Thursday, July 30, 2009

Dorchester, Oxfordshire

Much ado about nogging

England’s ‘black and white’ houses, their dark timber frames infilled with panels of pale wattle and daub, are well known. But there are also lots of timber-framed buildings in which the gaps between the timbers are filled with bricks, a technique known as nogging. Nogging can be very attractive, especially when the bricks are laid in a pattern such as basket-weave or, as here in Dorchester, herringbone.

Brick nogging seems to have become popular in the Tudor period and retained its popularity in the 17th century. It’s not ideal structurally – the extra weight of the bricks could cause the timbers to bow and differences in the rates of expansion and contraction could lead to cracks. But bricks were highly fashionable in the Tudor and Stuart periods, and when wattle and daub panels needed replacing, many house owners seem to have followed fashion.

It’s hard to blame them, especially as they were using beautiful hand-made bricks with all their rich variations in colour. But of course, brick panels sometimes needed replacing too. No doubt maintenance and changes in window sizes resulted in some of the herringbone panels of this house being replaced with horizontally laid bricks. Those that remain, though, add wonderfully to the texture and colour of this handsome Oxfordshire street.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire

A world of wet

Although in my mind July 2007 stands out as the month I began this blog, here in Gloucestershire that month has other, more sinister resonances. July 2007 was the month of the great floods when in Tewkesbury and other parts of the county thousands were forced out of their homes by the rising water, roads were impassable, and Tewkesbury’s Mythe Water Treatment Works flooded, depriving 140,000 people of running water for a fortnight.

For those directly affected, the floods were devastating – for most, cleaning up, drying out, and rebuilding took more than a year, and two years on there are still people putting the finishing touches to their repairs. In the town where I live, on the edge of the Cotswolds, we’re not much used to flooding and sights such as a four-foot deep torrent of water rushing down a hill sweeping away all its path, traffic made up of Land Rovers towing dinghies and bowsers, or the acrid tidewash of mud, gravel, and debris, were unfamiliar. Tewkesbury, on the other hand, is a river town, at the confluence of the Severn and Avon. It’s used to being surrounded by waterlogged fields. But not to this overwhelming inundation.

The centre of the old town, the knot of streets and alleys to the north and east of the abbey, usually escapes the worst. This was the first time since the 18th century that flood water had entered the abbey itself. The picture shows the building during a more typical flood, with water covering the nearby meadows, but the large medieval church still dry. The central tower, probably the greatest of England’s Norman towers, and much of the rest of the building, dates from 1087–1123; other parts of the church date from a partial remodelling in the 14th century.

During that long history, this building that has seen its fair share of mishaps – the battle of Tewkesbury in 1471 during the Wars of the Roses; the dissolution, when the church was saved because the town bought it from Henry VIII (for £453) so that they could use it as their parish church; a restoration in the 1870s that threatened the fabric so profoundly that William Morris was inspired to found the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings in1877. It survived all this, and survived 2007 too.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Leominster, Herefordshire

The building formerly known as… (1)

Every so often I find myself in a strange town admiring a bank. Not, I try and convince myself, in a nostalgic spirit of longing (‘Those were the days when banks were banks, when bankers lent money they really had to people who could actually afford to repay it’). After all, I’m far from certain that the image of solidity so often created by Victorian and Edwardian bank buildings necessarily reflected the financial security of the institutions inside. We sometimes forget that things changed rapidly in the 19th century too.

Here’s Lloyds, with its doorway as solid and classical as they come, on Corn Square in Leominster. But it wasn’t always Lloyds, as becomes clear when we crane our necks on entering. It was the Worcester City and County Banking Company until 1889, when Lloyds took them over. But they weren’t over-eager to bury the history, having the old name carved in deep block letters above the door in a rather odd position, but clear for all to see.

