Saturday, May 27, 2017

Longleat, Wiltshire

Illustrations of the month: Servants’ Hall

A good browse in a favourite secondhand bookshop the other day threw up a small surprise. I was attracted by a book cover bearing the title Before the Sunset Fades and an illustration of a group of people standing in front of a tent. The author’s name was The Marchioness of Bath. The fact that the purple colour of the cover had itself faded added poignancy to the effect: surely this was going to be a lament for the country house life that declined in the period between the two World Wars, written by one who could remember the days of glory?

Well, yes, in a way. This small work of 1951 is indeed about the life of the great house in its Edwardian and Georgian heyday, but most of the book is actually about the lives and duties of the servants. In its brief 32 pages, it tells us about the life of the kitchen, the stillroom, the butler’s pantry, and the rest of the below-stairs world. It recalls servants’ balls and shooting parties, the jobs of the coachman and the bothy boy and the ‘tiger’. It illustrates the servants’ hall and the housekeeper’s parlour.
Longleat: The housekeeper in her parlour
The illustrations are by Cecil Beaton. Beaton is best known as a photographer. He started in the 1920s and by the following decade was a key man on Vogue, having a long career in fashion and society photography and in the post-war period he was a bright old thing, still active and influencing a younger generation of photographers including David Bailey. He was also a notable stage designer.

Beaton was not a great draughtsman, but the illustrations he did for the Marchioness’s book are charming and do a good job at evoking a world unknown to most people. I like the rather stern-looking housekeeper in her parlour, in which a riot of Beatonian squiggles evokes the rather fussy patterned carpet and wallpaper, or the economy with which kitchen workers are caught at their task. The book and its illustrations also summon up forgotten rituals, such as the ceremonial removal of the joint of meat from the servants’ hall after everyone had taken their fill – a procession headed by the steward’s room footman, followed by the ‘upper servants’.

For an upper-class author to dwell on the work of her servants in this way was quite unusual in 1951, even if the overall tone is one of nostalgia – something, the author says, that was shared by the staff themselves – for the allegedly ‘good old days’. She only occasionally allows a note of regret that the servants’ lives weren’t better, noting for example how arduous was the work of the housemaids who were constantly carrying hot water jugs to bedrooms and moving heavy hip-baths around the place. But to write about this at all was unusual. It was decades before the National Trust began to devote the effort they do now to displaying below-stairs areas in country houses and explaining the lives of the staff in kitchen, pantry, and garden. It’s interesting to see the Marchioness and her illustrator doing this just six years after the end of the war.
Longleat: the kitchen

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Moreton-in-Marsh, Gloucestershire

The colours of memory

I’ve gone on before about the stick-on advertising signs that shopkeepers sometimes put on their windows, and how these stick-on signs sometimes stick around for many years. I was reminded of this the other night in Moreton-in-Marsh when I came across this particularly evocative example: a Kodak sign that is obviously quite old, though I don’t know how old.

We’re back in the analogue era here, when most people took their films in to the local chemist to be developed and printed. Digital photography changed all this, of course, and it has been around for decades now – and was becoming popular when the new millennium got going. This Kodak sign goes further back than that, I think. The emphasis on colour and the use of the curve-sided box, like an old TV screen, have a rather 1970s feel. Those were the days, when many people still had black and white TVs, and when colour was something to shout about.

Having taken my digital photograph of this analogue sign and downloaded it on to the computer, I noticed another story that it has to tell. The yellow band of colour on the left is actually not part of the sign. Do you notice how it’s wider than the other bands, and that there’s no white line separating it from the band next door, as there is with the others? It looks as if, having got hold of a sign that wasn’t big enough to go right across the window, the shopkeeper retained part of a previous sign (maybe even a yellow Kodak one of a still earlier era) to fill the gap – and make the whole width of the window glow with Kodak colour.

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Links to other stick-on signs I’ve posted:

Procea bread and the Procea bakerman, in Bromyard and Cheltenham
Atlas bulbs and Wilkinson Sword gardening tools in Ludlow
Every Ready batteries in Uppingham
Tea in Winchcombe
Ariel motorcycles in Frome

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Balham, London

The colours of London

Walking around Balham with a friend and local resident the other week I was struck by the number of Victorian and Edwardian houses built of white bricks. I’m used to thinking of London as built in a mixture of red bricks and yellow London stock bricks – when I lived in London my own house was built of such a mixture. But in some streets in Balham there seem to be almost as many white bricks as reds and stocks. I knew about Suffolk whites, but the origin of the white bricks in London is varied – there are a number of places as well as Suffolk with clay containing the amount of lime that produces the white colour. In this house they’re combined with reds, to decorative and glowing effect.

I also admired the tiled paths in this part of London. This house has a path of terracotta- and buff-coloured tiles, producing an effect similar to the medieval encaustic tiles still occasionally found in old churches. Even worn, like these, they make a beautiful approach to the front door, which clearly has an impressive display of stained glass too. London can be a colourful place, if you stop and look.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Photographers’ Gallery, London

The street where you lived

There are still a few weeks for anyone within striking distance of London to see the current exhibition at the Photographers’ Gallery of the work of British photographer Roger Mayne (1929–2014). Mayne is remembered particularly for his images of street life – notably of young people – in London in the 1950s and 1960s. He is especially associated with this point in British history, when children still played in city streets, when local communities were tightly knit, and when the first generation to be known as teenagers were making their mark.

His most famous sequences of photographs was taken in West London’s Southam Street, which soon after he made the pictures was flattened to make way for Ernö Goldfinger’s Trellick Tower. The exhibition shows these images, as well as others taken in Leeds, and a group showing young workers in the Raleigh Cycle factory in Nottingham. Some of the images were used on the covers of Penguin and Pelican books, of which a selection are included too. One can see why Penguin chose Mayne's images: he nails his subjects decisively, time after time.
Roger Mayne, Park Hill Estate, Sheffield 
Photograph © Roger Mayne / Mary Evans Picture Library

Another group, which appeared in the magazine Architectural Design in September 1963, capture Sheffield’s Park Hill estate, which was designed in the early-1960s as a council estate in one huge building, by Jack Lynn and Ivor Smith, working in Sheffield Corporation’s City Architect’s department under J. L. Womersley. What’s striking about these images is the way they rewrite the rules of architectural photography. Instead of pristine buildings in a setting empty of human life, Mayne’s pictures have people everywhere – chatting on walkways, sauntering on pavements, playing outdoors. They’re refreshing and lively, in a way that so many photographs of new buildings are not.

The final part of the exhibition contains an installation, a whole exhibition in itself, called The British At Leisure. This was made for the Milan Triennale in 1964 and consists of 310 colour photographs projected on to screens, to the accompaniment of a specially written jazz score and the constant clacking and clunking of five Carousel slide projectors. Here are people playing every imaginable sport from cricket to cycling, people relaxing in parks and cafés, at the opera or art gallery, fishing, gardening, motoring, enjoying Christmas and November 5th, sunning themselves on the beach, sailing model boats, riding, showing dogs, and so on and on. It’s a kaleidoscope of British life in the early-1960s, and I was riveted.

This is a terrific exhibition of work by a man who insisted that photography is an art and who proved it in image after image, who portrayed a time in British history like no one else, and whose work endures for its ability, again and again, to capture decisive moments.

