Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Birts Street, Worcestershire


I didn't expect to find a house made out of an old railway carriage in the English Midlands. I'd associated dwellings like this, which are not at all common these days, with coastal plotland settlements. But here it is in rural Worcestershire, not far from the borders with Gloucestershire and Herefordshire. It's not far, in fact from Hollybush, a place I posted about long ago, where there are houses on and near the common that look as if they may have their origins in squatters' dwellings. And also round the corner is a corrugated iron church, no longer used for worship. So the railway-carriage bungalow is in good company and perhaps I shouldn't have been quite so surprised to find this form of rough and ready architecture hereabouts. If there's something incongruous about a timber-framed gable that also incorporates the end of the carriage, with the curving line of its roof clearly visible, not to mention the white front door, then so be it. Apparently there's another carriage forming the back of the bungalow too. In harking back to a time in the early-20th century when someone could buy an old carriage or two for a song, live in it, then add to it to make a more substantial house when funds allowed, it adds up to the kind of ingenious bricolage that I can enjoy. Here's to do-it-yourself.

My post about Hollybush is here, and the nearby tin church is here.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Blandford Forum, Dorset


I make no excuse for returning to the Dorset town of Blandford Forum, which has featured in posts on this blog before. It's one of the best places to savour urban domestic buildings of the mid-18th century, and here is a particularly mouth-watering example. Lime Tree House was built in c. 1760 after the fire of 1731 that destroyed much of the town. The builders were John and William Bastard, who were responsible for most of the town's 18th-century reconstruction, and they built the house for their five sisters. It's one of the more upmarket houses in the centre of Blandford and follows the pattern of the town's houses designed for the professional and merchant classes – a room with two sash windows on either side of a central front door, fireplaces in the end walls, and a fairly narrow plan with a single roof and dormer windows. These houses usually have an ornate doorway and the doorway of Lime Tree House, with its curving canopy and Tuscan pilasters, is one of the building's outstanding features. Another eye-catching thing about this house is the delightful mottled purple and red brickwork. Blandford's brickwork is one of the best things about the town, but the lovely mixture of shades in the bricks of this house is particularly good.

Lime Tree House is home to the Blandford Fashion Museum. For more information, go here.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Stoke Dry, Rutland

On looking the other way, or, Odd things in churches (1)

When Mr A and I push open the church door, we're immediately aware of a man with a large tripod, taking pictures near the chancel arch. We exchange 'Good afternoon's. 'You know what you should be looking at?' says the man. Mr A (we're near his home patch) nods, and gestures towards the Romanesque carvings that the man is photographing. And then I tiptoe away.

Typical, you will say. When I should be looking at Romanesque carvings and an extraordinary wall painting of the martyrdom of St Edmund, what do I find? An old trunk. Some remains of a flower arrangement in an earthenware jug. And Milner's Patent Fire-resistant Safe. Rather the worse for wear but complete with Gothic moulding on the door (to show that it's at home in a church) and sunlight from a nearby window catching the gold roundel. There really is no end to the odd things you see in churches, especially when, for a moment or two, you turn your back on the obvious.

- - -

Mr A's own blog contains a similar post about a church on my patch that I took him to some years ago. For connoisseurs of the quotidian, it's here.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

St Leonards, Sussex

Sun-warmed surfaces

Rain and deadlines are keeping me indoors these days, so I have looked through my stock of photographs to find an interesting building or two, preferably illuminated by the summer sun and warmed by the memories of former days.

Some mid-Victorian villas seemed to fit the bill. They were built in around 1860 to designs by Decimus Burton, son of the James Burton who had begun to build St Leonards as a new town in 1828. This bit of the town is leafy, well to do, and stuccoed. The houses have an agreeably period feel – tall sash windows with neat moulded surrounds and tiny brackets to the sills, a deep bracketed overhang to the roof, a bright white finish, and lovely cast-iron balconies that pick up, as it were, where Regency Brighton and Cheltenham leave off. The finishing touch is the sinuous outline of the ogee-shaped canopies above each balcony, just the thing to keep the midday sun off the tops of the big windows. And, to catch the light in a still more interesting way, these canopies have a corrugated covering. Is it corrugated iron? Or some other material? It doesn't really matter. It does the bendy thing just as corrugated iron does, and lends its textured effect to set off the flat white finish of the walls. And it works. Rain or shine.

