Tuesday, January 10, 2017
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.