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The images are © Roger Mayne / Mary Evans Picture Library
The exhibition ends on 11 June.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Burford, Oxfordshire


I don’t recall coming across a Methodist chapel so ornately Classical as the one in Burford. The entrance front is in a local version of the Baroque style made fashionable by architects such as Nicholas Hawksmoor and John Vanbrugh (we’re not too far from Vanbrugh’s Blenheim Palace here). This is very much not the curvaceous Baroque of mainland Europe, but the British Baroque – a style that makes architecture theatrical with visual devices such as banded rustication (the horizontal bands in the masonry), an emphasis on size or height (the narrow windows help make the building seem higher than it is), big keystones over the windows, and doorways with Gibbs surrounds (the protruding square blocks are the key feature of this sort of door surrounded, popularised by James Gibbs, architect of St Martin in the Fields, London).

It’s an unusual chapel, and that’s because it was originally a private house. It was built for a lawyer called Jordan in 1720–30 and remained a house until 1849, when it was converted to a chapel by removing the interior floors to make a large hall and installing a gallery for extra seating. At this time the urns that decorated the parapet (another Baroque feature) were removed. It's interesting to find a house converted into a chapel: these days, one is more likely to find the opposite – a redundant chapel made into a house. Its rich combination of banded masonry, tall Corinthian pilasters, and all the Baroque features make the chapel’s facade a striking feature on Burford’s main street. Even though it is set back from the main building line, it stands out.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Brodsworth, South Yorkshire

The privy corner of the garden

It’s not long since we had a lavatory on the blog, but these matters have been in the news recently. English Heritage have just restored a garden privy at Brodsworth Hall, Yorkshire, one of their country houses. Brodsworth is a grand Victorian building that has a place in my affections because the architect was a man called Philip Wilkinson, an otherwise little known figure. I don’t know who designed this privy, though, a brick structure that has been submerged in ivy for years but has now been given a new lease of life by English Heritage.

The simple brick building now has a fine pergola-style porch with a lovely concave roof. Inside the wooden seat seems to be ready and waiting. The big house had flush lavatories by the time this privy was put up in 1864, but the owners, the Thelluson daily, clearly felt the need for a little extra convenience in the garden. They clearly valued their garden and spent plenty of time there. The little building is sheltered by a yew hedge and is now surrounded by sweet-smelling plants – roses, orange blossom and so on – to mask any unpleasant odours. 

This privy was for the use of the family and guests. The only time the servants went in (officially that is) was to clean it and empty the bucket.  No doubt the garden benefitted from what was collected. Buckets of congratulations to English Heritage for preserving this special little building.

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The photograph is from the English Heritage website and is presumably Copyright © English Heritage 2017

For more photographs, visit EH’s website here.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Farmcote, Gloucestershire

Ancient peace

Modern life, even here in the country, involves a lot of noise. Traffic, tractors, chainsaws, guns, the sounds of restoration, the crashes and bangs gleefully made by the people (known as the ‘clanky men’ in our house) who collect the glass bottles we put out for recycling. It’s part of life, and I accept it for what it is – and put on noise-cancelling headphones, or head for the hills. If it’s the hills, you will not be surprised to learn that it’s often some tranquil architectural setting where I end up. Often a church. Churches have more uses than the purely or conventionally religious ones. Churches: places to be quiet in and maybe even to ‘grow wise in’ (Philip Larkin*). Or graveyards: ‘Personally I have no bone to pick with graveyards’ (Samuel Beckett, naturally†). I have posted before about a couple of local favourites, Elkstone, a cherished Norman building, and Farmcote, partly Saxon, partly Tudor. Both attract me back, partly for the architecture, partly for the quiet.
Going back, there is always something different to see or learn. At Farmcote, talking to a local resident, I learned that the unassuming building in my second photograph started life as one of the farm buildings of the great Cistercian abbey of Hailes, just over the hill from here; a granary I think. It shouldn’t be a surprise. All over these hills the Cistercians must have run sheep and grown crops. Any building of great age in an outlying farm around here might have some medieval origin involving the monks. Their abbey may be in ruins, but their presence is still palpable, as palpable as that of the sheep, still ubiquitous on the Cotswolds, who break the rural silence with that gentle baaing noise of their own.

* ‘Church Going’
† Oh, it is mean not to quote just a little more: ‘Personally I have no bone to pick with graveyards, I take the air there willingly, perhaps more willingly than elsewhere, when take the air I must.’ Samuel Beckett, First Love, with an unfailing eye, and nose, on the word ‘must’.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Castle Cary, Somerset

Round house

Regular readers will have noticed my fascination with lock-ups, those small town or village prisons, generally used to hold miscreants temporarily – either until they sober up or until they can be brought before a magistrate. I suppose what particularly interests me about those small structures is the various ingenious ways in which they are roofed, often with stone in order to make this part of the building as strong and secure as the walls. The roof here is shaped like a bell (or like some kinds of military helmet), and so adds a touch of distinction to the square behind the town hall, where this lock-up has stood since 1779.
As usual with this kind of building there are no windows – just small grilles in the lower section of the roof to provide ventilation. It must be dark inside (in some places the lock-up is known as the ‘blind house’, from the lack of fenestration) and uncomfortable. But the round shape, unusual roof, and ball finial give it a touch of visual distinction, so that it acts as a better visual focus from outside than many a larger prison. 

Monday, May 1, 2017

Bosbury, Herefordshire

Tower power

The first thing you notice on approaching Holy Trinity, Bosbury, is the tower. There’s nothing unusual in that except that this tower is detached from the main body of the church. There are quite a few detached towers in Herefordshire,* and it’s sometimes said that the reason for their detachment is that they were built as defensive structures, in case of incursions from over the Welsh border. 

It’s difficult to say if that’s true. In the case of Bosbury, the tower’s walls are very thick and its windows very small – noticeably smaller than many windows of the 13th century, when the tower was built. These are useful attributes for a defensive structure. Against that, there’s an argument that towers are not very effective for defence, as their internal floors make them vulnerable to attack by one of the most widespread medieval weapons – fire; although in this case the small windows make the building hard to attack in this way.

Clearly, not every detached church tower in Herefordshire was for defence. The tower at Pembridge is made mainly of wood, and that at Yarpole has a wooden upper section: they are bell towers, pure and simple. This one at Bosbury and other similar stone towers in the area seem different, though whether built for defensive purposes, to express a preference for particularly chunky architecture, or for some other reason, is difficult to say.

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*Pevsner lists seven detached Herefordshire towers and another four that were originally free-standing but later joined to the building they serve. I have previously blogged about the one at Richard’s Castle.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Malvern, Worcestershire

Mobile architecture (2): Ancient

I'm stepping outside my comfort zone because I want to share the reconstruction of a medieval tent that I saw at the Malvern Heritage Festival shortly after admiring the café-in-a-caravan featured in my previous post

I don't know much about the history of tents, but I was attracted to the look of this one. Its owner, who was sitting outside making metal mail armour, told me that plain red had been chosen for the top because of the historical evidence. Illuminated manuscripts from most of the medieval period tend to show plain-coloured tents; the striped tents familiar from films and television dramas tend to be a bit later – from the end of the Middle Ages or just afterwards.

The other thing he pointed out about the tent was the structure, which is supported both by hemp guy ropes and by a wooden framework – the latter has a series of spokes like an umbrella which you can see inside the tent. This dual structure makes the tent very stable, and this was demonstrated in practice when maybe about a year ago it was pitched on the rise near Raglan Castle and stood firm during a gale while other tents nearby were blowing down. It was also very warm and snug inside. I've never been an enthusiast for camping, but in something like this, I could maybe take to life under canvas.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Malvern, Worcestershire

Mobile architecture (1): Modern

Spotted in Malvern during the heritage festival this weekend was this memorable caravan, which I think of as a piece of mobile architecture. When I first saw it across the abbey churchyard I thought it must be an American Airstream, but it's actually British, and made by a company called Rocket, based in Stourport-on-Severn, who build aluminium caravans (both touring and, like this one, for businesses) to customers' specifications. It's shiny, eye-catching, looks very well made, and contains a mobile café that was doing good business. The cheerful person behind the counter, just visible in the shadows in my photograph, dispensed me an excellent cup of tea. She told me that Café Eight Three is available for all kinds of events, parties, festivals, weddings, etc, etc – you can find out more about the café here.

