Apr 13 2011 By Dan Coombs
Harmondsworth Barn is Hillingdon's best kept secret, built in 1423
THE best preserved historic barn in the whole country is in need of hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of repairs - but a legal fight is threatening the project.
Harmondsworth Barn is Hillingdon's best kept secret, built in 1423, but a mystery has surrounded it since it was taken over by an offshore company in 2006.
Described by English Heritage as a national treasure it is often referred to as 'The Timber Cathedral of Middlesex.'
At 192 feet long and 37 feet high, the barn is in impeccable condition despite the surviving more than half a millennium. Or at least it was.
The barn was bought in 2006 as an investment for a company based in Gibraltar for as little as £1, who refer to themselves as Harmondsworth Barn Ltd. They were speculating on a possible payout from any compensation scheme linked to Heathrow expansion, even though the barn itself would have narrowly avoided the third runway.
Since 2006 English Heritage say little has been done to look after the barn, and it is closed to the public throughout the year, apart from on Open House weekend, which is held every September.
The Government quango have been issuing enforcement notices to the barn's owners since 2008, that they must pay for the upkeep of the barn but reported no response, as its condition has slowly deteriorated.
This year, English Heritage secured an order for emergency works, carrying out £30,000 of emergency repairs to the barn, fixing holes which had appeared in its roof.
Mike Dunn, team leader of the city and north London division at English Heritage, said: "The £30,000 has been spent mostly on roof repair work, there were lots of slipped tiles, and broken tiles, creating holes in the roof. That allows rain water in the barn which we want to avoid. It was a large portion of the roof which needed work.
"We also needed to work on some of the weather boards on the sides. Unusually with this barn, the weather boards may even be the originals. Most get replaced at some stage, and this work had to be done very carefully. These are temporary works, not permanent, and will need upgrading after a year.
"There is quite a lot more that requires work. The timber frames need repairs, and the roof needs a permanent solution. The works would likely cost a few hundred thousand pounds, so what has been spent is a drop in the ocean."
To secure permission to go ahead with the works, English Heritage managed to declassify its listed status, from a scheduled ancient monument, to a Grade I listed building. This helped speed up the process for the works as a compulsory enforcement order was able to be issued a lot more speedily, but is something the owners have objected to. English Heritage of course want to reclaim the money they have spent on it, and a legal battle is ongoing, with a High Court date set for April 2012.
Nigel Barker, head of regional partnerships for London at English Heritage, said: "It is now a Grade I listed building, making these changes made it easier to carry out the works. They say we should not have changed its status. We say we have backing from the secretary of state, and it is public money that has been spent on it.
"We have spent £30,000 refurbishing the barn. We have offered to settle out of court but they do not want to. The owners are for some reason trying to bring the Department of Culture, Media and Sport into the case. The owners do provide security, but it is still inaccessible to the public at the moment."
Mr Dunn added: "The court date is set for around next year, the earliest that was available. We will continue to pursue this, may be we can come to a settlement before. We are not necessarily trying to buy it. We are trying to get the owners to take responsibility.
"We would encourage them selling it, or giving it to the nation. It has got a deficit on it because of the repairs, so it has no value. It's a treasure of national importance.
"It has no profitable use, and it should be open to the public. All of this could be a long way down the line, but it is a heritage site and should be preserved."
"It was built in 1423 we know that from our archive records and we have had tree ring experts examine the wood to confirm this. It was built by the Bishop of Winchester. It is not quite the oldest barn in the country, but probably the best preserved."
There is one glimmer of light for the barn, with the cancellation of the third runway project. Rumours the barn would have had to be dismantled piece by piece and rebuilt elsewhere were rejected by Mr Dunn.
"The third runway as it was would have been right in front of the barn. It's setting would have been ruined."
After the barn was taken over in 2006, a community group formed calling themselves the Friends of Harmondsworth Barn.
Philip Sherwood, member and historian, said: "The barn's old owners went into administration, and the barn was put up for sale for £1. Hillingdon Council had the opportunity to buy it, but decided not to because of the upkeep. The National Trust and English Heritage decided the same.
"The people who did buy it have had their fingers burnt financially really. What English Heritage have done over the past year has been very positive."