Saturday, December 27, 2008

Kean Street, London

Extreme windows

From the Cotswolds to London, the dormer window provides an excellent way of squeezing a little more accommodation out of a roof space. And so, in cottages, Georgian terraces, Regency villas, and flats above shops, builders put in dormers, and people sleep beneath the eaves. Now and then you see two rows of dormers, for yet more light and living space. But I don’t think I've ever seen anything like these massed ranks of windows looking out from a roof in a street behind Covent Garden.

Looking at the design of the window frames on this presumably Victorian or Edwardian building, the rows of windows must have been installed in at least two phases – the upper two rows look different from the others. The result is stunning to say the least, and the array of glass must constitute an efficient collector of solar heat. But what I really want to know is this: is five rows of dormers some kind of record?

Two men in a room

Harold Pinter, who died this Christmas, had been making us smile, and laugh, and wince, and think with his plays for 50 years. It occurred to me as I thought about the Pinter plays I’d seen over the years that their famously enigmatic scenes often took place in very realistic, tangible settings. At Pinter plays we peer through theatre’s notorious fourth wall at rooms, especially London rooms, lower and middle class. They seem like real rooms in real buildings and we could be at a kitchen-sink drama or a well-made play by Shaw. But what happens on stage is a world away from such certainties.

My most vivid Pinterian memory is of the first production of No Man’s Land, much of which consists of two men (sometimes with two others) conversing in a room. The two men, in that memorable National Theatre production, were played by Ralph Richardson and John Gielgud.

The set of No Man’s Land is a room in a house in Hampstead. It’s simple but well furnished: big curtains at a window; a wall of books; an expensive-looking armchair; a large, marble-topped cabinet covered with bottles of every drink you could imagine, and more. It’s solid, reassuring, the room of Hirst (the Richardson character) a literary man with a taste for the booze. The two characters are anchored to this room (at one point Spooner, the John Gielgud character, is even locked in it) for the whole play. It seems a place of certainties and solidities.

This being Pinter, it’s anything but. The relationship between the two men is far from clear – sometimes they seem just to have met for the first time; at others they appear to have known each other for years. Hirst seems to be offering Spooner hospitality, but is also dominating him. Spooner is trying to manipulate Hirst for his own advantage, but in an oblique, sometimes ham-fisted way; he is a literary man, but has also been spotted working in a pub. Even their names are uncertain – Spooner is sometimes called Weatherby. The other pair are ambiguous too – they seem to be the minders and servants of Hirst, but at one point seem to control him. And so it goes on, with the main pair talking, reminiscing, and drinking, their memories meeting and colliding and parting company again and again so we don’t know where we are – except in this very solid Hampstead room.

It’s like life, of course, for how can we know others and how can we defeat memory’s tricks? But Pinter would have scorned such trite summings-up. He did not want to paraphrase his creations: it was enough for him to create situations and breathe life into them. A life that gives us the essence of theatre: two men talking in a room.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Wells, Somerset

The silver swan

Swans – elegant, silent, monogamous, soft of down but powerful of wing – are amongst the most emblematic of our birds. They pop up in all kinds of odd places in English culture. As royal birds, the swans on the Thames, for example, are owned (if you can own a swan) by the queen – with exception of those belonging to the London livery companies of Vintners and Dyers, who mark their swans every year in the ceremony of swan upping, marvellously portrayed by the artist Stanley Spencer.

Poetically, the swan can be a symbol of the overmastering power of a god in the story of Leda and the Swan (in the work of Yeats, among others), but swansdown is symbolic of softness (as in a lyric by Ben Jonson). Swans hang around buildings, too. I have already blogged about their presence in the moat of the Archbishop’s Palace at Wells, and how they ring the bell when they want feeding. I was reminded of this the other day when watching the film Hot Fuzz, filmed in Wells (though the tiny city plays the role of a small town in Gloucestershire). In the film, ‘the swan’ goes missing, reappearing to interrupt in a very British way a hilarious car-chase across fields in police panda cars.

So here’s a picture of the sign of the Swan Hotel in Wells, the city’s three-dimensional and hospitable tribute to its avian inhabitants. Like its living counterparts, it’s mute, which reminds me of the madrigal and poem by the great English composer Orlando Gibbons, ‘The Silver Swan’ of 1612:
The silver swan, who living had no note,
When death approached unlocked her silent throat;
Leaning her breast against the reedy shore,
Thus sung her first and last, and sung no more:
Farewell, all joys; O death, come close mine eyes;
More geese than swans now live, more fools than wise.

More geese than swans will be consumed in the next few days, so enjoy yours. And enjoy too this version of the madrigal by the Hilliard Ensemble.

Then go out and buy their records, for their singing has all the swan’s strength and its delicacy too. Season’s greetings.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Lower Swell, Gloucestershire

Eastward ho!

