Saturday, February 25, 2012

Much Marcle, Herefordshire

Growing your own buildings

I used to smile at Arthur Mee, the author of a series of mid-20th century county guides called ‘The King’s England’ who, whenever he encountered an unusually large tree, recorded its girth measurement for his readers. I imagined him whipping out his tape measure with glee and chuckling over the figures, like a trainspotter or a twitcher or the composer Anton Bruckner, who liked obsessively to count the leaves on trees.

And then today I encountered this magnificent specimen, and began to think that perhaps Mee had a point. It’s the yew tree next to the parish church at Much Marcle, Herefordshire, and its hollow trunk has enough space inside for three benches. I began to wonder whether, if we could grow buildings, they would look like this. And I began to wonder too just how big this monster is. I do not travel with a tape measure, but a notice in the church porch enlightened me. When the girth of the trunk was measured in 2006, it was found to be 30 ft 11 ins. What’s more the notice goes on to say that the best estimate of the tree’s age is 1,500 years. In other words, it was planted in around the year 500, about 90 years after the Romans pulled out of Britain, and around the time that the Britons (led, according to some, by the legendary King Arthur) were said to be beating the stuffing out of Saxon invaders at the Battle of Mons Badonicus. So this tree has been here longer than any extant standing English building, Roman ruins excepted, and its spreading branches are still pushing out abundant greenery. They way it has, as it were, invited human shelterers inside its trunk while also continuing its vigorous growth is admirable, and rather humbling.

I’ve got a good long surveyor’s tape in the shed somewhere. Perhaps now I’ll keep it in the boot of the car…

The yew tree, almost completely hiding the spacious nave of Much Marcle church

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Elkstone, Gloucestershire

Pigeon post (2)

The 12th-century church at Elkstone, high on the Cotswolds between Cheltenham and Cirencester, is one of my favourite parish churches. I’ve posted about it before, sharing some photographs of its doorway and its interior, with its zigzag-carved chancel arch and vaulted chancel. When I went there again a couple of weeks ago during the recent snow, it occurred to me that there’s one other aspect of this church that might interest my readers, and it’s a very curious one.

My photograph of the exterior of the church shows the east end in the foreground. The small, round-headed window above the buttress is the window in the end of the chancel, above the high altar. If you look at my earlier post about the church you’ll see that the chancel interior is actually quite low. But this exterior is higher, with a second, narrower window above the round-headed one. Unusually, this little church has a room above the chancel.

Tucked in next to the chancel arch is a small door and this opens on to the narrow and very tight spiral staircase that leads to the upper room. When you get to the top you find – nest holes for pigeons. This was the priest’s pigeon loft and presumably the birds flew in and out through the narrow window, while the priest popped up the stairs when he fancied pigeon pie. It’s extraordinary. I’ve never come across a church with its own pigeon loft before.

This room has probably not always been here. In the 12th century, the church had a central tower, positioned roughly between the two large buttresses on the left-hand wall so that it separated the nave from the chancel. At some point in the Middle Ages (probably in the 13th century) this tower collapsed and the upper part of the chancel was remodelled – this would have been when the upper room was added. The lovely west tower was built in the 15th century. As is commonly the case, the story of our medieval buildings is one of evolution over the centuries, and when you look closely, things are often not quite what they seem.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Chastleton, Oxfordshire

Pigeon post (1)

Pigeons were traditionally upper-class food and the dovecotes in which they were kept are often interesting buildings, a cut above the normal farmyard structure. This one is not in a farmyard at all, but in the middle of a field opposite the beautiful Chastleton House. It’s built of the local limestone of the north Oxfordshire Cotswolds and, like many Cotswold dovecotes is square, with four gables, and is roofed with limestone ‘slates’. What’s more unusual is the way the building is raised up on arches, with the loft reach via a trapdoor inside.

At first glance the segmental arches with their heavy piers have a 176th-century look about them – when I first saw them they reminded me of a scaled-down version of a Jacobean market hall. But this building is actually Georgian and is inscribed with the date 1762 and name of Thomas Fothergill. Fothergill lived not in the big house some 150 yards away but in another house, since demolished, next to which the dovecote stood.

