Thursday, June 11, 2009

Deepest Worcestershire


Wooden world (1)

A recent visit to the open-air museum at Finsterau in Bavaria reminded me of the importance of wood as a building material in many cultures. In the forested uplands of Bavaria and the neighbouring Czech Republic, farmhouses, outbuildings, even churches are made almost entirely of wood. Indeed from Germany to Scandinavia, wood is seen as a good and appropriate building material. In England, though, people tend to look down on wooden houses, and if you can find a wooden house and stand in front of it for a while, it’s not long before someone comes along and starts making remarks about ‘sheds’ and ‘shacks’.

Of course, builders have used timber in England for centuries. Think of all those timber-framed cottages in the Unmitigatedly English Midlands. And weatherboarding is traditional in the southeast. But since the rise and rise of red brick, wooden buildings have been relegated to the minor leagues, along with structures made of corrugated iron.

So I was pleased to come across this wooden bungalow, spic and span and far from ‘low-status’, on a walk in Worcestershire. Looking well amongst the cow parsley, it’s quite isolated, so I’ll protect the privacy of its owners by not revealing its precise location. Perhaps it was built between the two World Wars, when there was a flurry of interest in wooden, often prefabricated buildings. One of the most celebrated of these was the Cottabunga, manufactured by Browne and Lilly of Reading, who promised to deliver its prefabricated parts, ready to erect, to any goods station in England or Wales, for a payment of £245 - 10 shillings.

Such buildings got a bad reputation, not because they were badly built or inadequate as houses, but because their easy-to-build technology enabled ordinary people to become their own builders, expressing themselves in the process in ways that weren’t always to the taste of middle-class aesthetic arbiters. So wooden bungalows got lumped in the minds of these commentators with houses made of old railway carriages, caravans, and tin huts. Such structures were easy targets for people who wanted to fulminate against plot-land developments and their ilk.

All of which is a shame. As the traditional builders of Bavaria and Bohemia knew, wood can be good. Solid, easy to erect, good looking, and long-lasting if properly maintained, houses like this offered an attractive alternative to a brick box in the suburbs. Long may they survive.

15 comments:

Thud said...

I am at present house hunting both here and in california.Many of the Californian houses I have looked at are indeed wood and I just can't get the nagging 'shack' image out of my mind...the rammed earth houses are however much more to my taste.

Bucks Retronaut said...

I have a hankering for a wooden house,and found a wonderful pair of examples of what they can become on a recent visit to Dungeness. suggest you google "the rubber beach house dungeness" (yes,afraid so,but I don't think they can touch for it yet,) and then " vista beach house dungeness".
All the shack type image I suppose ,but a million miles away in terms of hidden sophistication which I reckon is pretty cool.
I also liked the Airstream caravan which serves as overflow accommodation at one of them.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Well, I must admit I've never lived in a wooden house, although I do have a small building at the bottom of the garden , slightly more than a shed but much less than a house, where I work quite a lot. But I do admire those Dungeness houses - I've been there and seen them too, and the wonderful Airstream caravan. Mind you, I like the sound of a California rammed-earth house too.

bikerted said...

We had the delight of spending two weeks just outside Fort Augustus in a Canadian log cabin, complete with bats in the attic. A great holiday and would certainly do something similar in the future.
Also we have used the camping huts scattered throughout Scandanavia with no problems.

Peter Ashley said...

What a great picture. The timber house tucked-up in the corner and yards of cow parsley across the rest. Yum yum.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Thank you, Peter. Something very English about those cascading waves of green and white vegetation, I reckon.

CarolineLD said...

It really does look lovely.

However, my last stay in a wooden home was out in the wilds with an earth closet, which didn't really help with the 'shack' thing.

Ricolas said...

Beautiful. Rather reminds me of a more humble version of that glorious station at Petworth with the white clapperboarding.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Petworth station is a stunner. There are also some more modest, but beautiful, wooden stations in the Great Western area, including Charlbury in Oxfordshire, which is still a working station.

DC said...

This structure reminds me of the bungalow on the banks of the River Severn at Larford Farm by Lincombe Weir, Stourport where I spent my childhood summers. Each bungalow(or "chalet" as they seem to be known now by their owners) was individual in construction and style - some were/are made of old railway carriages but others (including ours) were more substantial strudtures with bay leaded-glass windows and a verandah looking on to the River. Paraffin lamps, an open fire, bottled gas, outside lavatories and water lugged across the communal field (site of the annual 'field days' with sack, egg-and-spoon and three-legged races etc.) from a stand pipe. Fishing, boating, adventures and fresh air; hot sun or sitting on the verandah watching the rain on the river. Never to be forgotten golden childhood dyas. The bungalows are still there; worth someone's trip to do a photo essay of them and (maybe) their denizens.

Philip Wilkinson said...

DC: Marvellous memories. Reminiscent in a way of the Czech Republic, where I spend a lot of time, and where many people keep a small wooden second home where they go for weekends and holidays. The bungalow in my post isn't in Stourport, but isn't that far away from there.

DC said...

I have just watched - making good my lapses in learning - Jonathan Meades's "Severn Heaven", which is devoted, in his usual wry way, to bungalows just such as these; again not at Stourport, but rather near Bewdley. In the unlikely event that you are not familiar with it, I commend it to you. For myself, I shed a nostalgic tear - though I would plead that our structure had slightly more architectural merit - and certainly less ghastly taste in interior decor - than those visited by Meades!

Philip Wilkinson said...

Yes! I'm a fan of 'Severn Heaven' and of Mr Meades' work generally. I have the BBC's 3-disc Jonathan Meades Collection and wish they'd issue more.

The bungalow in my post is itself near Bewdley, though it's not part of the collection of dwellings that Meades celebrates in his excellent film.

Eric Hayman said...

My grandparents owned the Water Mill at Hellingly in Sussex in the 1930s, running it as a tea gardens and guest house.

The mill building was timber with typical Sussex weatherboard walls.

The defunct original water wheel was replaced some years ago with a new one.

When my grandparents had the mill, my grandfather connected the water wheel to an electricity generator that charged batteries and provided lighting in the gardens and the buildings. In 930s rural Sussex, there was no mains electricity.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Eric: Thanks for your interesting comment. Great how your grandfather put the mill wheel to a new use. (I remember my parents having mains electricity installed in rural Lincolnshire in the 1960s!)