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The Architecture of Swithland, Leicestershire

Swithland is a small, linear settlement in Charnwood Forest, seven miles north-west of Leicester. Its built environment makes extensive use of Cambrian stone quarried locally, principally pinkish-grey Mountsorrel granite, and grey-blue Swithland slate. This geological confluence is unique to the region; a few miles north begin the Coal Measures, with their ‘lobster or tomato-red’ brick former pit villages, a trend continued west of Charnwood and south of Leicester. Head east towards the Northamptonshire border, and we see iron-tinted limestone cottages, some with Collyweston slate roofs.

This contrast in building materials is brought into greater relief at Swithland, as its architectural character is arguably the most consistent within the Charnwood Forest’s geological ‘island’. To understand why, we must examine how land ownership and industrial processes guided the use of these local stones in shaping Swithland’s vernacular appeal.

Typical Mountsorrel granite and Swithland slate cottages along Main Street, Swithland. Image: Struan Bates.

Swithland isn’t mentioned in the Domesday Book, but evidence shows the estate under the control of a succession of Norman lords, with the positioning of clusters of different status buildings being settled by the thirteenth century. Three open fields were grouped around the single thoroughfare, Main Street, following the curve of a brook to the south. Higher status buildings were situated at its eastern end, including the original manor house, now gone (the site was near to the surviving Hall Farm, which possibly sits on the medieval demesne land). Opposite this is St Leonard’s church, with its tower and arcades dating to the thirteenth century.

St Leonard’s provides the earliest evidence of the vernacular techniques that would come to characterise Swithland’s architecture. The thirteenth century walled base of its tower combines both granite and Swithland slate. The granite blocks, roughly dressed due to the limitations of medieval tools, would have been transported from the quarry at Mountsorrel, a couple of miles away. Swithland slate is incorporated as wedge-shaped pieces of grey rubble stone, also roughly dressed, and almost certainly quarried from pits in and around Swithland Wood, to the west of the village. When taken from the ground the slate is light grey-blue, but weathers to develop leaf-green or purple hues. It is also extremely durable and versatile.

St Leonard’s church, Swithland. Image: Struan Bates.

In 1435 the Danvers family inherited the manor of Swithland, and the height of St Leonard’s tower was raised in the fifteenth century. As a higher status building, it would have been one of the first to be given a Swithland slate roof (though used in Roman Leicester, the slate only appears to have been used on Swithland roofs after the demise of thatch). Swithland slates are typically thick, (1¼ inches), and as the local quarries could not provide them in uniform sizes, were placed in diminishing courses – an attractive technique that also helps to accentuate the pitch of the roof.

While uncoursed walls of granite and slate rubble can appear heavy and lacking refinement, they gain greater decorative appeal when offset against the smoother, darker, Swithland roof slates. This juxtaposition would have the greatest lasting significance for the development of Swithland’s unique character.

Later infill now connects the east of the village with the narrower plots to the west, originally dwellings for agricultural and quarry workers, though the physical separation is still somewhat apparent. One building that marks a transition is 124 Main Street (Pit Close Cottage). While the exterior largely dates from the seventeenth century, the cottage is one of the few surviving to retain its thatched roof. Here perhaps is the best example of a Swithland slate rubble-stoned wall building as it would have appeared before the village-wide adoption of slate roofing: one-and-a-half storeys, with casement windows, eyebrow dormers, and red brick used minimally for short chimney stacks.

 Left: 124 Main Street. It is not clear when the whitewashed plastering was first applied to the rubble stone walls. Right: 137 Main Street illustrates the transition to Swithland slate roofing, but retains a characteristic, though updated, fenestration. Images: Struan Bates.

Further west, approaching Swithland Wood, are the two-storey former worker cottages, similarly built in granite and Swithland slate, though with later façades. An examination of their interiors and plot rears would be needed to establish if any medieval fabric remains.

From the eighteenth century onwards, the Danvers’ estate ownership would play an increasing role in establishing local granite and slate as central to Swithland’s architectural character. One reason appears to be the limited number of households able to develop properties. Davis (2004) has shown that between 1788 and 1910 only 5-7 individuals owned land in Swithland, a tiny number compared to villages nearby. This period spans Swithland’s enclosure in 1799, where all subsequent land claims were rejected. This suggests that the Danvers family retained a strong guiding hand over the built environment.