Please note A deadline approaches, so my posts will probably be shorter over the next few weeks. My apologies, and with them my hopes that brevity will be if not the soul, at least the occasional embodiment, of wit.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Kinnersley, Herefordshire

Painter and decorator

The Victorian architect G F Bodley had close links to the Herefordshire village of Kinnersley. His wife's family came from the village and Bodley is also buried in the churchyard here. The church (originally built in around 1300) was restored by Thomas Nicholson in 1867–69, and a couple of years later Bodley designed painted decoration for the chancel and nave. So this modest country church has a a scheme of decoration by one of the foremost (some would say the foremost) church architect of the time. There is a richly painted chancel ceiling with flowers, sun motifs, and inscriptions of the 'IHS' monogram and 'Alleluia'. The nave walls above the arcade are also painted and both parts of the church are emblazoned with quotations from St Thomas Aquinas and the Book of Common Prayer.

The painted decoration that Bodley designed was executed by the rector, the Rev Frederick Andrews, who must have been highly competent – an unusual, but by no means unique, collaboration between architect and rector. Andrews seems to have tried out the colours on a pillar near the west end of the nave (below) – the greens and reds are especially in evidence in the wall paintings in my photograph at the beginning of this post; the blues were used in combination with these colours in the chancel and on the chancel arch. These small marks are a tangible reminder of the presence of the person who applied the paint – someone we often overlook in our admiration of the architect. Both of them deserve due credit.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Elmley Castle, Worcestershire

Easter offering

I’ll not rabbit on about this. It’s a small carving, crudely but vigorously done, set into the wall of the north porch of the church at Elmley Castle. Its date is not, I think, known, but the context is a wall of the 15th or 16th century, in which several older fragments, some of them identifiably Norman, are set. When I saw it, it made me smile. Looking at buildings we ask for many qualities, from utility to sublimity. Charm has its place too.

Friday, April 14, 2017

From Liverpool to Sheffield...

...from the 1860s to the 1960s: Peter Ellis’s ups and downs

It’s interesting, the way one finds out about things.

A very long time ago (it would have been in the 1970s), I was advised by at least three people, including my college tutor and some close friends, to read the novel Changing Places by David Lodge. This is a very funny account of two men, one British, one American, both professors of English Literature, who swap jobs for a year as part of an academic exchange scheme. Aside from all the other interesting things about the book (the characters, the writing), it gives the novelist a wonderful way of talking about two cultures, about how English was taught in two different milieus (Lodge was also a professor of English), about fiction itself.

Much of this has stuck with me, but there, is (you saw it coming?) an architectural footnote to all this. Towards the end of the novel there’s a funny scene set in a modernist tower block in the British university. This tower is fitted with a special sort of lift (or elevator, in transatlantic English) called a paternoster, up and down which one character chases another.* For those of you who don’t know, a paternoster is an ‘endless chain’ elevator, which has two shafts instead of one, and a number of lift cars instead of one. The cars are open-fronted and move continuously in a cycle, up one shaft and down the other – and you enter and leave them while they are moving. The advantages are that you don’t have to wait – there is always a lift arriving, and the carrying capacity is much greater than a conventional elevator because of the number of cars. The drawback is that you have to be able to get in and out quickly.¶

For years, for me, the paternoster remained something in a book. I’d never seen one. Then I went to the city of Zlín in the Czech Republic, and looked at the headquarters tower of the Bat’a shoe company. And there is was, a paternoster, quietly moving up and down on its well oiled chains and pulleys and gears, as it had been doing for well over 70 years. I discovered that there are quite a few paternosters in Central Europe (the Czechs have a thing about them and the Germans are not far behind) and one or two in England, although in many places, because of health and safety concerns, they move no more.†

Until recently, the received wisdom has been that the paternoster was invented in the 1870s by the engineer Peter Hart. However, Robert Ainsworth and Graham Jones have shown that an earlier patent was taken out – by none other than the Liverpool architect Peter Ellis, architect of Oriel Chambers, the building in my previous post.§ Apparently Oriel Chambers had a paternoster, fitted soon after Ellis’s 1866 patent was taken out, though it does no longer. For some reason, Ellis did not renew his patent, and Ainsworth and Jones speculate that someone else may have bought the rights from him.

Ellis, who was clearly a talented engineer as well as an architect, has several inventions to his credit, such as an improved water closet, a secure letterbox, and an omnibus incorporating a device for preventing crew from pocketing some of the fare money. They are all answers to specific problems, addressed with thoughtful engineering solutions. The paternoster too is like this in the way it increases capacity and reduces waiting times. The inventor even tried to address the problems of those who are unable to get on and off quickly by adding a braking device so that the endless chain could be temporarily halted. For all this, and for being mesmerized by one a few years ago in Zlín, I like paternosters. I think one can admire their ingenuity while admitting that they’ve had their time. And I increasingly admire Peter Ellis’s ingenuity the more I find out about him.

The video above, with footage from Sheffield University's arts tower, explains a bit more about how paternosters work; the discovery of Ellis's invention came after the film was made.
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* A huge simplification of what is going on, but it will do for now.

¶ The name 'paternoster' (Our Father) comes from a comparison of this type of lift with a string of rosary beads. David Lodge taught at Birmingham University, which in many ways serves as the model for the University of Rummidge in the novel. As far as I know, Birmingham University does not have a paternoster, although there was one at the nearby university of Aston. Lodge would not doubt have known this one, as well as the one in Sheffield. Not that it matters where he got this idea from.

† The Zlín building also has another memorable lift, a large one in which the office of the company boss Tomáš Bat’a was installed, so he could work on any floor he chose. Truly the Czechs go up and down with style.

§ Robert Ainsworth and Graham Jones, In the Footsteps of Peter Ellis (Liverpool History Society, 2013)

Finally, thanks to Joe Treasure, whose picture of Oriel Chambers used in my previous post set this not-quite-endless train of thoughts in motion.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Water Street, Liverpool

Blowing bubbles

The third of my Liverpudlian trio is Oriel Chambers, an office block in Water Street that has been catching eyes since 1864. It was designed by Liverpool architect Peter Ellis (who did the equally striking 16 Cook Street and a number of other, less notable, Liverpool buildings) and it has always fascinated me.

What’s striking at first glance is the amount of glass, and its arrangement. Dozens of similar oriel windows protrude from building’s two street facades. They have very narrow glazing bars, so the effect is almost like a series of glass bubbles. There are no structural outer walls. This is a framework building, and the frame is of cast iron, although the material is concealed from the world by a thin cladding of stone.

So, how very modern, one thinks, for 1864: a tall, metal-framed building with a ‘curtain wall’ of glass, like a 20th-century skyscraper. And yet, also, how old-fashioned: the metal is covered with stone, and the skyline is punctuated with pinnacles that look almost Gothic. The oriels themselves have little finials too. So it’s a mixture, this building, and no less fascinating for that.
When it was built, the press disliked it. Building News thought the oriels looked as if they were ‘trying to escape from the building’ and called it ‘greenhouse architecture gone mad’. A Liverpool critic in a satirical magazine called The Porcupine called the building ‘this vast abortion’ and said that ‘the plainest brick warehouse in the town is infinitely superior, as a building, to that large agglomeration of protruding plate-glass bubbles.’ They didn’t much bother about the back of the building, which is even more remarkably modern, as the video below about Oriel Chambers and Ellis’s Cook Street block, reveals.

