Thursday, June 21, 2018

The mosque in the spotlight

For the next week or so, English Buildings becomes a book blog, and I'll post a handful of recent books that have caught my eye. First, an important addition to the architectural library from Historic England.

Shahed Saleem, The British Mosque: An Architectural and Social History
Published by Historic England

This book is a major contribution to architectural history and to wider cultural understanding. It is the first full-length study of mosque architecture in Britain, and starts with the very beginnings: the first mosques in Britain, such as the outstanding Shah Jahan Mosque in Woking (1889), designed by William Isaac Chambers and complete with onion domes and ogee arches: an early example of a style that would become associated with Islam in England. However, as the book shows, mosques can be much plainer buildings, often adaptations of existing houses or chapels. As the book makes clear at the outset, the main basic architectural requirements for a mosque are few: a prayer hall in which worshippers can stand facing the Ka’ba in Mecca; a place for ritual ablutions.

The story of the adapted structures is told alongside the many purpose-built mosques that were put up in the wake of increased migration to this country after World War II. By the 1970s and 1980s a repertoire of architectural symbols – domes, minarets, certain types of arches, decoration using geometrical abstract patterns, and so on – had become established as a way of expressing Muslim identities through building. This identity was expressed in major buildings such as the London Central Mosque (Regent’s Park Mosque) and the East London Mosque, both landmarks in the capital. A revelation, though, is the architectural quality of a range of major mosques, from Gloucester to Bradford. This is already a rich artistic tradition.

The book’s many case studies discuss and illustrate these major structures in some depth. They do so against a background of the social history of Islam in Britain, and with a clear eye on the various ways in which these buildings are used. The British Mosque is a fascinating book, and fills a major gap in the architectural history of these islands.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Hook Norton, Oxfordshire

The eyes have it

I wonder if Hook Norton, a large village in North Oxfordshire, can stand as a symbol of what I respond to in England’s rural settlements. So far, I’ve posted about this village’s remarkable brewery, about a Shell petrol pump globe, and about Hook Norton’s early, and lovely, Baptist chapel. Buildings and objects like these are very much the kind of things that appeal to me, and that have, I hope, animated the posts on this English Buildings blog for nearly 11 years. All I need is a parish church and a beautiful, hand-painted sign and I’ve got the essence of my interests. And Hook Norton is rich enough to oblige.

The parish church, then. I’ve visited St Peter’s Hook Norton (beautiful, large, airy, part-Norman, partly from the later Middle Ages) several times over the years, but only on the most recent occasion with the Resident Wise Woman. ‘You must come in here,’ I said to her. ‘There’s something you’ll really like.’ I knew that the primitive, but charmingly folkish carving on the Norman font would be up her street, and I hope it appeals to you to.

On the face of it, the relief decoration on the font is very simple: Adam, Eve, a centaur-archer, a figure carrying a water-bags, a lion-like creature, and a monster out of the bestiaries with two heads, one in his tail. But before we dismiss the simplistic carving, there’s much to keep us looking. ‘EVA’ and ‘ADAM’ are named, as is the archer, ‘SAGITARIUS’ and the latter identification encourages one to speculate that the lion could be Leo and the water-carrier Aquarius, though the two-headed monster (sometimes referred as an amphisbaena, although, strictly, an amphisbaena was a two-headed serpent) is in no zodiac that I know. The inscriptions also make one wonder if more people in the Middle Ages than we think could read – someone at any rate could spell out these words and tell others that here were the first man and woman. Adam has already begun to delve – he carries a rake in one hand and a spade in the other, and has dug into the band of ornament running around the base of the font. Eve has not, though, learned to spin, and seems more concerned with addressing her modesty.* The faces, apart from Eve’s rather pointed foxy visage, are charming, and some of the eyes have that tendency to look out at you directly from faces in profile that we see in many periods and genres of art, from ancient Egypt to the Cubists. I am charmed especially by the amphisbaena, in intimate conversation with himself, as many of us are. There is a much better photograph of it than mine, by John Piper, in the Tate collection, which is worth a look. He had a good eye for these eyes, did Mr Piper, as he did for the more general charms and visual interest of the English village.† I’m pleased to follow in his footsteps, even if my own photographic efforts are, compared with his, as crude as the work of the Hook Norton carver.

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* At least I think that’s what she’s doing.

† People who visited the recent Tate Piper exhibition, which has also been at Warwick Arts Centre, might be forgiven for thinking, from a misleading caption there, that Piper took all his pictures with a box Brownie camera. John Piper wrote in a note on equipment prefaced to a book of his photographs that he started with a number 2 Brownie, but bought a secondhand ‘Ideal’ camera with a Zeiss lens in Broughton when he was about 18; this he used until he was 60, when he treated himself to a Hasselblad. See John Piper, A Painter’s Camera: Buildings and Landscapes in Britain 1935–1985 (The Tate Gallery, 1987).

Friday, June 15, 2018

Cheltenham. Gloucestershire

In praise of museums

Over the years I’ve blogged several times about museums, large and small. Although I’ve sometimes thought about this blog as a kind of virtual or imaginary museum in its own right, I’m convinced that what are sometimes called ‘online resources’, good as they are, will never replace the real thing. Marvellous as it is to have, for example, images of and documentation on great swathes of the V&A collection online, there’s nothing like going to South Kensington and looking for oneself. On a few, hugely educative, occasions, I’ve had the good fortune not just to visit a museum as a member of the public, but also to get access behind the scenes and to meet curators, who’ve told me much about the objects in their care and their work with them. I remember fondly, meeting one person who not only cared for objects in the British Museum but who regularly travelled to places such as Jordan to work as an archaeologist; an afternoon at the Wallace Collection with the man who cared for their collection of arms and armour, who gave me not just a scholar’s but a also craftsman’s insight into how an elaborate Renaissance suit of armour was made; and a day with an anthropologist in Oxford, who told me about certain African tribes for whom the resource of fire was so precious that they’d carry it around inside enormous leaves.

I have many reasons to be grateful to Britain’s museums, and was very pleased to be asked to be guest speaker at the AGM of the Friends of the Wilson, the group that gives invaluable support to Cheltenham’s museum, The Wilson. I didn’t have time in my short talk to mention the meetings I’ve just remembered, but I did say how important this particular museum was to me, especially when I was a child, growing up in Cheltenham – this museum, which didn’t then have its current name, was the first one I ever visited. I’ve dwelt in previous posts on objects held by the Wilson that mean something to me personally. And Cheltenham has much to be grateful to the Wilson for – for a start: a stellar collection of Arts and Crafts Movement objects, archives of the eponymous Wilson family, including its most famous son the antarctic explorer Edward Wilson, and vast amounts of material on one of England’s most interesting towns. 

When I first went to Cheltenham’s museum in the 1960s, it seemed like an ancient place, full of dingy corners and objects that cried out for more explanation (from an eight-year-old’s perspective they did, anyway). Today, the place is transformed, with not one but two extensions and better displays, information, lighting, a new gallery created specially for young people, and more. This process of change is symbolised from the outside by the series of architectural phases visible from the street.

The first phase, which accommodates the public library, is visible in the distance. It’s a quite punchy Jacobethan design of 1887–9 by local firm Knight & Chatters. In the middle is the first part of the museum, which replaces an earlier art gallery that had been built a decade after the library. This 1987–9 rebuild is by Borough Architect David Ross, but with Sir Hugh Casson as consultant. It’s a facade of stucco and stone banding, paying tribute in these materials to Cheltenham’s older buildings while embracing a new, but not assertively new, architectural style. Pevsner sees a touch of Art Deco influence in it, which is true. But I also see, in that great sweeping curve over the entrance, a nod in the direction of the great Art Nouveau architect, Charles Harrison Townsend, who loved such shapes and such embracing entrances, especially for public buildings such as galleries and museums.

