Friday, February 17, 2017
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.