Oaken hall where the barn owl flies

This post was originally published in the Guardian Country Diary column.

At the highest and darkest point of the South Downs escarpment, an Anglo-Saxon hall stands beefy and lumbering under a black sky dusted with stars. Built with hand-hewn oak timbers and hazel spars, it is the latest addition to the educational farm on Butser Hill where I work as a creative developer, feeding goats and designing guide books.

The farm is an outdoor archaeological laboratory, and recreates ancient buildings from the neolithic period onwards. Inside the hall a log fire releases sparks like doves at a wedding, burning through the daylight hours to amuse wandering visitors searching for a taste of history.


This hall was built using archaeological footprints from a Saxon settlement in Chalton, a tiny village sleeping one mile away. It is warm and woody; in the centre lies a large feasting table laden with deer skins and tankards. Fourteen centuries ago such a table would have swayed with honey mead and platters of hot wild boar.

No man lives here now – yet it is inhabited. On winter nights a barn owl visits, to consume her own feast of mangled voles and frogs. The thatch provides shelter from iced winds, and in the morning we find a carpet of shining black pellets brimming with skulls and rubbery tails.

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Barn owls were historically able to catch rats inside barns and outhouses, but the decline of such buildings has seen owl populations plummet, with many birds dying of starvation. An increase in manmade nest boxes since the 1990s has helped numbers recover, but, according to the Barn Owl Trust, in May 2013 there were fewer barn owls in Britain than at any time since records began.

Fortunately, our owl, thawed in her shawl of ivory feathers, has found shelter within the thick beams of this hall, as she would have done in its Saxon original before rat poison, habitat loss and motorcars began to threaten her species. She arrives and departs silently within this modern agricultural landscape of rapeseed and ammonium phosphate, and dissolves into the darkness before dawn can begin.


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