich natural beauty but equally valued for its social and historical importance as evidence of a significant period in the agricultural development of the Yorkshire uplands which the field barns represent © Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority

Funded by a legacy left to the National Park Authorities (four years ago) for conserving barns in Swaledale. The project started this year and runs in parallel with a Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) project celebrating the field barn landscape of Swaledale. Two barns have been conserved this summer and further projects have been drawn up for delivery in the next financial year. The projects - specified by Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority building conservation officers - use traditional materials and local craftsmen to restore field barns for agricultural use.

Case study 2: High Uppacott in Dartmoor National Park

Single storey stone farm building with small windows, thatched roof and hydrangea bush next to light blue door.
Higher Uppacott is one of the best examples of a medieval longhouse on Dartmoor and a rare surviving example where the shippon end, which formerly housed the cattle, is unconverted. © Dartmoor National Park Authority

One of the best examples of a Medieval longhouse on Dartmoor. Dartmoor National Park acquired the main building in 1979 to provide public access to a very complete and legible example of a building type strongly associated with Dartmoor. The programme of building conservation work by Dartmoor National Park at Higher Uppacott, part-funded through the HLF, is nearing completion. This project has seen rethatching, stone and timber repairs and major works to conserve the interior to present the building more clearly. This has been a major project and through the conservation and interpretation of the building will continue to help people get a better understanding of medieval life on Dartmoor.

Scantle slate roof work in progress on a lean-to attached to newly thatched roof.
Building conservation work by Dartmoor National Park at Higher Uppacott, part-funded through the HLF, is nearing completion © Dartmoor National Park Authority

Case study 3: Artemis Barn in the Peak District National Park

Conversion of a group of traditional farm buildings into a single residential house. The project won a RIBA Regional Conservation Award and was cited for its celebration of the existing qualities of the barns whilst making bold contemporary insertions. The redevelopment responded well to the challenge of retaining and celebrating its agricultural character, both internally and externally, whilst creating an attractive and functional home.

Case study 4: Grandy’s Knowe in Northumberland National Park

The client wanted a contemporary home which used the remains of the ruined structures on site. This required a positive and proactive approach from the National Park Authority and Historic England (then English Heritage).

But agricultural practices and techniques have changed and so must, in many cases, the use of our traditional farm buildings within our National Parks.

Our vision for our National Parks is not to freeze dry them as relics of a bygone era, but to adapt and evolve our finest landscapes by continuing to conserve what is unique and special, by enhancing opportunities for public access and enjoyment and by supporting the thriving rural, sometimes remote, communities who are at the beating heart of our National Parks.

In a time of uncertainty over future farm support, of global market places, of rapid innovation and change, it is easy to overlook our traditional farm buildings or the need to find a reason or the resources to care for them. They can often be seen as being in the wrong place, the wrong shape and size and of a type of construction relevant only to a bygone era.

Old wooden door surrounded by stonework and stone floor.
The conversion of Grandy’s Knowe has retained and celebrated a number of features relating to its original use, including the original Bastle entrance © Doonan Architects

Yet, on close examination they can represent much more than this. The Historic England guidance sets this out very clearly:

  • They tell the story of our relationship with the land, how we settled it, used it and farmed it. Of the people who lived there and their local skills and techniques. They are "evidence" and in many cases the only remaining and vital evidence of our interaction with a place at a key point in our history.
  • As such we must recognise and fully understand their significance.
  • They represent invested energy and materials that, if properly repaired, maintained and adapted can represent a more sustainable approach to meeting our on-going and future needs.
  • They are, in short, important heritage assets of our rural areas, and are certainly important assets of our National Parks.

As assets, we should, as we would with any asset, carefully assess their significance and how best we should value, care for and reuse them.

The evidence, however, is challenging:

  • 50% of all traditional farm buildings lost (with survival best in our uplands)
  • High levels of redundancy among those that remain (particularly high levels of redundancy in our National Parks)
  • 70% of in-field barns lost in the last century.

Now, I'm sure there were traditional farm buildings that were never meant to last, that never worked or properly served their intended purpose, but surely not 70% of them!

And where we have invested in the future might I suggest the focus has often been on the economic/financial opportunity they represent, with 80% of adaptations (according to the Constructing the Evidence Base report) being for residential use. Not a problem per se, but only where such use respects and enhances the distinctive local character of both the buildings and its setting.

Chief Executive, Northumberland National Park Authority
Tony Gates, Chief Executive, Northumberland National Park Authority speaking at the launch of Historic England's new guidance © Historic England

Both the buildings and their setting are particularly important in National Parks. This is why the National Park Authorities in England resisted the extension of permitted development for conversion of traditional farm buildings to residential use in National Parks. This is not because we believe residential use is inappropriate, but primarily because change needs to respect the value of the buildings and their setting in our finest landscapes in England. Conservation principles need to be properly applied

My professor at university used to say that to have a future, all historic buildings need a use, a reason to exist, therefore I welcome the launch of the guidance and the clear signal from Historic England, which I believe should be replicated in Planning Authorities up and down the country, that the adaptive reuse of these traditional farm buildings is, in many cases, likely to be acceptable on heritage grounds, but where conservation principles are properly applied.

In the case of traditional farm buildings, we, as National Park Authorities, know quite a lot about the building owners and the wider context within which these buildings exist, and can therefore play a key role in helping to broker a future for our traditional farm buildings.

My own National Park in Northumberland has direct experience of working closely with the same partners to deliver improvements in the condition of our Scheduled Monuments at Risk and I have no doubt we can achieve the same for traditional farm buildings.

As local planning authorities, National Park Authorities can ensure all planners, historic environment officers, owners of traditional farm buildings and their agents and advisors are fully aware of this guidance. In our role as positive and pro-active planning authorities, we will ensure that constructive conservation is at the heart of our approach.

Thank you. I look forward to a positive future for farming in our National Parks and the role which traditional farm buildings can continue to play as key assets in our finest landscapes.

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