The date of the building, 1762, is significant. Until 1761, building a dovecote was one of the privileges of lordship. You had to be a member of the aristocracy or a churchman to build one. Even so, by the 17th century, by which time the rules had been relaxed to a certain extent, it’s said there were some 26,000 dovecotes in England. According to some accounts, the restriction was removed completely in 1761, and farmers who had some spare money started to build dovecotes and keep pigeons to supply their own tables. If that's the case† Thomas Fothergill was quite quick off the mark and his building of 1762 is now the only trace above ground of what must have been a substantial property.

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† I have edited the text of this post slightly since it was written, in the light of some comments: it seems hard to find an actual piece of legislation than changed the law about dovecote-building in 1761–2. See the comments on this post for further information, and some references.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Hay on Wye, Powys

Hay, good looking

This is the English Buildings blog, so I don’t as a rule record what I see on my visits (all too brief for the most part) to Scotland or Wales. But I live within striking distance of the Welsh border, and it occurs to me that now and then my readers might be interested in the occasional Welsh building, perhaps one so close to the border that it can virtually be seen from England.

Hay on Wye is a town I visit often, and it’s near enough to the border to be more or less on it. It’s famous as the town of secondhand books, and even in these digital times the place is full of bookshops. People come from all over the country to browse and buy here and, as more and more secondhand bookshops disappear from most High Streets, Hay seems to survive. It’s a stimulating place to browse, and you never know what you will find – it’s the opposite of a search engine, the ultimate in non-targeted, algorithm-free discovery.

The person who began it all was Richard Booth, who started his first bookshop in Hay in 1961 and attracted publicity not just with his large and diverse stock, but also by declaring the town an independent kingdom (with himself as king, naturally). Booth has sold books from several premises in the town since then, and a couple of dozen other booksellers also trade from shops in the town’s knot of narrow streets. This is Richard Booth’s shop in Lion Street, beautifully restored with maroon period paint. It’s an interesting design, structurally a bit like an enormous shed, but with a front that’s nearly all glass. There are lots of ornate details, such as the gilded lion at the top above a date stone that says 1886, and the very fancy capitals.

But what makes it even more special is the wonderful selection of tiles on the front. The sheep and cattle depicted on the tiles have led many to assume that this was originally a butcher’s premises, but this building doesn’t feel like a butcher’s somehow – I’m inclined to believe the sources that say it’s a former agricultural supplier’s. The quality of the space inside (high ceilings upstairs, spacious wooden floors) and the wide door that one could imagine wheeling sacks through on a truck fit with this. The interior has recently been refitted with custom-made shelves, ample seating, and a café – it’s a far cry now from a seedsman’s warehouse, and a good place for both physical and intellectual nourishment.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

South Leigh, Oxfordshire

Seeing double

St James the Great, South Leigh has some of my favourite medieval wall paintings – although some of these paintings are probably not quite as medieval as they seem. One of the most striking is this wonderful St Michael Weighing Souls. The archangel stands with his scales next to the Virgin Mary, who, with the aid of her rosary, pushes the scale pan to ensure that the soul receives a favourable weighing; to the right, devils, including one with a flesh hook (a medieval kitchen utensil) try to push the scales the other way. Through prayer, the image seems to say, Our Lady will intercede on our behalf, the flesh-hook-wielding devils will be defeated, and all will be well. Both the Virgin and St Michael are drawn with flair: Mary is calm and graceful, her robes falling in generous folds; the Archangel has wonderful feathered limbs and an enormous sword that a mere human would need two hands to brandish.

Look more closely, and the painting reveals another secret. A horizontal band runs past the shoulders of the Virgin and St Michael and turns vertically downwards, forming part of the frame of an earlier painting; between the two saints is the faint image of another, much smaller, figure – seemingly another portrait of the Virgin. She forms part of an earlier depiction of the same scene, at a smaller scale. So we have a large image of the Soul-Weighing, together with part of a smaller depiction of the same subject, together with the upper and right-hand parts of its frame. At some point, someone repainted the image, hoping to do it more justice by giving it more room.