There used to be a lot of speculation that Ellis’s career was derailed by the contemporary criticism he received for Oriel Chambers. But historians Robert Ainsworth and Graham Jones* have researched the architect’s life and work, and have found a man quietly thriving as an architect and surveyor – and pursuing new directions, which I hope to cover in a further post. Meanwhile, we can, I think, admire Oriel Chambers as a fascinating building that looks forward to modernist architecture while also glancing back towards tradition: not a bad way of working, to my mind. His building is an asset to Liverpool and deservedly famous.

With many thanks once more to Joe Treasure for the pictures of Oriel Chambers.

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* Robert Ainsworth and Graham Jones, In the Footsteps of Peter Ellis (Liverpool History Society, 2013)

Friday, April 7, 2017

Castle Street, Liverpool

Insurance at sea

The second of my clutch of buildings from Liverpool illustrates a trend common in the manufacturing and mercantile cities that were expanding in the last decades of the 19th century – the fashion for terracotta used in combination with either brick or red sandstone. These materials produced buildings of deepest red, and terracotta – ‘baked earth’ similar to brick but usually with a finer grain to give fine detail – allows a variety of ornament. This is a kind of decoration beloved of architects of city office buildings and their clients.

This example is the British and Foreign Marine Insurance Company offices (1888–90) in Castle Street. Insurance, of course, was an important business in a maritime city like Liverpool, and the place has several Victorian insurance offices, a number, like this one, by the local architects Grayson and Ould. The British and Foreign offices, in red sandstone and terracotta, are outstanding because the designers turned up the decorative volume with the use of mosaics.
The mosaics were designed by Frank Murray (they bear his signature) and produced by Salviati, the glass- and mosaic-maker that was founded in Venice but worked all over Europe. They show marine scenes, naturally, along with the flags of Liverpool and England, and feature a whole panoply of historical shipping, from galleys, through galleons in full sail, to what would in 1889 have been the latest in steamship technology. They ply, these ships, a beautifully depicted ocean in shades of green, punctuated by occasional dashes of bright reflected colour and enlivened by pale spray. Behind, as a background, an enormous sunburst spreads across the sky.

The British and Foreign was established in the 1860s and the friezes of historical shipping no doubt gave what was quite a young company an air of historical respectability and soundness, as well as alluding to Liverpool’s history of sea trade. They did their job – and still do a very satisfying decorative job today.

With many thanks to Joe Treasure, whose new novel is just out, for the images

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Hope Street, Liverpool

More than convenient

When a friend told me he’d be visiting Liverpool I was reminded (again) how little I manage to travel to the north of England. In the spirit of the vicarious traveller, I therefore gave my friend a few hints about buildings he should keep a look out for. Confident that he knew about the city’s most famous buildings – the cathedrals, the docks, and so on – I stuck to a handful of personal favourites that he might otherwise have missed. He reported back, and has generously agreed to my sharing a few of his photographs.

My first suggestion was the pub called the Philharmonic Dining Rooms, in Hope Street, across the way from the Philharmonic Hall from which it takes its name. This is a splendid pub, built right at the end of the 19th century. The architect was Walter W Thomas, who designed several Liverpool pubs. He created a building in the freewheeling style of the time – it’s a winning mixture of turrets, stepped gables, mullioned windows and balconies outside, polished wood, copper plaques, ornate plasterwork, and fancy glazing within. He was aided and abetted in this work by the craftsmen of the School of Architecture and Applied Arts at University College, Liverpool, at that time under the guidance of the artist George Hall Neale and of Arthur Stratton, architect and prolific author of books on architecture. This makes the place something of a showcase of Liverpool arts and crafts.
A particular glory of this pub is the gents’ lavatory. Beautifully figured pinkish marble is used for the urinals and the basin surrounds. Behind the basins are Art Nouveau tiles – the upper narrow ones, each with a trio of stylised round fruit, would not look out of place in a building of the Vienna Secession. There are also mosaics on the floor and around the water cistern.I have commented on a few public conveniences in my time, but have never found one with an interior as good as this: glorious.

With many thanks to Joe Treasure for the images of the Philharmonic gents.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Castle Cary, Somerset


Reflected in the window of the shop in my previous post you can see the Market House (or Town Hall), the focal building at the centre of Castle Cary. Regular readers know that I am fond of market houses in English towns, precisely because of their function as all-purpose buildings and the way they act as a hub for so many places. Buildings like this are part market, part local government centre, part information centre, part museum, part clock tower… The list goes on.

This one was built in 1855 and so is a relative youngster compared to the Tudor or medieval examples seen in some towns. But it has the same layout as its forebears, with a partly open ground floor for trading, an upper floor originally for a corn market I think, and a top floor for assemblies and meetings.

The architecture is similar to earlier such halls too, with a row of shallow arches supported on simple cylindrical columns to the ground floor and simple mullioned windows to the top floor. In between, though, the middle floor has a surprising combination of round and arched windows, set in pointed (almost triangle) relieving arches. This touch, original as far as I know, was probably the invention of the architect, F C Penrose.

The Victoria County History records that the 19th-century market was not a great success, but that the building was valued as an assembly place and as a base for the local council as well as for such groups as the vestry, the poor law officials, education officers, and police. Clearly it still is much valued. It has recently been resorted and its rooms contain a museum and spaces for hire. It is still at the heart of the town.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Castle Cary, Somerset

Mr White’s shop

Taking a step back to photograph the lovely Market House in Castle Cary, I bumped up against this delightful shopfront, which looks as if it dates from around 1900. The building itself has a date stone that suggests it was built in 1804, but the ironmonger Thomas White was not in business here until the late-19th or early-20th century (he appears on a list of local businesses in 1906). The tiling on the lower part of the shopfront (the stall riser is the term for this bit), especially the decorations on each end, is very much in the Art Nouveau style of c. 1890–1910. The lettering, though, isn’t in the highly curvaceous manner of some Art Nouveau scripts – it’s a bit more sober than that, appropriate perhaps for a business selling buckets and spades, pots and kettles.
White Ironmonger, Castle Cary, tiled stall riser

I couldn’t help wondering, though, whether this elegant tiling would have been invisible when the shop was open. Ironmongers have a traditional preference for reclaiming the pavement as an extra display area, populating the space in front of the frontage with large items such as dustbins and mop buckets. There was no mistaking what was on sale – you could see the stuff before you got anywhere near the shop. At the end of the day, though, when Thomas White brought in his stock and locked up for the night, his name was displayed, bright and clear, to remind everyone that tomorrow they’d be able to buy beeswax, wire wool, bells, and whistles – you should have known you needed them – right here.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Prince Albert Road, London

 North London Nordic 

There are buildings that I file mentally away in a category labelled ‘Must find out more about that’. One such was Oslo Court, a block of flats looking on to Prince Albert Road near the northern edge of Regent’s Park. I’d noticed it when I lived in the area, well over 30 years ago. When I first saw it, from a friend’s rapidly moving car, I thought it might be a 1950s block – those brick walls and pale-edged windows looked like a version of ‘Festival of Britain’ style. The lettering of the sign was attractive too, and perhaps the name of the block made me think of ‘Scandinavian modernism’, another name for the muted modernism of the 1950s. Passing again on foot the other day, I decided, at last, to look it up.

