Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Llandinabo, Herefordshire

Church woodwork, or, Odd things in churches (10)

I have made it part of the business of this blog to bring you the odd, the unusual, and the unexpected, and I’ve found that English churches sometimes contain the most unexpected things of all. Over the years we have had a fire engine, a ducking stool, and, particularly dear to me, Milner’s Patent Fire-resistant Safe. I didn’t expect to find anything odd at Llandinabo, a church I’d passed quite a few times before I got round to stopping there. I’d read that there was some interesting woodwork – a fine screen – in the church, but, just for fun, here’s a very different kind of woodwork that I also found.

There seemed to be nothing to tell me who’d made this matchstick model of the church, which stands on a window ledge inside the building it reproduces. It’s painstaking, reasonably accurate, and a joyous bit of English, or Welsh, eccentricity. (Llandinabo is in England, but, as the name signals, it’s not too far from the Welsh border.) The modeller has caught the pierced roof ridge tiles, the timber-framing of the bellcote, and the openwork wooden porch, although he (I feel sure it was a he) had trouble with reproducing the exact pointed shape of the Gothic windows. But never mind. Anyone who can get this far deserves an alpha for effort as far as I’m concerned. I was reminded of the Eccentric Corner at the South Bank exhibition of the Festival of Britain where, apparently, there was a violin made of matchsticks, which Laurie Lee (exhibition caption writer) picked up and played quite successfully.

Of course, in the world of matchstick modelling, this is very modest stuff. A quick online search reveals people who have spent years making models of complex buildings like Notre Dame in Paris. There’s a particularly good one of Llandaff Cathedral, made by one Bill Tucker. Hats off to people with patience!

Friday, March 16, 2018

Surbiton, Surrey

Southern Electric

A while back I renewed my acquaintance with Surbiton station, and was struck again by its white walls and its design that seems to exemplify what was seen as modern in the 1930s. What does it remind you of? An Odeon? A 1930s radio set? At any rate it’s a symbol of how the Southern Railway saw themselves in 1938: as sleek, forward-looking ’Southern Electric’, keen to tell you that the railways were the modern, convenient way to travel.

The station is the outstanding work of J R Scott and he threw the modernist works at it – flat roofs, white walls, tall window openings, fins, the very simple clock dial, the sans serif lettering – everything, as railway historian Gordon Biddle points out, except for concrete platform awnings.* If this white, flat-roofed building is an interloper in the middle of Surbiton (cliché adjectives: leafy, quiet, prosperous…) it stands back from the road and holds its own without intruding. As I hastened to the platform to catch the 0911 to Waterloo, I appreciated its light interior and generous circulation space too. And today’s equivalent of Southern Electric† got me to my appointment with time to spare.

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* Gordon Biddle, Britain’s Historic Railway Buildings (OUP, 2003)

† A good train but not in the smart green livery of 1938. For railway colours, see my post of long ago here.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Soho Square, London


Last weekend I was due to drive down to Somerset to teach a course on Tudor and Stuart architecture. Somerset was one of the parts of Britain to receive the rare ‘red weather warning’, so the course was cancelled and none of us got stuck in the snow. One of the things I was going to talk about was the impact of the Great Fire of London and the fact that very few timber-framed buildings have been constructed in the capital since 1666.

Here is one exception, the hut in the middle of Soho Square. It might look like a survivor from the pre-fire era, but in fact it was built in 1925. Its original purpose was to disguise the entrance of an underground electricity substation, built for the Charing Cross Electricity Company. The substation is no longer active and the subterranean space was used as an air-raid shelter during World War II. Now the building is a gardeners’ hut, full of spades and the like. I’m not sure how the upper floor is used.

This little building feels visually generous – the arcades, pointed roof, bits of carving, and fancy bargeboards were hardly necessary, but provide just the right sort of fun for the centre of a busy square that’s now a popular place to relax. It’s here on the blog as a reminder – to me, to talk to the organisers about rescheduling my course, and to all of us, that after the snows, spring cannot be far away.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Wreay, Cumbria

Pinecones and ammonites

To mark International Women’s Day, I am posting today some pictures of what I think is one of the most outstanding and extraordinary buildings designed by a woman, the church of St Mary, Wreay. Here is what I wrote about the church in December 2012, when reviewing Jenny Uglow’s biography of Losh, The Pinecone:

St Mary’s Wreay looks more like a work of the Arts and Crafts period of the 1880s than a building of the 1840s. But not even the Arts and Crafts produced a structure quite like this, covered with carvings that are far outside the usual church orbit – a tortoise gargoyle, a crocodile, a dragon, lotus buds, gourds, and pinecones (the latter symbolic variously of creation, reproduction, enlightenment, the spirit of man, and the expansion of consciousness). There are carved angels, it is true, but otherwise you have to look hard to find much traditional Christian imagery. It is as if Sarah Losh, having daringly entered the male preserve of architecture, looked at the whole business from a different viewpoint, that of a kind of pan-religious perspective, where all faiths are as one.