When was the image repainted? For a long time the large version we see today was accepted as 15th-century, with the smaller version dated as maybe 14th-century. But more recent accounts, including that in the Victoria County History of Oxfordshire and another in an article by John Edwards in Oxoniensa, suggest that it’s the work of Victorian restorers Burlisson and Grylls, working in the 1870s. The church’s original medieval paintings, having been whitewashed over in the 17th century, were rediscovered during the 1870s restoration and partly repainted, and the Soul-Weighing picture seems to have been increased in size in the process. Burlisson and Grylls obliterated the earlier, smaller soul-weighing and its ghostly frame, but this was rediscovered in a subsequent restoration in 1933. So now we have a double image to confuse us.

I suppose the scholars are right: it’s a Victorian image, although its palette, the fading areas, the costumes, and details from scales to flesh-hook certainly have a late-medieval feel. What does feel completely Victorian, though is the border. This must have been painted by someone who knew about William Morris. And Burlisson and Grylls, who started out as stained-glass artists, were certainly disciples of Morris at the beginning of their careers. Burlisson, Grylls, their employer the vicar Gerard Moultrie (Tractarian, hymnologist, educationalist), the restorers of 1933, the various artists who influenced them all, and the anonymous medieval painter who started the whole process going: English parish churches were made by many hands and the marks made by those hands are many, varied, and fascinating.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Kidderminster, Worcestershire

Iron eyecatcher

In Kidderminster, while I had my eyes on the towers of distant carpet factories, the Resident Wise Woman (who can spot an edible mushroom at 200 yards through her eye corner while driving at speed along a country road) had her attention fixed on the small but significant things around her: “Look at that!”

“That” turns out to be the one surviving gate pier of Kidderminster’s former cattle market. Having been held on the streets, the market was moved here in 1871, when presumably this pier (and at least one other to match it) was put up, along with the nearby brick Jacobean-style entrance lodge. The pier and lodge are the only market structures that remain on the site, and livestock are no longer sold here, although the town still has a large general street market.

The coat of arms is the one used by the town between the 18th century and 1963, although the colours have been tampered with. The two chevrons and three large roundels should be gold and the four roundels on each chevron black. Battered and bruised, the coat of arms remains on this corroded iron pier that is coming apart but, wonderfully, has resisted the elements, the demolition men, and the heraldic perfectionists to survive to attract and please those with sharp eyes.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Kidderminster, Worcestershire

Carpet people

For around 200 years between the 1770s and the 1970s, carpet-weaving was a major industry in Kidderminster, a trade stimulated by the construction of the Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal, which, completed in 1771, provided a vital transport artery. The business was initially based around hand-looms, and the Kidderminster weavers were at first reluctant to adopt power looms. After the 1850s, though, power-loom-weaving was introduced, and manufacturers built a number of large mills in the town to accommodate the new equipment. Since the industry declined in the late-20th century, Kidderminster has been redeveloped – there seem to have been major upheavals in the 1960s and 1970s, with a new ring road, which, I have to say, has made parts of the town centre very unfriendly to pedestrians. A number of the carpet mills survive, though, and most impressive they are, even when glimpsed behind 1970s shops when one is trying to dodge dashing objects making their way around the town centre.

These factories are not on the vast scale of the multi-storey mills and warehouses of northern England, Titus Salt’s Saltaire, for example. But they’re impressively long, with fronts of dazzling polychrome brickwork in which the varied colours of window surrounds, cornices, string courses, and similar details makes a pattern of masonry, not quite as intricate as a carpet, but nearly so.

This is the front of the mill built for the Victoria Carpet Company in 1869. The architect was T D Baker, a local man, and he seems to have been very confident in his handling of the blue brick and white Stourbridge brick, with which he contrived arched window openings, banded pilasters, and cornices. The overall form is classical, with a centre bay topped by a triangular pediment. But the decoration is a very Victorian hybrid – the mixture of dentils and zig-zag courses in the pediment conjures up an unlikely mixture of classical and Romanesque. The overall impression is one of solidity, but the wayward ornamentation hints that the people inside are up to making something decorative.

These buildings are a tribute to the industrialists of 19th-century Kidderminster, who must have liked the idea that they could build structures that were decorative and solid and durable. It was partly about putting up an impressive front – the weaving sheds around the back would have been much plainer and were no doubt tough, noisy environments in which to work. But the monumental factory facades suggest a pride in good work and must have been effective advertising, as decorative and hard-wearing in their way as the carpets made inside.