Then comes the most recent extension, by Berman Guedes Stretton, completed  in 2012. This added 1250 square metres of gallery and ancillary space, as well as allowing for better circulation. Not all my readers will appreciate its exterior grid facade, but the addition has done the museum good service in giving it the improved facilities it needed. For what it’s worth, I think the facade works well. It manages to sit near Victorian and Regency buildings without dominating them, it manages to both respect the building line and step back from it, it makes you wonder what’s inside, through that broad entrance, and the screen at the front makes one question whether there’s a building there at all. 

There is a building there, of course, and it’s full of wonderful things. While spending half an hour giving a talk about what I do, I was very pleased also to give tribute to this excellent museum, which even in times when ‘austerity’ is a watchword and ‘funding’ has become a cry for help, is thanks to its collections, its buildings, its curators, and its Friends, very much alive and kicking.

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The photograph above is taken from the website of the Civic Trust, because this is a better image than I have in my own files. I cannot see a copyright line on it, but if my using it infringes anyone's copyright, I'll be pleased either to add a credit or remove the image.

Monday, June 11, 2018


The good fight

Although they don’t always make a big thing of it, allusions to military architecture fit rather well with the martial metaphor used by the Salvation Army – ministers and lay leaders given quasi military ‘ranks’, places of worship called citadels, the use of brass bands.* There are quite a few Salvation Army citadels with facades that draw on the vocabulary of fortification: turrets, crenellations, arrow slits. This one in Sheffield, designed by William Gilbee Scott, is a good example. It has been empty for nearly 20 years since the Army left,† but plans are afoot to renovate and repurpose the building with minimal changes to the front, at least.

What we have for now is a fine if dilapidated facade, which is castle-like at the very top, with its trinity of towers, the central one larger and turreted, to resemble a gatehouse. Behind it’s mostly a brick shed, fitted out within with raked seating and a balcony, rather like a theatre. There are big windows, at which point the similarity to a castle fades away, yielding to the necessity for a light interior in which one can read the words in one’s songbook.

The building presents an assertive face to the world then, but this is hardly inappropriate for the Army, who combine their hands-on, hard-working approach to solving social ills with an ethos of vigorous preaching. It’s also right for a big city like Sheffield, which is hardly a place for architectural shrinking violets.§ There are a lot of assertive facades in this city, all yelling for attention. Why should the devil have all the best fronts?

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* And it should be emphasised that it is a metaphor. The Salvation Army fights by getting out there and helping people who need help.

† For a location in Psalter Street: you couldn’t make it up.

§ Although it can sometimes be a place for thriving architectural buddleia, alas. I do hope the botanic invasion of this facade is put right soon. This is the last of Sheffield from me, for a while. On to other matters soon – although I do hope to cover the city’s great neighbour Leeds in the not too distant future. 

Friday, June 8, 2018

Chesterfield, Derbyshire

The sunset of an empire

My recent trip to Sheffield took me past Chesterfield in Derbyshire, where I stopped for a break and to look at the twisted church spire, a famous sight that I’d not seen for about 40 years. Naturally, I had a walk round the centre of the town. Naturally I found a few things I was not expecting. One of these was a superbly preserved former Lipton’s grocery shop with most of its internal tiles and fittings still intact. I’ve not seen a better preserved Lipton’s than this – and the architectural historian Kathryn A. Morrison, who knows as much about the history of shops as anyone, thinks there is none that compares to it.*

The structure of the original shop front is still there, but with new signage and some damage to the tiling. But the interior is where it gets really good. One side has a counter with a tiled front bearing legends such as ‘Lipton’s Pickles’ and ‘Cooked Meats’, all in beautiful curly green lettering of probably c. 1910. The walls behind the counter are tiled in green and white too. This was the side of the shop where the fresh produce was sold – eggs, butter, cheese, bacon, and so on. On the other side is a panelled wooden counter with a range of shelves behind, for the tea, coffee, and stuff in bottles and jars. These shelves, still used for jams, preserves, lemon curds and other delights by the baker’s who occupy the shop today, are beautifully made in dark wood and topped with a tiled panel with a slogan that shoots from the hip: ‘The business of which the sun never sets.’ Yes, Lipton’s was the biggest chain grocer in the UK† and had imperial ambitions, for the British empire was, back then, the one ‘on which the sun never sets’.

Yes, Lipton’s were big, once. They were still a large concern in the mid-20th century and I remember their branches from when I was young. But they never had the really large shops of their old rivals Sainsbury’s or brash new, pile-it-high-sell-it-cheap Tesco’s. They were eventually bought up and shops either rebranded or sold off. The name had gone by the 1980s. The people who work in the baker’s in the former Lipton’s in Chesterfield and proud of their shop: they keep it spotless, welcomed me when I asked if I could take photographs, and run what looks like a successful business – the place was full when I was there and I was diving and dodging to avoid getting in people’s way. It was in every way a pleasing sight.

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* For more about Lipton’s, see Kathryn Morrison’s site, here.

† Lipton’s, Sainsbury’s, International Stores, Home & Colonial: these were the big British chain grocers of the 19th and early-20th centuries, before the supermarket era.

Monday, June 4, 2018

Woodville, Debyshire

For sore eyes

I’d always fancied visiting Swadlincote – just because of the name, I admit. And because of the bizarre entry on the place in Henry Thorold’s 1972 Shell Guide to Derbyshire. This piece is mostly an extended quotation from René Cutforth’s book Order to View, which describes the ugliness of the place, which, he says, is in a district made up of ‘a loose assemblage of gigantic holes in the ground, some of them half a mile across, where clay was dug’ for various potteries. Cutforth opines, ‘It was so ugly it made you laugh.’ Woodville, which adjoins Swadlincote, is tarred with the same brush. Surely, I thought, it can’t be quite as bad as he says – not now at any rate.*

In truth, when I passed through the other day the weather was so gloomy I couldn’t possibly comment. It wasn’t the day for stopping and looking around, so I pressed on. But I did see one sight that made me resolve to return: the 1930s Clock Garage, which sits at a roundabout on the A511 at Woodville. What I could see through the gloom impressed me.† As the weather was too poor to take a decent photograph, I share one from the public domain, to give you an idea of the Art Deco glory of this building. The white walls, flat roof line, curving corner towers, glass bricks, and sans serif lettering are just the thing one thinks of when someone utters the phrase ‘Art Deco garage’. This is a structure almost up there with long-lamented 1930s landmarks such as Golly’s Garage, a lovely design with flat roof and strip windows once in London’s Cromwell Road, and Collier Filling Station, Sheldon, Birmingham (1936, by Harry Wheedon, circular, with a tall mast).§ The Clock Garage is just as much of its time as these, and one half expects to see someone standing outside dusting an Alvis Speed 20...or at least a Jowett 8. Clearly, the building’s paintwork and rendering could do with some attention, but it’s good that this place is still there and still serving a useful purpose not to dissimilar from what it was built for, when the motor car was for most a luxury and the idea of travelling on the open road, even in the industrial area that so amused Mr Cutforth, still held a measure of glamour.

