Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Chichester, Sussex

Clifton-Taylor’s English Towns: Brick and flint

January’s cold and dark days encourage armchair travel rather than the real kind. I’m using my armchair to sit and rewatch some of Alec Clifton-Talyor’s television programmes about the history and architecture English towns. They’re almost forty years old now, and have a different pace from more recent documentary television. But for well informed commentary, accompanied by relevant shots of the towns, their streets, buildings, and surroundings, they’re still terrific.

The link below is to the first in the series, on Chichester, and at the beginning, Clifton-Taylor explains what he does. It’s an exercise in looking, he says, and he looks especially at houses, and at their building materials. At Chichester he starts with the Romans and the medieval builders who came after them, and their use of flint to build walls. The Romans also created the town’s street plan, with its two main streets at right-angles,* and the medieval period brought the ornate market cross at their intersection (above) and the nearby cathedral. Clifton-Taylor is very good on the different stones (various limestones) used for the cathedral, and on the calamitous collapse of the spire in 1861.

The second half of the programme turns to the town’s houses, many of them Georgian and beautiful. Here we’re back to flint again, and the camera shows with great clarity how builders coped with the challenge of making regular courses using lumps of flint of highly irregular shape. The diverse colours of Sussex bricks are another feature that makes Chichester’s houses stand out and both brick and flint walls are complemented with painstaking details like elegant fanlights and meticulous cornices. As usual, I find Clifton-Taylor’s restrained, old-fashioned enthusiasm infectious.

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*Already partly pedestrianized in 1978, so there are relatively few glimpses of old cars (Triumph Heralds and Hillman Imps among them) in the background of this programme.


Stephen Barker said...

They are excellent programmes which I must have watched in my late teens. I owe to them the inspiration to look at and appreciate buildings and a love architecture in general.

Many modern documentary makers could learn something from these programmes, to many feel the need to repeat pieces of information and the same bit of film as if they don't trust their audience.

Joseph Biddulph (Publisher) said...

Chichester seems to be an example of a town you can just walk through and not notice much at all: an enthusiastic guide is very useful. After just passing through several times, I made a special effort to see the cathedral and trace some of the - I think - walls. Years ago I saw a sign for the Cathedral Restoration Appeal and was tickled by the surnames on it: Dean Treadgold as head of the appeal, a certain Donald Buttress as architect!

The Anglo-Saxon church at Westhampnett is a bit hidden away by the industrial estate: great slabs of Roman tile/brick in the chancel wall. Clifton-Taylor's remarks on flint suggest that it was only in Sussex that anybody ever thought of using the material: I would like to see his remarks on some flint construction I have seen in Norfolk and elsewhere. Big flints in the undoubted Roman bit at Pevensey Castle, so an observant Anglo-Saxon would hardly have had to invent the technique from scratch.

Lucy Lincoln said...

After the recent snowfall it seems much more tempting to watch Alec Clifton-Taylor's exploration of these architecturally interesting English Towns than adventure myself! It's hard to believe that they're almost 40 years old - they themselves offer younger viewers a historical snapshot into these quintessential English towns.