Reconstructed German longhouse. Made from local and sustainable materials.

Five Englishmen go to Germany

Friday 1 November, 2019, by Andrew Fagg

“The future doesn’t look promising – the younger generation is much reduced,” said Peter Kaiser, our plain-speaking Saxon host.

Since creating a ‘German longhouse’ reconstruction in his village of Austhausen in 1999, the village shop, restaurant and pub had closed. 

Peter Kaiser

“We have some builders [in the village], but most people are retired. Everyone is old,” he said.

Evidently, communities in the Yorkshire Dales National Park are not the only ones struggling to retain and attract younger residents.  

I offer that somewhat simple observation by way of introducing an account of how five Englishmen spent four days last month working with Peter to carry out repairs to the longhouse. 

fixing the hole in the roof

There were two National Trust workers from the north of England, a furniture maker living in the Scottish borders, a former senior Dorset councillor and me.  We’d taken time off to go on an Erasmus+ ‘learning mobility opportunity’ offered by Cumbria-based training firm, Grampus Heritage.  Flights, board and food were fully funded. 

Part of my payback is to share what I’ve learned, so here goes.    

On day one the challenge was presented to us:  fix the hole in the longhouse roof and make good the crumbling walls, using only natural materials that could be found locally. 

The longhouse reflects the type of dwelling that is thought to have been in use in Saxony 2000 years ago.   The roof was made from common reed (phragmites australis).  This could be found growing nearby, next to a large lake that had formed after sand and gravel extraction. 

When we turned up we were greeted by an elderly naked couple, completely comfortable in their skin.  Nude bathing and swimming is, apparently, the norm in East Germany. Great quantities of reeds were cut – and these are some of them stacked against the longhouse: 

reed bunches

The reeds were tied in bunches using sisal twine, helpfully manufactured just 8 kilometres away by a small ropemaking firm (Voigts) in the town of Bad Duben.

string made from plants (sisal)

Together we sewed about three dozen bunches of reeds as thatch to cover over the hole in the roof.   A hazel stick, harvested from a tree in the next door village’s ‘community field’, was used for a needle.

taking up the reed bundles

 The reeds were then covered at the ridge by four inches of turf, thick with fat roots, that had been dug up (with permission) from a wet meadow a few kilometres away.

reeds were covered with turf at the ridge

The frame of the longhouse had been constructed out of red oak, again harvested locally.  Large areas of scot’s pine and birch forestry were often the only features standing proud of an endlessly flat arable landscape, which was described neatly by my new friend from the Scottish Borders as ‘deathly dull’.

the structure of the longhouse was made from red oak

Between the vertical oak posts that had been installed a metre-deep in the ground were walls made from woven birch branches.  These birch hurdles held a render made from clay and straw.  

The weather had worn away much of the render since the last group of volunteers attended to the longhouse two years ago.   So, we went to Peter’s store of clay, recycled from an old house. 

the clay before being mixed

Over the course of four days, many wheelbarrow loads were mixed.  The clay was pummelled with a wooden mallet to make it workable, with water, straw and horse manure slowly added. 

mixing the clay, straw and horse manure

The best method of applying this clay mix to the walls was to throw it on by hand.  Chucking mud, that’s how I spend my holidays.

This was the gable end before:

And this was after:

The lesson was clear enough: in the past people built houses from materials they could find locally.  With the closure of almost all the saw mills and stone and roofing flag quarries in the Yorkshire Dales National Park, it’s not really what we do anymore. 

What of the future of Peter Kaiser’s longhouse?  He wasn’t particularly optimistic.  The reason he and others had built it in the first place was to try to attract people to visit the village.  He’d planned to build a mini-village of reconstructed longhouses.  But it hadn’t worked out.  Money was hard to find, including for the marketing infrastructure required to promote the place.  Still, after being patched up, it should remain standing for a few years yet.   “Thank you,” he said, when the re-roofing was complete and darkness returned to the longhouse interior.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Picture of Andrew Fagg

Andrew Fagg

Media Officer, Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority

Website: www.yorkshiredales.org.uk

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *