28 November 1997

Kentish history is rebuilt as farmhouse heritage saved…

In old houses, history lives.

Shame, then, when they fall

into disrepair. But one

traditional Kent farmhouse

has been saved, thanks to a

ground-breaking scheme. It

recently opened its doors to

the public. Tim Relf was

given a guided tour

WHEN John Sharman talks about moving house, he means it literally – or, at least, he does in the case of Petts Farmhouse.

Over the last two years this 18th century house has been dismantled, moved three miles and reassembled. Now, saved from dereliction, it stands proudly as the latest addition to the collection of buildings at the Museum of Kent Life, Maidstone.

Its in good company: Already on the site are a large reed-thatched barn rebuilt there in 1989 and a granary relocated four years ago.

Moving Petts Farmhouse has been a painstaking process done tile by tile, brick by brick and timber by timber. And, remember, there were 9000 roof tiles, 10,000 bricks and 5000 pieces of timber.

&#42 Labour of love

Its been a labour of love for project carpenter John Sharman. His brief was to reconstruct the building exactly as it was. And exactly means exactly – every item going back in the same place, the same roof line, the same multiple coats of wallpaper, the same sloping floors.

As Mr Sharman says: "We might as well have thrown the spirit level out the window."

The biggest challenge was the chimney, he says. Serving six fireplaces, it alone had 6000 bricks. Taking it down in the run-up to Christmas 1995 marked five weeks work.

Not the best of conditions to be working outside in, either. "We were up to our ankles in mud. Then the snow started."

The re-plastering was another big challenge, taking another 12 weeks. To recreate the original a horse hair, lime and sand mix was used.

"As soon as you put it up on the ceiling it would come straight back down at you if you didnt get the consistency just right," says Mr Sharman.

Canterbury Archaeological Trusts Rupert Austin, who played a key role in the move, likens the task to a "giant, three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle".

As to whether he would want to live in it? "Well, it might be nice to try as a summer house – but you would miss the modern amenities," says Mr Austin.

Re-constructed as original, Petts has neither the luxury of a toilet nor running water. It would be hot in summer, cold in winter. Its a matter of opinion whether, in these days of central heating, matching curtains and carpets and electric garage doors, it would be, as estate agents say, a "des res".

"But the people who lived in it in the 18th-century probably considered themselves quite lucky," says Mr Austin. It was not lavish, but it was comfortable for the times.

&#42 How they lived

Looking at the house gives a fascinating insight into how people in the countryside once lived. For the team who moved Petts Farmhouse, it was a also a continual process of discovery.

They found a childs leather shoe under the floorboards in the master bedroom, put there, seemingly, either to provide protection against witchcraft or as a fertility talisman for a childless couple.

The shoe was replaced, of course, in its original position. Also concealed were one of Mr Sharmans shoes (in a secret location) and a time-capsule.

Such insights into late 20th-century life are only ever likely to be unearthed if the house is moved again. And the chances of this seem small.

The museum attracted nearly 50,000 visitors last year. Kent County Councils Simon Hawkins says, by blending education and enjoyment, it gives a unique insight into the rural history in which the county is so steeped.

Among its many features are a working oast and the huts in which Londoners once lived during their annual visits to work in the countys hop fields.

Petts Farmhouse has, it seems, found a safe home.

&#8226 Inquiries: Museum of Kent Life (01622-763936).

Child visitors dressed as in a bygone age make Petts Farmhouse

feel at home

on its new site.