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* Cutforth’s book was published in 1962, but is a volume of reminiscences. Cutforth (b. 1909) was born in Woodville, so the description must refer to a time a few decades before the 1960s.

† What I didn’t see was that there seems to be a bottle kiln behind this building. Its top is just visible behind the left-hand part of the garage in the photograph.

§ For more about such joys, it is work seeking out Julian Holder and Steven Parissien (eds.) The Architecture of British Transport in the Twentieth Century (Yale, 2004) and Alastair Forsyth, Buildings for the Age (HMSO, 1982).

Photograph by Anthony Parkes, shared under this Creative Commons licence.

Friday, June 1, 2018

Filkins, Oxfordshire

What meets the eye

It’s easy to walk past an unassuming building like this without giving it any more thought than ‘Another well kept Cotswold cottage in a village of well kept Cotswold cottages.’ And yet there is so much to look at here beyond the neat masonry (Cotswold rubble, nicely looked after), the ‘stone slate’ roof (the ‘slates’ laid in the traditional way with large ones at the eaves, smaller ones higher up), and very Cotswold chimney.

First of all – it’s a museum. The nicely carved sign above the door says ‘Swinford Museum’, and the building houses a collection of traditional domestic, agricultural, and craft tools, so it’s very much a local museum. It was started in the 1930s by George Swinford, who was helped in the enterprise by the politician Sir Stafford Cripps, who lived in the village and did much to preserve and beautify it. A pair of ammonites have been let into the masonry on either side of the door way as an added visual enrichment, relevant to the building’s use.

Second – that side door on the left. It’s the entrance to a small lock-up, put there in the 18th century to deal with malefactors – usually petty criminals. I’ve posted several lock-ups in the past, a few of them architecturally notable. This one is about as modest as they come, but no doubt did its job.

Third – there’s what for many will seem a very unusual garden wall. This is known as ‘plank fencing’, and it is made up of thin slabs of limestone (rather like large stone ‘slates’) joined together with metal fittings.* Although we’re in the Cotswold region here, this is not your typical Cotswold drystone wall. No, this is something that’s local in this particular area – the part of West Oxfordshire that is on the edge of the Cotswolds and near the valley of the upper Thames. There are similar walls, for example, in the village of Kelmscott, where William Morris made his home, which is not many miles form here.

Nothing to see here? There’s more than you’d think from a passing glance.

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*Plank fencing made of stone, not wood; stone slates made of limestone not slate: terminology can get very confusing in these parts.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Bampton, Oxfordshire

The brewer’s art

Since doing a post, over a year ago, about a lovely ‘West Country Ales’ brewery plaque, I’ve meant to return to the subject and post at least one more of the ceramic plaques or ‘house marks’ that breweries used to identify their brand on the outsides of public houses. So here, at last, is one of my favourites, the plaque of the Morland brewery of Abingdon, although I would like to be able to share more information about it than I can.

You get the idea quickly enough: the plaque depicts an 18th-century artist with his palette, eyeing a glass of beer, with the implication that brewing is an art in itself, and you’ll find the equivalent of a masterpiece of brewing at a Morland house. But it’s a little more than that. Morland was the name of an actual artist – indeed, a family of actual artists, in the 18th century. Perhaps the most well known of them was Henry Robert Morland (c. 1716–97), a portrait painter whose most famous subject was King George III. But the image on the plaque is said to be of his son, animal painter George Morland. I don’t think the brewing family, who founded their business in 1711, was connected closely with the artistic Morlands – but I’m not sure: perhaps a reader knows.

These brightly coloured artist plaques are quite common in the area around Abingdon – this one is on a residential building, presumably a former pub, in Bampton – even now the firm no longer exists as a separate entity (it was bought by Greene King in 2000) and the brewery in Abingdon has been covered to apartments. Probably the most brightly coloured of brewery house marks, the plaques were made by Carter’s of Poole or Poole Pottery and are said to have been designed by Reginald Bell. Was this the same Reginald Bell who was part of the Clayton and Bell stained-glass firm? Again, I’d be pleased to hear if anyone knows.

The Morland brand name is still familiar to drinkers – beers such as Old Speckled Hen (and a family of other ‘Hen’-related beers and ales) are widely drunk. A few who drink these will remember various brews with artist-related names that Morland’s once produced, when they were independent exponents of the brewer’s art.

Friday, May 25, 2018


Base station

I’ve meant for a while to take a photograph of one of London’s few surviving police boxes – those blue kiosks from which police officers and the public could get in direct contact with a police station – but the other day I saw this rather different one in Sheffield and thought it would make an interesting alternative.

Sheffield’s police began to install boxes like this one by the Town Hall during the 1920s and continued to use them until the 1960s, by which time officers were equipped with personal radios. Each one had a telephone that any member of the police or the public could use to report a crime or other emergency – it was accessible from the outside by opening the small cupboard door beneath the window. In addition officers, as well as calling out from the box, would visit it every hour, when the station telephoned through any important information. Officers out on patrol often used the boxes for meal breaks or even for doing a bit of quick report writing. The Sheffield boxes, which had a generous, squarish plan as opposed to the smaller London boxes, had just about enough space to make this possible.* The box also contained a first aid kit – I wonder if people got to this through another small door located where there is now a silver plaque outlining the history of police boxes.

Anyone familiar with London’s police boxes (and that is a lot of people since the Doctor in the TV series Dr Who uses one¶) will be surprised that this Sheffield example looks very different – green, not blue and with a curved roof rather than the stepped pyramidal roof of the London design. Police boxes in London were blue and boxes in some cities were red, apparently: I suppose any strong colour worked provided that the box was recognisable. One feature that was common to all the boxes was a blue light (long gone from this one) which was controlled from a central point and a could be made to flash to summon an officer.

Before the advent of proper mobile communications, police boxes must have been invaluable to the constabulary. According to one source, they were even used as temporary lockups in some towns – although I doubt that the wooden walls and glass windows of this one would have made it very suitable for this. But as a communications aid, this simple design, smart enough to take its place on a city street, big enough to contain a desk and a stool, and bright enough to be seen, no doubt served the city and its police force well.

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* Edinburgh’s fine blue police boxes, of neo-Classical design with broken pediments, were of a rectangular shape and also roomy.

¶ The Doctor’s time machine and spacecraft, the Tardis, took, and takes, and will take the form of a London police box. Such is the success of the long-running series that many British people are now more likely to think of the Doctor than the police when they see one of these.

† For more on police boxes, see the Old Police Cells Museum, here.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Covent Garden, London

Uncommon market

An occasional recurring theme of this blog is my memories of places and how buildings and places themselves trigger memories. I alluded to this when I wrote a post about London’s Covent Garden Market a couple of years ago. The Covent Garden area has played a major part in my life. I worked for a publisher in Covent Garden for two stints in the 1980s and 1990s, and at the beginning of the first period, the Resident Wise Woman also worked nearby. It was also sometimes a place to stay on in the evening – I remember it for various meals, summer vertical drinking sessions outside the Lamb and Flag, opera performances, and plays in the Donmar Warehouse Theatre.

Before I worked round there I remember seeing a television film about the area and the market. In my memory, this film of the 1970s was in black and white and was structured around a day in the life of the market. I didn’t remember much else about it, except that it featured evocative shots of market and streets, and of market people and traffic in abundance…and that the background music was Beethoven’s Pathétique sonata, the three movements (fast–slow–fast) of which reflected the changing pace of life throughout 24 mostly hectic hours.

