History of the Knole Barn

Veronica Walker-Smith, Volunteer Archivist Veronica Walker-Smith Volunteer Archivist
The interior of the Conservation Studio at Knole

The Knole Barn, a 600-year-old building with a 21st-century interior. The earliest reference to the ‘Great Barn’ is in 1478, when Archbishop Thomas Bourchier bought the manor and estate of Knole and created an impressive residence mid-way between Canterbury and London.

Built of Kentish ragstone, facing Stable Court, its north-facing slit windows ensured ventilation yet allowed cool storage conditions for hay and grain. For the next three centuries it continued in use as Knole’s ownership passed from the See of Canterbury to the Tudor Monarchy and in 1604, to the aristocratic Sackville family, well connected to the Stuart Court. 

In 1887, the Barn suffered an intense fire. Newspaper reports described the medieval roof burning fiercely for five days and 250 tons of hay destroyed. Fire crews with horse-drawn steam pumps attracted many spectators.

The fire of 1887 which destroyed the roof of the barn at Knole, Kent
Crowds of people watch as the barn at Knole, Kent goes up in flames
The fire of 1887 which destroyed the roof of the barn at Knole, Kent

Victorian repairs resulted in a flat, crenelated roof considered fashionable at the time. By 1946, when Knole was gifted to the National Trust, the Barn was used mostly to garage vehicles. 

The barn at Knole, with its flat, crenelated roof, fashionable in Victorian times
An exterior view of the barn at Knole, showing the Victorian flat roof
The barn at Knole, with its flat, crenelated roof, fashionable in Victorian times

In 2013, the £20 million Heritage Lottery-Funded Inspired by Knole Project was approved to preserve Knole’s Grade I-listed buildings and collection and open new spaces for visitors. The Barn was central to this vision: a fully accessible 21st-century conservation studio in a 600-year-old building. The flat roof was replaced with a new gabled structure echoing the medieval pitch. 

Visit the Royal Oak Foundation Conservation Studio at Knole
The new gabled roof put in place in 2016 at the barn, Knole, Kent
Visit the Royal Oak Foundation Conservation Studio at Knole

Architects Rodney Melville and Partners worked with stonemasons to source Kentish ragstone and specialist tilers to create a blend of 65,000 bespoke clay peg tiles to match the surrounding roofscape. 

When the studio officially opened in March 2017, its flexible, open-plan work area and soaring ceiling open to the rafters was much admired. Interactive exhibits help convey conservation principles and practices.  An environmentally controlled store showcases objects awaiting conservation or delivery to clients. In the years that followed, it has proved a major attraction.