By describing Sarah
’s church in such detail, Jenny Uglow also describes her somewhat elusive subject, Sarah herself and her concerns. The church is an act of making and also an act of mourning (for Sarah’s parents and sister and other family members); it is both a gathering together of diverse religious symbols and a very specific act of benevolence to the village of Wreay itself, to which Sarah also contributed a school and numerous hand-outs in times of need; it is both a display of traditional craftsmanship and an artistic bolt out of the blue. Uglow's book nails all this – but does not lose sight of the oddity of the place or the elusiveness of its creator.

The photographs (credits below) show the interior of the apse and one of the windows. The window surround is carved with ammonites and pinecones, two of the building’s presiding symbols.

Photographic credits: Apse photo by The Carlisle Kid; window photo by Rose and Trev Clough, both used under CC licence CC BY-SA 2.0

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Fairford, Gloucestershire

Fashion and craftsmanship

The snow has come down and put a halt, for now, to architectural exploration. Here’s a memory of another year’s snow, just visible lingering in Fairford, on Gloucestershire’s and the Cotswolds’ eastern edge. This house is just to the north of Fairford’s great church and was built as the lodge at the entrance of Fairford Park, a notable house that was demolished in 1957. Fairford Park was a 17th-century house but was modified later and had interiors of 1789 by Soane. It’s a sad loss, although one or two elements from the interiors were recycled elsewhere – the staircase, for example, ended up at Corsham Court, in Wiltshire.

This lodge is dated by Pevsner to c. 1800, just after the Soane alterations to the main house. It was the Gothic windows at the front that caught my eye – and that was the point of them. Back in the early 1800s builders were still putting up traditional Cotswold houses with rectangular, often stone-mullioned windows. But if you wanted something to stand out, pointed Gothic windows with intersecting tracery were just the thing. So this is a striking facade for a building that’s meant to be recognisable, to announce the entrance gate to the Park. There’s also a bay window at the side, with a different glazing pattern – this multi-aspect bay clearly helped the occupant keep an eye on the comings and goings through the gate.

So the pointed windows help to make the house a landmark, as does the lovely Cotswold-stone-tiled hipped roof, rising to a single chimney. These hipped roofs are not the most common type on the Cotswolds, where most houses have gabled roofs, but they’re delightful, with their great cascades of stone slates. These slates are large at the bottom, progressively smaller as you go up. Their production and fitting was one of the great accomplishments of the traditional Cotswold builders, and a reminder that, for all its fashionable ‘look at me’ character, this house is also a repository of craftsmanship and skill.

Friday, March 2, 2018

Seven Springs, Gloucestershire

Silent springs

There’s not a lot at Seven Springs, in the parish of Cobberley not far from Cheltenham: a largish mid-19th century house now a school, and the tiny parcel office in my previous post, and, well, seven springs. The springs are a contender for the ultimate source of the River Thames, although Thames Head, near, Kemble, is more usually cited as the source. Seven Springs is strictly the source of a small river, the Churn, which flows into the Thames at Cricklade.

As I was looking at the parcel office I decided to walk a few yards further along the road and visit the springs. They were bubbling away quietly, sending water from the subterranean rocks out through seven small holes. But it wasn’t really the right time of year for a photograph. The place was looking muddy and dark and, apart from a fetching clump of snowdrops, rather dingy. So I had a look at the stone tablet, which asserts the place’s claim in bold Latin – ‘Here, Father Thames, is your sevenfold spring’ – and resolved to return to Seven Springs when the weather is better and the ground less muddy.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Seven Springs, Gloucestershire

Staging post

This tiny building was always a bit of a mystery to me. Passing it years ago, I’d assumed it was a bus shelter, before I reflected that its position at a road junction would not be a convenient stopping-place for a big bus; it’s even less convenient now the junction has been converted to a double roundabout.  So I filed it away mentally, and put it down to the work of some local philanthropist offering shelter to passers-by.

