Sunday, July 27, 2008

Dungeness, Kent

Around 6,000 acres of shingle, drifts of gorse, sea kale, dock, and yellow horned poppy, scatterings of tin and wooden huts and dwellings (some made out of old railway carriages), two lighthouses, and a pair of nuclear power stations – this is the peculiar mix that is Dungeness, a triangle of windswept land sticking out into the English Channel, east of Rye. Fishing – and, since 1965, fission – have been its industries, and its buildings have long seemed as plain and provisional as the shifting shingle.

In 1986 the film-maker Derek Jarman came to Dungeness and bought Prospect Cottage. He set about making a garden amongst the pebbles, an assemblage of plants, stones, driftwood, scrap iron, and other evocative odds and ends that seem very much at one with the setting. 22 years on, the garden is thriving and well cared-for by Jarman’s partner, Keith Collins, who still lives here. It’s a place of pilgrimage for those who love Jarman’s films, who remember his bravery during his long final illness, or who simply like remarkable gardens. The house itself is a typical weather-boarded Dungeness bungalow and is around 100 years old. Not everyone notices the lines from ‘The Sunne Rising’, by the great 17th-century poet John Donne, set in wooden letters on an end wall of the house: ‘Busie old foole, unruly Sunne, Why dost thou thus, Through windows and through curtaines call on us?’ In the poem, Donne chides the sun for interrupting his time with his loved one, and jokes with typical audacity that his bed and its two occupants make up the entire cosmos anyway. It’s a resonant choice for Jarman, an artist who lived for the light that exposes films, who must have relished Dungeness’s big horizons and vast skies, and who, faced with the prospect of losing his sight, was able to envision a new set of opportunities for a blind film-maker. How typical too that he should have recognized the special character of this neglected corner of England.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Petworth, Sussex


Petworth is a fascinating West Sussex town, a tight knot of narrow streets and tile-hung buildings set around a market place, hard by the entrance to the local mansion, Petworth House. The solid Classical Town Hall was one of the gifts of the house’s owner, the third Earl of Egremont, to the town. It was built in 1793 and isn’t especially remarkable until you come across this extraordinary bust in its oval niche on the North side.

The bust is a bit of a mystery. It depicts King William III and, from its subject and style, must date from much earlier than the Town Hall itself. The diaphanous cloth, flowing wig, and sideways turn of the head mark this sculpture as baroque, the rich, ornate, and decorative artistic style in vogue during William’s reign (1689–1702). Look at that drapery – it’s stone spun almost as fine as silk and seems to have very little means of support. The artist who carved this was a virtuoso with the chisel.

No one knows who made this bust of England’s Dutch king but its preservation in the town probably owes something to Egremont, who was famous for many things, including his many mistresses (he was known as ‘my lord seraglio’), his agricultural innovations, his philanthropy, and, above all, for his large art collection and patronage of many artists. British art owes Egremont a lot, most notably for supporting the painter Turner. The survival of this arresting piece of public art may well be something else to thank him for.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Paddington Street, London


This is a former Church Institute and Club just off Marylebone High Street. The inscription above the entrance is a bit ambiguous – did the building accommodate the Church of the Good Shepherd as well as the club? The Good Shepherd himself is certainly there above the door.

The inscription gives the building’s date as 1898. and the slightly mixed-up Tudorish style is typical of the time. On either side of the panel containing the inscription are little attached columns with Ionic capitals and restless shafts that change width every few inches (if you click on the picture you can see these these more clearly). This is the kind of bizarre detail the Tudors loved (before English architecture became more chastely Classical under the influence of Palladianism) and that the late-Victorians loved to imitate. The Victorian builders added their own touches too, varying the glowing red brick with bands of paler terracotta.

But for all the weirdness of the detailing, buildings like this are eminently practical. Big windows and generous interior spaces mean a structure like this is unlikely to be short of users, ensuring its survival in all its red and stripy glory.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Great Malvern, Worcestershire


Quite a lot of Malvern is built in local reddish stone laid in a ‘rock-faced’ fashion. If this rather rustic finish seems a trifle wild and woolly for this somewhat buttoned 19th-century town, the crazy-paving effect is reined in by contrasting pale stone dressing. That’s the approach adopted by E W Elmslie for Malvern’s 1860s railway station, where the details are French-influenced Gothic with lots of gables, pointed windows, trefoils, tall chimneys, and niches.

None of this, though, prepares one for what’s inside, especially the decoration on the columns that support the platform awnings. Here are just three:
They’re ironwork foliage, created by William Forsyth, and they’re exactly right for Malvern, a town of trees and laurel bushes and shrubberies. The idea, apparently, was to feature species that can be found in Malvern’s streets and gardens. They’re also a splendid re-working of a medieval idea. Gothic cathedrals have capitals carved in stone; this Victorian station has capitals made of iron. All change!

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Minster Lovell, Oxfordshire


The ruined 15th-century manor house at Minster Lovell is an idyllic spot for picnicking, kingfisher-spotting, and meditating on the passing of time. Although the years haven’t been kind to the house – it seems to have been dismantled in the 18th century and the remains used as farm buildings – the wonderful circular dovecote is still very much intact.

Hundreds of nest holes line the walls and an impressive bit of carpentry holds together the roof, with its central lantern, through which the birds could come and go. On a hot summer’s day it’s cool inside the substantial stone wall, which is thick enough to accommodate nest holes almost an arm’s-length in depth.

