7. The Old House
5 Market Square
The Old House is in the heart of Higham Ferrers and was once at the centre of the village.
It is not shown directly on the 1591 map of Higham Ferrers but The Old House is situated broadly opposite the market cross. The original town hall was on a similar footprint of The Old House and can be seen with the steps leading to the upper storey.
The architecture of the building
Probably built in the late 16th century in the Elizabethan era, and directly opposite the bustling medieval market square, The Old House ─ No 5 Market Square ─ was ideally positioned as the centre of the commercial activity in Higham. The house is a two-storey build with mullioned bay windows and four-centred middle doorway, but has a modern eaved roof in the place of former gables. Features which remain potentially linked to the original build include the wide main Tudor oak door, the press the bell on the wall, a peephole in the door to check who was asking for entrance, and the original key, which has to be inserted upside down to open the door.
The medieval shopping centre
Whilst some permanent shops had been established by the late 16th century, the regular markets meant there was a total of at least 100 days when booths and stalls might occupy the streets. “Overbarres” or toll bars were erected at the entrances to the market which limited trader access unless they had paid the appropriate dues. Back in the 16th Century, the road that ran in front of the house was probably the route out of London. Higham Ferrers was on a major crossroads between the east and the west, as well as the north and the south of the country, with the Market Square in the centre being a hive of activity.
The auction 1914
The Old House was part of a “grand sale” on May 7, 1914, when Earl Fitzwilliam auctioned off a group of 35 key buildings and land in the town. The details of the lot state that the five-bedroom house included three sitting rooms, a storeroom, kitchen, scullery, basement cellar, while outside, there was a good enclosed yard and garden as well as a two-stall stable and loft, harness room, coach house, chaff house and piggeries. The house was sold for £650, and in the 1980s, the land at the back was sold to build several other properties, one of the plots for sale included the stables building.
Conservation status 1953
The house is a Grade II listed townhouse in a conservation area; thus, it is a building of special architectural and historic importance. No structural changes can be made without the consent of the county planning authorities. The house acquired its Grade II status in 1953 as a result of its age and because of the large oak-beamed inglenook fireplace in the front sitting room. These, together with the carved Tudor roses on the inglenook fireplace, the style of the stonework and the oak beams which it is thought came from galleons of the time, faithfully depict the Elizabethan era.
Initially called The Merchant’s House, it is now better known as The Old House. The name change probably happened during World War II and the house is one of the oldest medieval buildings in Higham Ferrers.
Over the years the Old House has been a bakery – there are still Victorian bread ovens set in the corridor walls – a private house, a home for foster children, and a boutique guest accommodation. It reverted back to being a private house in 2019. Despite the restrictions attached to a Grade II listed building, permission was granted for renovations, which over the years have been sympathetically carried out by the owners who ensured the house still retained its special historic features.