Then, a few months ago I heard a reference to ‘the old parcel house at Seven Springs’. This is what it is, as a little googling confirms: a building where parcels were left and transferred from one carrier to another. The siting at a junction now made more sense, as the traffic passing here could be on the Cirencester to Cheltenham road or the one crossing it, which links Stow-on-the-Wold with Gloucester. In the direction of Stow, it also connects with the road to London.

I’m still not sure how long the parcel office has been there. It seems to be 19th century and the Victoria County History confirms that it was there in 1894. The Gothic openings and thatched roof lend it a picturesque air, although one might have expected it to be walled in Cotswold stone, like many a small bus-shelter in these parts. It must be a long time since it was in use, and one hopes it will survive when the roof reaches a state beyond pleasing decay.

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Postscript: Having looked at this again, I’m convinced that the brickwork is relatively recent and must date to a rebuild of the structure. This is confirmed by a drawing I have located online, showing a tiled roof, a more elaborately carved window opening, and other differences. More research is required.

Friday, February 23, 2018

Southwell, Nottinghamshire

The Leaves of Southwell

When posting about one of the carvings in the chapter house of Southwell Minster the other week, I inevitably got down from my shelves my copy of The Leaves of Southwell, Nikolaus Pevsner’s short book about this building’s extraordinary late-13th century sculptures of the leaves of plants and trees. I did so to look at the excellent photographs of Southwell’s stone leaves – oak, ivy, maple, buttercup, hop, vine, and other species. I ended up rereading the text of the book as well.

The Leaves of Southwell is in the King Penguin series, which are short hardback books published by Penguin Books between 1939 and 1959.* The format for the series consists of an essay (usually of about 30 pages, though Pevsner’s is double that length), followed by a series of illustrations. The photographs, by F L Attenborough, then Principal of University College, Leicester, and father of Richard and David Attenborough, are exemplary: detailed, well printed, and with just the right amount of contrast. From the patterned cover to the photographs, the book is a pleasing object.
The text is good too. Pevsner combines the virtues of a good art historian: a perceptive and inquisitive eye, a knowledge of contemporary history and intellectual context, and the wit to understand how the visual and the historical might relate. He picks out several qualities to admire in the Southwell carvings – the way the artists balanced pattern and background, the interplay between the architectural structure and the ornament that adorns it, the naturalism of the carvings and how this is modified or stylised in places. It’s this naturalism that is the remarkable thing about the carvings – they date to the point at the end of the 13th century when sculptors had turned away from the highly stylised ‘stiff leaf’ ornament of the previous decades and before they’d hit upon the slightly more formal style of carving that came later. Pevsner also enlisted a botanist to advise on exactly which species are represented, although the results aren’t always conclusive.

Pevsner also writes about the intellectual context of the carvings. He discusses how early-medieval herbalists and encyclopedists write about plants. Most of these writers, he says, are not really very revealing. They tell us a few facts about a plant and maybe some of its herbal uses, but they don’t go into much detail and their information is mostly copied from other writers, not based on observation. The exception, says Pevsner, is Albertus Magnus (c. 1200–1280), Dominican friar and bishop, scholar of Aristotle but also of the great Muslim writers Avicenna and Averroes. When Albertus writes about plants, he does so in a much more specific and observational way, as if he has actually seen what he is describing. This way of writing marks a change, and it occurs just before the Southwell carvings were made in the 1290s.

Pevsner is not saying that the master mason of Southwell read Albertus. He is pointing out that this new realism and respect for specific detail was in the air at the time – it is part of what he calls the spirit of the age (his translation for his British readers of the German word Zeitgeist). It’s a spirit that encompasses the preaching of the friars, the growth of busy towns, the worldly love and nature poetry of the wandering scholars, the rejection of superstition, and the new openness to both Classical art and the ideas of Islamic philosophers. It’s a spirit, then, that accommodates with ease naturalist sculpture like the leaves of Southwell.
At one point in his text, Pevsner remarks that Southwell is probably the least visited of all Britain’s cathedrals. If the chapter house were in France, British people would flock to see it, he says. Seventy-five years on from Pevsner’s account, it’s still very quiet – a handful of people were visiting when we were there before Christmas. The cathedral authorities are on a mission, though, to ensure that those who come will be able to appreciate the carvings and the stories behind them. In conjunction with a major project to restore the cathedral’s roof, they are also planning work on the chapter house – to provide heating and better lighting, and to present more information about the carvings; a video here, with more shots of the carvings, explains more. I hope that more people will see the carvings as a result, and appreciate their extraordinary qualities of naturalism, observation, and openness.†

Photographs by F L Attenborough, from The Leaves of Southwell
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* The King Penguin series, of which Pevsner himself eventually became General Editor, was miscellaneous in its subject matter: there were natural history titles, books on history, places, and on subjects such as heraldry, British military uniforms, and the history of toys. Any subject was considered, if it would benefit from treatment in the series format of ‘essay plus a series of illustrations’. Some of my favourites feature the work of interesting British artists of the period: Edward Bawden’s Life in an English Village, John Piper’s Romney Marsh, Barbara Jones’s The Isle of Wight, and Kenneth Rowntree’s A Prospect of Wales.