I’m not sure when this was done, but the doorway with its columns punctuated by bold stone blocks (rusticated columns, in archispeak) is the kind of thing that appeared on grand buildings in the classical style during the decades on either side of 1900 – so soon after the takeover, perhaps. There’s quite a lot to admire here – I especially like the way the word ‘BANK’ fits into the spaces in the frieze above the door, and the way the blocks around the arch match those in the columns. All balance and order, then: a bank for its times, and, let’s hope, for our own.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Settle, North Yorkshire

Photograph courtesy of The Gallery on the Green

The Gallery on the Green

Red telephone boxes are not as thick on the ground as they once were. There were two classic designs, both the creations of Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, architect of Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral and Battersea Power Station. The first, the K2, appeared in 1929. Its Soane-inspired domed roof and red paintwork were instantly recognisable, but the boxes were heavy and costly, so a competition was run for a more economical design to commemorate George V’s Silver Jubilee in1935, and Scott produced the K6, which is smaller and lighter but still red and domed. Tens of thousands were made, but many were replaced from the 1960s on with more modern designs. Now the rise and rise of the mobile phone means that many more are simply disappearing.

In response to those who mourn the demise of the red box, BT has launched a scheme called Adopt a Kiosk. Local communities can buy a box for a token sum, find a new use for it, and take responsibility for its maintenance. The kiosk, minus its payphone, remains in situ, as a visual amenity, for future generations. Settle Town Council bought this K6 kiosk earlier this year and it has now begun its new role as a visual amenity in more than one sense of the word – as well as remaining an attractive piece of street furniture it is now also the Gallery on the Green, probably the smallest art gallery in the world. Its curators invite postcard-sized submissions and plan to select some for exhibition in the gallery as well as scanning some so that they can be displayed on the gallery website for the benefit of those who can’t actually visit Settle.

This is a lovely idea, one that recycles what would have been a redundant kiosk and will provide a changing visual display that can stimulate, delight, and charm. It needs its committed support in the shape of the local volunteers who run the gallery. And it deserves the support of the rest of us. And perhaps imitation too. How long before there are more phone kiosk galleries, or before people find other creative uses for these beloved red boxes – uses that can delight, provoke, or inspire us all?

For more about the Gallery, go here.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Paddington Street, London

First and last

The background to this little building is outlined on a helpful board nearby. Paddington Street Gardens originated in the 18th century as a burial ground for the parish church of St Martylebone. The land was granted to the parish by Edward Harley, Earl of Oxford, in 1730 and the burial ground was opened in 1733. There were few burials after 1814, when the St John’s Wood burial ground was opened, and subsequently most of the headstones were removed and the land turned into a park. But this mausoleum was left in place. It was built by the Hon Richard Fitzpatrick for his wife, who died in 1759, aged just 30. Later his daughter was buried there too.

So much for the history. But what made me notice this small building, aside from its fine lines and the large urn acting as an outsize finial and funerary symbol, is the way it works in its setting. The pale stone building acts as a focus in this enclave of plane trees, lawns. and flowers. And as if to confirm that, the gardeners have attached hanging baskets, so that plants and stones, soft and hard landscaping, come together. This winning combination is typical of graveyards, where the seasonal round of flower and leaf acts in counterpoint to the theme of last things, turning our thoughts from death to the renewal of life. In Paddington Street Gardens, the mausoleum and its vivid flowers ensure that this process is re-enacted year by year.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

The kindness of strangers

Birthday time. This blog has been going for two years now, and there seems to be no let up in the steady flow of architectural encounters I want to share. But the architectural surprises and delights are only part of the pleasure that I’ve had from two years of blogging. A friend I see about once a year asked how the blog was going. ‘And the comments,’ she asked. ‘Do they come from people you know, or from others?’
‘Both,’ I replied. ‘But quite a few from people I don’t know.’
‘From strangers?’ she said.

Yes, from strangers. And I’ve been impressed and enlightened by the generosity of those who’ve bothered to comment, filling in the gaps in my knowledge or just sharing a joke. I’ve benefited from fascinating information about architects such as Montague Wheeler, designer of Rudolf Steiner house in London, about the background to some relief carvings by Frederick Schenk in Harley Street, about the story of the anarchist settlement of Whiteway in Gloucestershire. I’ve had interesting email exchanges too about topics ranging from the lovely illustrated book The Map That Came To Life to the recent history of the Oxfordshire village of Great Tew and locations used in the TV series Foyle’s War. And friends as well as strangers have supplied me with all kinds of anecdotes – historical, topical, and personal – about the buildings I’ve featured and related topics.

