Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Whiteway, Gloucestershire

Alternative settlements (3)

‘Funny lot up at Whiteway. Sandal-wearing. Nude sunbathing. Vegetarianism. Beans.’ That’s how the buttoned-up inhabitants of Cheltenham used to refer to the people of the Whiteway Colony, up on the hills towards Stroud, in the 1960s, when I was young. Of course, as we know, the link between ‘alternative lifestyles’ and a kind of sandal-wearing crankiness can be traced in the utopian settlements of the late-19th and early-20th centuries. Jonathan Meades (hurrah!), for one, has had great fun with it. And some of the early Whiteway residents did speak Esperanto and dress like ancient Greeks. But for all this, the people of Whiteway were probably far nearer to the ideal of the ‘hard-working families’ beloved of our politicians today than to this kind of oddness. But their story is unusual, to say the least.

Whiteway was founded in 1898 by anarchist followers of Tolstoy who broke away from another Tolstoyan community in Purleigh, Essex. Early colonists included refugees, conscientious objectors, and thoughtful craftsmen who wanted to work cooperatively rather than competitively. Having bought the land, they ceremonially burned the title deeds on the end of a pitchfork, declared common ownership, and set about constructing rough-and-ready shack-like houses for themselves. They built this ‘colony hall’, too, and a bakery, and workshops, and other buildings, mostly of wood like something out of the Wild West. And they had a good shot at living self-sufficiently, without money.

It was a noble, if idealistic, effort. Nellie Shaw, whose charming 1935 Whiteway: A Colony on the Cotswolds I read in Oxford’s Bodleian library 30 years ago when I should have been attending to Shakespearian drama, said that while their feet were in the potato trenches, ‘our heads were up with the stars’. But if the ideal of self-sufficient isolation in the end proved impossible to sustain, the communal life went on, surviving the jibes of the 1960s (the 1960s! who were they to talk?) and continuing, after a fashion, long afterwards.

I’ve not been up to Whiteway for ages, hence the photograph from an old book, but some of the original bungalows still survive (variously modified and extended), and the old colony hall (with its new roof), although the bakery, famed for its good bread, is I think no longer baking. Here’s to the continuation of such endeavours. And pass me another helping of cauliflower bake.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Charterville, Minster Lovell, Oxfordshire

Alternative settlements (2)

I have blogged before about Chartism, the working-class movement of the 1830s and 1840s that campaigned for electoral reform and set up settlements where people could live in decent accommodation with a plot of land to cultivate. A number of Chartist villages or colonies were established in the late-1840s – Heronsgate in Hertfordshire, Snig’s End and Lowbands in Gloucestershire, Great Dodford near Birmingham, and Charterville, at Minster Lovell in Oxfordshire.

Charterville was founded in 1847 on 300 acres of land divided into some 57 smallholdings and so, while in 1848, Europe’s year of revolutions, campaigning Chartists marched in support of such demands as universal suffrage for men over 21, a group of their fellows in Oxfordshire settled down to a quiet agrarian life. They built the standard Chartist bungalows, generously laid out with oak floors, good-sized windows, and bookshelves, that still survive today.

In spite of setbacks – the colonies were declared illegal by a Select Committee of the House of Commons in 1851 and there were difficulties repaying the loans that had been taken out to buy the land – the smallholdings continued to function and many of the bungalows remain. Their typical layout – central gable with flanking rooms – makes them easy to spot in Gloucestershire, Hertfordshire, and here not far from the Witney bypass in Oxfordshire. Here amongst the trees it is not difficult to imagine the attractions they held for their first occupants.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Hollybush, Worcestershire

Alternative settlements (1)

From Turkey to Colombia, from Italy to Wales, there is a tradition that if you can build a house in a single night on a piece of unoccupied land then you gain the right to stay there: the landowner cannot evict you. Sometimes there is the proviso that for these squatters' rights to be secure, the chimney must be smoking by morning, or the table ready to serve up a meal, but the principle is widespread, and traced variously to Roman law, Germanic tradition, or some other ancient authority.

‘One-night houses’ are said to exist in many parts of England, on slivers of land by roadsides, on the edges of big village greens, or on ancient commons. At Hollybush, on the borders of Herefordshire and Worcestershire, there are said to be many, scattered apparently at random over the common. This building, in the middle of the common next to its landmark tree, a pale rendered cottage standing out amongst the green, must be one of them.

Such houses would originally have been timber-framed for the fastest possible build, with just the all-important chimney made of brick or stone, but have since been remodelled in masonry, rebuilt to last. They make their mark in a scatter quite unlike either the traditional nucleated village or the pattern of isolated farms that make up the majority of English rural settlement, so that if they no longer look as they originally did, these houses still provide vivid visual evidence of a once-famous bit of English folk law.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Malmesbury, Wiltshire

A costly piece of work

Many English market towns have a cross to act as a marker of the market place, and sometimes this cross is an elaborate structure offering shelter too. Cities such as Salisbury and Chichester have big crosses like this, and so does the Wiltshire market town of Malmesbury. Malmesbury’s market cross is a really fancy octagonal stone structure, encrusted with carving, and the Tudor writer John Leland described it as ‘a right costly piece of work’. For me it’s certainly the most outstanding structure in the town apart from the terrific Norman abbey.

