Alston's bastle derivative houses
Said to be the highest market town in England, Alston possesses a large number of unusual bastle type houses. In all there were originally around sixty of these buildings, typified by accommodation at the ground floor level for live-stock, with first floor accommodation for the owners. Access to the first floor living quarters was by an external staircase, very typical of the Border, Cumbrian and Northumbrian bastle houses of the 17th and 18th centuries. Bastle houses proper, were built for safety and defence, utilising removable external staircases, small barred windows, thick walls and sometimes barrel vaulted ground floor spaces. These buildings would have been used for holding livestock when perhaps a Reiver raid was under way, providing protection from the raiders for the owners in the first floor accommodation. Stone\tiled roofs would have protected the owners from the threat of fire from above, and stone floors or barrel vaulted ground floor spaces would have protected them from the threat of fire below. It’s most likely that the bastle building layout proved to be very useful in the areas in and around Alston….so much so that many of the surviving examples date from the 1800 and 1900s….much later than the true bastle houses at Annat Walls and High Lovelady for example, which are proper defensive buildings built in the true bastle tradition.
The original sixty or so bastle derivative houses in Alston has now been reduced to around a dozen examples, but where external staircases have been removed, many houses still bear the scars of bricked up first floor doorways. The small collection photographed on my recent visit, probably represent the best surviving examples of this type of building.
Cross View Cottage, Market Place
This is a house very reminiscent of Scottish town houses, standing to four storeys, and dates from around 1697 when it was built as a pair of shops.
There doesn’t seem to be any evidence that the ground floor was ever used for livestock in the particular instance, so it is likely that this is a building of a slightly different tradition than its neighbours.
Hamilton House, Kings Arm Lane
Hidden away down a narrow lane less than a hundred yards from Townfoot, Hamilton House has been recently renovated to a very high standard.
This building is also constructed of coursed rubble with what looks to be an original, albeit very repaired, stone slated roof. The most interesting point, and still visible above the hood moulded door, are the two blocked off first floor doorways.
Peter F. Ryder indicates that this building probably dates from the 19th century as it does not appear on a map of 1775. This is therefore an excellent example of a much later house, being built utilising the bastle tradition of layout.
Jaycott, Back 'O The Burn
This was my favourite bastle house, and it has definitely held onto its original features.
Jaycott is to be found just off Front Street at the start of Back O’ The Burn. Jaycott has retained its external staircase leading to a central doorway and blocked windows just beneath the eaves, as well as a blocked door on the first floor of the South wall.
Peter F. Ryder tells us that the ground floor walls are over half a metre thick.
The Old Cottage, Kate's Lane
A few yards along Kate’s Lane, and beautifully restored, is the Olde Cottage. The windows, as part of the restoration, have been enlarged, though it has retained its external stair to a door at first floor level.
The Old House, Kate's Lane
Kate’s Lane is access through a narrow yard on the West side of the market place. In the North West corner, is the Old House, no renovated and inhabited.
This building has lost its external staircase, but retains the blocked door in the front wall at first floor level.
Town Foot, Front Street
Townfoot can be found on the North side of Front Street at the junction of Station Road. Probably built in the mid 18th century, it is built of whitewashed coursed rubble with a typical slated roof.
The external stairway survives as does the external evidence of an oven, protruding where the house butts up against next door. This building is Grade II listed, and is one of the most easily viewable of Alston’s bastle houses.
There are obviously better examples of bastles in Cumbria….examples with real defensive features built into their fabic, such as the high status Townhead Bastle near Newbiggin, Bayles Hill House, Low Nest Bastle and Annat Walls (the latter three near Alston)…but as a group of buildings that have obviously been designed and built using the specific architectural features common to bastle houses, they are unique and worthy of study.