A short history of Darlow’ Farm Cottage and the museum’s Fen Cottage Project to save and restore it for posterity.
Darlow’s Farm Cottage was situated at Darlow’s Farm, close to Woodwalton Fen in Ramsey Heights.
The architect’s plans, which are on display in the cottage, show it was designed as a typical two-bedroom fen cottage.
It was built entirely of wood in the early 1930’s and it had no running water, electricity or main drainage.
The water to supply the coal-fired boiler, the sink in the kitchen and for the bath in the small bathroom was collected in two water butts; if these ran out it was a walk to the nearby drain to fill buckets.
Heating was by coal fires in each room, and all cooking was done on a typical kitchen range of that period.
The toilet was an outside privy at the end of the garden.
The first family to occupy the cottage were Ralph and Ivy Papworth who moved in when it was built in 1935.
Three of their children were born there. Janice in 1937, Marshal in 1939 and Stewart in 1945. A fourth child, Astrid, was born in 1951 after the family had moved to Ramsey. They left the cottage in 1947.
They were followed by Sidney and Peggy Papworth, who had three daughters, and lived there until 1952.
The third family to live in cottage were the Tungates – Arthur and Mabel – who lived there until 1961. Their daughter Audrey lived with them until 1956, when she married Robert Freeman. Their wedding photograph is displayed in the cottage.
The final occupants were Wilfrid Tilley and his wife, who lived there until the late 1960s.
In 2001 several environmental organisations began to work on a huge re-wilding project which aimed to connect two national nature reserves, Woodwalton Fen and Holme Fen. The remains of Darlow’s Farm Cottage stood on land which would become part of what has come to be known as The Great Fen Project. Because of its association with Marshal Papworth, who had been one of the Museum founders, the cottage was offered to the museum free of charge, providing that it could be dismantled by museum volunteers, transported and re-erected in its new home. This offer was readily accepted by the museum.
Dismantling Interior Fittings
The task of dismantling the cottage began in May 2005 by an eager team of volunteers. But first, a great number of photographs were taken of each of the rooms to record the layout of all the sections as an aid to re-construction.
Inside, the cottage was in a sorry state, full of rubbish and household items, and – as the doors had been left open for a number of years – several areas of rotten flooring.
The next task was to remove all of the interior fittings – doors, shelves, dado rails, fireplaces, bath, sink etc. These were all numbered, set aside for re-use and transported to a volunteer’s barn for storage.
The interior fabric of the building – stud walls, floors, ceiling joists, doors – along with the boiler and kitchen range were removed when the outside was dismantled.
Dismantling the Inner & Outer Fabric
All of the roof trusses were removed manually, except for the two double trusses, which required a friendly farmer to deploy his hoist.Th
The outside of the cottage was not in any better shape than the inner, with the cladding rotten and the chimneys leaning and cracked. After much consideration and debate, it was decided that the leaning chimney at the eastern end of the cottage had to be removed first – a task that had to be done brick by brick to prevent the whole chimney collapsing. Next was the removal of the roof tiles, which were not retained as they were made of cement. In contrast, the tile battens were in good condition, and so these were carefully removed for further use. The roof trusses were numbered, so they could be re-built in the correct location and the outer cladding continued to be removed on an ad-hoc basis.
Both the outside and interior walls had been built in sections, and this made it easier to dismantle them. After the walls, the first section of floorboards followed, which was a difficult job.
The window frames, doors and door frames were carefully removed for restoration. The interior stud walls followed the outer sections. In parallel, as many bricks as possible were reclaimed.
Work was suspended for a fortnight during the summer of 2006 because a swallow had nested in the roof. She successfully raised four chicks and once they had fledged work re-commenced (at a fast pace to get back on schedule).
In September 2006 the first batch of the dismantled building was transported to the storage area, with the second batch following in October. The transportation of the final parts – the chimney at the eastern end, the kitchen range and the hot water boiler bricks – was completed before winter set in.
2006 – 2008
Restoration work started in the winter of 2006/2007 with the repair of the window frames, followed by the outer sections in the summer of 2007.
The building framework was tackled next, with rotten timber being replaced by new, and the refurbished windows and new doorframes fitted. When complete, each section was boarded with new shiplap and a coat of creosote applied. The top rails of each section were strengthened with metal straps for on-site lifting.
The building parts were all ready for re-assembly in 2008, but the museum did not have a suitable place for it to go. Lord de Ramsey kindly agreed to lease the museum an additional plot of land, but it took two years to finalise the lease and obtain planning permission. Meanwhile, the cottage remained in pieces, in storage.
Work on the re-erection of the cottage began in July 2011 when the footings and ground work were started. With much hard work from the volunteers, the re-build was completed in March 2012.
Dressing the Interior
2012 – present
It was possible to dress the cottage main bedroom with the original furniture, as this was kept by the Papworth family. Other rooms were furnished with items from the same period. The rooms also now contain many of the family’s personal belongings from their time in the cottage; all of which they have donated to the museum.
2012 – present
It is over 20 years since the Fen Cottage Project started and over 10 years since the first visitors. During that time, maintenance work on the building has never stopped – be it building new paths and access ramps for visitors, the erection of new safety barriers, or the simple, everyday cleaning and refurbishment of the building and its contents. The most recent (2023) work has included the complete replacement of rotting window frames, a re-decoration of all the rooms in colours appropriate for the period, and a re-appraisal of all the contents for period and regional authenticity.
2012 – present
The cottage is widely used for education purposes, particularly to show young children how local farmers and workers would have lived in the post-war years. And, as we have enough volunteers who can remember those times, answer any questions that may arise.