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13 November 2014
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Finn's Country

You are in: South Today > Finn's Country > Photographing Barns

Photographing Barns

David Johnston is passionate about barns. He's taken thousands of photographs of them for his book on the Sussex countryside.

Finn's Country, barns of Sussex and Surrey

David's wife Sue gave him his first camera and so began an extraordinary project. He has now taken thousands of photos of the Sussex countryside, focusing particularly on old farm barns.

David Johnston

David Johnston, 1955

David grew up on a Sussex farm as a farm hand, milking cows and experiencing a way of life that hadn't changed in hundreds of years.

For the last twenty five years he's been trying to preserve one symbol of that life on camera, before it disappears.

David's father died when he was very young and his mother fell on hard times. One cold December night David, his brother and his mother ended up sleeping rough on Bognor beach.

In the morning a friendly policeman took them to the East Preston workhouse where they stayed for four months, enduring the flea infested beds. Eventually David's mother met and married a farm labourer and a new life began.

After many idyllic years helping out on the farm and learning to love the countryside, David eventually left for a life in engineering.

As the years passed he moved to Petworth and became more and more disturbed at the changes in the countryside.

Barn interior

Interior of a barn at Amberley

In particular he saw beautiful barns decaying into dilapidation and disappearing to be replaced by monstrously functional boxes of steel and corrugated sheets. Others were being converted into chic homes containing only a trace of their former charm.

Several days a week he and Sue venture out down country lanes looking for the last remaining farmyard barns.

He's found well over three hundred and now has the largest private collection of farm building photographs in southern England.

Some years ago he produced a coffee table book of his photographs, "West Sussex Barns and Farm  Buildings", which rapidly sold out and is no longer in print.

He's recently started venturing a little further and on the day we film with him he takes us to a farm near Dunsfold in Surrey - just a mile or so from the airfield where Top Gear is based.

Barn at Dunsfold

Barn at Dunsfold

Here there are two of the most exquisite barns I have ever seen. Battered, bearing the scars of their 250 years, with huge buckled roofs and hardly a straight line anywhere.

When we venture inside, it's like walking into a distant century - I expect Tess of the D'Urbervilles to come around the corner at any moment.

The interior has hardly been changed, there are cobwebs, broken beams, a thick spongy layer of ancient animal dung on the floor. The old horse stalls are still intact and you can see the threshing floor. It's a photographer's paradise.

The fact that these old barns are fast disappearing breaks David's heart. He feels sad that future generations will never see them and will never get to catch the echoes of a way of life that was once the very soul of England.

Roger Finn, June 2009

last updated: 29/06/2009 at 13:04
created: 23/06/2009

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