Take a closer look at one of the bigger houses. It is of timber frame construction, with walls infilled with wattle and daub, but boasts a tall brick chimney stack. It has small leaded windows with glass. This one is still thatched, using the water reed phragmites communis which grows abundantly on the neighbouring Romney Marsh. It is ideal thatching material, being naturally waterproof and thermally efficient and withstanding high winds better than tiles. The roof is steeply pitched to allow gravity to take rain, sleet, and snow down and off the roof, forcing water down the stems of the reeds to run off at the eaves. There is no need for guttering or drainpipes, and below the top few centimetres the roof stays as dry as a bone in even the worst weather. Water reed thatch can last up to sixty years, so, fire risk apart, there is no great incentive for the owner to replace it with tiles.
The owner is John Oldfield, a prosperous beer brewer who also keeps horses for hire. Walk down the alley at the side of the house. This leads to the ‘close’. Besides the house itself, this area contains a hotchpotch of buildings: the kitchen, which is separate from the main house, the stables, a barn, the brewhouse with its furnace, the privy, a pigsty, a midden, and a hen house. It is a busy, noisy place and the sharp aroma of fermentation hangs over it all. A customer haggles with John Oldfield over the cost of horse hire for a handsome black gelding; a servant mucks out the stables; Phillis, John’s wife, and a servant girl prepare dinner in the kitchen; an apprentice is sweeping in a desultory manner, but he has been working since before five o’clock this morning and is tired and hungry; Christopher Argar, a day labourer and his boy are shifting full beer barrels; a servant is trying to back the beercart into the close to collect the barrels, but has become wedged in the narrow opening; he is now blocking the street outside and several men are offering their advice as to how he can best extricate himself; some small boys stone a rat which they have cornered near the kitchen – they have managed to break its back but it still desperately drags itself about on its front paws while the boys watch gleefully.
Be bold, step inside the house. It is quieter here, and darker. The small windows let in limited light, even in summer. You see that although they are now glazed, they still have sliding shutters to cover them. Window curtains are not yet in vogue. When the house was built, over a century ago, it was a hall house, with a central hearth open to the roof. The smoke rose and seeped out through the thatch. The hall was divided to create a private ‘parlour’ which was primarily a sleeping room. Over the parlour another chamber was created, with stairs provided. Cooking arrangements were separate from the hall, at the end of the house. During the sixteenth century, an age of home improvement on a grand scale, the central hall was ceiled over by having a whole first floor inserted. Then a central chimney stack was put in incorporating two back-to-back fireplaces, and heating the hall, the parlour and the rooms above. The chimney stack is of brick, although this is still not commonly used as a walling material.
Today the dinner table in the hall is being set by a servant girl. Dinner is eaten at midday. The tableware in this house is pewter, although for very special occasions, Phillis might bring out her silver spoons and salt dish. Each place has a plate, a knife and a spoon. Forks are not in common use, and indeed are regarded with some suspicion, either as being too effete to be used by real men, or as vulgar, like hay forks for tossing food into mouths. Each place is provided with a napkin, an essential when fingers are used for eating greasy food. Today Phillis is serving mutton baked in a pastry ‘coffin’. There are baked onions, too, for those who care for vegetables. Phillis grew them herself in the garden plot at the back of the house. There are separate eating arrangements for the servants and apprentice, who will make do with bread and leftovers in the kitchen, although in this place they are always assured of a mug of beer.
You notice that the family will sit at the table on stools. Chairs are not often found in houses of the middling sort. The other furniture in the hall comprises a cupboard, where the tableware and napkins are kept. The walls are covered with painted cloths. These are the seventeenth century equivalent of wallpaper and also act as draught excluders. Richer folk hang carpets on the wall, but this is beyond the means of the Oldfields. By the great fireplace there are fire tongs and a pair of bellows ready for the fires of autumn.
Walk through to the parlour, and then upstairs to the other chambers on the first floor. Each contains a bedstead of some sort – quite a grand one for John and Phillis, with posts and curtains, plainer ones for junior members of the family and truckle beds which slide under the bedsteads for the servants – yet none of these rooms could be, or indeed is, called a bedroom. They are general storage rooms in which people also happen to sleep. John and Phillis have a feather mattress, a luxury item which is not available to other members of the household, who sleep on lumpy flock, made of waste wool. Similarly, the master and mistress have a feather pillow each, but a flock bolster is provided for everyone else.
Look inside the cupboards and chests in these rooms. They contain household linen – tablecloths, sheets, towels, blankets, coverlets, – and clothing – linen shirts and chemises, stockings, collars and ruffs, scarves, handkerchiefs, men’s drawers (women do not wear them), nightgowns and nightcaps. Scattered about the rooms are tables and benches, candlesticks, chamber pots, looking glasses, boxes of correspondence and legal documents, a sewing basket and piles of mending, bundles of bills and receipts, and oddly, John’s muskets. He needs them for his service in the Trained Band, a local militia, which is compulsory for every able-bodied man between sixteen and sixty. Perhaps this is as good a place as any to keep them dry.
Finally climb a ladder from one of the chambers to the garret under the roof. This, like every attic in every age, is full of things which might come in useful one day: broken furniture, old tools, and, as the men who will one day come to take a probate inventory of John’s goods will record ‘old lumber and things forgotten’.