- - -

There's an interesting account of the residents of this street and the adjacent area here. This page points out that many of the households were made up entirely or almost entirely of women, the heads of households frequently being well-to-do widows or spinsters.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Grimsby, Lincolnshire

The iceman cometh and goeth

For a hundred years or more, Grimsby was synonymous with the fishing industry. From the 1850s, when its fish docks were built, to the 1950s, when the industry was at its peak, hundreds of trawlers landed their catch at Grimsby. By 1900, Grimsby fishermen were responsible for one tenth of all Britain's fish. Even after the decline of the industry during and after the Cod Wars that plagued the business between 1958 and the 1970s, Grimsby fish was sold all over the country.

To keep their catch fresh, the deep-sea fishers needed ice and in 1901 the Great Grimsby Ice Factory was built to supply this need. Great steam-powered ammonia compressors produced the chilly conditions needed to make the ice, which was produced in vast quantities and loaded straight on to the ships in the fish dock. The large machinery was housed in these vast brick buildings, classically detailed as so many turn-of-the-century industrial buildings were, as an indication of their importance and prestige – until more compact refrigeration plants came in during the interwar period, this was a state-of-the-art facility.

So the ice factory has a classical pediment, rows of windows in round-headed niches, and telling details like iron components with the company's initials cast into them – prestige stuff. But the building is also highly businesslike: those towering brick walls and blind niches instead of windows tell us that this is, in fact, essentially an enormous shed for holding machinery – a shed, moreover, functionally shaped to fit the job and the site. Presumably that's why its walls come together at such an acute angle, making it look as if the whole thing is a facade without side walls.

The factory is no less noble for these unusual details and its historical importance and purposeful presence earn it the admiration of many. It's sad to see the building empty, but there are ambitious plans to conserve and find new uses for the ice factory. You can read about the plans, and more about the building's history, here.

Photo © David Rogers and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Cheltenham, Gloucestershire

January 'SALE'

Coincidence corner. The Resident Wise Woman has an Australian friend, M, and since they live half a world apart, the two of them meet only occasionally, when their paths lead to the Czech Republic. I finally met M last year when all our paths coincided at last and, over a cup of tea in Southern Bohemia, M revealed a further coincidence: that some of her ancestors came from Cheltenham, the English town where I grew up. These ancestors were grocers, their family name was Beckingsale, and their shop was in the High Street. They were in business there by the early-19th century, and are mentioned in Rowe's guides to the town from 1845 and 1850, where they are recommended as purveyors of the 'celebrated Royal Cheltenham Sausage'. 'I believe,' said M, 'that the original Victorian sign is still on the shop.' Before long, I was off to Cheltenham to have a look.

To my amazement, part of the sign is indeed still there, although the shop (above) is unoccupied. One can clearly see most of the family name, and another sign, in different lettering, reading 'AND RETAIL', which is separate from the name sign and must be part of another generation of signage. The first thing that struck me, apart from the extraordinary good fortune that these signs have survived at all, is the lettering. The fragment of the name, in the picture at the top of this post, is in a typically curvaceous Victorian decorative letterform. Curved horizontal strokes to the L and E, a looped crossbar to the A, double-lobed serifs at the ends of the strokes on all the letters, more lobes halfway up the verticals, carefully drawn returns with bright highlights – all these are features common in this kind of decorative lettering, or at least once common, though survivors are now increasingly rare. The letters are lovely, and one hopes they will be preserved.

The other fragment, though, is something else. Where there were rounded lobes, now there are sharp points – on the serifs everywhere and also on normally-rounded parts of letters such as the D and R. I've not seen anything quite like this before. There's something rather hard and aggressive about the style with its serifs as sharp as arrows – the E, with its the bizarre crossbar, looks positively dangerous.

Much as I prefer the curly letterforms of Beckingsale's name, I'm glad I've seen their more angular neighbours and I hope these letters are preserved too, if only because they're so unusual. Here's to coincidences.