A few years ago it occurred to me that I might be able to find this film on the internet. So I googled it, and found Lindsay Anderson’s marvellous 1950s documentary Every Day Except Christmas (1957), which covers a day in the life of the market in beautifully lit black and white cinematography. But it wasn’t the film I’d remembered. There was no Beethoven music, and Anderson’s film was made in the 1950s (I’d associated my memory with the imminent closure of the fruit and vegetable market in the 1970s), and it was different in other ways I couldn’t pin down. Could there have been another film? I couldn’t find it.

The other day I looked again. And there, among various links to Anderson’s documentary was another. This was a film made for the television arts programme Aquarius, just before the market closed in 1972. First there was a shock: a very staightlaced introduction by presenter Humphrey Burton, square black spectacles and all, revealed that  it was in colour – but then in 1972 I was probably watching it on my mother’s television set, which was black and white, so my memory of it was naturally in monochrome. And when the introduction was over, the clang of a metal shutter resounded and the opening chord of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No 8 Opus 13, the Pathéthique, rang out. In no time at all, we were off with people drinking in the Essex Serpent at 5 am, vans being shoehorned into minimal parking spaces (to the accompaniment of much bleeped-out swearing), and business beginning and after the music’s slow, declamatory opening, film and music were off at a canter, and the market’s frenetic daily activity was underway. As it appears on YouTube the film still has its relentless timecode and a persistent background hiss, but was still good enough to make me gasp, ‘This is it!’

It was a revelation, as a succession of images unfolded and came back to me. Lippy greengrocers, old codgers in pubs, all-night cafés, men in a workshop making ballet shoes, other people making market barrows, ceramics, copper pans, bookbindings, suits of armour, and an aristocratic woman arriving for her job in a publishing company, something I’d be doing a decade after the film was made, although not in a chauffeur-driven car. Most uncanny for me was a point where they were talking about traffic and parked cars blocking the way and into my head came the thought, 'In a moment some blokes are going to pick that car up in their bare hands and move it.' And this is what happened. It was striking that there were still some vestiges of the old area very much there when I first worked there (but then I arrived in 1980 so this was not totally surprising): the ballet shoe shop, Collins's ironmongers ('Four candles'), some of the greasy spoons, Rule's Restaurant (roast beef and suet puds for the well upholstered), the opera house, one of the pubs.

The film was made when there was a very real prospect that huge swathes of the area would be demolished to make way for better roads and modern office buildings. The Covent Garden Community Association made the case for more measured change, and this is what we got – the fruit and vegetable market went, and the boutiques and tourist shops arrived, but most of the streets were preserved and much of the area’s architectural character survives. But the community is different. Few people like those drinking in the Essex Serpent or dropping in to chew the fat at the barrow-makers could afford to live in the area now. That’s a cost of the crowded shops and gentrification and tourism on speed. The film's last shot shows a graffito saying ‘This was home’.

Monday, May 21, 2018


White heat

Sheffield, of course, is known above all as a steel town. Even in the commercial city centre, away from the larger forges and factories, we’re often reminded of this. The White Building on Fitzalan Square is an office block of 1908 clad in faience and is one of the many substantial such buildings that reflect the prosperity of this place in the 19th and early-20th centuries – prosperity that was largely down to the steel industry.

The faience cladding was unusual here in 1908 – the dominant hues in this city are red brick, orangey terracotta, and stone. There are more later white buildings (together with the late-20th century’s contributions of concrete in a range of greys) so when this one was erected, it was known as The White Building, as if there was just the one. It certainly stands out, with its flattened arches and unusually shaped pediments above the upper windows, not to mention the surprising, almost rococo swags below the cornice. Gibbs & Flockon,* the architects, did a more than decent job.

But what I most like about it is the way the building acknowledges Sheffield’s industrial activity with a series of ten reliefs of Sheffield trades, by Alfred and William Tory. These are in low relief and beautifully delineate various metalworking jobs, from casting to engraving and planishing. The figures are well modelled, and look as if drawn from life, with both sculptors adept at rendering the surfaces of flesh and garments. If the white surfaces, recalling classical marble, give the reliefs a sense of calm and cool that’s a world away from the heat and noise of a real factory, they still have an authentic feel to them: this looks like real work, combining strength and skill. Above all, the workers, variously employed, are united in their intent concentration on the job in hand.

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* A longstanding Sheffield firm, which changed name as family members and other partners came and went.

Friday, May 18, 2018


Eye-Witness to industry

One of the things that impressed me about Sheffield was that there are still remains of its industrial past right in the centre of the city. Most visitors must be aware of this – a walk down the central Arundel Street reveals a number of former factories; some of them have been beautifully restored; all the buildings are at least in use. My walks around the city took me west of these buildings, until I came to Milton Street and found Eye-Witness Works, which, my Pevsner City Guide to Sheffield tells me, is the only traditional integrated cutlery works still in operation in the city. Except that it isn’t any more: I arrived to find notices on the doors with details of the firm’s new address. Eye-Witness works, meanwhile, bears a ‘for sale’ sign.

What one can see from the street is a long, three-storey brick building that fronts three courtyards. Looking at the brickwork, and the style and position of the windows, it’s clear that the building is actually the result of several different construction phases. The part in the foreground, with the round-topped windows at first-floor level, is from about 1852, the other parts came later, with the long range at the far end added in about 1875, when the older sections were also heightened (see the change in the colour of the brickwork). The early part of the building, at least, is not totally utilitarian – the corner has some stone dressing and there’s a Venetian window above the first cart entrance, to add a visual highlight. Mostly though, this factory is plain and businesslike and must have served its users well for decades.

The lettering however, as can be seen in my lower photograph, is barely hanging on. The paintwork has deteriorated and some of the letters have fallen off, while others are coming to pieces. They look to be wooden letters, and naturally have not proved as durable as the carved stone signs on some of the other former factories in the city. It would be wonderful if the purchasers restored this lettering, so that we are never in any doubt that this was ‘Eye-Witness Works, Cutlery and Plate Manufacturers’, the message as clear as it was at the time the sign was first erected, perhaps in the late-19th century, when it must have been as shiny as Sheffield plate.
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* I have a feeling there may be one or two more Sheffield posts coming up.

Monday, May 14, 2018


Marks of quality

To Sheffield, where I gave a talk and spent a day or so admiring the architecture. Having little time, I restricted myself to the city centre and marvelled at the variety –  of stone and brick, industrial and commercial, old and new, filigree and brutalist. One of the highlights for me were a number of architectural sculptures by the Tory family, who were active in the late-19th and early-20th centuries. First there was Frank Tory, who got his training at Lambeth College of Art before coming to Sheffield to produce carvings for the corn exchange (no longer standing). As well as doing a range of architectural carving he taught at the Sheffield College of Art and among his pupils were his twin sons Alfred Herbert and William Frank.

Here’s a bit of Frank’s work, on Parade Chambers, an 1883 building for Pawson and Brailsford, a company of printers and stationers. The architects, M E Hadfield and Sons, gave his client an impressive Tudor style building in brick with stone dressings, with offices on the upper floors, shops below. It’s a memorable building, with ornate gables, turrets, oriels, and tall chimneys, but what sets it apart for me is the carving on the stonework. The panel in my photograph is in a window above the doorway and features heads of Geoffrey Chaucer and William Caxton within wreaths of leaves.

