Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Stoke Newington, London

Hurrah for fount pens!

Lots of people like ghost signs, and they have a far from from spectral presence on the internet these days.* There are whole websites and blogs¶ devoted to these old painted signs, and people are fascinated by them for all sorts of reasons – for their design and letterforms, for the light they shed on local and social history, for the generalised nostalgia they evoke. All this came to mind the other week as I walked with my son down his local high street, Stoke Newington Church Street, and looked up at this building. Nostalgia first of all. Wasn’t it rather satisfying to write with a fountain pen, to experience the smooth flow of black ink from a well made gold nib? Indeed it was, and I sometimes wonder why I abandoned my quite good fountain pen for drawerfuls of cheap disposable pens – rollerball, fine points, fibre tips, plain ballpoints. Maybe it was the association of my fountain pen with the strain of writing exams. I didn’t literally throw my fountain pen away when I finished my university finals, binning it after writing my final, never to be remembered bon mot (what was it is about? Milton’s Paradise Lost, perhaps), but I hardly used it again afterwards. And then I became an editor, and needed at least three different colours of ink, and I wasn’t going to have three different expensive fountain pens on my desk.

It was all very different, clearly, in the first half of the 20th century when, these old signs seem to tell us, a fountain pen was an investment for life, which you took in for repair when it needed attention. Fountain (or, occasionally, ‘fount’) pens – pens with a metal nib and their own internal reservoir of ink that the user could fill with ease – had been developed over several decades in the 19th century and had come into their own in the 20th.† By about 1900, the fountain pen was the writing implement to have – cleaner, more reliable, and higher status than the old steel-nabbed dip pen, which you had to dunk in an inkwell every few seconds. This Stoke Newington shop would sell you a new Waterman if you needed it. But they’d also fit a new nib, or sort out your reservoir, or no doubt sell you a bottle of black or blue-black ink to keep you writing.

So you hung on to your pen, looked after it, got it mended if it needed it, and took a long view. No drawers of throwaway ballpoints in those days. This culture of the long-term is reflected in these signs: not paste-on paper posters, but signs that someone has painted straight on to the brickwork so that they could last for years. There might be the occasional repainting, but these signs were made to last…and they have done. Their simple letterforms – only the curved layout of ‘Watermans’, now partially obscured, is at all fancy – stand out. For the rest it is plain letters, with or without serifs and mostly capitals in white. As clear as the good handwriting of someone using a reliable fountain pen in a time when clarity took care and effort, not just the ability to hit the right key. 

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* I did a post about ghost signs long ago, here, which sums up some of their enduring interest for me.

¶ See, for example the excellent Ghost Signs site.

† As with most technological advances, the fountain pen has no single inventor – its development was the work of several manufacturers and inventors, standing on one another’s shoulders to use the appropriate Newtonian metaphor, over many years and in many places.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Great Coxwell, Oxfordshire

More shade

In the previous post, I featured a carving of the sun, and alluded to the fact that medieval churches are often good places to go to keep cool. This set me thinking. Which other buildings might one combine historical and aesthetic pleasure with the welcoming embrace of cool shade in a heatwave? An ancient stone barn, spacious, airy, and lacking large windows, could be such a place. One of my favourites is Great Coxwell barn, southwest of Faringdon. I expect it is a favourite of quite a few of my readers too, as it’s a National Trust property and has won the praise and attention of everyone from William Morris to that great photographer of place, Edwin Smith. I’ve blogged about it before – in fact it featured on one of my very first posts. Here’s part of what I wrote about it, back in July 2007:

It’s one of the barns built by Beaulieu Abbey in Hampshire to store the corn produced on the monastery's far-flung estates. Built in around 1300 of glowing Cotswold stone, it’s a barn on a grand scale – it’s just over 150 feet in length and the doors are broad enough for the farm's biggest carts to drive straight in. Smaller openings in the walls are for owls to fly in and eat up any rats or mice rash enough to nibble away at the grain. Inside, from threshing-floor to rafters, the space soars like a cathedral – a comparison made by William Morris, one of this glorious building’s greatest admirers.