Well, the Scandinavian influence on British architecture predates the 1950s (as a look in architectural magazines of the prewar period shows) and Oslo Court actually dates to the 1930s. It is the work of Robert Atkinson,* whose architectural practice began in the early-20th century in the Beaux Art style and had moved to a restrained modernism by the time these flats were built. The idea was to provide small flats, with just one bedroom, a sitting room, a kitchen, and a bathroom,† and to give as many as possible a view over the park. So the flats that don’t look directly on to Prince Albert Road and the greenery beyond have balconies that are stepped out from the side elevation (on the left in my photograph), so that you can see towards the Park from them.

These balconies, and the big Crittall windows, must let in plenty of light. And the way the windows go around the corners of the building is very much a modernist feature. But the modernism is toned down by the brick finish (it’s essentially a concrete structure with brick facing and infill, I believe). Another charming, non-modernist touch is the small sculptural panels, with Nordic themes such as a reindeer and a longship seen front-on. The Vikings are coming to St John’s Wood, and they like what they see. 
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* There is more about this building and its architect here. This site also has information about Oslo Court's celebrated restaurant.

† One step up the size scale, as it were, from the more famous modernist flats by Wells Coates at Lawn Road, NW3.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

St John's Wood, London

‘I try the door of where I used to live’

For me, that’s one of the most haunting lines in ‘Dockery and Son’, a poem by Philip Larkin, in which the poet describes how he returns to the university where he studied* and talks to one of the tutors about a near-contemporary he hardly remembers. The poem is famous for being about Larkin’s repudiation of parenthood: the barely-remembered Dockery has a son; Larkin has no children, and prefers it that way. But it’s also about going back to a place that once meant a lot to you and is now somehow remote.

In the middle of these half-memories comes this moment: ‘I try the door of where I used to live’. It turns out to be locked, this door, but the line brings one up short: what sort of nerve has Larkin got, trying people’s doors? Well, one has to remember that this is an Oxford college he’s visiting, and such places sometimes have semi-public doors that let one into buildings, beyond which are the more private doors that lead to students’ rooms. It would be quite in order to try such an outer door.†

But perhaps the jolt that the line gives me is about more than this. It’s also, I think, about the awkwardness of going back to a once familiar place, the discomfort I at least feel when that sense of familiarity is combined with a feeling of distance. In St John’s Wood the other day, walking along a street where I lived briefly over 30 years ago (or more accurately, where I was taking advantage of a friend’s hospitality and sleeping on his floor while I found somewhere permanent), I felt a similar remoteness. It was partly the time gap, partly that this bit of London is even more the preserve of the very rich than when I lived there. Even then, the person living opposite drove a Ferrari. You’d not be walking around trying doors here. These premises are probably alarmed, and so would other passers-by be, if they saw you taking a chance with a door knob.

And in any case I couldn’t try my old door because the entire house was cordoned off: the builders were in, long-term. Instead I contented myself with looking at some of the Regency ironwork a few doors along. The Greek key pattern on the upright (1830s probably, or thereabouts) particularly appealed to me. And the memory of those high windows, that let in so much light, and up beyond them ‘the deep blue air, that shows nothing , and is nowhere, and is endless’.§

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*For Larkin, this was St John’s College, Oxford.

†The older rooms in my own college also had individual outer doors, which you closed if you didn’t want to be disturbed. It would have been forgivable, just, to try such a door, but impolite then to try the inner one. Another explanation of Larkin’s apparent chutzpah is that his visit is in the vacation and the room is likely to be unoccupied.

§Philip Larkin, ‘High Windows’. The poem ‘Dockery and Son’ first appeared in The Whitsun Weddings; ‘High Windows’ was published in the volume also called High Windows.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Village England

Then and now

I have been known to complain that buying books online is never quite the same as visiting a traditional, bricks and mortar bookshop. Online, you get what you search for – and I’m grateful that the search engines, again and again, turn up just what I’m after. In a real shop, on the other hand, you are more likely to browse and make surprise discoveries – and that can be even more interesting and enriching than getting what you expect.*

The other day, however, my expectations were confounded when I received something I’d bought online that was indeed a surprise. Having read a reference somewhere to a publication called The Observer’s Village England (1979), I looked online and found myself a secondhand copy. I expected a book to arrive, but what I got was actually a series of pull-out extracts from the Observer newspaper’s colour magazine, which had been collected together and preserved in a leatherette† binder. It amounts to a book, but the way it displays its origins makes it more interesting and pleasurable to handle.

Each section concerns a region of England, and contains a series of entries on villages and small towns, together with short pieces by various writers, mostly well known at the time, about particular places that they know well: the playwright Ann Jellicoe on Dorchester; the poet P J Kavanagh on Cirencester; the historian W G Hoskins on Uppingham; and so on. The series is subtitled ‘A guide to the best villages and small towns in the country’, and this emphasis on quality plays in its favour. It means the editors could be selective, not trying to include everything but featuring places with something special to offer, whether it was architecture, scenery, a pub, good shops with local produce, whatever. One of the pleasures is the photographs, by people like Roger Mayne§ and Alain le Garsmeur, many of which include people – either the proprietors of notable shops or people going about their rural business thatching or shoeing horses. There is an extraordinary picture of a boy riding a bicycle on the grass in front of Oakham Castle, the greensward populated with wooden chairs – apparently he was practising for an obstacle race. 

It also tells us the state of things in 1979. I’ve not yet read deeply into the collection to see exactly what has changed where, but I’m already noticing differences on my own patch of England – Gloucestershire and the Cotswolds. The gorgeous thatched village of Great Tew in Oxfordshire was still dilapidated in 1979, with broken windows and holes in the thatch, even in some of the inhabited houses…just how I remember it back then. Cirencester was still a major centre for the Cotswolds and was a working town then as it is now. Stroud was not singled out as a good place to visit as it would be now. And so on.

Julia Butcher’s cover illustration (above) sums it up. If her image of Village England is idealised (immaculate white houses, cricketers, swans) it also stands for some of the things that are, as the subtitle says, ‘the best’. It’s a beautifully composed image – the reflection of the bridge, the pub, the Jolly Farmer paired with a real jolly farmer (or cow hand anyway) driving his cattle across the bridge. It’s redolent of summer (the swallows and the cricketers, even if they don’t seem to have fielded a full eleven). And it’s fill of interesting details like the windmill in the distance. Village England. I’m glad I found it.

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*I sometimes try to create architectural surprises of a similar nature on this blog.

† The sort of material used back then to encase reprints of the classics, ‘tooled’ in mock-gold. A phrase I remember from the advertising was something like, ‘Bound in luxurious red Skivertex’, stuff that must have been mass produced by the mile, to adorn, if that is the word, sets of Dickens, Russian novels, or the complete works of Shakespeare. Autre temps, autre livres. 

§ Roger Mayne was married to Ann Jellicoe and they created the Shell Guide to Devon together. There’s an exhibition of Mayne’s work currently at London’s Photographer’s Gallery.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Banbury, Oxfordshire

Still hanging on

My recent visit to Banbury threw up one further highlight in the brief interval between rain and more rain. A short-lived shaft of sunlight made me look around me – and look up since the modern shop fronts in the street in which I found myself were generally uninspiring. So up I looked, and saw this bit of history: a house built in 1650 for a mercer called Edward Vivers. In its heyday this must have been a grand building, home and place of work to a successful town trader. In the intervening 360-plus years it has been through quite a bit, and the recent shop fronts, successors to earlier but still intrusive ones no doubt, are not the least of the changes. From street level, it’s impossible to appreciate the rest of the facade unless you step well back.

