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.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Devizes, Wiltshire

Chapel style

Somewhere in the back of my mind there’s the image of a stereotypical nonconformist chapel – the classic design with a symmetrical, vaguely classical brick-built frontage with a central doorway, two tall, round-headed windows and a hipped roof. Chapel design, though, is much more diverse than that stereotype suggests. Town chapels, especially, were often grander than my mental image. Here’s Sheep Street Baptist chapel in Devizes, with its own kind of Gothic grandeur, a building of 1851–2 designed by an architect called Hardick. The building’s plain pinnacles and extra-tall lancet windows mark it out as a typical Victorian version of the first phase of Gothic, 13th-century Early English.

For all its Gothic revival style, this building doesn’t really look like a Church of England church of the Victorian period, perhaps because it lacks a bell tower and has a west door rather than the side entrance favoured by the C of E. It certainly stands out though, this elegant chapel, and no doubt it was meant to advertise itself. The first minister to the united Presbyterian and Baptist congregation that worshipped here was Charles Stanford, a noted preacher who built up the congregation in Devizes  before moving to London where he became minister of a chapel in Camberwell.

Stanford became a well known Baptist leader, served as president of the London Baptist Association, and wrote several books – biographies, memoirs, and The Wit and Humour of Life: Being Familiar Talks With Young Christians. If his books are no longer read, his building is still standing out and reminding us of the variety of design approaches adopted by the nonconformists in the 19th century. It’s still in use by the Baptist congregation too.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Potterne, Wiltshire

A downward glance

‘Isn’t that slag?’ The Resident Wise Woman’s mind was more on geology than the elegant but rather forbidding Early English Gothic Gothic architecture of St Mary’s church, Potterne. What caught her eye was the black material among the masonry lining the steps in the churchyard, a by-product of smelting (probably of iron, though one sometimes sees copper slag): a substance that is hard, irregular, dark, and durable.

It’s something we’d noticed before in a different form in the Gloucestershire town of Newnham on Severn, where there’s a house partly built of slag. There, the material, produced during copper smelting, had been poured into moulds while still liquid, so that it set in big rectangular blocks ideal for building. Here at Potterne, though, it’s simply made up of irregular lumps. It’s dark, and more forbidding in its way that the architecture of the church, but has found a useful function.

I don’t know where this slag came from – Wiltshire is not a place I particularly associate with historic ironworking (the Weald and the Forest of Dean were more the places for this kind of thing) although I have seen online references to Saxon-period smelting in the Ramsbury area and Westbury had an iron industry in the 19th century. I’d love to know more about the origin of this unusually located and unlooked-for slag.*

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* Thanks to a reader who has pointed out that the Seend ironworks was not far away: this is a likely source.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Button Oak, Shropshire

Changing times, changing materials

Shape and form are of the essence of architecture. They’re a huge part of what gives a building its character, and some forms can be instantly recognisable from a distance, or in a passing glance. Driving through Wyre Forest northwest of Bewdley, a building at the side of the road caught my eye and one of those recognitions took place. “A tin tabernacle,” I thought, stopping to take a look. But when I walked back and examined the building, I saw walls clad in wood, not corrugated iron. As a dedicated fancier of corrugated iron, I was rather disappointed, but, on reflection, it seemed that the proportions, pointed Gothic windows, little bell turret, and porch were exactly the kind normally seen on Victorian and early-20th century ’tin’ churches: surely this one had started as a corrugated iron building and had been reclad.

According to Ian Smith’s book Tin Tabernacles, this was indeed originally an iron church, erected in 1873 and supplied by S. Dyer, manufacturer of iron churches, of Euston Road, London. Like so many, it was produced in prefabricated form by a specialist firm, who would offer churches with different variations of windows and fittings, and sized to provide the required number of ‘sittings’. This church seats around 60, and was originally built as a mission church, attracting people who worked in Wyre Forest.

Having lasted just over a century, the tin church of St Andrew, Button Oak, was restored in 1975, when the corrugated iron was replaced with cedar boards, and this building, perhaps originally thought of as a temporary structure, has had a new lease of life. The vertical boards have a visual effect similar to the original corrugated iron, as does the later square-section metal sheeting on the roof – an effect close enough to catch my eye, make me stop, and subsequently think about those forest workers, coming to worship here over 140 years ago.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Ludlow, Shropshire

Clifton-Taylor’s English towns: In the marches

My short armchair travel series concludes for now with another of my favourite English towns – Ludlow – in a further programme from Alec Clifton-Taylor’s 1978 series. He begins with the Norman castle that gave the place its reason for being, and with a wonderful aerial shot of the castle and the town. A helicopter shot really helps one to understand Ludlow – not just the layout of the castle but also the town's grid plan, which is a notable example of medieval town planning.

