Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Wheatley, Oxfordshire

High security

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.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

The Mall, London

Kicked a building lately?

That’s the title of a collection of writings by redoubtable American architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable, and straight away we know what she means. Architecture can be exasperating and many a building seems to demand to be kicked, punched, or otherwise assaulted. It’s pointless, of course: the thing will still be standing and we’ll have a sore toe. But it’s still hard to resist.

Regular readers of this blog will know, though, that I mostly write about buildings I like – there’s quite enough spleen online without additions here. So I’d like to propose another reason for kicking – or at least slapping or tapping – a building: it can help you find out what it’s made of.

Hence the picture above of this plump fluted tapering three-quarter Doric column in The Mall. It’s part of the lower, supporting storey on which rests Nash’s Carlton House Terrace (1827–33), one of the grandest London terraces of them all. Up above, it’s all ornate Corinthian columns, balconies, and fancy decoration. Down here, at what was seen as a lower-status level, we have the plain Doric columns and panels of vermiculation – walls moulded, in other words, so that they look as if they’ve been eaten away by worms. (Yes, by worms. Some of the artists who exhibit at the ICA, which is located in this building, would no doubt have a thing or two to say about that.)

The columns, though, are not quite what they seem. Give one a smack, and you hear, not the dull thud of stone, but a hint of a ring. They are made of cast iron. A surprise, of course, but not so inappropriate as you might think. The ancient Greeks used iron in their architecture – not in this way, but by joining together stone blocks with invisible iron clamps. Nash just took things a step further and made the whole column out of metal. As more than one architectural historian has noticed, Nash was after all interested mainly in large effects and sweeping gestures. And you never quite know where you are with him. What looks at first like a Greek revival building by Nash often turns out to be a kind of souped-up fantasy Classical. What looks like stone is usually stucco – or cast iron. He didn’t much mind whether his effects were achieved by traditional craftsmanship or modern technology.

So don’t forget the senses of touch and hearing when you ‘look’ at a building. I’m always tapping away at bits of old shop fronts to find out whether they’re made of wood, stone, or metal, touching columns to discover whether they’re cool marble or some warmer imitation, knocking on surfaces that might conceal hidden hollows and voids. Kicked a building lately? You bet.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Cirencester, Gloucestershire

Investment product (2)

I first came across the word ‘tontine’ (see previous post) when I saw this building. It’s in the Cotswold town of Cirencester on the wonderful Cecily Hill, one of the most beautiful streets in the town. Cecily Hill is a wide street, full of houses – Georgian here, Regency Gothick there, Cotswold vernacular elsewhere – in the local creamy stone, and ends in iron gates that lead into the grounds of Cirencester Park and the longest avenue of trees in England. Tontine Buildings is a row of houses, and it’s said that Earl Bathurst ‘won’ it as the last surviving investor.

It’s a very plain and simple building, a terrace of ten small houses with a flat, cliff-like frontage topped by a very retrained – some might even say mean – cornice. But I like its restraint, and the elegant touches, such as the curved central carriage arch and the oval cartouche containing the name, that give the row an air of quality. Not the most ornate building on Cecily Hill, then, but a worthy complement to the more showy houses on the street. And a fitting backdrop to the most impressive collection of planters in the town.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Stourport-on-Severn, Worcestershire

Investment product (1)

To Stourport-on-Severn, to admire the locks, basins, bridges, and waterside buildings of one of England’s most fascinating canal towns. But as usual, my eye was caught by something I didn’t quite expect. This building is called The Tontine. The central part was an inn, and the flanking portions contain houses. There are more houses in the wings, which extend out from the back of the building to give the whole thing a plan like an enormous capital E. It was built in the 1770s, although the porch was added about 100 years later. The whole building is being redeveloped as houses, and is festooned with ‘For Sale’ signs. Its red brick and neat windows look well, and the rooms at the front enjoy views across the lawn to the River Severn.