† Perhaps the 19th-century iron capitals on the station platforms at Great Malvern are the fruit of looking at 13th- or 14th-century Decorated Gothic carvings like these.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Hanwell, Oxfordshire

February carvery (5)

I’d thought that my previous post would be the last of this month’s short ‘carvery’ pieces, but then I remembered Hanwell. This is one of the churches in North Oxfordshire that have distinctive carvings from the fourteenth century. Like Adderbury, it has a range of figures, beasts, and other carved subjects, both indoors and out. Some of them are of the ‘linked arms’ type on capitals, the kind I’ve previously noticed at another North Oxfordshire church, Bloxham, and elsewhere.

The heads at Hanwell are if anything even better than those at Bloxham – individual, crisply carved, and full of character. This bearded face is one of my favourites. His hair, beard, nose, and mouth are well done, I think, although the eyes are rather small and mean. The overall effect though is good, and makes one smile. Nikolaus Pevsner says in his book The Leaves of Southwell (to which, I hope, I’ll soon return) that capitals mark a structural junction between two functions (column and arch) and ornament marks this important transition while also masking the joint. In this case, the figures also look as if they are doing some of the structural work, by bearing the weight of the arch on their arms and shoulders. They look none the worse for their effort. 

Friday, February 16, 2018

Brant Broughton, Lincolnshire

February carvery (4)

For my final short post about church carvings, here’s one from Brant Broughton. This time it’s on the outside of the building and shows a beast less ambiguous than the Much Marcle creatures: a bear, by the look of things, and one that has been chained and muzzled. A dacning bear, perhaps, and part of a long and cruel tradition, but accepted in the Middle Ages and in some parts of the world today.

He’s part of a large collection of carvings high up on the outer walls, a display that reminded me of some of the glorious North Oxfordshire churches such as Adderbury. Like that area, Lincolnshire, and the bordering parts of Nottinghamshire, seem to have had a strong local tradition of medieval carving – and, in many places, enough prosperity to employ master craftsmen to do this work. Positioned on an outside wall, the bear and his neighbours have worn quite a lot. But there’s enough strength in the stone, and a bit of shelter from the cornice above, to ensure they still give pleasure.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Much Marcle, Herefordshire

February carvery (3)

A few years back I did a post about the great yew tree in the churchyard at Much Marcle and I’ve always meant to go back and look again at the church there. One reason is these charming, and rather odd, carvings, which I’ve chosen for the next in my series of short posts. Some of the capitals in this church are a cut above the usual parish church fare of plain mouldings, stiff leaf, or more realistic foliage.

Here we have a row of heads – and what else? A bird with a tail that has turned into a bit of foliage to the right of the central head; another creature with bird-like body but animal-like head on the other side, again with a foliate tail. We seem to be in the realms of the bestiary here. I’m intrigued, and, yes, when life is less busy, going back and having a further look must be on my list of expeditions.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Southwell, Nottinghamshire

February carvery (2)

For the next of my short posts showing medieval church carvings, an example from the best place of all to see this sort of thing: the chapter house at Southwell Minster. This is one of the great medieval rooms, a feast of carving, much of it very realistic depictions of leaves. Ever since Nikolaus Pevsner worse his little book about them (The Leaves of Southwell), they’ve been known among architecture buffs. But Southwell is not a major tourist centre, and Southwell Minster is one of our quietest major churches.

I’ve chosen an example from above one of the seats ranged around the wall. Not a Green Man with foliage coming out of his mouth or nostrils, but a face encircled with leaves. A beautiful way to fill up this space above the arch, and one of the best preserved of the carvings in Southwell’s chapter house. A real delicacy from the carvery.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Navenby, Lincolnshire

February carvery (1)

Life is very busy at the moment, so for the next two weeks or so, I’m going do to some short posts. I thought a common theme, medieval church carving, might be entertaining, and would enable me to share a few more pictures from some recent discoveries and rediscoveries.