This kind of thing is important to a writer. All too often, you write some text, it’s edited and published, and, if you’re very lucky, you get the odd decent review. But very rarely feedback from a reader. They’re on to the next book long before they can write an email, let alone find the publisher’s address, write a letter, and get down to the post box. We all have a life, after all. But meanwhile, the writer might as well be stuck on top of a mountain in Greece.

Well, if you do live on a mountain in Greece, hospitality is likely to be one of your guiding values. As the great Patrick Leigh Fermor pointed out, this is partly based on ‘a genuine and deep-seated kindness, the feeling of pity and charity toward a stranger who is far from his home’. But, as he also says, there’s an intellectual reason for it too. Strangers bring news, and the eager questioning of travellers (‘Are you married? Are your mother and father alive? What country are you from? – do you live in the capital or outside? Did you come on foot? …Do you know an Englishman called David who was here a few years ago?’) comes from a real interest and a desire to connect with others.

The instant comment system of blogging may not be quite as intoxicating as a long chat into the Peloponnesian night over bottles of resiny wine, but I hope it is hospitable, at least, and that this whole enterprise helps to fuel people’s interest and satisfy their curiosity. As we feed back effortlessly, we all learn a bit more and, often as not, are entertained into the bargain. So, as they say in Parliament, ‘Hat’s off, strangers!’ for telling me more than I could have hoped. And hats off to the rest of you too.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Ruardean, Gloucestershire

The nick of time

Some of the greatest pleasures are the unexpected ones. I went to Ruardean in search of a Norman carving above the church doorway. But before I got near the church itself I was struck by this inscription, which is on the inside of the small lychgate that forms the entrance to the churchyard. The sun lit up the lychgate’s stone wall as I looked at it and, since the resulting photograph is very contrasty, here’s the text for the sake of clarity and ease of reading:
Redeeme thy precious Time which steals So fast away
and in gods Hous forgiveness Ask, and for Salvation Pray.
May ye 10th 1743
James Mutlow & Hendrey Heane, Churchwardens

I don’t know where these words come from, but they are similar to those of Bishop Ken’s morning hymn, which he wrote in the late-17th century but redrafted later, so that there are several different wordings, one of which includes the lines
Thy precious time misspent, redeem,
Each present day thy last esteem.

Ken’s hymn was widely circulated in A Manual of Prayers (1709) and so would no doubt have been a familiar part of the religious landscape when this variation on the theme of redeeming time was carved. The words also look as if they would do for a sundial, and I felt it was appropriate somehow for the setting evening sun to bathe them in warmth in my photograph.

The other thing that caught my eye, of course, is the style in which the letters are cut, with the plain forms now and then garnished with something capricious and different – the capital T of ‘Time’ and P of ‘Pray’. And the final s of ‘churchwardens’ looks like a determined effort not to be broken by the last straw – the word might have been made to fit if the corner had not chipped off the stone. In the nick of time, as it were, the carver decided to stick the ‘s’ on top of the ‘n’. And call it a day.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Rodley, Gloucestershire


Between the 1850s and 1920s, when there was still a growing demand for church buildings but often a limited budget for construction, scores of corrugated iron churches were put up in England and in the farthest outposts of the empire. These buildings were supplied in prefabricated form by commercial companies, some of whom, including Boulton and Paul of Norwich and William Cooper Ltd of London, grew successful in the church market.

It was straightforward for an impoverished parish, or one needing temporary accommodation before a more permanent stone church was built, to find a design in a catalogue and order it up, pricing being based on the size of the congregation (£4 per person seated was not uncommon). The trappings of church architecture – pointed Gothic-style windows, little bell turrets – were included in the price, although plain, shed-like designs, presumably still cheaper, were sometimes chosen for mission halls or chapels.

Few could have expected these buildings to last very long. But this is one of the survivors, down a lane on the western side of the River Severn in Gloucestershire. Tucked away on a quiet corner, its entrance front shaded by encroaching trees, it looks every bit the part, the iron walls set off by the white carpentry of the porch, the single bell still hanging above the doorway. And although many of these buildings were built on a simple rectangular plan, this one even has a polygonal apse at the east end. It small and scattered parish must have been proud of it. They probably still are.