But why was it called ‘The Tontine’? A tontine was what today might be called, to use a kind of language I usually avoid, an ‘investment product’. As I understand it, it worked like this. A group of shareholders clubbed together to buy an investment, such as a property, and shared the income. But there was a twist: the shareholders couldn’t sell their shares, and when they died, their shares passed to the other shareholders. The last surviving shareholder struck gold, inheriting the entire scheme. One presumes that the newly developed houses in the building are being sold with a more conventional tenure arrangement.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Bath, Somerset

A tomb with a view

I make no apologies for returning once more to Bath, especially as on this visit I was drawn to an unusual building that I’d not seen before, high on the outskirts of the city on the way to Bath Racecourse. I knew it was there, I’d read about it and knew some of its history, but my reading hadn’t prepared me for the uncompromising sight that met my eyes.

When I say ‘uncompromising’ I mean that this tower is perhaps of all the buildings I’ve seen in England, most unambiguously, sternly classical. In a way it’s the exact opposite of what one would expect, for this tower was commissioned by the writer, collector, MP, and artistic patron William Beckford, the man who, obsessed with the Middle Ages, had built the most outrageously Gothic country house in the country, Fonthill Abbey in Wiltshire.

Beckford, born fabulously wealthy from family sugar plantations in Jamaica, collected ravenously, picking up cheap Italian Renaissance paintings, Asian sculptures, drawings by Blake, and French furniture. He wrote travel books about Italy, Spain, and Portugal, published Vathek, a pioneering Gothic novel, and egged on his architect Wyatt and his builders to finish Fonthill with its enormous tower and vast halls, increasing the workers’ beer allowance and poaching builders from Windsor Castle in the process.

Fonthill was glorious, from its 10-metre-high front doors to the top of its 90-metre tower, but both Beckford’s fortunes and his architecture proved fragile. The tower at Fonthill collapsed. Twice. Beckford lost his sugar plantations in a legal action, and he was forced to leave, and then sell, Fonthill. He retired to Bath, where he had a town house connected by gardens to this tower. The tower, designed in 1825 for Beckford by the young architect H E Goodridge, was designed to house the owner’s books and such treasures as he was able to salvage from his earlier life.

The bottom section of the tower is perfectly plain, then there’s a very strong cornice supporting the belvedere, with its three tall rectangular openings on each side – from here there are glorious views over Bath and the surrounding countryside. Above this, the tower becomes octagonal, with a squat plain octagon supporting the final touch, a gilded lantern. That lantern relieves the severity of the main tower, and gleams in the sunshine, making one think as much of an ancient lighthouse as the Athenian monuments on which the building is partly modelled.

After Beckford died in 1844, his daughter sold the tower, but when she discovered that the new owner was going to turn it into a pub, she bought it back and gave the adjoining ground to the church for a cemetery. Beckford’s own tomb, in pink Aberdeen granite, is in the foreground of the picture. The great connoisseur’s final resting place is next to his final home and visitors come from miles around to enjoy the views from his tower and his tomb.

* * *

The Landmark Trust operates the lower part of the tower as a holiday cottage. The tower also contains a museum that is open regularly. Both of these links contain further information about the tower.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Hastings, East Sussex

The fire on Hastings Pier

This post is to offer my condolences to my friends in Hastings for the damage caused to Hastings Pier in this week’s fire.

Hastings Pier, designed by Eugenius Birch, the doyen of British pier engineers, was opened on 5 August 1872, which was Britain’s first-ever bank holiday. It is one of seven remaining piers designed by Birch, and its cast-iron columns and wooden deck sit on screw piles, patented by Birch, which anchor the structure in place. Much of this basic substructure remains. The buildings on top have been much altered over the years, both because of damage caused by an earlier fire (in 1917) and to reflect the changing uses of the pier – from a combination of promenade and landing stage for paddle steamers to the home for a host of entertainments (music hall, theatre, slot machines, bingo, rock concerts, and so on and on).

The pier’s recent history has been troubled. Storm damage has led to periodic closures and there has been widespread concern about the neglect of the structure by its offshore owners. The Hastings Pier & White Rock Trust (HP&WRT) was formed to raise money to restore the pier and to return it to community ownership. Huge progress had been made, including an agreement by the local council to use compulsory purchase powers to buy back the pier, when this tragedy struck.