With this panel Pawson and Brailsford put themselves firmly in the tradition of great English printers – Caxton was thought to have introduced printing to England and his first known book was an edition of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. This was not an unusual line for printers to take – I’ve noticed a printer doing a similar thing in Bristol. However, Edward Everard, the Bristolian printer, also linked himself with a great modern master, William Morris, and chose the latest Art Nouveau style for the decoration of his building. This Sheffield firm by contrast emphasised tradition in both architecture and decorative subject matter and their use of first-class architectural sculptors also says something about their commitment to quality.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Ledbury. Herefordshire

Well worth the trouble

The shops of F W Woolworth were a feature of British high streets until they closed, during the financial crisis, in 2008. Quite a few Woolworth’s shop fronts remain, albeit adapted with new signs and often new colour schemes. Once you get your eye in, you start to spot signs that a building used to be a Woolworth’s – floor mosaics by the door with the Woolworth’s ‘W in a diamond’ symbol, lion masks, sometimes the lovely early-20th century doors with polished finger-plates and kick-plates. Some of their fronts were Art Deco designs from the 1920s or 1930s, but the company also built neo-Georgian facades in some towns – perhaps mindful of the need to fit into streets where there was plenty of historic architecture.

That’s the case in Ledbury, where historic buildings abound and Woolworth’s built this brick frontage in 1937. Although I could see no floor mosaics or lions, the shop window, with its broad lobby, narrow mullions, and stall riser clad in polished granite are very much the kind of thing the Woolworth’s went in for. The glazing bars must have been repainted bright red – many Woolworth’s window frames were done in a bronze finish.

The neo-Georgian part above the shop window is neat and polite, in the sense that it doesn’t impinge on the character of the street, which includes a mix of Tudor timber-framed, Georgian, Victorian, and later buildings. A very Woolworth touch is that the sash windows have opaque glass, as usual for an upstairs floor in one of their stores, because the stockroom was generally on this floor. The company that took the shop over have knowingly capitalised on Woolworth’s heritage by adopting a similar name. They have been here a while now: no doubt their former Woolworth’s premises have proved a good home.

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For more on the history of Woolworth’s, see Kathryn Morrison’s excellent book Woolworth’s: 100 Years on the High Street, which I reviewed here.

Monday, May 7, 2018

Pershore, Worcestershire

Stamp of approval

I suppose quite a few people must have looked at the front Pershore’s Town Hall on the town’s High Street and thought that its neo-Georgian style was not inappropriate for a place with quite a few Georgian brick buildings. It’s well proportioned, substantial without being overwhelming, and seems to have a air of authority about it. But this building hasn’t always been the Town Hall. It was built in 1932 as the Post Office – and the qualities seem just as fitting to its original purpose. When you’re there you can guess the building’s former use from the royal monograms and crowns on the keystones above the doorway.

In the interwar period, and again for a few years after World War II, this kind of neo-Georgian was used widely for town Post Offices. If they hoped to convey such virtues as reliability and authority by using neo-Georgian, the style also went well with Royal Mail’s the signage – now gone, of course, from this particular building – with its Classically inspired lettering.* Now, when many of the GPO’s originally services have been hived off, many Post Offices in major towns are mere counters in branches of the Co-op or W H Smith. In such a context, Post Offices like Pershore’s seem to come from another world.

It’s good that this example has found another role. It would be a shame to loose that neat Flemish bond brickwork, all those glazing bars (especially the ones on the ground floor, with the central window subtly different from those flanking it), the segmentally headed dormers, the elaborate tops to the doorways with their carved keystones. I’m sure most Pershore residents give the building their stamp of approval.

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* There is an example of the lettering in a previous piece I wrote about Post Offices, here.

Friday, May 4, 2018

Withington, Gloucestershire

One pump or two?

Pump Cottage: what image does it conjure up in the mind’s eye? A small house next to the village pump, perhaps, to which the locals used to come for their water supply – as my mother did in rural Lincolnshire in the mid-1950s, when I was just old enough to toddle along to the pump with her. In Withington, Gloucestershire, it’s a rather different story. The pump next to Pump Cottage here is a petrol pump, now rusted, but hanging on just enough to be recognisable. As regular readers will know, when I see an old petrol pump, I can rarely resist stopping and looking and taking a photograph of it. Sometimes I’m attracted by a beautiful piece of design; sometimes I’m just interested in how times have changed, and how the roadside pump ironically became a rarity as the roads got busier.§

At Withington, what stopped me in my tracks was simply admiration of a bit of what John Piper called ‘pleasing decay’. I’m pleased that Jonathan Meades is also attracted by this sort of thing, by the sight, as he put it once, of an old petrol pump, ‘pitted and crisp as an overcooked biscuit’. Each time I passed, I meant to stop, but – it’s so often the way – because the village is on a regular route of mine I put off pulling in and getting the camera out. The other day, realising that the thing was rusting away and soon might not be there at all, I stopped at last, in spite of the Resident Wise Woman’s doubts about the contrasty light.*

And that was almost that. Except that I wondered about the history of this pump and did a little research. Apparently Mr E J Cripps, the proprietor of Withington’s garage, had to close his business 60 years ago because of ‘a rate reassessment’.† There’s a photograph of him at the Getty Images site, standing proudly by not one but two pumps. Both pumps were still there about 12 years ago, when another photograph, to be found on Geograph, shows one still with its ‘BP’ logo.¶ So today I post my picture of the single survivor, crisp and well cooked now, as a reminder of the time the garage closed – at around about the same time as your infant author was toddling to the water pump with his mother.

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§ Many small rural garages closed, from the 1950s onwards, often as a result of competition from larger businesses in towns and on main roads.

* But I like contrasty lighting.

† For my non-British readers, this means an increase in local taxation.

¶ Those who want to see the pump handle mechanism more clearly should look at this Geograph image, which was taken in different lighting conditions. The ‘BP’ shield is just about visible beneath the rust in my own picture, but only at high resolution.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Stroud, Gloucestershire

R & R

The Cross in Stroud is a road junction at the top end of the High Street that many people must miss. A paved area at the uppermost point of the High Street cuts it off visually, whereas in years gone by traffic must have come up the now pedestrianised street and made its way on and up to Bisley one way or Chalford the other. Now the main landmark here is the old Coop building of 1931, a neat Art Deco design by William Leah with rather pleasantly angular lines, a central clock and a cross-motif in the balustrade that’s repeated in the glazing pattern of the upper parts of the shop windows. With its raised central portion it makes an attractive corner building.

It must have been a sizeable store, but the Coop is long gone and the building now houses several shops: a launderette, a café, a Chinese take-away…and a secondhand bookshop, R & R Books, which I usually visit when I’m in Stroud. I have posted before about the joys of bookshops, specifically Old Hall Books in Brackley and Richard Booth’s in Hay. R & R is another favourite, this time a shop stocking exclusively secondhand books, and one from which I always seem to come away with at least one purchase.

I have spent many enjoyable hours in secondhand bookshops. There are fewer of them around than there used to be, because so many secondhand booksellers now trade online, leaving the high streets to charity bookshops run by the likes of Oxfam. Online buying makes a lot of sense in some ways – you can search for what you want, and find it without leaving your house – and the internet gives you access to millions of books offered by a world of booksellers. In spite of this choice, I think the demise of high street secondhand bookshops is a shame, because there is a great deal to be said for browsing and buying real used books in a real shop.

