Wednesday, October 27, 2010
Like some sort of rustic mausoleum – the pyramid of an old geezer – this little building pops up in the Oxfordshire village of Wheatley to surprise the passer-by. It’s not a mausoleum, though – there’s no churchyard hereabouts – but something that was an essential for a village of any size before the mid-19th century: a lock-up in which wrongdoers (drunks, petty thieves, kickers of buildings, and other ne’er-do-wells) could be detained overnight before being brought before the beak in the morning. They’re usually small, and built completely of masonry, usually stone, to prevent inmates from pushing tiles off the roof and climbing out.
English buildings don’t usually have roofs made completely of stone. We have stone-covered roofs here in the Cotswolds, but they’re made up of stone ‘slates’ supported on timber frames, and are far from secure. What I’m talking about here is a stone roof that’s as strong as the walls beneath it. Creating this kind of structure has led to some interesting designs, and this is one of the best: a tall hexagonal pyramid, with no distinction between the roof and walls at all.
Who came up with this unusual and arresting form? It used to be thought that the little building was designed by Vanbrugh. It’s certainly the kind of bold, uncompromising shape that Vanbrugh liked, but it’s a bit too rustic for him. The architect of Blenheim would probably have specified smooth, high-quality ashlar instead of the rougher, coursed rubble masonry at Wheatley. Perhaps too he would have made more of the doorway and designed a more elaborate moulded capstone to support the ball finial. No, this is the work of a local mason who had perhaps seen Vanbrugh’s work: apparently a man named Cooper, who built the lock-up in 1834 – more than 100 years after Vanbrugh died.
1834 is very late for a village lock-up. In 1839 the County Police Act allowed paid police forces to be set up in each county – and each force had to have police stations with cells built in. Lock-ups gradually became surplus to requirements and many were demolished. Quite a number survive, but few of them are quite as memorable as this little pyramid.