Behind the Scenes

How old is Wiston Estate? Q&A with Mike Murphy, Estate Foreman

How old is Wiston Estate? Q&A with Mike Murphy, Estate Foreman

From the Battle of Hastings to the Second World War, Sussex contains some of the most essential sites and stories in British history. Wiston Estate forms a perfect slice of its county’s long life: local sites like Buncton were recorded as far back as the Domesday book, and many of its buildings bear the marks of centuries-old craftsmanship.

Mike Murphy, Wiston Estate’s Foreman, explains how the building team’s work on its historic farms and barns keeps its history alive, and prepares the estate and its visitors for a sustainable future. 

Hi Mike! What is your role at Wiston Estate? 

I am the Estate Foreman and the purpose of my role is to manage the historical and heritage assets to enable the estate to run as smoothly as possible. As well as managing the building team, I line manage the Woodland Manager who is responsible for the forestry and rural maintenance across the estate. I also supervise the head gardener who runs a gardening team maintaining the grounds Grade I* Listed Wiston House. My responsibilities include the maintenance of the estates assets to include 105 residential homes, a portfolio of commercial buildings to include offices and industrial units and farm buildings located across ten farms. I have been working at Wiston for four years. When I first started, I was provided with a very helpful report researching the historic barns on the estate and the key areas of immediate liability, especially where the buildings are Listed.

Working with our heritage building expert, the Goring family and my team we have more recently been implementing basic repairs to include clearing vegetation around the barns to more substantial levels of work. In 2021 my team worked on Locks Barn located on a working farm as part of an AHA agreement. The tenant has been in occupation since 1981 and was able to advise on various repairs the estate had undertaken.

How old are the farms on Wiston Estate?

 One of the oldest barns dates back to the 15th Century and is known as Guessgate. Our rarest barn is Great Barn located south of Wiston House and originally this was known as Home Farm which was once the main farm that provided produce for Wiston House. We believe this barn dates back to around the 17th Century. The heritage specialist who carried out the survey on the barn recently said the roof was of a continental design . 

The farm at Buncton was mentioned in the Domesday Book, which dates it back to the 11th Century. The Estate Team has recently completed refurbishing Buncton Manor farmhouse, a handsome Grade II Listed farmhouse.

What’s the history of Flint Barn, which houses Chalk, our restaurant?

North Farm used to be the Estate’s turkey farm in the 1980s. The refurbishment was very sympathetic to its history as an old threshing barn. It’s a beautiful building with flint walls and oak beams, and the refurbishment has allowed us to revert to a handmade clay tile roof. The vaulted roof exposes the rafters and you can see all the timberwork and purlins. The decision to keep it on one floor, allows our customers to dine in this glorious open space. 

What kind of historic features have surveys uncovered on Wiston’s barns? 

‘Daisy wheels’ have been discovered on some of the historic barns. They are believed to have been put in for prosperity, to show the carpenters wished the house and people who lived there well. The daisy wheel design is believed to represent the sun and you might see it on a newel post of a staircase (the main post on your staircase) or on thresholds like doorways, lintels, or door posts. 

‘Witches’ marks’, sometimes known as ‘witch marks’, or ‘apotropaic’ markings have also appeared at some of our barns. Carpenters used to put them on lintels, around doorways or on fireplaces to keep witches and evil spirits away from their flock. 

Our heritage advisor also found French graffiti in Lower Chancton and we believe that dated back to around the Napoleonic Wars. Some of the architectural timbers are unusual for Sussex – Great Barn, the advisor said,  would very likely have had a French carpenter working on the design. This barn is very similar to Owl’s Croft. He also noted that the main house is made with Caen stone, which is unusual. Hawking Soper’s Barn, which is next to Hawking Soper’s cottage, is named after the old hawker, whose name was Soper – another French connection, we believe.

What kind of big projects are you working on over the next 18 months?

We’ve recently finished work on Locks Barn, it was storm racked and the whole roof was leaning at an acute angle. The roof had to be completely stripped and re-aligned. This involved replacing a number of timbers including 2 x 8 meter long tie beams. We had the privilege of using some of the Oak from the Estate’s own woodland. We have two property refurbishments ongoing at the moment as well as continued planned maintenance and residential repairs. This autumn we will continue to support the work at North Farm.

Next year we plan to move on to the barn at Guessgate Farm, which sits on Spithandle Lane – people might know it because it’s a popular place for bluebell walks in the spring. The farm is a late 15th or mid-16th century building and Grade II Listed, of which the barn is part of its curtilage. It’s a remarkable building to work on because there are few examples left of a barn of this age that have the original roof structure nearly fully intact. 

What is the role of sustainability in your work on Wiston Estate? 

I’ve been in the building industry since I was 18 and it’s frightening when you look at the figures – the Construction industry is one of the worst areas across the world for wastage and materials. Carbon footprint across the construction industries is daunting. For example, although new-build homes may be hitting the energy ratings that they require, the products going into them such as plasterboards, foams and fibreglass are not natural products that will break down. They will just sit in landfill when thrown away. Traditionally, builders used to use a lot of natural and compostable products, for example sheep wool or wood for insulation. It literally came from the farm straight into the building. Straw, mud – these are natural products that leave no trace. 

Here we have 1,000 acres of woodland. Working with the Woodland Manager, I am selecting timber which his team has felled, to keep aside for the building team to use. Recently a section of woodland was thinned that had some oak, we have put some aside for the Estate’s use and Locks Barn, which I mentioned earlier. The two tie beams came from oak trees that have been felled and seasoned, and a local mill that sits within five miles of the barn prepared them for us. Using natural local products really does help when we are restoring buildings using traditional methods as well. Our teams are very passionate about maintaining these buildings, and maintaining them traditionally. 

Richard Goring has set up a sustainability group that gets together every eight to twelve weeks to share news and ideas from our diverse fields across the estate. It’s interesting listening to everyone and their ideas to improve sustainability on the Estate. This is what we are all here for, really, we want this estate to be here for the future generations to enjoy. 

We have tenants that have lived on the estate for 64 years plus. They know the estate, as well and if not better than some of us. When they find out that we are working on a building that they might have visited 10 or 20 years ago, they’re pleased because they know that although they don’t get to see it every day, someone else will enjoy it. Working on the barns feels like a labour of love: the history of what the team is working on will go on.