Last Friday we made an exciting discovery at Spain’s Field. After taking out the mid-Victorian range in the main living room, we found behind it the remains of a Georgian brick-built beehive bread oven. These types of bread ovens were known as beehives because of their conical form – the traditional shape for a beehive. It is similar in construction to the one at Pockerley Old Hall back at Beamish. Originally, the rear of the oven would have bulged out beyond the gable wall, as the one at Pockerley does, but at Spain’s Field, this was destroyed and filled in when the kitchen and additional bedroom were squeezed in between the older house and the cow byre. The front of the oven has been largely destroyed with the insertion of the newer range.
We suspected that there might be a beehive oven present because of the of the visible scarring in the stone work that could be seen behind the Victorian range, as well as the odd building lines in the exterior wall of the gable end. Additionally, the large bressumer (load-bearing) beam that ran from the interior of the external wall to the doorway, indicated that there had been an open inglenook hearth before the range, possibly with a peat plate and oven crane. The bread oven seems to date from the mid-Georgian period given the bricks used to make it.
We also uncovered the stone shelves of a former salt cupboard behind the later Victorian kitchen cupboard, which were built into the gable end wall. The salt cupboard would have been used to store and keep dry salt, spices and potentially other valuable items. The discovery of the oven helps to confirm our feeling that the older section of the farm house is early to mid-Georgian, and adds another layer of understanding to the story of the farm and its occupants. Beehive ovens were common in farms and houses in the area, indeed Thrush Nest (eventually owned by the same family who lived at Spain’s Field), which is just down the valley has one too. However, as happened at Spain’s Field, many were buried or destroyed by the addition of later ranges, making Spain’s Field’s a fairly rare survivor. The mid- Victorian range that was installed in front of the oven was made by Altham’s of Penrith, who were a well known local ironmongers that were established in 1831. Though damaged by rust and vandalism, the range was clearly high-quality and suggests that the occupants of Spain’s Field at that time were not too badly off- indeed they had enough money to purchase the range and make improvements to their farmhouse.
The oven and range have now been carefully recorded in situ and dismantled as part of the translocation of the farm buildings.