“You’ll only do it once,” they said. Those wise sages who think they know everything about living in an English cottage built for our 16th-century ancestors who were, on average, 5’5″.
They are of course referring to the inevitable – and painful – head meets beam scenario.
They are wrong about only doing it once.
As humans, we are destined to repeat our mistakes, and you can add walking into munchkin-height beams and doorways as one of life’s many repeated mistakes if you happen to live in a 16th-century cottage.
It doesn’t matter how much it hurts, you just know you’re going to do it again next week.
Here’s the problem. Our ceilings are low, at worst around 6′. Not too bad, you might be thinking. A little awkward for Russell in some spots, but workable.
But the beams are lower.
This one in our living room, for example, is a large chunk of solid wood that lies waiting at 5’6″. I know it’s 5’6″ because my hair brushes against it as I glide under.
Russell on the other hand is 6’2″ and doesn’t. He face-plants it.
And the doorways are lower still. Built to retain the heat, you have to duck below the 4’11” frame into our bedroom. Then duck again to miss the 5’3″ beam that divides the room in half.
The ceiling is higher. Much higher.
At some point, possibly in the 19th century when the average height of men soared to 5’10”, the inhabitants of our cottage could stand it no longer (literally) and raised the ceiling to a more workable height. But they left the original beam in place out of respect for our ancestors.
It’s a rather beautiful old beam. Arched and honey-coloured, and reinforced with an ancient strip of steel, bolted across its length. Pretty to look at. Pretty bloody fatal if you miscalculate your step on a cold winter’s night on your way to the loo.
So, what to do about low doorways and beams? We can’t raise them or get rid of them (Grade II listed cottage) and anyway, who’d want to? One of the many workmen we’ve had through our house told us the beams are likely to be a couple of centuries older than the house itself. Like six or seven centuries old.
Back in 1600 when our cottage was built they used timbers from decommissioned ships for the framework. He pointed out some of the holes, divots and even an old steel bolt that would have been made when the timber was first used on a ship.
Our house is virtually dripping in history.
We made one compromise after the sixteenth time Russell hit his head on our bedroom doorframe (and, yes, I’ve done it a couple of times too. It hurts). He fashioned a head protector from a swimming pool noodle (there it is in the photo).
We’re thinking of patenting it.
Meanwhile, I yell at every workman and visitor to the house, “mind the doors!”, and continue to make sympathetic noises when Russell backs into a beam, smacks his forehead against a door, or generally gets bitten by our wonderful, historic, low-slung house.