The people of Hastings are right to care about their pier. It is a wonderful Victorian structure of enormous historical interest, evoking the brilliance of Victorian engineering and the verve with which the Victorians embraced the English saeaside. It also represents the memories of countless locals and visitors who have enjoyed variety performances, plays, rock concerts, winnings, strolls, and views of the sea here for more than 130 years. Assessment of the damage is now underway and, with the HP&WRT still working to raise funds, there’s a chance people will continue to enjoy the pier. Go to their website to check out their progress and donate.

Thanks to Ann Kramer for the photograph.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Little Malvern, Worcestershire

Across the fields
A way to the south of Great Malvern – famous for its grand medieval church, its spa, and its clusters of Victorian villas – lies Little Malvern. This is the site of a Benedictine priory founded in the 12th century, and what remains of its church – tower, chancel, and ruined transept – catches the eye and the sun as one looks across the fields towards the wooded slopes beyond. It’s a mixture of Norman and late medieval architecture, having had a makeover in the 1480s when monasticism in England had little more than 50 years before succumbing to the ravages of Henry VIII’s opportunistic reformation.

Next to the church were the usual domestic buildings, and part of these form the heart of Little Malvern Court, the partly timber-framed house to the left of the church. This too is of a mixture of periods, with a monastic core of the 14th century that includes the magnificent prior’s hall, plus later additions and modifications. The building was restored and extended by Joseph Hansom in 1859–60. It’s no accident that the Catholic architect Hansom was chosen. Since the 16th century the Court has been home to the Beringtons, a Catholic family.

In the Middle Ages, the church tower must have been a welcome landmark to the monks returning from work in the fields or from journeys farther afield as they crossed the neighbouring plain. It’s wonderful that it remains a landmark today, with its neighbouring house testimony to more than 800 years of continuous use.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Ledbury, Herefordshire

Colours of history

Long ago in another life I was an editor of illustrated books and many was the discussion I had with my colleagues about the merits and otherwise of the various artists who worked as illustrators. I remember one occasion when we were discussing illustrators of historical subjects and the work of a particular artist came up in the conversation, someone who was known for artwork that was both historically accurate and highly atmospheric – but in which the atmosphere was often pervaded with clouds or stormy weather. ‘Ah,’ said a colleague. ‘It was always raining in the ancient world.’

Even in these days of colour reproduction and the electric glow of the internet, it’s all too easy to think of history before the Renaissance as taking place in a palette of greys under a cloudy sky. Most medieval churches no longer have their wall paintings and stained glass; castles have lost their banners and heraldry; we talk about black-and-white houses and silvery stone; we imagine peasants grubbing around in dingy hovels. This view of the Middle Ages is way off target, of course, as I've noticed before.

We know more about the colour and comfort of the Tudor period, from the surviving great houses. The grandest Elizabethan rooms were heated with big fireplaces and walls hung with thick tapestries. But how were smaller buildings decorated? What options were open to you if you couldn’t afford rich tapestries? A look inside most small Elizabethan houses today and the chances are you’ll find a very simple colour scheme – pale plasterwork and perhaps, if the building is timber-framed, the same ‘black and white’ effect as on the exterior.

But it wasn’t always like this. In Ledbury is the rare survival of a 16th-century colour painted interior. Here the walls were decorated in a pattern that imitates the designs of contemporary tapestries – stylized flowers and fruit within intricate borders resembling the formal hedges of an Elizabethan knot garden. Their splashes of red, blue and gold must have glowed 500 years ago.

In addition there are panels bearing inscriptions, quotations from the Books of Psalms and Proverbs, instructing us how to live our lives. ‘Better is a dinner with greene hearbes where love is, then a fat oxe and hatred therewith.'* According to some sources, the presence of these sententious moral comments may relate to the fact that this building might once have been used as a local court – probably a court of ‘pie-powder’, dealing with the running of the town’s market and related matters. I'm not so sure: the sentiments seem more domestic to me.

Whatever their origins, these rare painted walls give us a precious insight into the way provincial buildings could be decorated in the 16th century. At least some people aspired to the kind of colour more readily accessible to the upper classes. And the setting of history was not always black, white, or grey.

*Proverbs 15.17, Geneva Bible. Thanks to the readers who identified the translation.