- - -

Footnote The passage to the left of the shop is also interesting. Until about 1874 it was known as Beckingsale's Passage, after which it was renamed Normal Terrace (after the Church of England Normal College at the other end), although many locals referred to it by its old name for many years after the official change of designation. I was prevented by scaffolding from taking photographs of the passage, but there are images, and more information, here.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Back on the town

What, has this thing appeared again tonight? (4)

My fourth New Year reprise, and the most visited post of the year in spite of the fact that it was only written a month ago, is a book review. In a way I'm surprised. But this is a review of an important book, and one central to many readers of the English Buildings blog. Ian Nairn is a kind of presiding spirit here, one of my favourite writers about buildings and places, author of, I think, the best book about London, inspirer of the Civic Trust, poet of architectural outrage, consummate broadcaster. Intellectual, questioning, melancholy, observant, dead too soon,* when he gets it right, as so often in Nairn's London and in the reprinted essays on towns that make up the bulk of the volume I was reviewing in September, he does attain a kind of poetic evocation that's hard to beat. It's what he was after, as the quotation at the bottom of the right-hand column of this blog shows. Here's what I wrote about Nairn's Towns, published by Notting Hill Editions:

Even I, a teenager in the late 1960s and early 1970s, find it hard to believe now what a service the magazine The Listener did in bringing fresh and thoughtful analysis of current affairs and culture to the attention of so many in Britain. The magazine's brief was to put into print the best of the words broadcast by the BBC, but it cast its net wider than this, commissioning new pieces as well. It was a kind of Third Programme in print that I, for one, was fortunate to find in the school library every week. One thing it commissioned was a series of articles by Ian Nairn on British towns, from Canterbury to Newcastle, Cardiff to Cumbernauld. They were printed in The Listener in 1961 and 1964, and revised and reprinted in book form, as Britain's Changing Towns, in 1967. Here they are again, introduced by Owen Hatherley, who also provides brief updates to each essay, outlining what has happened to each town in the intervening years. They make fascinating and invigorating reading and, given that there is little else of Nairn in print (except for his contributions to the Pevsner volumes on Sussex and the outstanding Surrey), this beautifully produced volume from Notting Hill Editions is a good place to start.
No one before or since saw places quite the way Nairn did, no one has quite his combination of clear eye, willingness to look at the unregarded, and his particular prismatic quality of mind, an unusual blend of melancholy and enthusiasm. Time and time again he singles out the unexpected architectural highlights – a gents in a Birmingham pub and another in Liverpool, the Jarrold's printing works in Norwich, oddities like the Egyptian-style Oddfellows' Hall in Devonport. He comes out with judgements that make you think again, or look anew – English Perpendicular churches have a hysterical quality, he says; the Georgian churches of Marylebone are too 'polite'; soot-blackened or dirty buildings, from Birmingham to Sheffield, have a grandeur of their own.

It's not all oddity and perversity, though. When he gets stuck in, Nairn describes buildings and places beautifully, and gives one a sense of what makes them tick. He is particularly good on the way buildings, roads, and terrain interact – on townscape, in other words. Describing the slightly off-kilter central crossroads in Llanidloes, or the dramatic changes of level in Newcastle, or the American-style grid plan of Glasgow, or the varied grain of Brighton, he is at his best.

Good too, are the turns – and turns again – of phrase. He responds to buildings viscerally, and this often comes across in the physicality of his language. A flight of steps in Newcastle 'sucks you in like a vortex'; the meat and fish markets in Sheffield offer 'a staggering perspective of hooks and flesh'; St Bartholomew's in Brighton is 'more like a volcanic convulsion than a building'; the low ceiling height of the open ground floor of the Market Hall in Llanidloes means that when you step into it you put it on 'like a hat'. There are often comparisons with the other arts – a group of buildings can be like a fugue and the architecture of Nash is like Offenbach, an inspired comparison, that, with its overtones of the elegant, the cheeky, the sophisticated, the classical, the continental, and the not-quite-proper.

Nairn is discerning about architecture. He can see that some old buildings are dull, and that many modern buildings are bad, but finds room to praise the good ones and to appreciate the best of modern planning, while pouring scorn on the worst. His appreciation of townscapes and buildings comes from the heart, as his warmed-up turns of phrase reveal, but his mind is at work too, analysing and making suggestions for the future.