I’d encourage anyone who’s not visited this great barn to give it a go. If you’ve been already, and are anywhere within striking distance off the Berkshire-Oxfordshire borders, I don’t need to encourage you to visit again.

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My post about Edwin Smith, featuring his photographs of Great Coxwell barn and Didmarton church, is here.

The National Trust has visitor information about Great Coxwell barn on its site, here.

Monday, July 9, 2018

Ripple, Worcestershire

Fear no more the heat o’ the sun

St Mary’s church, Ripple, has an impressive set of misericords, those medieval fold-up seats that have a ledge that protrudes when in the folded position, enabling tired monks or canons to lean while standing to say, or sing, the office. Twelve of them illustrate the labours of the months, but my photograph above shows one of the others, a rather splendid sun. It’s quite unusual for a parish church in a small village to have carved misericords like these, but Ripple church is quite surprisingly large. No doubt this is because it was in the Middle Ages a possession of the cathedral-priory of Worcester.

The carvings on the seats – vigorous and here quite deeply chiselled – are not the sort of great sculpture that the cathedral authorities would have used to adorn the walls and vaults of their great ‘mother church’ in Worcester. In contrast, they are typical of the vernacular work that one finds on misericords, and more than good enough for a monk to rest his bottom on, and for us to admire when in this summer’s searing heat we take refuge in a shady church, for the peace and the cool.

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I have put a couple of other misericords from Ripple on my Instagram page @philipbuildings 

Friday, July 6, 2018

Lutterworth, Leicestershire

Local interest

I know some people who would scoff or at best smile tolerantly if I said I’d made a point of going to Lutterworth. A similar admission about a trip to Kidderminster once elicited a snort of disbelief from an acquaintance. These are places off the tourist trail – and places in addition that the road network has made it easy not to stop at. But I know from experience that I can find something of interest in any English town, and that somewhere engraved in my consciousness is the maxim embossed on the cover of Jonathan Meades’s book Museum Without Walls: ‘There is no such thing as a boring place’.

So I expected a bit more than Pevsner’s somewhat dismissive comment that most of the town centre was rebuilt in the first half of the 19th century ‘predominantly in a debased neo-Greek style’. Here’s something later, a detail of the Reading Room, built in 1876, near the churchyard gate. A decorative bargeboard breaks out into an eruption of turned spindles above two carved panels that give the date and purpose of the building amid sprays of flowers.

None of this represents the height of sophistication, but it’s interesting and heartening that the Mechanics’ Institute built a reading room for their members in 1876, and lavished a bit of care on its construction. This was a time when, since the 1850 Libraries Act, local authorities were allowed to levy an extra charge on the rates to pay for a public library for their town. But few did, in part because because the provision only allowed for funds for the building – books had to be paid for separately, which posed an additional challenge of fundraising that many places could not rise to.

Mechanics’ Institutes sometimes filled this gap, and offered lectures and discussion groups as well as reading rooms. They were a boon to workers who wanted to supplement what education they’d been given, which was usually basic at best. Lutterworth has long had its own public library and the old reading room is now used as a museum. And so it fulfils another important cultural function, helping to enhance the town and to reflect the aspirations of those who founded the original Mechanics’ Institute.

Monday, July 2, 2018

East Norton, Leicestershire

Ello, ello

‘I know you’ll like this,’ said Mr Ashley, pointing to the word ‘POLICE’ above the door. And, in spite of the rain, before you could say ‘Ello, ello,’ I was out of the car and taking photographs. I was attracted immediately by the beautifully arranged glazing bars that make a pattern of elongated hexagons, diamonds and triangles across each of the five front windows. And to the simple lettering of the sign, cut in stone. And to the peculiar stepped pediment above the door that frames the sign. Not to mention the careful detailing of the brickwork.