To begin with, a bit of early-14th century Gothic from the chancel at Navenby. This is what 14th-century Gothic is meant to look like: lots of little arches and niches, so smothered with ornament that you can hardly see the structure – crockets, finials, pinnacles everywhere. But here, as so often, there’s also a human touch – little heads that make it all less serious, one sticking its tongue out, another with a rather grumpy expression. This visitor went away far from grumpy.

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Highley, Worcestershire

The signs of yesteryear

In the words of Chard Whitlow, Henry Reed’s amusing parody of T. S. Eliot, ‘As we get older we do not get any younger’. As I get older, I can’t say I experience outright rudeness that often, although the world is not short of oafish behaviour, as a swift walk through any provincial town on a Friday night will reveal. I wonder, though, whether in days gone by it wasn’t worse. One certainly might think so, looking at old notices aimed at improving people’s behaviour. You didn’t have to go far before encountering a ‘COMMIT NO NUISANCE’ (low down, where an inconvenienced ‘gentleman’ might ‘aim’), an ‘ANYONE SMOKING WILL BE PROSECUTED’ (more likely at eye level), a ‘PLEASE REFRAIN FROM SPITTING’ (on buses), a ‘GENTLEMEN RAISE THE SEAT’¶ (on trains), or even an ‘ANY PERSON WILFULLY INJURING ANY PART OF THIS BRIDGE WILL BE GUILTY OF FELONY AND UPON CONVICTION LIABLE TO BE TRANSPORTED FOR LIFE’ (on bridges, in Dorset).

Oh, the signs of yesteryear. So people really had to be told not to spit on the bus or piddle in the corner? I suppose they did, oafs being as thick on the ground then as now, and hygiene being as important then as ever. So the Victorians and Edwardians got on and told them, in bold painted notices and cast-iron signs. Maybe some people even took notice of the notices. But above all, I suppose, it’s the language that marks them out, with its bracing mixture of euphemism (‘nuisance’) and dire warning (‘transported for life’).

A sign of the euphemistic sort that I’d never seen was ‘PLEASE ADJUST YOUR DRESS BEFORE LEAVING’. How can I have missed that one? Too busy admiring the plumbing in the Gents? I don’t know. I became aware of the existence of such signs years ago, reading an excellent book, The Faber Book of Parodies.* This contains not only the poem quoted at the beginning of this post, but a further go at T. S. Eliot, a sort of synoptic parody, called Sweeney in Articulo, attributed to Myra Buttle.† One section of this mock-epic concludes with a random-seeming bunch of quotations, in allusion to the allusive way in which Eliot’s The Waste Land ends. There’s one from Baudelaire, a bit of Latin, some Chinese characters, and then, mixing the highfalutin with the lowly:

‘Love thy neighbour as thyself,’
‘Couldn’t you bring better weather with you?’ and,
Above all,
‘Please adjust your dress before leaving.’

Like anything about T S Eliot, the poem has to have footnotes, and the final line is glossed, ‘Reproduced by permission of Westminster City Council’.

I was thrilled, therefore, some forty years on from reading the parody, to visit the railway station at Highley on the Severn Valley Railway§ and find, not only a ‘Paisley’ water cistern by Doulton and Co, looking like a large butler’s sink painted black, held above my head on two very sturdy iron brackets, but also this notice, a cast-iron plate with letters picked out in white on a black background. Thank you to the Severn Valley Railway for paying attention to the small things. As one must do when adjusting one’s dress before leaving…

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¶ Jonathan Miller, in Beyond the Fringe, offered the suggestion that this might be a loyal toast.

* Dwight MacDonald (ed), The Faber Book of Parodies (Faber and Faber, 1961)

† After wondering for a minute whether ‘Myra Buttle’ might be a pseudonym of one of my Oxford tutors, Marilyn Butler, I read that Myra Buttle was a Cambridge don, a Sinologist called Victor Purcell. Anyone who likes parodies might also want to search out Myra Buttle, The Sweeniad (Secker & Warburg, 1958), which contains the Sweeney epic. 

§ Like many preserved railway lines, the Severn Valley is a good hunting-ground for sign-fanciers: it has an abundance of old enamel advertising signs.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Stewkley, Buckinghamshire


When looking at a building form the outside, we often think in terms of its façade, ‘The face or front of a building towards a street or other open place, esp. the principal front,’ as the OED has it. Lots of buildings – Palladian houses, Victorian town halls, Gothic cathedrals – have very beautiful façades, formal, symmetrical, and attention-grabbing.

