Monday, January 10, 2011

Burford, Oxfordshire


Coming home

Landmark noun An object or feature of a landscape or town that can easily be seen from a distance, especially one that enables someone to establish their location.

As we travel around, we acquire a personal inventory of landmarks that punctuate our journeys and help us to recognise places. They can be hills, lone trees, or other natural features, but often they’re buildings. Church towers and spires in distant valleys, factory chimneys, windmills. And also more modest buildings – toll houses at junctions, roadside cafés or pubs, isolated farms. They help us give people directions: ‘Turn left at the White Hart, and first right after the telephone box.’ ‘Park near the church.’ ‘Drive up the hill until you come to the filling station.’ They tell us where we’ve got to on a journey. And sometimes they become personal symbols of a particular place.

When I drive home to the Cotswolds from London, part of my journey is along the A40, which takes me across Oxfordshire and into the hills of Gloucestershire to my destination. Just before the Oxfordshire town of Burford I begin to notice the drystone walls of the Cotswold fields and the limestone architecture of my home patch, and for me, on this journey, all this is symbolized by this stone barn, which sits in a field near trees a couple of hundred yards from the road.

On the Cotswolds, field barns like this were mostly built in the 18th century and later, to service the kind of farming that came in when the open fields and commons were enclosed. They often have just one large porch – unlike farmyard barns, which usually have two, providing a big interior space for threshing. These field barns weren’t used for threshing – they were for keeping fodder for animals and for sheltering the beasts in winter. After a long life, this one has been re-roofed with what looks like corrugated asbestos, a popular cheap roofing material 50 years ago, and I think is unused now.

When I pass this barn I know that I’m in the limestone country at last and in a couple of minutes’ time I’ll be in Gloucestershire and on the last leg of my journey. I always look out for this building, and it has acquired a personal meaning for me beyond any architectural or historical interest it may have. As the sun of a winter’s evening lights up the surrounding trees and suffuses the barn’s limestone walls, catching my eye for a split second as I whiz by, it stands for nothing less than the warmth and welcome of home.

15 comments:

The Vintage Knitter said...

A very true post indeed. I also have a few landmarks along various regular routes and although this isn't one of my own, I recognise the barn in your photo. Its always surprised me how it has managed to escape from some sort of 'conversion'.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Yes, so many barns have been converted, and not always happily - although when a barn is no longer usable for modern agriculture, one has to have some sympathy with those who adapt the structure for a new use.

Who Lives in a house like this? said...

I live in Witney and pass that Barn often if converted the views would be outstanding, I have parked up and walked round the barn it looks as though they are starting to build a driveway, I feel the owner of this barn really could name his price!

historo said...

There is an obvious contrast between the Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire landscapes and your photo encompasses that fact in the slope on which the barn is built. It marks the sharp passage from the younger upper Jurassic fairly flattish Oxford clay to the older middle Jurassic sandstones of Gloucestershire. This is the geology of what is known as the "Paris basin", an ancient oceanic gulf that got reduced in size as the land emerged above the waters in geological times. Sorry for that verbiage, I've got an earth science degree two decades ago and could not abstain myself... The architecture of the different regions of Britain is wonderfully conditioned by the local construction materials and the Cotswolds is a prime example in that regard. It is indeed wonderful that the barn in your photograph shows just that and also marks the start of sandstone geology of Gloucestershire.
Valentin

bazza said...

When I am driving back to Essex
it's often the 'Essex pink' painted houses that welcome me home. Not the Chavs!
I like what you've written here John because there is an extra layer of warmth and meaning to your words. It's a lovely part of the world.
Bazza’s Blog ‘To Discover Ice’

Gaw said...

I too mark my re-entry to the Cotswolds at this point (funny how I'd tacitly assumed it was just me!).

However, my marker is the sight of the Windrush winding in a langourous 'S' down to the right (a view seen a bit further back than from where this photo was taken). Round about now I begin checking the colour of the willows to see how spring's coming on.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Valentin: Yes, the change from the flat Oxford clay to the upland jurassic oolitic limestone country is very noticeable on the ground.

Bazza: It's good that there are still enough traditional buildings around for building materials and styles to form strong local markers, in Essex as in Gloucestershire.

Gaw: Great minds think alike! The Windrush is indeed another good landmark - and even more so when it floods down there.

historo said...

Yes there is limestone there, not sandstone! ...quite difficult to remember the succession of strata from my 2000km away 'vantage point' in Bucharest. Thanks for correcting! Valentin

Philip Wilkinson said...

Valentin: No problem. If only we could always remember everything we learned!

Peter Ashley said...

This is brilliant Phil. The map pins of personal geography. I think of those seen from trains nearing London termini that mean I should get my coat on or bookmark my reading: Alexandra Palace for Kings Cross, Battersea Power Station for Victoria and the things you can't see because you're in those interminable tunnels approaching St.Pancras.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Peter: Thank you. Yes, the railways have landmarks of their own. Approaching Paddington, the station that links London to the far west, I look out for - another station, Royal Oak. (Although back in the 1970s I always remembered to look out for the best graffito on the railway network, the text that should stand at the head of all blogs about places: 'FAR AWAY IS NEAR AT HAND IN IMAGES OF ELSEWHERE'.)

Philip Wilkinson said...

Sorry, that should have seen 'CLOSE AT HAND' in the comment above.

Vinogirl said...

Lovely.
I can't wait for the drive from Manchester Airport to Liverpool (M62) when I arrive home in April. Whilst not the prettiest part of the English countryside it certainly looks distinctly un-Californian, and I love it for that alone.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Vinogirl: Thank you. And Liverpool, of course, is a city full of landmarks.

Charlieboy said...

Rats. As another local (Minster Lovell) I often fantasize about a tasteful conversion of this barn into a small house with one of the finer views in the Cotswolds. The road noise from the A40, 100 yards away on top of the hill would always be problem though. I really appreciate what you say about familiar buildings marking turning points on a journey. I still get a sinking feeling when passing Westonbirt as it was halfway point on the horrible car journey to prep school in the Fifties.