Another reason was the family’s accelerated exploitation of landowning rights through the industrialisation of Swithland slate quarrying. The introduction of gunpowder allowed slate to be extracted from greater depths, with the resultant trade swelling the estate’s fortunes. By 1800, more workers’ cottages were being built towards Main Street’s west end, with the Griffin and Slatesplitters hostelries opening to provide refreshment. Each building was again constructed or redeveloped with granite and Swithland slate walls, and a now-ubiquitous (and presumably cheaper) Swithland slate roof.

The last category of building that appears to have developed along Main Street from 1750 onwards were farms. There are three, each with yards entered directly from the road. Hall Farm, as mentioned, survives from the original manor house land, and in 1749-50 received two new barns. ‘Sir Joseph Danvers, Baronet’ is inscribed inside one, making it reasonable to assume that the proud choice of local granite, slate rubble stone and Swithland slate roof tiles was specified by the family. Again, brick is used minimally as window decoration.

It’s unclear looking at Swithland’s 1799 map if Pit Close Farm and Longlands Farm pre-existed enclosure, but both farmhouses (now private homes), share the fabric of Hall Farm’s barn walls and roofs. Each range has casement windows with cambered brick lintels and red brick roof stacks.

The Swithland slate boundary wall around Hall Farm. The barn is one of two surviving. The turret, also one of two surviving, is thought to be a boundary folly, and dates from a similar period. Image: Struan Bates.

A final building of note from this period is North Lodge (1847), a short distance from the rest of Main Street, and somewhat anomalous with its projecting Tudor bay windows and arched arcade. A decision appears to have been made to harmonise the lodge with the rest of Main Street, as the new manor house (1834), for which the lodge serves, was built in a neo-classical style and is not visible from the road.

The success of Swithland’s native slate industry would, however, be short-lived. Welsh slate – cheaper, lighter, and more thinly cleavable – flooded into the area in the nineteenth century, forcing the last Swithland slate quarry to close in 1887. By this point, more industrially-developed villages nearby could boast fine Georgian and Victorian brick buildings. Swithland had almost none.

The demise of slate quarrying in Swithland was followed by a coda of sorts with the advent of the Arts and Crafts movement. The architect-designer Ernest Gimson built a series of cottages in Charnwood, inspired by its craggy outcrops and ancient woodlands. The architect of 24 Main Street, Swithland, is unknown, though this early-twentieth century property shares the rough-hewn slate rubble stone walls and massive exterior stone chimney stack of Gimson’s Stoneywell Cottage (1899). Further research would be needed to understand why these architects were inspired at this particular time to add their own accents to Charnwood’s rustic architectural language.

Left: North Lodge incorporates Tudor features with characteristic Swithland materials. Right: 24 Main Street attempts something similar in an Arts and Crafts style. Images: Struan Bates.

Legislation in the twentieth century would be largely successful in protecting Swithland’s architectural character, though, in newer homes, excessive red brick has encroached on attempts to retain traditional slate and granite façades (though reclaimed Swithland slate used in boundary walling has gone some way to mitigating these missteps). Houses in the village still never rise above two storeys, and modern dormers are much in evidence, echoing the older cottages.

The architectural character of Swithland is therefore largely a result of geological circumstance, its fortunes as an estate village, and the relatively short life of the slate quarrying industry for which it is best known.

Bibliography

Charnwood Borough Council, Swithland Conservation Area Character Appraisal (Loughborough, 2013).

A. Clifton-Taylor, The Pattern of English Building, 4th edition (London, 1987).

V. Davis, ‘Charnwood Forest: Population. Landownership and Environmental Perception, c.1775-1914’, unpublished PhD thesis (University of Leicester, 2004).

A. Horton and J. Harrald, Strategic Stone Study: A Building Stone Atlas of Leicestershire (London, 2017).

A. McWhirr, ‘The Roman Swithland Slate Industry’, Leicestershire Archaeological and Historical Society Transactions, 62 (Leicester, 1988).

N. Pevsner and E.Williamson, The Buildings of England: Leicestershire and Rutland, 2nd edition (London, 1984).

S. Young and C. Ayres, ‘Swithland Slate Industry’, Leicestershire Victoria County History Trust Charnwood Roots Databank, https://archive.charnwoodroots.org/report/6238 (Leicester, 2017).

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