“Of course, this story is really anything to do with us,” said Ian Baker*, as we stood in his walled garden in the Cotswolds. We were looking at the right-hand side wall, as it ran down the hill, in a market town where wool trading, then milling, had been the traditional cornerstones of wealth.
Battens in Wall for Lean-To
This wall was clearly much older than the others and had been repaired and rebuilt a number of times over the centuries. But what was still just about evident were timber battens at head height, built into the wall.
“This is crumbling quite badly and the battens are rotten, so I need to dig them out and replace them with decent Cotswolds stone, I think” Ian continued, reaching up and picking out a section with his fingers, “but you can clearly see the outline of the lean-to shed where they stored wood for the coffins.”
Historic Garden Building
This was the reason we were standing there, trying to work out what sort of garden building had been there. The Bakers had moved in around three years ago and had just begun to piece together bits of the history. The oldest resident in the street had lived next door and although she had died a few years before the Bakers’ arrival, she had told another neighbour many of the stories of the ancient street.
It was from this neighbour that the purpose of the lean-to shed in the garden became clear. The main part of the L-shaped house is a town house, probably built on the hill about three hundred years ago, although no-one is quite sure. The second part, the foot of the L, goes backwards into the garden and is probably much newer, although still old.
Building Detective Work
Walled up apertures in this second part show that it was either a barn or workshop. There were double doors on the ground floor and a single door on the second, where there would have been a pulley on a small derrick to raise and lower sacks or crates.
There is an enclosed passageway leading from this loading area, under the first storey of the town house and into the road. It’s not quite wide enough for a car, but would take a small cart, particular one that transported long, narrow items like wood and coffins.
“The neighbour told us that the barn was used as a workshop for building coffins for the local undertaker, although there’s no suggestion that dead bodies were ever stored there,” Ian said, “and the shape of this lean-to indicates that it would have been very long.
There was also a concrete base running down this side of the garden, about seven feet wide, so obviously a long and wide but low garden building had been there. The speculation is that it was used as a store for the long planks of wood used to construct the coffins.
Future of the Lean-To Garden Building Site
“The concrete is a bit of a pain, to be honest,” said Ian, who has currently covered it up with raised vegetable beds. “But we can’t grow any root vegetables, really, as the soil is only a foot or so thick.”
“So we’re thinking of resurrecting the lean-to idea, but this time with a greenhouse. But to give us decent headroom it will have to be a fair bit taller, so we need to mount battens higher up and that means repairing the wall properly first. But I think it would look good and be very effective, as it’s a south facing wall,” he said.
So the lean-to garden building may be resurrected after all, although for a less macabre purpose, attending to life rather than death.
* names have been changed