Medieval English parish churches, though, often don’t have formal façades in this way. They have their entrances on the side, usually the south side, and churches aren’t usually symmetrical from the side. The porch might have a grand frontage, but there’s nothing you could call a façade. Cathedrals traditionally have their main entrance at the west end, so buildings like Peterborough and Wells cathedral have beautiful west fronts. But parish churches rarely have west fronts because they have western towers: the view from the west is usually of a tower and the ends of two aisles sticking out at either side.

Here’s an exception, though. The church at Stewkley, built by the Normans, has a central tower, leaving room for a grand entrance façade facing the street, at the west end (photograph above). And very odd it is too. There’s a central doorway, decorated with chevron ornament and flanks by two blind arches, also with chevron. This is a pleasantly balanced group of features, although the bifurcated or double arch above the door is rather odd. Above the door it gets odder, with a single, rather meanly small window crashing into the top of the doorway arch and a tiny round window high above. The window above the door owes its size and position to the fact that it matches windows on the flanking walls, by the way.

I find all this rather eccentric in its mixture of balance below and gaucheness above. Not that I mind eccentricity – this blog has been thriving on architectural eccentricity for years. I think what we’re looking at here is a builder working things out as he goes along, and making a stab at doing something that he didn’t often get the chance to do: building a symmetrical façade for a substantial church.
Stewkley church, from the south

Saturday, January 27, 2018


Squared up

To complete my trio of posts from Lincoln, here’s a couple of street name signs that caught my eye. I can’t say I like them quite as much as the strong and characterful Egyptian letters that I’ve always admired in Louth, my favourite Lincolnshire market town, northeast of Lincoln itself on the way to the coast. The Louth signs have everything going for them, it seems to me – clarity, distinctiveness, a style that works well across the varied town centre, a coherent overall shape.

These Lincoln signs, by contrast, have letters which seem rather constricted. This is particularly true of some of the rounded letters, the S especially, which looks as if it has been squashed so that it has flattened at the top and bottom. The same effect appears on the O, although the curve of the U has a more rounded form. However, the signs are clear, and the even effect when the letters are set quite close together. as in ’St Swithins Square’ is elegant. The border, formed like a picture frame, is effective too, and unusual in my experience.*

The more I look at these signs, the more I like them. And they are wearing well, although the left-hand one could perhaps do with a bit of rubbing down and painting up. I’d much rather have these than the flat, plastic signboards that are now so common in many places. I hope Lincoln hangs on to them.

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* I’m having fun, by the way, trying to guess what was painted on the wall before the signs were fitted. The ghostly letter that’s just visible does not seem to be of the current street name.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018


Heavy plant

I first came across really tall factory windows when I had to write about the Nairn’s linoleum works in Kirkcaldy for my first BBC Restoration book back in 2003. Here are some to rival them, at the Robey iron works not far from the centre of Lincoln. Robey’s was one of several successful Lincoln engineering companies that were born in the 19th century. They were famous for making steam engines – stationary engines to power factory machinery, the first iron-framed threshing machines, railway engines, and big traction engines. This was the sort of heavy plant that needed big spaces, and this part of the works – just a tiny section of what was a seven-acre site, fitted the bill. These enormous windows must make for an interior that's very light. From the outside they make a statement: it doesn’t matter how big it is, we can make it.

The huge complex was at first known as the Perseverance Works, but in 1885 it was extended and renamed the Globe Ironworks, presumably in honour of the company’s worldwide reach. The late-19th century entrance, on a lower wing that adjoins the wall with the high windows, has a carved globe above along with the company name.
When World War I arrived, Robey’s were again in the technological vanguard – like several other Lincoln engineering firms they took to manufacturing aeroplanes. As well as aircraft bearing their own name, they produced Sopwith Gunbuses and Short seaplanes under contract. Later still they developed their electrical engineering work (they’d already built electrical plant to light Lincoln cathedral in the Victorian period) and moved into diesel engineering. The company survived until 1988, their closure part of the general decline in British manufacturing industry that took place at that time. A lot of their robust and versatile buildings remain on Lincoln’s Canwick Road.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018


Men’s room

Looking back over the photographs I took on my visit to Lincoln a few months ago, I found a couple more I wanted to share with you. One small group pays homage to a building type I’ve noticed before: the Victorian cast-iron lavatory or urinal. This one is in the Museum of Lincolnshire Life and is a rather more ornate version of a similar one I found some years ago in a park in Bath. This Lincolnshire example was originally installed at Woodhall Junction station, which closed in 1970. It was made at the Elmbank Foundry in Glasgow, the premises of James Allan Senior and Son. The great Scottish city was a major source of iron goods, and in the architectural sphere one comes across everything from barns to pissoirs made in Glasgow and exported in pieces down south.