Although the cross is a popular shelter and meeting place for local people, probably most visitors to the town, hot-footing it to the abbey or the shops, only give the structure a rapid glance. That’s a pity because the carving repays a closer look. As well as the truly top-notch Gothic detailing – pinnacles, crockets, and that dazzling structure at the top – there are some marvellous grotesques. These are small versions of the grotesques (often referred to as gargoyles) on medieval churches, and make up a small rogues’ gallery of medieval humour. The spitting image of the Middle Ages.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Nunney, Somerset

What's that château for?

Castles. Bastions in the defence of the realm, of course. Homes of grand feudal lords, to be sure. But also status symbols to impress the knight down the road. And what better status symbol for a knight who had done well in the Hundred Years War than a castle in the French style in the middle of his English domains?

That must have been the thinking behind Nunney Castle, a small building like a miniature Bastille in a quiet Somerset village. It was built for Sir John Delamere in 1373, and it was said that he paid for it with ransom money he collected during the wars in France. It’s just four corner towers connected by lengths of high stone wall, the latter so short on two sides that the towers are nearly touching. The four towers originally had conical roofs, and a protruding walkway ran around the tops of the walls, linking the towers at the upper level. The whole thing would not have seemed out of place in an illustration for a fairy-tale, and was not unlike some of the châteaux forts that Delamere would have seen in France.

Curiously, although there is high, defensible ground nearby, land that would have made a good site for a castle, Delamere chose to build down in the village, near the river. One advantage of this site was a ready water supply to fill the moat. But one can’t help thinking that Delamere put his castle where he did so that it would be seen and admired by the neighbours.

The drawback was that an enemy could take up a position on the nearby high ground and blast holes in the castle walls. Nunney Castle got blasted during the English Civil Wars of the 17th century, when Cromwellian artillery blew a big hole in one wall and the building’s military career was over.

Writers about castles used to stress the solid, soldierly, utilitarian aspect of these buildings, treating them as the homes of hardened war leaders and as bases for military operations. All that is true, and yet the more you look at castles, the more you see that there’s more to them than that. Recent research has revealed, for example, that the lumps and bumps in the ground around many medieval castles are the remains not of defensive works but of ornamental gardens. Fancy windows, especially ones placed high up, out of arrow range, also hint at status-conscious owners. Many castles, especially ones built, like Nunney, in the later Middle Ages, seem at least partly built to impress. And even in its ruined state, impress this one still does.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Frome, Somerset

At your service

I mentioned in my previous post the many attractions of the town of Frome, where there is plenty to see at eye level and below. But it's always worth looking up, especially above shop fronts, where buildings sometimes wear their history on their sleeve. This corner building bears the marks of two former businesses. First of all, right at the top, ghostly inscriptions proclaim its time as the town's 'Glass and China Showrooms', where one might buy toilet sets, vases, pormanteaux, and dinner sets. I'm not sure of the date of these signs, but the lettering and the inclusion of such antique-sounding goods as toilet sets, not to mention portmanteaux, to carry them away in, presumably, seems to suggest the Victorian period.

Later on this was a photographic shop. Two signs (the other more ghostly and less specific than the one shown here) advertise photographic services. This one, with its packet of Kodak Verichrome film, must have been put up between 1931 and 1956, when the film was replaced with Verichrome Pan. Although nowadays we think of 'chrome' as signifying a colour (especially colour transparency) film, in 1931 the name 'Verichrome' was meant to suggest the faithful conversion of colours into black and white. It's interesting to see how enthusiastically it was being promoted in this vivid sign in Kodak yellow.

For more images of old signs, follow the Ghost Signs link in the right-hand column.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Frome, Somerset

Blue boys and asylum maids

This striking structure is in the charming Somerset town of Frome, a place where the gaze is often diverted from important things like the architecture to such distractions as shops selling a diverting range of local produce, and the stream that runs down the middle of the main street. But here’s one building that caught my eye.

There was an almshouse here from the 1460s onwards, but in 1728 a free school was added to the charitable institution, and this very upright, look-at-me, town-hall-like Georgian building was put up to house it. It’s known as the Blue House, because the boys wore blue coats, as charitable schoolboys often did in those days, and the façade has statues of both an almswoman and a schoolboy.

To one side there are two other statues depicting women, which come from the Keyford Asylum, which was pulled down in 1956. So now this corner of Frome is a repository of local history, a symbol of charitable pride – as well as still providing flats for the elderly. None of which can be a bad thing, especially when housed in such an uplifting building.

The maids from the asylum