Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Sherborne, Gloucestershire

Limestone is one of the most versatile of England’s traditional materials. It runs in a band from Lyme Bay in Dorset to a point north of Filey in Yorkshire, a belt of stone that has given us some of our most memorable buildings – the terraces of Bath, the cottages of the Cotswolds, the church spires of Northamptonshire. Where I live in the Cotswolds nearly everything in some buildings is made of oolitic limestone - roofs, walls, window frames, floors, pavements. For centuries, Cotswolders came into the world to the sound of water boiling in a stone fireplace, and left it to be buried in a grave marked with a headstone made of the same oolite.

Everyone who has been to the Gloucestershire Cotswolds has seen houses like this – stone walls, stone roofs, dormer windows, and probably a stone garden wall and roses around the door too. The one I show above is in a village full of them. But if you look closely at it you’ll see something slightly unusual.

The doorway of this cottage has a rounded top with zigzag carving around it and the semi-circular stone above the door is carved with crosses. In other words, this house has a church doorway – and that zigzag carving reveals that it’s a Norman church doorway dating to the 12th century. What’s more, Pevsner informs us that there’s another Norman doorway around the back. If there had been one doorway, I'd have guessed that it had been moved to the site from somewhere else. But a pair of church doorways suggested to me when I first saw this house that the building began life as a place of worship before being converted (perhaps in the 19th century) for residential use – there’s another, still functioning, parish church in the village. Now a reader with a connection to the village (to whom many thanks for the information) has put me right. Apparently the foundations of a former church are still visible in the field opposite: the doorways were moved across the road.

Here in the Cotswolds we’re apt to get a bit blasé about our stone buildings. They’re everywhere and it’s easy to let them become part of the background, ignoring their details, their colour, and their beauty. Surprises like this one remind us to keep our eyes open. And as we look, to prepare to be amazed.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Lyndhurst, Hampshire

There are a lot of red brick buildings in Lyndhurst, and they glow a rich orangey colour in the afternoon sun. One of the more striking ones, the Stag Hotel, was built, on the site of an old coaching inn, in 1907 – it’s hard not to miss this as the date is emblazoned both over the entrance archway and on this bow window. The building has many features of the typical pub of the time – leaded-light windows, etched glass, ornate details – but they combine with the warm brick and clay tiles to create an air more of good taste than of brash pubbishness.

Talking of taste, this window seems to show that whoever designed the building wanted to pay homage to recent architectural fashions. The numerals show the influence of Art Nouveau, the curvaceous decorative style that was sweeping Paris metro stations and big houses in Belgium but which made less impact in England. And those hearts: they seem to be an allusion to the work of the great Arts and Crafts architect C F A Voysey. Voysey often used heart motifs – on wallpaper, key escutcheons, and other details – and the architect of the Stag no doubt learned from Voysey’s flair in other areas too: the Arts and Crafts master was good at bow-windows, for example.

It’s this mixture of elements and styles – Edwardian pub, Art Nouveau, Arts and Crafts – that makes this building a show-stopper. And that makes it catch the eye as you pause and look around you when caught in one of Lyndhurst’s notorious traffic jams. Even gridlock can have its compensations.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Stoke Edith, Herefordshire

Lost domains. The twentieth century saw the obliteration of hundreds of country houses. Agricultural depressions and the resulting falling rents, the carnage of the First World War and the consequent disappearance of a vast swathe of the servant class, the Second World War, trumping the First with more deaths and death duties, the wear and tear put on buildings that were requisitioned during wartime, and escalating repair costs – all these things meant that for many country-house owners demolition was the only way out. And in such a climate, if a house succumbed to damage in some other way – a fire, say – it was unlikely to be rebuilt. In 1955 the peak of demolitions was reached: that year roughly five houses were bulldozed every fortnight.

Often, there’s nothing left at all of these places, but now and then something survives – some service buildings, perhaps, or gate lodges. Lodges are usually big enough to make a small house, small enough to be maintained without punishing expense. They’re also generally a fair distance from the main house (those mile-long drives) so the bulldozer passes them by. Some of these resilient survivors are little architectural gems.

