Even as it stands now, with the elaborate timber structure of its roof, its large traceried windows, and the array of doors leading off the former screens passage, it ranks as a hall of great importance, and certainly of great beauty.
There is no trace of the early medieval house, belonging to the Cotele family. But in the late 14th century the last Cotele left his property to a cousin, Robert Palton. Robert died in 1400 and was succeeded by his brother William, then aged 21. It was William who rebuilt the manor house in about 1420, at the same time that he and other Croscombe families were restoring the parish church. The Palton coat of arms appears in both buildings, and on the tower of St. Cuthbert’s, Wells.
William had no children, and on his death in 1449 his property passed to his second wife, Anne, who was a member of the Courtenay family, of Powderham in Devon. She soon married again, this time to another Devonian, a Densell of Weare Gifford. The manor of Croscombe was to remain as an outlying property of Devon landowners until c.1730. Anne’s daughter by her second marriage, Elizabeth Densell, married Martin Fortescue of Filleigh, North Devon, and her Somerset property passed to that family. The Fortescues continued as absentee landlords for the following two centuries, but in the first half of the 18th century Hugh Fortescue, Earl Clinton, sold the greater part of his land there, mostly to existing tenants.
It is unlikely that the Fortescues made any use of the Croscombe manor house. They may have visited it occasionally, leaving it in the mean time in the charge of a steward. From surviving manorial accounts it seems that even by 1450 it was already partly let to tenants. Inevitably it decayed, and a wing at the eastern end (now lost) was rebuilt, on a smaller scale. The western end became a separate cottage. The hall itself survived, however, and was in use as a chapel by 1723; this possibly before the date at which, according to the Somerset historian Phelps, it was bought 'by a respectable inhabitant of the place and converted into a chapel for the use of a congregation of Baptists'. A memorial table to him, or more probably his son, is still in the hall.
The Baptists made several minor alterations to the chapel and to the cottage throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, all carefully noted down in the Church Books. In 1824 a tank was installed for baptisms, saving a cold plunge in the River Sheppey; new pews and a rostrum were fitted in 1866, a new ceiling in 1882, and repairs to the roof, the windows, and 'colouring' were regularly carried out. For the most part the Old Hall could not have had better occupants, nursing the building into the present century. By 1973 the congregation had shrunk to only four or five, and the building was in danger of collapse at the eastern end. The cottage had been empty since 1947. It was in the nick of time that the Old Hall was discovered by the architect John Schofield, who shored up the gable himself, and persuaded the Baptists to sell. It was bought the Landmark Trust in 1975.
Architectural description of the Old Hall
Landmarkers enter first today into the current kitchen. Originally, the main entrance would have led into the screens passage of the main hall. Today we enter the hall from the south, although originally the main entrance was through the grander doorway on the north, with the second doorway directly opposite, in the standard medieval pattern. Between these entrance doorways and the main body of the hall there stood a timber screen on a moulded stone base, two sections of which survive loose in the building. On the other side of the passage, in the end wall of the hall, are doors leading to the western wing. From the first door a stair led up to a chamber on the first floor. The other two doors led into service rooms off the hall, probably a buttery and a pantry.
For the moment, however, you are in the hall, and over your head is the sumptuous oak roof, divided into four bays, with five arch-braced trusses. Their smooth curves are echoed in the three tiers of windbraces on the side slopes, and by the unusual and elegant pear-shape formed by the struts in the apex, above the collar beam. Light floods in through three tall windows with carved stone heads, but in the south wall, at the High End, instead of a fourth window is a large blocked arch. This was not in fact another window, but the entrance to an oriel chamber. Today we think of an oriel as projecting from an upper floor, but in medieval times the term was applied to any small addition, and chiefly to a bay at the High End of a hall which could serve as a small private chamber for the lord. Sometimes this chamber also provided access into the main rooms beyond the hall, and this was the case at Croscombe. In the garden wall outside there is still the doorway that led from the oriel chamber into what was once a cross-wing; and in the outer face of the east wall can be seen the fireplace that heated the solar or upper room in this wing.
How was the hall itself heated? The answer seems to be by a fireplace in the end wall, on the dais. In about 1600 the solar wing was demolished and a new addition built in its place, with a new fireplace. The hall fireplace was dismantled and turned round to face the other way, and some fragments of moulded stone used to provide the lintel. This later fireplace is still there on the outside wall. The stove that heats the hall now is Gurney’s Patent, and came from Romsey Abbey in 1976.
Light for the hall at night was provided by torches, and a remarkable survival is the bracket that held these, in the south wall. This bracket also helps us historically, since it bears the arms of the Palton family: Robert’s with those of his wife Elizabeth Botreaux, and William’s with those of his first wife, heiress to the Wellington family – thus providing evidence that William was the builder, after his marriage in about 1410.
From the hall you pass into the room that is now the kitchen. This was once divided, and both rooms were unheated; the existing fireplace is 19th century. The window over the sink is medieval, as are the ceiling joists, except for one section where it can be seen that new timber has been inserted, where the stairs to the upper floor were. Beyond the kitchen you are in a 19th century addition, into which a bathroom and staircase were fitted in 1976. At the top of the staircase, however, is a medieval doorway leading back into the chamber above the kitchen. This doorway connected, apparently via a staircase turret, with a wing which is thought to have extended southwards, to form one side of a courtyard on the site of the present garden. This wing may have contained the kitchens. The chamber itself has a medieval fireplace and window, but the blocked windows looking into the hall are much later, dating from the time when the manor house was in decline, and divided into several dwellings.