Above the windows offering coffee and the conveniences of 21st-century life, the frontage is more original, but still has the air of trying to escape through the accretions of the more recent past. But one can still take in the original form: three bow windows jettied out over the street, and, above them, three gables likewise protruding. Framing them is a collection of quite elaborately carved timbers – bargeboards with finials and a wooden frieze with pendants – plus moulded wooden window mullions. Adorning the white infill sections is pargetted plasterwork in bold geometrical patterns.

All this is very much of its time, when what has been described as a sort of baroque began to spread across English vernacular architecture. The pargetting is especially interesting because the received wisdom is that this is a regional craft, found in eastern England, especially Suffolk and Essex. This is true, but not the whole truth – there are pargetted fronts dotted around all over the place. Here a prosperous owner wanted a showy front, and pargetting fitted the bill. It’s a shame that the ground floor is now singing to a different tune. Maybe one day…

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Banbury, Oxfordshire

The same, but different

Striding through Banbury in the rain after my visit to Hanwell, I made a mental notes of the buildings I’d look at more closely and photograph properly on my next visit, which will be, I hope, in drier weather. As the rain abated for a moment, though, I did stand briefly in front of the Olde Reine Deer Inn to contemplate the sign.

I remember this sign from forty years ago. Its wooden bracket was then by far the biggest I’d seen, and on my recent visit I was pleased to see it still in place. Back then I wasn’t so interested in letterforms, so I was agreeably surprised by the inscription on the arm – ‘Hook Norton Ales’ – with its chunky letters and, especially, those Arts and Craftsy interlocking and dotted Os, each one with a slight protrusion at the midpoint.

Looking at the photograph I quickly took before the rain began again, I wished I’d given more of an impression of how the sign stretches right across to the middle of the road. This sent me looking online, where I found an old postcard image, presumably from the late-19th or very early 20th century. This shows the sign in context. It also confirms the early presence of the heavy structure with its curving strut (this plain and unlettered in the old image) and the fact that the hanging sign, back then as now, was all lettering – no image of a reindeer to be seen. The lovely crowning ironwork is present, too.
Parsons Street, Banbury

There was an intermediate period, however, a few years ago, when the sign was pictorial and neither the curving strut nor the fancy ironwork above the sign were there. So the sign’s current form is a restoration. Even if the structure would work without the strut, I for one find it more aesthetically pleasing with it. And any opportunity to advertise the excellent products of the Hook Norton Brewery is, as far as I’m concerned, a bonus worth raising a glass to.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Hanwell, Oxfordshire

Over the churchyard wall

Anybody who reads this blog regularly, or who has looked through some of the posts in the archive, will know that I’m a dedicated church-crawler. I visit churches often, and never seem to tire of their variety of architecture or the traces of past lives that they contain. Early on – perhaps when I first visited the church at Stanway in Gloucestershire – I realised that there was sometimes an additional bonus: in the case of Stanway, the glorious 16th and17th-century house you could see over the churchyard wall. Churches were often built next to manor houses, and sometimes the only glimpse one can get of a large house is by standing in the churchyard and looking over the wall.

In the past I’ve been agreeably surprised by such glimpses of the house at Stanton Harcourt, Oxfordshire, with its stone-built medieval kitchen, and the 18th-century one at Stockerston, Leicestershire, not exactly over the churchyard wall, but very near the church – without church-crawling, and a friend urging me on, I’d not have seen it. My most recent experience of this kind was at Hanwell, in the very north of Oxfordshire near Banbury, where, as well as admiring the expected medieval carvings around the church, I also discovered this: Hanwell Castle.

The tower, built of a mixture of brick and stone, is a fragment of a larger house built around a courtyard. Most of it has gone, but the tower remains, adjoining later, more modest buildings. The house was built in the late-15th century for Sir William Cope, who was cofferer† to the first Tudor monarch, Henry VII. His son, Sir Anthony Cope, a writer and translator, completed the original building. According to the listing description, much of their house was demolished in the 18th century, and the low-rise stone buildings around it were mostly built in the 19th and early-20th centuries.

The remaining tower is a beautiful building. The two octagonal turrets recall some of the grander houses of the time, such as Oxburgh or Layer Marney. But at Hanwell part of the charm is the mix of materials. First, the brickwork. It’s in a mix of bonds, with long stretches alternating several courses of headers with several of stretchers. The turrets mix brickwork with large quoins of orangey local ironstone. Details such as windows and the crenellations are in a paler stone, presumably limestone. It’s a satisfying mix, structurally solid but also good-looking. I’m sure part of the purpose of those ironstone quoins is to offer some contrast to the brickwork (an usual material in North Oxfordshire at this date). A Tudor courtier would be proud to live in a house that looked as good as this.

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† This was an office with important domestic responsibilities in the royal household, but which also brought with it membership of the Privy Council. The holder of the title was therefore a person of political consequence.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Potterne, Wiltshire

Bargeboards and bollards

The Porch House in Potterne’s High Street is a beautiful timber-framed house of about 1480, restored in the 19th century* but with many of its original features intact, including fancy woodwork, such as some of the glorious carved bargeboards. Raised on a plinth of very solid stones, it’s a close-studded frame, meaning that it has many vertical timbers, placed close together – a sign, together with the carving, that the person who had this place built could pay for a top-class timber frame, and a well decorated one to boot.

It may have been built by the church – it was lived in by at least one bishop – and was later variously a brewery, bakehouse, pub (the White Horse), and house again. It has a lot of the features that one is taught marked out the ‘classic’ medieval manor house – a central, full-height hall (where the tall bay window is) flanked by two cross wings, which would have contained private rooms on one side and service rooms on the other. The porch, protruding from one of the cross wings, is placed unusually, and its protrusion now makes the building vulnerable to knocks and scrapes from passing traffic, hence, no doubt, the profusion of bollards, posts, and concrete curbs that seem to have sprung up in front of it.†

The saviour of the house was an artist, George Richmond, who found it in a dilapidated state, bought it, and set about restoring it with the help of the architect Ewan Christian, in the 1870s. Searches were made for missing bits – it’s said that the old front door was found on the floor of a local pigsty, with a pig reclining on it – timbers were repaired, and fragments of old stained glass were installed in some of the windows. So profuse thanks to Richmond and Christian for their good work, and to subsequent owners who have clearly looked after the house. And to those who have attempted to protect it from the dashing objects on the A360 that I had to dodge to take my photograph.

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* Some give the date as early-16th century; there were two 19th-century restorations, in 1847 and 1876.

†Some of which look as if they have been doing their job.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Malmesbury, Wiltshire

A rare flourish

As I was looking at my picture of the street sign in Louth in my previous post, it occurred to me that a while back I’d seen another good cast-iron sign, probably of similar vintage. Now where was it? Casting my mind back a couple of years I found it in a file of photographs of Malmesbury, and I instantly realised what struck me about it.

Yes. Not just the letters but the decoration – the beadwork, as it were, around the edge and the wonderful flourish at either end. That flourish is a version of the palmette motif used widely in Classical decoration, and so is a thoroughly architectural kind of decoration. Back when it was made (in the 19th century I suppose) this detail must have set the sign apart from the plainer ones in other towns. Now signs like this must be really rare.