This lodge at Stoke Edith, on a bend in the road between Ledbury and Hereford, was once the prelude to a beautiful 17th-century country house. The lodge itself dates from 1792, but its brick and stone dressings presumably echo the materials of the older house, which was destroyed in a fire in the 1920s. The sixteen-sided footprint of this little building is about as complex as they come, and the dome, with its central chimney, is a memorable touch. The inventive architect was William Wilkins (father of the better known William Wilkins who designed the National Gallery). He obviously had flair. Little did he know that his small contribution to this Herefordshire estate would long outlast the big house, and remain for 80 years and more after its demolition to signpost the vanished mansion and make the passing traveller smile. Stoke Edith House

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Wells, Somerset

I have lived in houses with mice, watched swallows nest under neighbours’ eaves, and fretted about martens in roof spaces. I’ve found wasps’ nests in attics, heard tales of badgers undermining foundations, and once lived in a house where there was a fox’s earth beneath the garden shed. In a country house I’ve visited, bats (members of a protected species) fluttered around the upper floors, the owners nonchalantly ignoring the daily fly-past.

Animals have a way of colonizing our spaces. We’re not always pleased about this of course. Few of us take kindly to the common furniture beetle or his other timber-destroying cousins. And some owners of buildings go to great lengths to prevent birds landing on ledges and dropping droppings on the masonry. But there are more benign animal visitors to our buildings. Take the bishop’s palace at Wells. Perhaps the most outstanding bishop’s residence in England, it dates from the 13th century, and is surrounded by a set of outer walls from the 14th century that are in turn surrounded by a moat fed by one of the wells of Wells, around the back. This moat is remarkable for its occupants, for swans have lived here for many long generations. The current pair have managed to produce a very healthy family of eight cygnets this year, and they have gathered by the gatehouse bridge because someone, just out of shot, has begun to throw bits of bread into the water for them to eat.

This bounty means that these elegant creatures are not doing what Wells swans are supposed to do. Around the corner there is a metal chain attached to the palace wall, its lower end comfortably within beak’s range. At the other end of the chain is a bell. The swans of Wells know if they ring this bell someone will be summoned, bearing swan-food. Bell ringing. It’s hungry work, as any campanologist will tell you.

The bell-ringer at work

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Wells, Somerset

Usually when I’m writing posts for this blog, I like to give you a bit of historical information – a date, an architect’s name, a few details that fill in the background. Sometimes my search for such enlightenment draws a blank, but mysteries can be interesting to share.

Take this sign in Wells. It tells us quite a lot, naming two members of the same family, a male mason and a female dealer in tea, coffee, tobacco, pepper, and snuff. There’s no date, but the style of the lettering is similar to signs I’ve seen from the late-17th and early-18th centuries. Snuff, introduced to England in 1660, became popular here in the 18th century, by which time tea-drinking was also well established. So my guess would be that this is an 18th-century sign.

Presumably the symbol after Richard’s name is his mason’s mark. I associate masons’ marks with the Middle Ages, but they were certainly used in later centuries too.

There is no indication either of the relationship between Sarah and Richard. Sister and brother? Widowed mother and son, perhaps? Maybe someone out there knows and would like to share their knowledge. Meanwhile hats off to whoever it was who preserved this inscription, an enduring trace of two forgotten lives.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Wells, Somerset

Wells Cathedral was begun towards the end of the 12th century and its builders, as was usual in the Middle Ages, began at the east end with the choir and then worked their way westwards. By the 1220s they had got to the west front, one of the most striking fronts of any cathedral, consisting of a vast stone screen of niches, in which were set hundreds of statues of saints, bishops, Biblical figures, and others.

In most English churches the medieval sculptures were destroyed during the period of puritanical iconoclasm in the 17th century. But for some reason many of those at Wells were spared, and more than 300 remain, although in almost 800 years the elements have eroded some of them badly. What is more this screen of sculptures, which covers the entire western wall of the cathedral, also extends around on either side to cover part of the north and south walls. The whole makes up England’s greatest collection of statuary from the early Gothic phase of the 13th century.

