Sunday, May 5, 2013
I'm always telling people to look up, but this time the opposite advice is the order of the day...
While photographing some sash windows in Wantage, I catch the eye of an elderly gentleman. 'Interested in photography, are you? There's a camera club here.' I politely explain that I'm not local and anyway, my interest is more architectural than photographic. 'Ah. In that case, you should take a look at the almshouses over there.'
And I'm directed to the Stiles Almshouses: solid, brick, unpretentious, and with a weathered stone plaque telling me that they were built by an Amsterdam merchant,† of all people, in 1680, which makes them the earliest datable brick building in this admirably brickish town. I thank my companion, but he encourages me to look further, to push open the door, and cast my eyes down. And what I see takes my breath away: a floor made partly of sheep's knucklebones, a serviceable if knobbly substitute for stone cobbles no doubt contemporary with the rest of the building.
A similar floor was found last year by archaeologists excavating the site of the Curtain, the London theatre that hosted Shakespeare's company before they decamped to the more famous Globe. In those days they knew how to knuckle down and cobble together a hard-wearing floor.
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*Wantage is now in Oxfordshire, but I use the traditional English counties because they reflect the usage in Pevsner's invaluable Buildings of England books – and because I like them.
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†There's more about the founder of the Almshouses and the plaque above the door in the Comments section – click on the word COMMENTS below.