Squatters cottages: rights of residence
As I cycled through the village of Thurleigh in north Bedfordshire, my attention was caught by an information board by the roadside. Amongst the titbits of historical information, mention was made of the existence of squatters’ cottages whose legality could only be guaranteed if, during their construction, smoke appeared from the chimney top before sunset. Let me explain further.
Squatters could settle permanently only if they could build their house in a day, and have a fire lit and smoke emitting from the chimney by the end of the day. This key factor determined the manner of building, usually starting with the construction of the hearth and chimney, and then the construction of the house around this focal point. Surrounding land could also be enclosed with the cottage, but was determined exclusively by how far the owner could throw an axe or shovel from the four corners of the house.
These dwellings can date back to the 16th century and would have been built hastily out of wattle and daub, but later encased in brick or stonework to ensure a degree of permanence. I try to imagine what the countryside would look like if these principles of construction were still used today……………………