Looking again at my pictures I was at first rather disappointed with the lettering. It seemed a bit thin and tentative after the bold Egyptian letters of Louth. Then I examined the detail (below) closely and liked what I saw much more. The letters are actually well formed and stand out clearly from the background. They’d do a better job if the sign was cleaned of its rust and repainted. Maybe that has been done by now. I must return and see.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Louth, Lincolnshire


While still on Lincolnshire themes, it struck me that when in Louth I really should take a photograph of at least one of the cast-iron street signs that are a feature of the town. These modest items of street furniture make a huge difference to the character of a place. So many towns have modern street signs, made of thin metal (or even plastic) – no doubt cheap to produce and easy to clean and maintain, but totally lacking in character and without much in the way of visual flair.

Louth is one of the places that have preserved a high proportion of their Victorian signs. They score highly for clarity – the bold, clear, lettering sees to that. They are distinctive, because, although other towns have this style of sign, none are quite like the ones in Louth. They are clearly very durable. They do need looking after – repainting every so often, particularly. But it’s a price worth paying in my opinion.

The lettering, by the way, is in the style old-fashioned sign writers and those who care about the design of these things mostly know as Egyptian. That has nothing to do with ancient Egypt, but everything to do with the design of the letters, which are distinguished by the way the serifs have no curves (or very minimal curves) – they are basically short, straight-line embellishments to the ends of the main strokes.* These particular Egyptians are squarish in proportion, and have some variation between the width of the strokes, but not extreme variation. They work really well painted in black against the white background, within the slender black frame line of the whole sign. The other lovely touch is the incurving corners – another bit of distinctiveness. Hats off to Louth for preserving these exemplary signs.

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* If this was a font for printing, I’d be describing the letters as having ‘slab serifs’. But I take ’slab serif’ to be a term from printing and typography. These signs, on the other hand, come from the world of the sign writer and sign-maker, so I use the term traditionally used in that world: Egyptians.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Haugham, Lincolnshire


Not far from the A16 in Lincolnshire is the small village of Haugham.* It’s a place that means something to me because, long ago, before I was so much as thought of, my newly married parents lived there. The view from their house took in the village church and it was impressed upon me, when my parents reminisced to me about their early years, that the spire of this church was special because it had been built in imitation of the great and graceful spire at Louth, the local market town (where my mother had worked before she was married), and Louth, as we all knew, had and has a very special spire.

Well, it’s true. All Saints’ Haugham was built between 1837 and 1840 to designs by George Willoughby§ at the behest of (and with funds provided by) the vicar, George Ascough Chaplin.¶ It’s very small, this church, and modestly constructed of brick with cement render. But the spire is similar to the one at Louth in its overall outline – the large pinnacles, linked by buttresses to the crocketed spire, together with the generous window on the upper storey certainly create a similar impression. It’s not a direct copy, but is certainly a homage.

The setting is outstanding. The church is in the middle of a field, approached by a green lane. In my parents’ time, rabbits jumped around the field, entertaining my mother as she took breaks from housework and remembered her young years working in an office in Louth, in the shadow of the greater church whose design the one at Haugham echoes. Such is the stuff of memory.†

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* Pronounced ‘Haffum’.

§ Some give the architect as W A Nicholson; Pevsner attributes the building to Willoughby (a Louth architect), saying that he may possibly been have assisted by Nicholson. 

¶ The Chaplins were local landowners and some members served as MPs in Lincolnshire. They certainly were landowners at both Haugham and nearby Tathwell in the 19th century, but I don’t know whether George Ascough Chaplin was squarson or if he was a benefice-holding younger son of this illustrious family.

† All Saints, Haugham, is now in the care of the Churches Conservation Trust. There is more about the church here.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Louth, Lincolnshire


I continue my group of posts looking back over buildings I visited earlier with a couple of Lincolnshire favourites. I’ve been to Louth many times, and whenever I’m there I look at the spire of the town’s parish church. If truth be told, it’s difficult to avoid looking at it – it’s by far the tallest building in the town, and dominates many views. As de Maupassant said of the Eiffel Tower, the only way not to see it is to be inside it. But while some people might not like the Eiffel Tower, what’s not to like about this glorious steeple? It’s not only the tallest parish church steeple in England but, to my mind, the most beautiful. Everything leads the eye upwards: the windows and openings, narrower in proportion at each level until we reach the graceful ogee canopies of the upper pair; the buttresses, stepping inwards as they rise* and leading effortlessly to the four pinnacles that surround the spire;† the upward-sloping flying buttresses that connect the pinnacles to the spire; and the spire itself, 135 feet from battlements to finial, its crockets beautifully carved and spaced (closer towards the top) with art and care.

The interior of the structure contains wonders too – a cavernous space at ground level and inside, at the top of the tower, the original medieval treadmill, known as the ‘wild mare’, for lifting stone and bells, one of only three medieval examples left in this country.

Louth’s tower and spire are discussed and illustrated in detail in Julian Flannery’s fine book Fifty English Steeples, which I reviewed before Christmas. I was pleased that the author likes this steeple as much as I do – it’s the culminating number 50 in his book both because of its superiority and because of its date – the spire was completed in 1515, at the very twilight of the medieval period. Flannery criticises very little of the design of the steeple itself – the tracery in the lowest window is a little pedestrian.§  I agree with his assessment. The completion of the spire was greeted with much celebration, including, of course, bell ringing and the distribution of bread and ale to all present, and who can blame them for carousing?

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*As is usual; although slightly less usual is the way the set-offs don’t coincide with the string courses that mark off each stage of the tower. The effect feels a bit awkward to begin with, but the overall impression is one of upward-sweeping power.

†Not strictly necessary structurally, but aesthetically highly successful.

§He also says, fairly, that the aisles are disappointingly low compared with the steeple, and he is not enamoured of the setting near a road…but that was not the fault of the original mason and Flannery's overall assessment is very positive.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Sudbury, Suffolk

Corn Exchange, book exchange

This is one of those jaw-dropping buildings that constantly stop me in my tracks as I walk around English towns. A corn exchange was a major centre for a country town and an important adjunct to a market. Corn exchanges are often imposing buildings, symbols both of civic pride and rural productivity. They have carvings of reapers or goddess like Flora on them, big doorways so that you can get in and out with ease and sacks, and are designed to be both landmarks and useful.

This one was built in the 1840s and makes its mark with a giant order, a tall door and windows, and the requisite corn-related decoration: sheaves of corn at the top of each column and a group of resting harvesters in the centre of the parapet. No doubt for quite a bit of the last century it was still a much-used building and a local hub – read Adrian Bell’s classic book Corduroy (and the sequels Silver Ley and The Cherry Tree*) for accounts of English farming in the interwar period, in Suffolk especially, to get the idea of how important this business was. But by the 1960s, this building was ‘just’ a landmark, and no longer used for its original purpose. It was saved from demolition thanks to a local campaign and is now the town’s library.† A nice example of creative reuse.

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* These gentle, reflective books about country life have been reprinted and can also be found in wonderful early Penguin editions. Maybe Bell made country life a bit gentler and more idyllic than it really was (though it’s not always easy for the young farmer whose life they chronicle) but there is much to like in them, I find, and much to learn. If I’m perhaps a little indulgent towards the generally rosy picture of country life they paint, maybe it’s because they describe life on the land in a period when my own father was a farm worker, somewhat to the north of Bell’s territory, on the Lincolnshire Wolds.

† Now libraries themselves are under threat. But I hope Sudbury can sustain one, and sustain this outstanding building.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Lavenham, Suffolk

Shop talk

I regularly give a talk about the history of shops and shopfronts and I’ve taken to using this image to explain what late-Medieval shops could look like and how they sometimes functioned. In the 15th century, glass was still an expensive commodity, restricted mainly to churches and high-status houses, so there were no shop windows like those of today. So, if you had a shop, you had unglazed openings, closed by shutters. This example has pairs of shutters, upper and lower, and in the ‘closed’ position the lower shutter would hinge upwards and the upper one downwards, to seal the opening. During business hours you could open the shutters as shown, or the lower one could be propped with a trestle and act as a counter or stall. The shopkeeper could put goods on it and stand inside.