Such pieces of fine Scottish ironwork are often highly ornate, as we can see here. Every sort of floral ornament that was popular in the the 19th and early-20th centuries, from acanthus to sunflower, was used, and buildings often exhibited more than one, as in my example. There’s also a rich array of abstract patterns – the wavy lines are especially striking (click on the image above to reveal more detail). Impressive too is the way in which the walls are pierced around the ornament near the top. The pattern made by the piercing can be seen clearly in my imperfect photograph below, which shows that even the tops of the screens between the stalls are ornamented. Victorian men were well provided for: it is a shame that less regard was given to the needs of women.

Saturday, January 13, 2018



There’s not much left these days of the Venetian Gothic architecture of Myer’s hop warehouses in Worcester’s Sansome Street, but the sculpted pediment survives. It shows a group of women hop-picking, with, in the background, ‘luxuriant clusters of the bine’†. Those are the words of the Worcester Journal, commenting on the building when it was new in 1875. The newspaper attributes the design to an architect called Haddon, of Malvern and Hereford, while the sculptor William Forsyth of Worcester did the carving.  

Forsyth was born in Scotland, but by the 1850s was working at Eastnor Castle with his brother, James, also a sculptor. Whereas a commission took James to Somerset, where he settled, William set up in Worcester, and the city has quite a bit of his carving, from work on the restoration of the cathedral to decorations for business fronts. He must have done a lot of work in the area for by the 1870s his yard employed twelve men and three boys. Clearly he could carve vigorously, and the deeply cut hop-pickers and hops, even chipped and blackened as they are now, are very effective.

In the Victorian period, of course, a yard of skilled carvers like Forsyth’s would have had a lot of work doing church restorations. But Forsyth’s success was also due to a culture in which shopkeepers and businessmen like Myer the hop-merchant wanted good looking decoration for their premises – decoration that acted as a recognisable sign in an age when signs were built to last . How lucky we are that this one did. 

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* When I lived in southeast London I remember stories, remembering the time not so many decades before, of poor people from London who took working ‘holidays’ picking hops in Kent. This phenomenon was known as ‘hopping’, or, more colloquially, ‘oppin’. 

† Bine: a twining or flexible shoot; cf woodbine.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Loxley, Warwickshire


Last night I gave a talk about parish churches to an appreciative local audience. January is usually a quiet month for talks – people tend not to book me to travel far in the unpredictable winter weather, but this talk was in a venue so close by I could easily have walked there, had it not been for the impedimenta (laptop, projector, extension lead, notes, wires, and other odds and ends) that I take with me on such occasions.

One picture that got a strong reaction was a wall made of rubble in a Cotswold churchyard, a place I’ve already featured on this blog. It reminded me that a few weeks ago I came across another example of a wall partly made of recycled bits and pieces at Loxley in Warwickshire. The winter afternoon was already coming to an end by the time I got there and found somewhere to park, and in the low light I thought I’d got the measure of the building as I looked at it from the road: medieval beginnings with lots of changes in the Georgian period including the nave windows and the upper stage of the oddly placed southwest tower.
A closer look revealed a lot of Saxon-looking herringbone masonry in the chancel and a vestry partly built of 17th- or 18th-century gravestones and parts of chest tombs. Winged putti, skulls, crossed bones, extinguished torches and a cornucopia, together with plentiful cartouches and scrolls, some of them quite vigorously carved, feature in these stones, along with some baluster shafts that are now doing duty as window jambs. They’re all arranged quite artfully, almost as if the size of this small extension has been dictated in part by the proportions of the recycled slabs.

Most of the inscriptions on these slabs have worn away completely or in part – those still legible seem to be to members of the Southam family. Their decay is sad in one way. But I for one would not mind if, a century for three after my demise, my memorial was repurposed in this way. Preferable at least to having my stone heaped in some corner to gather dust and moss. On the tower is a sundial with a motto: ‘I DIE TODAY & LIVE TOMORROW’. Indeed.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Cheltenham, Gloucestershire

The photographer and the sweep

One person I remember from my childhood in Cheltenham (a time that came back to me forcefully when I recently visited The Wilson in the town and came face to face with the figure in my previous post) was a photographer called Eric Franks. Eric, who was a neighbour of a relative of mine, worked for a publisher of guidebooks, Burrow, who were based in Cheltenham; they presumably sent him round to the various places they were covering in their books to photograph old buildings, picturesque high streets, and atmospheric views. Although colour photography was well established by the time I knew him, colour printing was still costly, and most of his work was in black and white.