That was quite deep enough, as it was the dovecote-keeper’s job to reach into the nest holes and pull out the young pigeons – known as squabs – when they were well grown and plump, but not quite ready to fly. The squabs were harvested during the breeding season (roughly March to October), providing the Lord of the Manor with a source of tasty meat. In the Middle Ages only barons, manorial lords, and abbots were allowed to keep a dovecote, so pigeon-meat was a luxury for the upper-classes, not, as is sometimes said, a winter supplement to the diet of the poor.

Dovecotes come in several different shapes. Oxfordshire alone has wonderful round, octagonal, and rectangular examples. As working farmyard buildings, they’re not usually highly decorated, but the timber-work required to roof a round or eight-sided building often has an intricacy of its own. Thanks to Neil Philip of Adventures in the Print Trade for introducing me to this one, and for providing the picture. And while I’m at it, thanks too to Emma Bradford for a picnic worthy of the Lord of the Manor.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

North Cerney, Gloucestershire


The sun is a great visual friend to buildings. Under the warming influence of its rays old red bricks shimmer, windows become a patchwork of glittering reflections, and stone seems to change colour before our eyes. Along the limestone belt that stretches from Dorset to Lincolnshire, for example, stone that looks grey against a cloudy sky can warm up in the sunshine to the ‘honey-coloured’ appearance beloved of the guidebook writers, while the darker lias walls of parts of northern Oxfordshire and southern Northamptonshire turn a rich toffee shade, an architectural feast, indeed.

With the sunlight also come shadows. The crisp shadow lines made in the sun by the protruding bits of a building – stringcourses, pilasters, mouldings – define architectural shapes and rhythms. Shadows also reveal details that are easy to miss on a dull day. Recently I was out with a friend exploring his village church and churchyard. As we came out of the porch and glanced to our left a shaft of light illuminated an 18th-century gravestone. Suddenly its worn inscription, which had been virtually invisible before, was legible again. My friend quickly wrote down its words, capturing the outline of a life before the sun, and the dates, disappeared again.

At least on a gravestone we expect an inscription and know where to look. But the sun can also illuminate the unexpected. This creature is incised with a shallow line on an outside wall of the church at North Cerney, which lies between Cirencester and Cheltenham. It’s a beast called a manticore. Such animals are mentioned in the writings of Classical authors such as the Greek Ctesias and the Roman Pliny, and they are also described in medieval bestiaries. Manticores are meant to have the body of a lion and the head and shoulders of a man – although this example has feet that look like hoofs and a tail that bears a passing resemblance to that of a beaver. There is another at North Cerney, which has a more leopard-like body.

No-one knows why these beasts should be there. Monsters, it is true, are often depicted on the outsides of medieval churches. But they usually appear as small carved corbels not as shallow reliefs taking up more than a linear metre of wall. The best guess is that they are masons’ graffiti carved in the late-16th century, but we can’t know for sure. The sun, which can illuminate hidden lives and reveal fabulous carvings, can also raise unanswerable questions.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Brookland, Kent


Brookland has one of the most extraordinary churches on Romney Marsh, a place where several remarkable churches punctuate broad, windswept vistas of sky and greenery. The most unusual feature of the church is the one you see first, as you arrive: the belfry. This is wooden, shingle-clad, octagonal, and, as Pevsner rightly says, like three candle-snuffers stacked one on top of another. It is also detached from the main structure of the church.

A few other Kent churches have spires with a similar profile, but none a detached monster like this. What is it doing here? A good guess would be that the ground hereabouts isn’t very firm and the builders were unwilling to risk a heavy stone tower, which might have subsided and collapsed. The ancient arches of the church interior certainly lean a lot. A lightweight wooden structure was probably a safe option and the belfry seems to be as old as the church – the lower timbers of the octagon are apparently 13th century while the upper ones were added or renewed some 200 years later.

The church itself is as interesting as the belfry. A wooden porch leads into a large space, with two rows of outward-leaning arches (late-13th to early-14th century) lit by windows full of clear glass. Highlights in this light, spacious interior include a lead font (on which figures illustrate the Signs of the Zodiac and the Labours of the Months) plus 18th-century furnishings such as a large two-decker pulpit and box pews. The church escaped the more extreme restoration activities of the Victorians, and is still packed with interest, a wonderful tribute to the ingenuity of medieval carpenters and to the parishioners who have cared for it for more than 700 years.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Rye, Sussex

Henry James, Rye’s most famous resident, was an American novelist in exile who observed his countrymen and his English neighbours with acuity and who set down his observations in increasingly convoluted prose. In one of his essays he hinted that his adopted town, clustered around a church on a rocky outcrop, was like ‘a miniature Mont-Saint-Michel’. Well, Rye is not quite as dramatic as the looming island monastery of Brittany, and perhaps James was giving in to his love of elaboration – and to the tendency, so frequent once in writing about England, to compare the country’s beauties to more famous places in France or Italy. But James was right to draw attention to the way Rye dominates the neighbouring marshes from its rock, and the church and tower act as a focus for the town’s upward-looking form.

So, to celebrate the church, here is a picture of the clock at the top of the tower. The figures are the ‘Quarter Boys’, plump gilded putti who strike their bells on the quarters. This ornate timepiece is in a way typical of the town, many of whose buildings boast that extra flourish that lifts them beyond the ordinary – a balcony with white-painted railings, perhaps, an ornate bay window, or a carefully patterned bit of tile-hanging. It’s also, I hope, typical of this blog, which for about a year now has tried to showcase some of the telling details I’ve encountered on English buildings.