Did the planners take any notice? Owen Hatherley's postscripts to each essay tell us how things have gone in the half century since the accounts were first written. The reports vary a lot, of course. Canterbury and Chester have managed to conserve a lot, without putting up many very distinguished new buildings. Glasgow and Manchester have found new vigour, and some good new buildings, but at the expense of much sub-standard development. And so on. Hatherley mostly responds positively to the older writer's judgements, but rightly notes that Nairn's apolitical standpoint could land him in trouble – Nairn was optimistic about Derry in 1967, but it saw the beginning of the Troubles in 1968.

Hatherley is one of those, though, who have learned much from Nairn, and know it. In the postscripts he notices quite a few buildings and bits of planning that Nairn would have seized on. In one of the Fife towns he notices a 'staggeringly good' secondhand bookshop. I do not think
Nairn's Towns will be ending up in that shop any time soon. People will want to hang on to this book. And rightly so. 

- - - 
* If these are Hamlet-like qualities, they are half an excuse for the heading I have used for this series. Some of my readers, I'm sure, will recognise that line, 'What, has this thing appeared again tonight?' as coming from the first act of Hamlet, where it refers to the ghost of the prince's father. And perhaps the ghostliness is a better reason for the quotation. Not only are these four posts ghostly reappearances of material previously posted, but they are also in part summonings-up of ghosts – ghosts of little known theatre architects, of builders of tin churches, of Laurie Lee, of Ian Nairn. All re-encountered through traces they have left behind.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Notting Hill Gate, London

What, has this thing appeared again tonight? (3)

My third New Year reprise, another post that has seen many visits since it was published, is a cinema that was originally a theatre. It celebrates the architects of the theatre-building boom of the late-Victorian and Edwardian periods, men who are admired as decorators, wielding putti, swags, and curvaceous light fittings with aplomb, but also au fait with sight lines, acoustics, and everything practical in the theatre from crush bars to crash bars. They probably deserve to be better known, and known for more than the boulevard baroque of their decorative style, but it was that, mostly, that I wrote about, back in September:

The Coronet, Notting Hill Gate, was once my local cinema. I must have passed it hundreds of times and have seen a few movies in it too, but it's a long while since I've actually looked at the building. Then, one day recently, I walked by as the morning sun was throwing its baroque plasterwork into delightful relief and I stopped and looked more closely. In truth, its design is a theatrical hybrid – a bit of Italian Renaissance (the arches in low relief), a lot of baroque (the swags, and much other detail), some non-specific classicism, some leaves that wouldn't be out of place on an Art Nouveau building.

It's theatrical to be sure, and the building was indeed designed originally as a theatre, in 1898. As early as 1916 is was converted to a cinema and a ready market for movies in West London has kept it going. I'd wondered whether it was by the architect Frank Matcham, who did so many highly ornate theatres that have kept me entertained over years, from London's vast Coliseum to Cheltenham's small but perfectly formed Everyman. It's not by Matcham, but by a designer who drank from the Matcham spring: W G R Sprague, himself a prolific architect of theatres in the late-19th and early-20th centuries. Born in Australia and the son of an actress, Sprague seemed destined for the theatre. He worked for Matcham and for another theatre architect, Walter Emden, before teaming up with Bertie Crewe and designing theatres off his own bat. 

The facades of the Coronet show off well what Sprague liked to do – to create what he referred to as 'the free classical form'. From the Aldwych to the Gielgud, Wyndham's to the Ambassadors, Londoners can sample his work, keeping their eyes diverted before the lights go down. The Coronet, lit up by the morning sun, is a shining example of his style.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Slad, Gloucestershire

What, has this thing appeared again tonight? (2)

My second popular post from 2013 is about a pub. Pubs – their architecture, decoration, and even, occasionally, their beer – have been a concern of this blog on and off since its beginning. But this pub also exemplified another of my preoccupations – that buildings often have a significance beyond their architecture, and that they can attract meanings which, while sometimes arbitrary, can be every bit as powerful as the aesthetic hit we get from a palace or a cathedral. Here's what I wrote in September concerning what I think about when I think about the Woolpack in Slad:

There are buildings that are more important for their associations than for their architecture. The Woolpack, the village pub in the hillside Cotswold village of Slad near Stroud, is such a building for me. It means several things to me and, sadly since it's a pub, none of these have anything to do with me drinking there – it's a building I've been past, often, and that brings to mind various kinds of memories and associations when I see it.
Apart from the fact that it's a roadside landmark that tells me I'll soon be in Stroud, it makes me think of Laurie Lee, the author of various books of poetry and of memoir, most famously
Cider With Rosie, which nearly everyone of my generation in Britain read at school. Slad was Lee's village, the home of his childhood, the setting of that celebrated book, and his home again when he returned later in life. So the Woolpack was his local, and I think I remember friends, long gone, who lived not far away telling of encounters with him, well oiled and charming, within. It's a very long time since I read Cider With Rosie, and in truth I can't remember that much about the book, except that it was able to create a warm glow of reminiscence without denying some of the deprivation of the times or the penetrating winter cold which, on the Cotswolds, can be very cold and penetrating indeed.
It may be rather fanciful of me, but I also associate this building with the Festival of Britain, that curious all-embracing celebration of British culture and achievement that was organised as a tonic to the still austerity-troubled nation in 1951. In part, I make this link because Laurie Lee had an important part to play in the Festival exhibitions in London – he was chief caption writer, and also did other jobs, such as helping to organise the Eccentrics Corner in the Lion and Unicorn Pavilion.

The lettering on the end wall of the Woolpack makes me think of 1951 too. Those rather chunky italic capitals seem to me to be very much in the graphic style fostered by the Festival of Britain, although in fact the principal Festival sign lettering was slightly different. The Festival used Egyptian lettering, with plain slab serifs (there are some examples of the italic form of these letters in the picture below). 

Festival of Britain display letters, italic form

On the Woolpack letters, on the other hand, the serif is linked to the main stroke by a curve (known as a bracket, in the trade). But still, the chunky proportions of these letters do give them a 1950s feel and I suspect they've been here for some 60 years. They're big, and clear, and stand out from the wall so that they cast a welcoming shadow too. When the travelling local arrived from Stroud, or Spain, or Chelsea and saw them, he knew he was home.


Thursday, January 2, 2014

Cambridge Avenue, London

What, has this thing appeared again tonight? (1)

To kick off the New Year, I'm reprising my four most popular posts from 2013. They are an odd group in a way, but embody several of my interests that have clearly struck chords with readers. The first is about a building in one of my favourite materials, corrugated iron. Perhaps the post reflects my interest in what is sometimes called the quirky – I'd prefer the terms surprising (the building certainly is a surprise in this bit of northwest London, and it is a surprise that it has lasted so long) and lateral thinking (corrugated iron does not need to be restricted to low-status buildings like barns and sheds; churches need not be built in high-status materials like stone). Here's what I wrote about it in April last year:

Corrugated iron churches are usually quite small. Often serving small isolated communities or providing temporary accommodation before a more permanent building was erected, they are usually simple and modest – straight walls, rectangular windows, no tower or spire. In the 19th century, you could buy them in kit form from several manufacturers, who would quote a price based on the size of the congregation and deliver all the parts to your local railway station. Refinements, such as pointed Gothic windows and bell turrets, were available at extra cost.

The large corrugated iron church in Kilburn, northwest London, is different. It's elaborate and unusually large for a "tin church". It has a big footprint, Gothic windows and doorway, and a substantial tower. Inside, iron columns hold up the roof. That tower even has what looks like the base of a splay-footed spire. This is not your off-the-shelf mission hall or tin chapel, but, I'd guess, a building specially created for the location. Boulton and Paul of Norwich, one of the largest manufacturers of corrugated iron buildings, advertised "Special Designs prepared to suit any situation or requirements". This was no doubt the sort of thing they had in mind.

So what were the situation and requirements? When this church was built in 1863, J L Pearson's magnificent St Augustine's, Kilburn, was being planned nearby, a town church on a grand scale that would be one of the landmarks of the Gothic revival. Like so many corrugated iron churches, the one in Cambridge Avenue was a temporary building, put up, according to my online reading, as a stop-gap building until St Augustine's was ready.

Remarkably, the building has lasted not ten years but 150. Its survival into the 21st century is due at least in part to the Sea Cadets, as it has been a Sea Cadet base – a training ship, indeed – for several decades. Because the church is currently in need of repair, the cadets are occupying another building now while money is raised to do the necessary work. One hopes they succeed, so that this hardworking, practical bit of corrugated iron Gothic can have a new lease of life.

* * *

With thanks to
Joe Treasure for telling me about this church and providing the photograph.