There are various reasons for this. For book collectors, it helps to be able to see the exact condition of the copy on sale – there are many things you can see that even a thorough bookseller’s description (or even a photograph) can reveal. There is also the pleasure of dealing face to face with the bookseller: you can ask them questions, learn things, talk with people who often have the same interests as you. But more than all this, there is the benefit of serendipity, of accidental discoveries. In bricks and mortar bookshops I have discovered titles I didn’t know existed, shedding new light on subjects I’m interested in, or opening up entire subjects, such as psychogeography or the design of petrol pumps, or the history of plotland developments. I’d call such discoveries educational and life-enhancing.

R & R Books in Stroud is not a large bookshop, but it has an interesting stock that turns over, and a helpful owner. In it I’ve found over the years books I’d not come across before on such subjects as Art Nouveau, graphic design, and the architecture of Liverpool. I’ve also found quite a few old guidebooks (always interesting to me) and books I wouldn’t have bought without looking closely at them first, such as an early edition of J M Richards’s An Introduction to Modern Architecture, of which I already had a more recent copy – comparing the two editions and discovering how the author revised his text and added new buildings over the course of time was fascinating, to me anyway. R & R also sell various kinds of printed ephemera, and I’ve been unable to resist such delights as old London bus maps and a 1966 Sunday Times Magazine with a special feature on English contemporary poets.
Stroud had another excellent secondhand bookshop, Inprint, but it has recently closed. There’s still an Oxfam with a few books, plus books to buy at the café in the top picture, plus a new bookshop on the High Street. On Saturdays, Stroud’s celebrated printmaking anarcho-cyclist poet Dennis Gould sells a small selection of mostly used books and his own letterpress prints on an outside stall in the Shambles market off the High Street, and R & R have an indoor stall there too. Stroud is an excellent town for the book lover, and for me R & R Books is the place to start – and finish.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Victoria Embankment, London

Streaky bacon

Looking at Google Earth on a relative’s mobile the other day and marvelling at how much of London we could see, we chanced upon the Victoria Embankment and I was reminded how, whenever I’m at that end of Westminster Bridge I turn away from the Houses of Parliament (magnificent as they are) and look at these two buildings by the river. They were designed by Norman Shaw as New Scotland Yard – the North Building (right) first, followed by the South. The Metropolitan Police moved into the North Building in 1890, and into the South Building in 1906, after which the two blocks remained the headquarters of the force until 1967. They’re now parliamentary offices.*

When the first building began to go up at the end of the 1880s, this style of architecture was still new. People were rather baffled by it. They’d spent much of the 19th century being told that there was a ‘battle of styles’ between Gothic and Classical. Nobody won the battle, but the Victorians built hundreds of Gothic churches and thousands of Classical secular buildings – plus a few buildings in other recognisable styles of the past, from Romanesque to Renaissance. This office block did not seem to be in a single recognisable style at all. It has Classical details around the windows; the roofs look like something from the French Renaissance; it has polychrome masonry but not of the type used on some Gothic buildings;  the gables have Jacobean decoration; the corner towers – what? – French or Scottish.

Contemporaries were worried by this and anxiously asked Shaw what style he was aiming for. He replied that he was not really interested in style, or in designing facades. What he was interested in was character.† So he produced a hybrid that nowadays is sometimes referred to as ‘free style’. Once people got over the bafflement, this way of building caught on, and there are plenty of well built, handsome, eye-catching buildings, put up in the late-19th and early-20th centuries in this hybrid mode. They often have a mix of brickwork and pale stone, so I think of them as ‘streaky bacon’ buildings. Shaw’s Scotland Yard also has a very solid-looking lower portion in granite, as if the designer wanted to ensure that the whole thing was on the strongest possible footing.

Nowadays we are not so fazed by a 19th-century building in a ‘free’ style. We can look at it and appreciate the artful patterns of the multi-coloured masonry (look at those chimneys), the ornate gables, the variety of window sizes, the relationship between the massive buildings and the corner towers with their delicate ogee cupolas. It’s a design that’s as effective now, after postmodernism and all, as it has ever been.

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* The Metropolitan Police, after various moves, now occupy the 1930s Curtis Green building on the Embankment, just out of my shot to the right. The Curtis Green building is now called New Scotland Yard, while the streaky bacon buildings are known as the Norman Shaw Buildings.

† For more on the buildings, and Shaw’s views on them, see the excellent biography by Andrew Saint, Richard Norman Shaw, Yale UP, 1976.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Maida Vale, London

Old building, new use

I sometimes say in my posts that such and such a building ‘caught my eye’. There can be few more eye-catching buildings than this one, standing out in its whiteness between trees in leafy Maida Vale. It began life in 1912 as the Maida Vale Picture House and carried on as a cinema until 1949. Since then it has been a dance hall, a casino and bingo hall – and since 1998 a mosque, the Islamic Centre of England.

Relatively little work was needed to convert the building, and most of the changes are architecturally cosmetic – although of great importance to the building’s current users: specifically the addition of calligraphic panels and the covering-up of statues in what was the auditorium and is now the prayer hall. The work has been done with sensitivity and one can still appreciate the architecture of the original cinema – the two towers with their domes, the white frontage with its round windows with ornate surrounds.

It is good both that this important early cinema has been preserved and that it has found a new use – often a challenge when so many old buildings seem worth keeping but difficult to find a role for. It’s worth looking out for – even if just from the top of a bus.

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For some of the information in this post, I am indebted to the a new book from Historic England: Shahed Salem, The British Mosque. I plan to review this book later in the year.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Gloucester Road, London

On the tracks of old railways (2): Mosaic

The London underground network developed and grew long before Leslie Green designed his distinctive tiled stations for London (see my previous post). The first line opened in 1863, and by 1868, this station was built on Gloucester Road to accommodate lines run by the Metropolitan Railway and the District Railway (later the word ‘Line’ replaced ‘Railway’ in the names). This part of the station, on Gloucester Road itself, has a Classical facade of cream coloured brickwork topped with ball finials and stone urns.

What sets off this frontage, though, is the large and excellent sign, just beneath the cornice. I suppose nowadays few people look at it. Their eyes are drawn to the signage down at pavement level, which clearly identifies the building as an underground station. But when I’m passing, I always look up and admire the effort that went into this sign: its pleasant lettering (with rather a top-heavy ‘R’ but a lovely extra curly ampersand) and its pale green mosaic, the green tiles varied enough in hue to give the background some interest. It’s worth anyone’s glance.

The photograph of the whole facade, above, is by A. Brady; the one of the mosaic sign, at the top of the post, is by me.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Down Street, London

On the tracks of old railways (1): Identity

Go on. You know what this is, or what it was, don’t you? If you’ve lived in London, or been to London, and you’re not rich enough to ride around all the time in taxis, you’ll recognise the style straight away. Oxblood-coloured tiles, semicircular windows a bit like the Diocletian windows used in Roman and Palladian architecture, classical details like the dentil course at the top, the occasional Art Nouveau curlicue. But especially those oxblood tiles. It’s an underground station, of course, or, in this case, Down Street Station having closed in 1932, a former underground station. It was never heavily used, being close to other stations on the network and in a well-to-do area in which relatively few people took the tube; those who wanted a train could easily get one at nearby Hyde Park Corner or Dover Street (now Green Park).

That we know immediately what this building is or was is down to Leslie Green, architect to the Underground Electric Railways Company of London, who was tasked in 1903 with designing new stations on lines then opening that later became parts of the Piccadilly, Bakerloo, and Northern lines on the modern tube network. Green designed all these stations, about 50 of them, between 1903 and his death in 1908 at the tragically early age of 33.