Further joys unroll thereafter, including Ludlow’s fine parish church (especially its carved misericords) and the carving on the town’s timber-framed houses (the Feathers, above, best of all). If these were built on the prosperity that came from wool, the profits from the new industry of glove-making helped the Georgians improve the town in the 18th century, when it also became a notable social centre. Bigwigs’ mansions and the smaller houses of Georgian merchants offer further delights. The house with eight Venetian windows brought a smile to Clifton-Taylor ’s face, as it did to mine.

Entertaining diversions involve bad graveyard materials (e. g. ’nauseating crème de menthe chips’, luckily absent here) and the ‘de-blacking’ of timber framing. The whole programme is entertaining and an admiring portrait of this lovely town, still one of the gems of the west of England.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire

Clifton-Taylor’s English towns: Down by the riverside

Next in my short series of posts on Alec Clifton-Taylor’s 1970s television programmes on English towns see the presenter not far from my backyard, exploring the town of Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire, as Vauxhall Vivas and Rover 2000s zoom about in the background. Tewkesbury is a waterside town by two rivers (the Severn and Avon) built around a huge medieval abbey. I’ve posted about Tewkesbury several times before, noting its vulnerability to flooding, its noble abbey, its historic houses, and its very special Baptist chapel. My photograph shows the west front of the abbey, its enormous Norman arch now filled by a late-medieval window. Clifton-Taylor ranges outwards from this huge stone pile to the town’s mainly timber-framed buildings, up its characteristic alleys, and along its bounding rivers. There are interesting diversions on brick production and glass-making on the way, too.

Tewkesbury is a busy local centre, and much appreciated locally, but many tourists miss it, because they are distracted by the Cotswolds ten or twenty miles away. It’s well worth the diversion, as Clifton-Taylor fascinatingly shows.

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.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Cirencester, Gloucestershire

Tiles revealed

As a pendant to my previous post about my favourite Art Nouveau shop front in Cirencester, here’s a detail from another shop in the same town that I noticed recently. The tiles were revealed to me when I looked at this frontage closely for the first time. Again, the style of the tiles seems influenced by the Art Nouveau movement – the curvy forms, drawing on leaves, stalks, and perhaps flowers or sepals are typical of the period just after the year 1900.They form a lovely touch, probably not noticed by many, but they add a welcome a splash of colour and pattern to an already quite ornate frontage.

As you can see, even from my photograph of this small detail, the shop front has some elaborate woodwork – that carved pendant inside an openwork box resting on a scroll console, top right, is especially ornate. The window frame, too, features some impressive carpentry, including the curved and moulded glazing bars in the top part of the window, just visible in the upper left area of the photograph. More winning details on a little-noticed facade at the end of a busy shopping street. And the reflection in the window doubles the decoration – here’s to added value!

Monday, January 2, 2017

Cirencester, Gloucestershire

Bonne année, art nouveau!

Some of my happiest half-hours have been spent in secondhand bookshops. It’s not just the possibility of picking up a bargain (though that appeals), nor the prospect of being among the most covetable stock in trade,* but above all the serendipity – you never know just what you are going to pick up, and the accidents of discovery in secondhand shops are so much more frequent and more surprising than in the usual shop selling new books, where you come across – surprise, surprise – what’s new, newly published, recently reviewed. A good secondhand bookshop can help you find books you didn’t know existed, didn’t know you wanted. Alan Hancox of Cheltenham, Thornton’s of Oxford, the old warehouse-like shop in Greenwich near the market: all were part of my education as well as perpetual sources of pleasure. And they are all gone now, and the world is diminished by their loss.

Secondhand bookselling is, of course, thriving online, and it’s a marvellous resource. But you search for things online, you tend not to find them accidentally. A small mercy (though they had their role in the demise of the other shops) are charity bookshops. If I’m in Cirencester, I always make for the Oxfam shop. It’s small, but I’ve made some good purchases there and these make me go back; I even sometimes donate books to them. I also like the architecture of this shop’s frontage. It’s wood, early-20th century, and in the Art Nouveau style.

To my mind the best features of this shop front are the lovely pane of curved glass on the left-hand end of the window, sweeping towards the door, and the slender glazing bars at the tops of the main panes. These glazing bars do curvaceous things in the very upper portion of the window where, in a Victorian shop window, there would be a horizontal band of frosted glass with lights concealed behind it. In fact, the irregularly shaped panes in the top part of this window probably were glazed differently – look at the two left-hand ones, which seem to have a milky-looking kind of glass in them. Perhaps the lighting in the window was arranged with bulbs just behind the pairs of half-roundels. However it worked, it’s splendid that the window survives, and that the shop it fronts is being put to such good use. Happy New Year!

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* Somebody (Melvyn Bragg?) compared the situation of secondhand booksellers to that of the vintners in Omar Khayam: Why would they want to sell their books at all? What more desirable things would they buy with the money they made?