Nairn’s London #21
Harmondsworth Tithe Barn
THEN: An astonishing village, to start with, only half a mile from London Airport’s runways: a tiny green with too many rose bushes on it, two village pubs, and a simple village church. The grandeur is behind the church, in the ancestor of all the hundreds of tile and tarred-weatherboard barns that survive around London. A hundred and ninety feet long, probably fifteenth-century; the tiled roof is so big that it fills the whole view as you come to it from the churchyard. Inside, twelve great luminous bays, timber framed, with no attempt to make the beams Gothic, and all the more memorable for that. Timeless: and the word is not a careless superlative. With no real greatness in any of the Airport hangars, here is a five-hundred-year-old shed which could hold light aeroplanes almost without alteration, and with complete understanding of the strange ecstasy of flying.
NOW: We visited one hungover Sunday morning. The village itself doesn’t seem to have changed all that much since Nairn’s day; a pretty village green and two quaint pubs (one of which satiated our sugar low with a couple of pints of coke.) The barn is impressive, especially on a sunny day – the burnt orange tiles offset against a bright blue sky. It somehow feels larger inside than out – a curiosity as it is vast upon approach. Its scale prompted John Betjeman to call it the Cathedral of Middlesex. English Heritage run the site, and this was one of the last chances to see inside before it closes for the winter. There were several displays inside – showing photos from Nairn’s time and earlier. They’ve really done a fantastic job with the upkeep. It doesn’t seem to have changed at all. The beams are magnificent – medieval carpentry at its best. A beautiful spectacle.