Eric Franks didn’t put away his camera when he left work. He was always taking photographs, and built up a large archive of images of Cheltenham between the late 1930s and the 1950s. He was still at it when I came across him in the 1960s and 1970s, but those earlier images especially constitute a unique pictorial record of a very special provincial town before it changed radically with 1960s redevelopment and ‘improvement’. Eric Franks’ book, Images of Cheltenham, shows how good he was. It’s full of evocative scenes – not just architecture, but people, caught going about their everyday lives – children hurrying to school, codgers gossiping on street corners, shoppers, the Spa Harp Trio playing by the roadside. The handling of light in all the images is outstanding.*
One of the photographs shows the most extraordinary trade sign I’ve ever seen: the sooty black figure of a chimney sweep mounted high up on a wall, casting a cold and somewhat sinister eye on the passers-by below.  This figure had vanished from its original home in Cheltenham’s Sherborne Street by the time I was growing up, but what I’d not realised was that it found a home in The Wilson, again mounted high up so that visitors can see it as they would have done when it was above the sweep’s door. 

Its metal construction is clear from the jagged edge of the sweep’s coat and the way the material – zinc – has been rather crudely worked to represent the way the material of the coat bunches above the waist. If the jagged edge of the garment is worn with age, that’s understandable. The museum believes the sign to date to about 1830 and it was only removed from its original perch in 1950, when the last chimney sweep of Sherborne Street hung up his brushes and rods and retired. The last sweep was called Frederick Field, and when he retired he was 79 years old and was said to be the oldest working chimney sweep in Britain. He was apparently often seen around the town transporting bags of soot on the handlebars of his bicycle. Previous Sherborne Street sweeps used a small cart, drawn by a succession of beasts including at various times a donkey and a Shetland pony.

Looking down on us like this, the figure has a rather spooky gaze.† How unlike the appreciative and perceptive eye of Eric Franks, whose photographs shed a benevolent light on the streets and the people of the town he loved.

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* Eric Franks is remembered in the name of one of the prizes given at the Cheltenham Camera Club; his book, Images of Cheltenham, is well worth seeking out. The photograph of the book’s cover I have used is taken from the internet, as I seem to have mislaid my own copy: I hope it turns up and if it does I intend to replace the photograph with one more worthy of its creator.

† As the figure in the museum was well lit, but not ideally so for photography, the face in my picture is rather dark, but not inappropriately so, I think. ‘What we need is some snooted light on the face,’ as a photographer colleague of mine used to say.

Monday, January 1, 2018

Cheltenham, Gloucestershire

Happy New Year!

This figure of a Scotsman in Highland dress taking snuff is a memory from my childhood. Growing up in Cheltenham, I regularly saw it outside Frederick Wright’s tobacconist’s shop in the town’s High Street. He is taking snuff – snuff from Scotland being famous – and guiding people towards his owner’s door. He’s now in the town’s museum (known as The Wilson these days), and is one of several extraordinary shop signs be seen there.

Highlander figures were well known as tobacconists’ shop signs by the time of the 1745 rebellion, as after this date highland dress was banned and tobacconists sought to confirm that they could continue to exhibit these figures outside their shops without being accused of breaking the law or of a lack of loyalty to the Hanoverian monarchy. The figures, usually made of wood, were still common the Victorian period, but relatively few survived into the 20th century.

This particular example was a well known landmark in the town and Wright’s address on the accompanying enamel advertising sign is given as ‘The Old Scotchman, 122 High Street, Cheltenham’, in the style of former years equating the building with its sign, to help those who could not read, and those others who could read but could not remember names and numbers. Find the Old Scotchman* and you can’t go wrong.

The Resident Wise Woman and I were pleased to have this reminder of times gone by when we made a post-Christmas visit to The Wilson. We were also pleased to be able to introduce our son to the figure. He too was charmed by it, no less so because of its unrealistic ultra-skinny proportions. More porridge required, clearly, in these chilly times.

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*We now regard ‘Scotchman’ as a solecism: ‘Scotch whisky’ is OK, unless you’re in Scotland itself, when it’s just whisky; but a man from Scotland is a Scotsman. But ‘Scotch’ to mean ‘Scottish’ when applied to people not whisky has a long history, as any reader of Lord Byron’s 1809 poem English Bards and Scotch Reviewers will know.