Monday, August 10, 2015
Shepton Mallet, Somerset
Now where are we?
I’ve gone on quite often about English market buildings, those welcoming structures that mark the centres of so many towns, their open arches generously offering shelter not just for stall holders but also for passers-by, shoppers catching their breath, or teenagers hanging out. I’ve dwelt on the intricate carving on medieval market crosses, on the clock turrets that top many of these buildings, and on grander examples that are not just markets but also magnificent town halls.
But, as regular readers will know, this blog is not just about architecture. What strikes me about buildings is very often the incidentals – odd bits of carving, the details of a window, fragments of old gilded decoration, and signs and lettering of all sorts. So here on the market cross in the middle of Shepton Mallet (a tall carved pinnacle originally of about 1500 surrounded by a stone hexagonal arched structure originally of about 1700, the whole rebuilt in 1841) it’s not only the architecture that caught my eye, but also these cast-iron signs.
Signs like this were not about giving directions. This one doesn’t tell you which way to go to get to Wells or Frome. It just tells you where you are in relation to the nearby towns. That in itself was useful to the traveller. When most people didn’t have a map, let alone a satnav, it helped to know whether your destination was, say 12 miles away (better to find a stable and a bed for the night and finish the journey in the morning) or 5 miles (in which case there might be enough time to press on). More than this, it places the town in its context, not far from the major centre of Bristol but over 100 miles from London; and it tells us that there are a surprising number of small towns within a few miles of this spot in Somerset.
I find the spaced-out lettering, with even the full points spaced, charming. It’s also functional in that it enabled the sign-maker to accommodate nearly all the names. Long names like Sherborne and Ilchester fit the sign and only Castle Cary and Glastonbury have to be abbreviated. Modern travellers who are hurrying on to Bristol or Bruton are likely to miss all this, of course. Only the slow pedestrian has time to take in such things. And I’m rather glad that I did.