Most visitors, deterred by eye strain, vertigo, or impatience to get inside the cathedral, don’t spend very long looking at each statue, especially those around the sides. So here are a pair of knights that stand high up on the north side. One has his head covered in a kind of proto-balaclava helmet of mail. His neighbour wears on his head a great helm with eye slits and breathing holes.

Their heads fit neatly into their intricate trefoil-headed niches, which are beautifully carved even though unregarded except by those with enthusiasm for such things, preferably backed up with binoculars or a telephoto lens. A bird's-eye view would be best, though birds are clearly apt to look at a Gothic niche in terms of its suitability for a nesting site.Thanks to Zoë Brooks, her sharp eyes, and her zoom lens, for the pictures.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Hastings, East Sussex

The orthodox story goes something like this. Technologies such as the production of cheap steel and the first safety elevators (pioneered by Elisha Graves Otis in 1852), combined with the effects of the devastating city fire in Chicago in 1871, stimulated the demand for tall buildings that were quick to build. The skyscraper was born, and this kind of tall, functional, frame-structured office building now dominates land-strapped cities everywhere.

But here’s a different story. In 1834 the first groynes were built on the coast at Hastings, bringing about a movement of shingle that created a small new beach near the Old Town. Fishermen who needed somewhere to store their nets colonized this beach, but their numbers were so great and the area of shingle so small that they each had an area only eight feet or so square to build on. Their solution was to build upwards, using a wooden framework structure to create these netshops, tall and black and functional. They have been a unique part of the waterfront at Hastings ever since.

So remember how elevator-inventor Otis, steel man Bessemer, and Chicago architects like William Le Baron Jenney invented the tall office building. But remember also how the fishermen of Hastings invented their own, very British, kind of skyscraper, as right for the job as the Empire State or the Seagram Building are for theirs – and rather better than Canary Wharf.

With thanks to Marcus Weeks and Ann Kramer for reintroducing me to the netshops and to their marvellous town.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Geoffrey Fletcher

A recent post on I Like alerted me to the documentary film The London Nobody Knows, in which James Mason guides us through some of the less regarded parts of 1960s London – abandoned theatres, street markets, pubs, vacant lots, public toilets (‘All men are equal in the eyes of a lavatory attendant’), Salvation Army hostels, and, finally, the dark corners occupied by the capital’s meths-drinking rough sleepers. It’s an evocative and moving film, which takes us on a journey, not just a geographical journey across London but also a journey from a warm nostalgia for old music halls to a hard-hitting account of life ‘down among the meths men’.Down Among The Meths Men is the title of one of the books by the writer and illustrator Geoffrey Fletcher on which the film is based. Geoffrey Fletcher (1923–2004) drew prolifically, training at the Slade and winning a scholarship of the British School in Rome. He illustrated many books written by other writers, wrote and illustrated a column in the Daily Telegraph through the 1960s and beyond, and gathered many of his drawings and descriptions into a series of books about neglected aspects of the capital. Books such as The London Nobody Knows, London’s River, Pearly Kingdom, London Overlooked and, most harrowingly, Down Among The Meths Men provide a unique view of bits of London – pubs, shops, markets, wharves, churchyards, catacombs – many of which are no longer there.

These books are all illustrated with Fletcher’s drawings, which look like rapid sketches done on the spot, but which manage to carry in their calligraphic scribbles and high-speed shading the essence of the people and places they portray. The books that contain these drawings form an absorbing guide to what has gone from the capital over the last 40 years. More than this, they are an exercise in how to see, in grubbing around in corners, in looking up, in exploring alleys, in gaining the confidence of knowledgeable locals, in walking, looking, and thinking at the same time.
What Fletcher thought about and drew included the small things – beer pumps, street lights, urinals, railings, gravestones - as well as the grand ones. He celebrated alleys and back streets and unfashionable areas of London. He saw that neglected or overlooked things are important, that buildings are interesting because of the people who built them and use them, and that the more you look the more you see. For continual revelations about London, thank you Geoffrey Fletcher.