He chose the shiny tiles for these facades because he knew they would be easy to keep clean and their uniform colour would be easy to identify. That would help travellers searching for a station, and so greatly increased the usefulness of the underground network. I remember my mother telling me about making her first trip to London from rural Lincolnshire in the 1940s. She was frightened of getting lost in the capital’s maze of streets. ‘You need never get lost in London,’ said the friends she was going to see. ‘Just find a station and take the tube to where you want to go.’ And so she could orient herself and find her destination, wherever it was, from Oxford Circus to Kentish Town.

With these innovative and enduring station designs, Leslie Green also started another ball rolling. He gave London’s underground network something akin to a three-dimensional corporate identity. That wasn’t a familiar concept in 1903, but it soon would be. He was a pioneer, then, in more ways than one. It’s pointless to speculate, but one can’t help wondering what else he could have achieved if he’d lived longer.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Cirencester, Gloucestershire

Day in the life

Passing through Cirencester, we spot a large temporary yellow sign telling us that there’s an exhibition of Lucienne Day’s textile designs at the New Brewery Arts Centre.* We have time to spare, so pull in, to find a single, very pleasing room of the work of one of Britain’s best, best loved, and most influential designers of the second half of the 20th century.

Lucienne Day specialised in textile design at the Royal College of Art, met her husband, the furniture designer Robin Day there, and left college in 1940. With the world at war, there wasn’t much work for a textile designer, so she taught for a few years, starting as a freelance designer after the war ended. Widespread recognition came with the 1951 Festival of Britain, when she created her Calyx fabric design for two of the Festival pavilions that contained work by her and Robin. She also sold the design to Heal’s, although their fabrics director Tom Worthington didn’t think it would sell so only gave her half her usual fee. Calyx was a lasting success and was followed by many others – around 70 designs for Heal’s alone.

Calyx (two colourways of which are on the rear wall in my photograph, which can be enlarged by clicking on it) draws on Day’s love of modern art: it seems to speak of the paintings of Paul Klee and Joan Miro  and perhaps the mobiles of Alexander Calder too. It’s a far cry from the old floral prints that people were used to, but it’s not aggressively modern. It combines newness and bright colours with a certain charm. It’s also rooted in stylised natural forms (parts of flowers, seed heads – Day was a keen gardener). This use of natural motifs (albeit abstracted or transformed) is one reason for the exhibition’s title, Lucienne Day: Living Design.

The main display in my photograph shows a selection of Day’s fabrics. In the foreground, Flotilla (1952) is similar in spirit to Calyx and draws on the appearance of buoys floating at sea. Magnetic (1957) is based on a repeated horseshoe magnet motif and is shown here in a particularly vibrant colourway; it was roller-printed and so cheaper than most of the fabrics, which were screen-printed. Dandelion Clocks (1953) is another design drawing on abstracted natural motifs – dandelion seeds and seed heads. Then come Spectators (1953) with its stylised human figures, the tree-based Larch (1961), and another colourway of Calyx.† 

The exhibition also includes smaller pieces of fabric, artwork, and images of room sets (some also featuring Robin Day’s furniture). It makes up an engaging and informative picture of the work of a fine designer, someone who helped to create the style we now think of as mid-century modern and had a huge influence on the look of British interiors from the 1950s onwards. 

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* Lucienne Day: Living Design is at the New Brewery Arts Centre, Cirencester, until 20 May 2018.

† As it is difficult to see Larch and Spectators in my picture, I have provided links to the site of the Robin and Lucienne Day Foundation, where there is much information about the designers’ work.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Clifton, Bristol

Small differences

Growing up in Cheltenham, I got used to Georgian and Regency architecture very early on. Many of the town’s streets were terraces, crescents, or squares of tall, stucco-fronted houses, many with ornate iron balconies, and when I first went to Clifton, there were many similarities. Not surprisingly. Clifton expanded at the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th, when Bristol was booming as a port.

However, there were also differences in the architecture. I’m relying on my memory here, but I’m sure my young eyes noticed two things, neither of which are much in evidence now, except on the occasional house, like the one in my photograph, which is on Sion Hill, Clifton and dates to the 1780s. What I noticed was that a number of the balcony roofs were striped black and white, and that many of the windows had shutters. These were unfamiliar things to me and seemed to my uneducated eyes to give the houses an exotic quality, like something out of a story book.

In a way, I wasn’t far wrong. External shutters are much more often seen in Continental Europe than in Britain. I’ve pulled external shutters closed to keep the hot sun off inward-opening casement windows in Italy, but not in Britain. Here, I wouldn’t often want to. As for those stripy roofs, well…even though they weren’t as colourful as deckchair fabric, they seemed even then to give the area a holiday atmosphere.

Looking at the place with an older eye, I can see other differences now. The balcony fronts have a different pattern, and the metalwork is much thinner than usually in Cheltenham – it doesn’t look so much like cast iron, more like wire work, at least in places. And then there are other interesting bits of ornate carving and unusual Classical orders and more rounded bow windows than in Cheltenham. In a way, the place reminds me of Brighton more than my home town, but a Brighton as it would be if it were miles away from the seaside.

I don’t know when this balcony canopy (and the two next to it) were painted in this way. I found one old photograph on the web dated 1945, in which they are not striped. Perhaps stripes came into fashion in the post-war period, or in the 1960s, when I first went to Bristol Zoo and had my first sighting of Clifton. Or maybe they are more recent still. Whatever their vintage, they give the street something of a holiday air – a little more festive than Bath or Cheltenham. Such are the small differences that give a place its character.

Friday, April 6, 2018

Rodley, Gloucestershire

Six of the best: Old iron

Since my last two posts – one on a house clad in corrugated iron in Mordiford, Herefordshire, one featuring pages from a catalogue of Edwardian corrugated-iron buildings, I thought I do one of my very occasional ‘round-up’ posts, offering links to ‘six of the best’ of my corrugated iron posts.

These are just some of my personal favourites among the various buildings I’ve shared that make use of the wriggly tin in some way. I hope they combine variety and local colour in a way that pleases my readers. Here are the links:

A colourful small railway building

A plotland house near the Severn

A favourite garage on a bendy road near the Welsh border

A rusty barn roof

A bizarrely curving ‘hot tin roof’

A charming rural church

The church, at Rodley in Gloucestershire, is a personal favourite. It’s shown in my photograph above, which I took when I returned to find the laburnum in flower, which it was not when I first discovered the building.

Monday, April 2, 2018


Flat-pack houses, Edwardian style

Thinking about the corrugated-iron house in the previous post, I thought I should have a look in a catalogue of prefabricated buildings from the Victorian or Edwardian periods, to see the kind of thing that was on offer. I have the perfect thing on my shelves: the 1902 catalogue of Boulton and Paul of Norwich.* This company began at the end of the 18th century as an ironmonger, expanding over the years into a large manufacturing business with a very strong line in prefabricated buildings (later they made aircraft too). They made houses, cottages, and bungalows (including designs suitable for ‘the colonies’) in both wooden and corrugated iron, as well as all kinds of agricultural buildings from barns to piggeries, and even prefabricated schools and hospitals, as well as a vast range of fittings and equipment – scrapers, screens, screw jacks, seats, seed protectors, soot boxes, step ladders, stoves, strainers: that’s just a small selection from letter ’s’ in the index.