Only a couple of miles from the Stow house in the previous post is this cottage on the edge of the village of Lower Swell. Very unusually, it’s in a style influenced by the architecture of India – what the builders of the 18th and 19th centuries, taking a wild linguistic lunge at sophistication and missing the target somewhat, called the ‘Hindoo’ style. It’s not that like a real Indian building, but it is heavily influenced by the great Cotswold house of Sezincote, all onion domes and lantern-like pavilions, begun in 1805.

This cottage was built a couple of years later as a spa, a chalybeate spring having been discovered nearby. The spa was not a success, but the building remains, now a house, its pineapple-finialled doorway, ogee-topped windows, and fir-coned dormers testimony to a very English idea of ‘the East’. The windows in the flanking cottages, just visible in the photograph, have the kind of multifoil tops, as if made with a pastry-cutter, that you also see at Sezincote. It’s weird, but just right.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Stow-on-the-Wold, Gloucestershire

Stone roses

There are some buildings that just make me smile, no matter how often I see them. This is one: a house of about 1730 (now a café) on the market place in Stow on the Wold. What I love about this house is the decoration. It’s Classical, up to a point – look at the fluted pilasters with their Corinthian capitals. But whoever built this place was determined not to stick to the rule book. Those pilasters begin, not with a base, anchoring them to the ground, but with a peculiar block of stone sticking out from the wall, a couple of feet above pavement level. The strips that run up from either side of the central niche, dotted with carvings of flowers, are another odd, but charming, touch.

Pevsner (who describes this façade as ‘rather gauche’) tells us that there’s a local tradition that the building was the work of a pargetter named Shepherd. That’s odd, as pargetting (the art of decorative exterior plasterwork) is native to eastern England. It’s not something you see much round here, where the decorative medium is stone. And yet the exuberance and richness of the carving, especially the flowers, is not unlike the sort of thing you might see on a pargetted house in Essex or Suffolk. It certainly sticks out here, not in the manner of a sore thumb, but like an elegantly manicured digit raised in defiance of convention. Stow off the wall.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Farmcote, Gloucestershire

The end of the road

Take the steepest and narrowest of the roads leading out of the town where I live, a route that rises rapidly up the Cotswold escarpment. Turn left along a narrower lane that leads up again through remote country dotted with the odd farm and racehorse stable and bounded with fields where the brown ploughed soil reveals thousands of fragments of Cotswold limestone. Turn off once more up an even smaller lane that passes sheep pastures and offers glimpses from the high hills northwards and westwards towards Worcestershire and Wales. And at the end of the track you reach Farmcote, a tiny, isolated hamlet consisting of a few stone houses and a church.

From this angle, St Faith’s, Farmcote, could almost be a Tudor building – the windows and doorway are probably early-16th century and the furnishing inside is a satisfying mixture of Tudor and Jacobean. But in the end wall is a blocked archway indicating that this building was once bigger. Small as it is, the arch would have led to a demolished chancel, and the stonework of the arch is unmistakably Saxon. People have worshipped here for over a thousand years.

The evening light is often beautiful on this west-facing slope. When I first came here is was dusk, and I felt I needed a candle to see the medieval roof timbers and Jacobean furniture. Today there was more light, but it was fading as the sun began to drop behind the next hill. The farm dogs were quiet. The only thing moving was some smoke from a nearby chimney. Restored by the silence I crept back to the car, and drove off, making as little noise as I could.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Winchcombe, Gloucestershire

My world, and welcome to it

It’s customary, even in these difficult times, to count the number of shopping days to Christmas. But this year I’m counting the number of writing days left before the publishing business shuts down the corporate computers for the festive season, because I have a Christmas deadline. Travelling to look at old buildings has taken a backseat, and my blog posts may shrink in length and number. I’m fortunate, though, to live in Gloucestershire, a county rich in interesting buildings, so I’ll be putting up some posts about local buildings in the next week or two.

And for me, this is as local as it gets. If I crane my neck a bit, this is the view from my desk. It’s the tower of St Peter’s church, Winchcombe, its Cotswold stone walls glowing in the golden light of a winter’s afternoon a couple of days ago. The church was built in the 1460s, during a building boom in the area that saw many churches acquire new windows, extra aisles, taller towers, or complete makeovers. Winchcombe got its new church through the generosity in part of the abbot of Winchcombe Abbey, whose own church, long gone, was a close neighbour, and of Ralph Boteler, a local grandee – well, not that grand: his name suggests that he came from a rather distinguished family of butlers. The tower is not that grand, either. No elegant spire, as it might have in Northamptonshire; no elaborate carving as there might be in Somerset. Just good honest building in beautiful stone.

The fine weathercock was regilded recently and looked about 5 feet five tall when, swathed in bubblewrap, it was hoisted back up the tower. It came here in 1874 from the much larger church of St Mary Redcliffe, Bristol. According to which version of the story you believe it was either too small or too big for the spire of St Mary Redcliffe. A stonemason who worked on the Bristol spire claimed he’d climbed on to, or into, the cockerel, ‘which was the size of a donkey’. Having seen the bird close-up, I can tell you that’s not such a cock and bull story as it sounds.