Sunday, July 25, 2010
St Pancras, London
Why Sir John hangs on to his hat
This blog is now three years old this month, so bear with me while I reflect about how I blog, and why. A regular reader, noticing that most of my photographs are of exteriors, recently asked me how often I manage to look inside the buildings I post about. The answer is sometimes, but not that often, and the reason lies in how I blog.
I had to decide at the beginning how I’d approach this blog. It would be possible to do lots of research, contact building owners in advance, and hope some would oblige with guided tours, information, and, in an ideal world, tea on the lawn. But, interesting and nutritious as all this would be, it would also take a lot of time, and, like most people, I have many calls on my time. So I decided on a different approach. I travel around – on business, for pleasure, or on the lookout for interesting buildings. When a building, often one I didn’t know about before, catches my eye, I take photographs of it, do some research, and see where this leads. If it turns out to be interesting, I write a post. So, in general, I look from the outside, though I take advantage of buildings that are open anyway, like many of England’s parish churches, and step inside.
This way of working reflects my interests, which are as much to do with the history, quality, and atmosphere of place, with townscape, with local distinctiveness, and so on, as with architecture. And the buildings turned up by my serendipitous methods reflect my interests too, which extend to barns and breweries as well as castles and cathedrals. When I wrote The English Buildings Book I described these preoccupations by referring to the great Nikolaus Pevsner. At the beginning of his book An Outline of European Architecture, Pevsner defines his subject by example: ‘A bicycle shed is a building,’ he says. ‘Lincoln Cathedral is a piece of architecture.’ So in calling our book The English Buildings Book, Peter Ashley and I were saying that we wanted to include all types and conditions of buildings – and both Lincoln Cathedral and a bicycle shed make their appearance in its pages. The English Buildings blog works along similar lines.
There’s another consequence of working in this way that has, I’d argue, wider significance – that one can find out a lot about buildings without privileged access, and that this way of looking at buildings is open to anyone who can use their eyes. Sir John Betjeman knew this. When extolling the pleasures of ‘church crawling’ he insisted that you need only two things: a map (in England it has to be an Ordnance Survey map) and ‘an eye’. Keep looking, look around you, above all look up, and you will be rewarded – and that is surely why Sir John is looking up, a practised hand keeping a firm grip on his headgear as he does so, in the statue by Martin Jennings at St Pancras Station.
A lifetime of looking at buildings and writing about them made Betjeman very well informed, of course. But he insisted that a knowledge of architectural styles was less important than observation. The eye comes first, and all of us who have eyes to see can use them in the way Betjeman intended. Doing so makes every journey one of fascination and I hope some of the fascination comes through in this blog.