My photograph (clicking on it should reveal more detail) shows one double-page spread from the section on buildings. The main images show two compact corrugated-iron cottages. These are single-storey buildings that Boulton and Paul would deliver and erect on the purchaser’s own foundations at a reasonable price. Estate owners ordered them for staff accommodation or as hunting lodges; someone with a bit of land could build themselves a house. More elaborate bungalows were available with spacious verandahs – just the thing for a company that was employing a representative in the far reaches of Britain’s then worldwide empire. For a little extra, the manufacturers would include fittings such as a sink, stove, shelves, and ‘Earth Closet Apparatus’. It strikes men that the building in my previous post looks less ‘designed’ than these neat off-the-peg cottages and may well be either a building in another material clad with corrugated iron or something put together by the first owner to his own plans.

Boulton and Paul made an effort to create attractive buildings. There are curvy bargeboards, fancy cresting on the roof ridge, and small panes to the upper parts of the windows, in the Norman Shaw tradition though less well proportioned. The catalogue is sprinkled with testimonials from happy customers. ‘I am very pleased with the House, which answers my purpose admirably. It is evidently very carefully and strongly made,’ writes Buckley Holmes, Esq., from Glenconway. ‘The Cottage is the first of its kind in our neighbourhood, and is much admired,’ says Rev. Chas. Trollope of Wansford. They may have been prefabricated, but these houses were built to last. Nearly 120 years later, most of them have gone, but a few remain, so show us why their first owners were so enthusiastic.

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* There were several other companies, offering very similar designs and construction methods.

Friday, March 30, 2018

Mordiford, Herefordshire

Off the radar

I’m always on the look-out for interesting corrugated iron buildings. They’re mostly off the radar, not the sort of thing that appears in guidebooks – you just have to keep your eyes open, and not ignore lanes, backstreets, alleys, yards, and neglected bits of the railway network. Sometimes the job is made easier because the material can be painted in bright colours, making it stick out helpfully. This example I spotted as I was driving past. Even on a dull day it wasn’t hard to see it among the brick, stone, and timber-framed houses and bungalows of this Herefordshire village – its bright colour, and setting behind a small stretch of greenery, made it easy to spot.

I don’t know anything about this bit of iron architecture that looks as if it’s about to disapear into the greenery. Corrugated iron buildings, often built on fairly lightweight frames, are most often single-storey structures, whether they’re lowly sheds or cavernous barns. This one seems to be on two floors, and has a chimney and quite domestic-looking windows. Perhaps it began life as a house, before being repurposed. Maybe the big black door is a later addition, allowing a car to be stored inside, or for access to a workshop. Does anyone know?

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Rousham, Oxfordshire

The foolish and the wise

The use of the word ‘folly’ in my previous post set some readers scratching their heads. What is a folly, exactly? That’s a good question, and one that has had many people stumped. A folly is a building without a practical purpose, some say. But what do we call a practical purpose? A house has a practical purpose, so does a mill, so does a garden shelter that protects people from a sudden shower of rain. But can an ornamental arch have a practical purpose – if it can also be a shelter, for example? And is a purely ornamental role enough for us to pigeonhole it as a folly? If the word ‘folly’ implies foolishness of some sort, we’re on difficult ground straight away: ‘where is the line drawn between foolishness and good sense?’ asks Stuart Barton.* Where indeed?

In what is perhaps the best book on follies, Gwyn Headley and Wim Meulenkamp look at it another way. ‘A folly is a misunderstood building,’ they say.† Why would anyone build a tower on a hill, or construct a concrete zoo in their garden, or spend a lifetime tunnelling under Liverpool? The people who did these things had their reasons, but we may very well not know what those reasons were. We have lost touch with the purpose of the building, which may have been practical, or may have seemed so to its creator. So we simplify matters by calling the results ‘follies’.

The writer and illustrator Barbara Jones, in another very good book on the subject, admits that defining a folly is tricky, and offers instead a list of qualities that such buildings often share.§ Follies are produced by people who have money, security and peace; they are most often Gothic (or Gothick) in style; they have much to do with their creator’s mood and emotions; they are fragile; they are very personal; they rely a lot on their setting; the relate to the Romantic movement in literature and painting; their great age was the 18th and 19th centuries. In bringing together these various qualities, Barbara Jones doesn’t get us any closer to a definition, but she at least evokes the mood of many of these structures – and that is a step towards understanding them, at least.

Some 18th-century gardens, like the one at Rousham in Oxfordshire, are full of what people have called follies. A number of these are actually very useful buildings that have a bit of extra adornment added on to them. In my photograph above, the building in the middle distance falls into this category.¶ It is known as the Temple of the Mill, and it is a mill with a fancy ornamental Gothic bit (quatrefoil window, pinnacles, flying buttresses) built on one end. Nowadays it seems to be used as a house. But it also serves as a picturesque feature in the landscape. It’s both useful and amusing.

In the far distance, on the hillside in front of the trees, is the Rousham Eye-catcher. It simply consists of a wall with three arches in it. It is designed to look like part of a ruined building of some kind, and acts as a focus for the viewer’s gaze when admiring the scenery from Rousham’s enchanting garden. It might also offer a little shelter from a stiff breeze, but its principal function is to enhance the view, to give people something to look at, just like Scheemakers’ striking, indeed somewhat disturbing, sculpture in the foreground, which shows a lion attacking a horse.

That’s purpose enough for me, and enough to make me doubt that the term ‘folly’ is really very helpful at all.**

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* Stuart Barton, Monumental Follies, Lyle Publications, 1972

† Gwyn Headley and Wim Meulenkamp, Follies, Grottoes and Garden Buildings, Aurum Press, 1986, reprinted1999

§ Barbara Jones, Follies and Grottoes, Constable & Co, 1953, reprinted with revisions 1973

¶ It may be clearer if you click on the photograph to enlarge it.

** Thanks however, to those who raised the question and sent me off to do some interesting reading and rereading.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Stow-on-the-Wold, Gloucestershire

Tall tales

There is a tendency to label buildings like this ‘follies’. It’s a Gothic tower, but it’s pretty clear that it’s not part of a medieval castle – those pointed windows are not the kind of openings you’d see on a castle, nor are the little trefoil decorations, nor the very neat quoins. The Y-tracery of the windows is a typical device of Georgian or Regency Gothic-on-the-cheap – you get a ‘Gothic’ effect without spending too much time or money on elaborate carved tracery. So, we conclude, it’s the work of a Regency gentleman having a bit of fun.

And so it was. This is Enoch’s Tower, built by a Mr Enoch in 1828, as a carved date stone on the front tells us. But it’s a bit more than this, and labelling it as a folly is only part of the story. Richard Enoch (1771–1856) was said to have been in royal service and moved to Stow in the early-19th century. He was a collector, especially of Egyptological items, and had a house nearby. He built the tower to house his collection of antiquities – it was, in fact, a museum. The collection, alas, has vanished, and no one seems to know what was in it. There was a story that a cedar of Lebanon  nearby was grown from a seed found in an Egyptian sarcophagus, but that may be a legend – as, almost certainly, is the story that there was an underground passage linking the tower with Enoch’s house. Another story relates that Enoch planned to build a matching tower on the other side of the road and link the two by building a triumphal arch across the highway. That too sounds like a tall story – and conjures up in the mind’s eye an interesting clash of architectural styles. But as I read these stories I am starting to like Mr Enoch, and I imagine that he was not above spinning some of the yarns himself. Battlements, Y-tracery, little trefoils, interesting tall tales. Perhaps folly is not too far off the mark after all.

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!