In this period, of course, a lot of business was not done in shops at all, but on market stalls. But a few trades – those who needed work space, for example, from carpenters to butchers, had workshops and could sell from there. This sort of shutter arrangement worked for them, allowing them to maske things and sell things in the same space, and live above the shop.  It’s very unusual to find this kind of shop front today. This one, part of the Guildhall at Lavenham, is notable survivor and a useful visual aid when I'm giving my talk.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Clare, Suffolk

A sign of old times

It is, as they used to say, February fill-dyke. Here in Gloucestershire dark days predominate, deadlines loom, and there seems little chance of going very far in search of interesting architecture – or at any rate mot much chance of seeing anything very clearly or photographing it if one does venture out. So I am looking back over pictures of some of my recent haunts, to find something of interest to share on the blog. To start with, a bird that’s at home in the wet…

This beautiful sign adorns the Swan in Clare, Suffolk. It’s carved on a piece of oak about 10 feet long, and is full of interesting detail. The bird itself is a beautiful combination of curves (the breast, wings, and neck) and feathery traces still visible beneath a few coats of paint. On the left are the arms of Mortimer and de Burgh quartered; on the right is a shield with the royal arms of France and England. The sign also includes the crescent and star, both royal badges, and the swan itself has a collar in the form of a crown. This is a royal swan, then, and the theory is that the carving came originally from Clare Castle, which was held by Elizabeth de Clare (who was married to a de Burgh) and then by the Mortimer family. In the castle the sign must have formed the base of an oriel window, probably at the time when Henry Prince of Wales was guardian of the young nobleman Edmund Mortimer (1391–1425), so dates to some time in the early-15th century.*

Many are the Swan Inns of England† and they often have fine signs, but there are few to beat this one.

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* Edmund was in custody during the latter part of the reign of Henry IV because of his rival claim to the throne and his family's part in efforts to depose Henry. When Henry died and his son Henry V became king in 1413, Mortimer was freed, made a Knight of the Bath, and became a loyal counsellor of the young king. Edmund founded a college of canons at Stoke-by-Clare in 1414.

† I have previously admired the Swan at Wells and the Three Swans at Market Harborough.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Tottenham Court Road, London

A short afterword

Yesterday I did a post about the tiled decoration by Eduardo Paolozzi at Tottenham Court Road underground station in London. At the end of the post is a link to a YouTube video about the alterations to the decoration and the restoration of the tiles that remain. Unfortunately, those of you who subscribe to my posts by email may be unable to see or access the link.

So, if you are receiving this by email, the original post and link are here.

And, for those who cannot access the video, it is on YouTube here.

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Monday, February 6, 2017

Tottenham Court Road, London

Murals on the move

One would have to be unobservant (or very lucky) to have spent any time in Central London over the last few years and not come across the Crossrail development. This enormous underground engineering project has disrupted the capital in all sorts of ways, and one of the centres of this disruption is the complete rebuilding and massive expansion of Tottenham Court Road underground station.

One thing that I’ve been aware of for some time is that the unique and very special tiled decoration by Eduardo Paolozzi is being altered in the process. These murals are perhaps the greatest work of public art by this pioneer of Pop Art, a riot of colour* in the sometimes dull world of the underground, and, at about 23 years old, part of our history already. Some parts of the station with Paolozzi tiles are being demolished or rebuilt, so some sections of the mural have been removed to Edinburgh, where the National Galleries already have a large Paolozzi collection and where Paolozzi was a student and, later in life, a teacher. The rest of the tiles are being cleaned, restored, and in some cases moved from one part of the station to another.

This has been done with great care, and the video to which I link below, produced by Transport for London, shows something of the enormous effort in planning, engineering, and work involved. True, part of the intention of the video is PR for TfL. But it shows that the professionals who have worked on the project are just that, professionals, and their devotion to the project, their commitment to the murals, and the pains they have taken shine through. What’s more, the video gives a better impression of this enormous work of art than I can in one or two photographs. The artist’s feel for colour, his sense of musical and visual rhythm and syncopation, his inspiration from all kinds of places and things from jazz to sweetshops, is vividly caught. This station is going to be impressive and the Paolozzi murals will play their part. And that will be some recompense for the inconvenience that, as they say, this work may have caused.

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*And a feast of monochrome pattern on the Northern Line platforms.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Burford, Oxfordshire

Old school ties

In 1571 a group of merchants in the Cotswold town of Burford founded a grammar school. Their leader was the appropriately named Simon Wysdom, whose name features in an inscription over the doorway of the old school building, which still exists, a solid-looking structure of Cotswold stone in the centre of the town. The masonry is quite high quality – coursed squared rubble blocks, one step away from the super-smooth ashlar of the very highest status buildings.

However, the structure is perhaps not as quite solid as it seems. At some stage there has been some instability and tie rods have been installed to stop the walls bulging outwards. These ties are metal rods that pass all the way through a building from one exterior wall to the other, fixed on the outside with bars or discs that hold the wall in like a corset. Often the rods are heated up immediately before they are inserted and the outer bars or discs fixed on, so that they contract as they cool down, ensuring the tightest fit.

The bars on the outside can take various forms. One of the most common is a large X-shape, so that the containing effect is spread across a large surface of wall. Here, there’s an added touch: instead of Xs, the rods end in the three initials B, G, and S, for Burford Grammar School. As well as holding in the wall they act as a bit of advertisement. Structural, educational, promotional, and ingenious in one.

Monday, January 30, 2017


Wesley’s room

In response to my previous post about the chapel in Devizes, a reader asked me what were the essential requirements of a nonconformist chapel as opposed to, say, an Anglican place of worship? It’s a good question, and made me reflect that in more than nine years of blogging about English buildings I’d not once posted a photograph of a chapel interior. So here’s the interior of John Wesley’s New Room in Bristol, built by Wesley in 1739 and therefore the oldest Methodist chapel in the world. It has been altered and enlarged since then, but retains its essential features.*

The photograph shows some of the key things about this kind of interior. It’s very plain – there are no statues or painted images, because the emphasis is on the Word, as represented by reading the Bible and preaching sermons. So there’s a large and prominent pulpit – here a double-decker design with a built-in reading desk, typical of the 18th century – and this piece of furniture is the focal point of the space. There’s correspondingly less emphasis on the sacraments, so this building does not have a chancel with an altar, or on elaborate ritual, so this not a processional space. The pews are packed in, with balconies as well as seating on the ground floor, so that as many people as possible can attend and hear the preacher. The space is well lit, here by a glazed dome, so that people can read their Bibles and hymn books. And the rectangular space, not too far from the “shoe-box” proportions of the ideal concert hall, probably makes for good, clear acoustics.

The New Room is a particularly fine interior – it was built by the founder of Methodism after all – but the general pattern is typical of Methodist chapels generally, and of the chapels of other nonconformist groups, although they may also have special requirements such as the large fonts for total immersion used by the Baptist church. With simplicity at the heart of the design, nonconformist buildings can be somewhat spartan, but they can also be magnificent in their proportions and are usually highly functional. They deserve the notice of believers and non-believers alike.†

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* There’s more about the history of the New Room here.

† I hope people will take more notice of them when Christopher Wakeling’s long-awaited book Chapels of England is published later this year.