Natural England - Paston Great Barn NNR

Paston Great Barn NNR

Paston Great Barn is one of the best preserved, and few remaining, thatched great barns left in England. It also supports the only known breeding colony of barbastelle bats to be found in a building.

Where: Norfolk

Main habitats: Medieval thatched barn with bat roost.

Why visit: Natural England manages Paston Barn for its rich wildlife, cultural and architectural interest under a lease from the North Norfolk Historic Buildings Trust.

Paston Great Barn is 0.9 hectares in size and has been designated a National Nature Reserve, a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and is also a Special Area of Conservation (SAC) on account of its national and internationally important bat populations.

The Great Barn itself is a designated Scheduled Ancient Monument. The complex of buildings attached to the Great Barn are Grade II* buildings. This does not include the south boundary barn or the southern boundary wall, as they are not attached to the Great Barn or other buildings.

The barn itself is closed to the public to minimise disturbance to the bats, but other access is provided.

Star species: Paston Great Barn supports an exceptional assemblage of bat species and represents one of the few known maternity roosts of barbastelle bat Barbastella barbastellus in the UK (as well as the only confirmed barbastelle maternity roost in a building in the UK). In total, five species are known to have used the buildings: barbastelle, brown long-eared, common pipistrelle, soprano pipistrelle, Nathusius’ pipistrelle and natterer’s. In addition, a further two species have been recorded from around the buildings: noctule and Daubenton’s Bat.

The barbastelle bat is one of the UK’s rarest mammals. The species is considered to be a rare and declining species throughout Western Europe and is listed as endangered or vulnerable in most European countries.

The Barbastelle is listed in the European and British Red Data Books as a rare and threatened species. The UK Biodiversity Action Plan estimates the UK population to be approximately 5,000 individuals and states that the overall population trend is unknown.

The Barbastelle colony at Paston Great Barn was first discovered in 1996 and has been the subject of various research and monitoring studies that have provided a great deal of information about roost sites, the size and behaviour of the Barbastelle colony and commuting and foraging activity.

Seasonal highlights

Though general access into the barn is not allowed, it is possible to see bats flying around the grounds of the reserve from March to September, just after sunset.

Look out for the rare barbastelle bats, as they swoop overhead, hunting for small insects like moths by using echolocation.

The barbastelles from the colony at Paston Great Barn commute over large distances to reach their feeding grounds. The invertebrate-rich semi-natural grassland along the adjacent coastline is a favoured feeding area for the barbastelle bats from Paston Great Barn.

History

The buildings present a homogeneous, closely linked group of vernacular agricultural buildings, which have been erected over a period spanning 300 years between 1580 and 1870.

Appropriately named, the Great Barn measures approximately 70 metres long, by 9 metres wide and 16 metres high at its apex. The walls are primarily constructed of coursed, unknapped flint, averaging about 1m in thickness and tapering with height. It is likely that the decorative stone quoins and dressings around the ventilation slits and doors were taken from Bromham priory following its dissolution. Owing to cost, a limited supply or both, some of the ventilation slits and doors are edged in brick which has been rendered with lime mortar to mimic the stone used elsewhere in the barn.

According to a date plaque on the northern gable end, the Great Barn was constructed in 1581.

An additional plaque, situated over the small south west ‘personnel’ door, states that the barn was built by Sir William Paston. About halfway along the inside of the barn a change in the brickwork is visible (particularly noticeable at high level, along the wall plate) and it has been suggested that the barn may have been built in two phases.

The oak roof structure of the Great Barn is particularly interesting consisting of 20 bays, mainly separated by alternating hammer beam and tie beam queen post trusses dropping to wall posts on oak corbels, but with a braced truss opposite each of the large cargo doors on the east side. The three tiers butt the purlins and there is wind bracing below the second tier.

There are four doors to the barn, two large double ‘cargo’ doors on the eastern side, up to which carts would have unloaded their goods, and two smaller ‘personnel’ doors on the western side. When threshing was in progress, both sets of doors would have been opened to allow the wind to draw through and remove the dust and chaff.

Each of the two smaller western doorways has a small cubby hole next to it. The purpose of these is uncertain, but it is likely that they were used to house a lantern to reduce the risk of an explosion from the highly combustible chaff. On the west side, there are three slated, stepped buttresses and on the east, two pairs of buttresses flanking the cargo doors, with a fifth, central buttress. Narrow ventilation loops, with splayed reveals internally occur at regular intervals to the gables at three levels within the barn. During the first three hundred years following its construction, the barn had several additional buildings added to it. These have been used for varying purposes, including: sheds for housing livestock and, in the case of the small, square thatched building on the east side, a root store for winter fodder crops.

A significant programme of repairs has been carried out to the Great Barn and adjoining buildings in recent years.

The Paston family has played a significant role in the history of Norfolk and has achieved international recognition on account of its famous ‘letters’. The letters consist of over 1000 documents written between 1390 and 1509 and provide a detailed study of the life of a medieval family ‘from the inside’, candidly expressing their hopes, fears, ambitions and thoughts. Although termed the ‘letters’ they actually include bills and lists as well as the correspondence between family members. The letters provide a straightforward but fascinating account of three generations, spanning the reigns of Henry 5th, Edward 4th and Richard 3rd. From a historical perspective, the letters provide a unique educational resource to illuminate studies of life in medieval England.

Since taking on the lease of the site, Natural England (and formally English Nature) has worked in close liaison with Paston Heritage Society to draw together information on the biological, historical and architectural history of the site. Annual open days, school visits, tailored training courses and articles have provided members of the public and educational institutions the opportunity to learn from the reserve.

How to get there

Paston Barn is located one mile west of Bacton gas terminal on the A149, south east of Paston village.

By bus

A local coach serviceexternal link no 34 stops at Paston bus shelter in Paston village.

By train

The nearest train station is North Walshamexternal link.

Visiting the reserve

The barn itself is closed to the public to minimise disturbance to the bats.

There is a small car park and an interpretation panel provided on the eastern side of the barn near the church. There is also a small path that takes you through the grounds of the barn to the south.

Visitors are reminded that there is no access to the outbuildings and courtyards of the barn, to minimise disturbance.

School and community groups

For any visits to Paston Barn NNR, please contact the Natural England Enquiry Service on 0845 6003078.

Want to get involved?

For volunteering enquires please contact Tom Bolderstone at Thomas.Bolderstone@naturalengland.org.uk.

Other volunteering opportunities are available with the Norfolk Barbastelle Study Groupexternal link. If you would like to contribute to the study of the barbastelle and help us gain an understanding about the significance of the Norfolk are is to the survival and continued protection of the barbastelle, please contact Katherine Boughey at enquires@norfolkbarbatellestudygroup.org or visit the website.

Further information

To find out more about the reserve please contact the Natural England Enquiry Service on 0845 600 3078.