As I was taking all this in, the owner of this former police station, now house, emerged. She explained that she and her husband were restoring the house, and that he was busy removing generations of paint from the glazing bars. If you click on the picture and look very closely, you might be able to see that those on the bottom left window, and the left-hand casement of the top right window, have already been done. The difference is remarkable. I’ve written before about the way in which layers of paint, added over decades or even centuries, can blur the detail of friezes and other ornate details. It was the same with these glazing bars, but now it’s being put right. It’s a long job, but it must be rewarding to see the windows emerging crisp and clean.
The owner also told me that the house dates to around 1850, and that the neighbouring building was put up in the later 19th century as a court house. So it has the plainer brickwork and sash windows of the Victorian era, whereas the old police station has the ornate glazing* and fancy detailing that are much more typical of the pre-Victorian period – but with the addition of the rather heavy stepped pediment which looks to me more like a nod to the heavier style then coming in. Altogether a winning combination to come across on a rainy morning. Thank you, Mr A.

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* I associate this sort of filigree glazing with the Picturesque movement of the late-18th and early-19th centuries, when it adorned many a charming cottage. But it’s also sometimes used to give a uniform and decorative feel to more workaday cottages built by aristocrats to house their staff, and an online source attributes this police station to a 19th-century Lord Berners. A uniform glazing pattern can give a group of hoses, or a whole village, a distinctive appearance – a phenomenon I’ve noticed, for example, here.

Friday, June 29, 2018

Bridgwater, Somerset

About time

The other day someone asked me if I was on Instagram. I had to admit that I was not. I’d tried Twitter and thought about Instagram, but blogging seemed to be the platform for me. But the question suggested to me that perhaps it was about time I was on Instagram, and prompted me to have another go. I now have an Instagram account, @philipbuildings .

It will not be a torrent of images, but my initial plan is to post more often than I blog, and offer a selection of things I’ve seen, mostly but not exclusively architectural. I’ll probably include more pictures of places and buildings near where I live – I have done blog posts about quite a few local buildings over the years, but as my blog is called English Buildings, I try not to have to much of a local bias. This is not meant to replace blogging for me. For now at least, I intend to carry on here in my usual way. But do have a look at my Instagram and feel free to follow, like, and share.

The clock in the picture, by the way, is in Bridgwater, and is an elegant Art Deco object that reminds me how often shops were adorned with timepieces in the 1930s and the following decades. It marks a branch of the jeweller’s H. Samuel. The H. Samuel chain was begun in 1862, when Harriet Samuel took over her father-in-law’s clock-making business. It’s a familiar name on British High Streets, although now owned by a larger global retail group. Many people who are familiar with H. Samuel’s stores do not realise that they are named after a woman, an unusual example of the acknowledgement of the major female role in early retailing.

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Follow Philip Wilkinson on Instagram @philipbuildings

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

About the houses

The fourth of my summer reviews is a work of both social and architectural history that throws revealing light on a subject of great importance. This is the last of my reviews for now – it will be back to my usual, more architectural, posts, soon.

John Boughton, Municipal Dreams: The Rise and Fall of Council Housing
Published by Verso

This is a history of council housing in Britain. It combines architectural, social, and political history, to tell the story of this form of housing from its roots in the late-19th century, its real beginnings in the period after 1900, and its growth and eventual decline. Along the way the book profiles planners and architects who wanted to improve people’s lives by building better housing – and creating better environments for residents, many of whom had had to endure slum accommodation. It addresses the various political views that have had an impact on the story – the groups who have embraced council housing and who have condemned it. It discusses the economic constraints on the movement, the varying social backgrounds of those who’ve lived in council housing, the transformation brought by the right to buy policy, and the issues surrounding the restoration of housing types from terraces to tower blocks.

The author explodes many myths. Council housing was not at first expected to be solely a way of housing the urban poor, not a last resort for the desperate: many early estates were envisaged as mixed communities, containing middle-class and well as working-class families. It was not a form of housing promoted solely by the Labour Party: the government that built the most council houses per year was Macmillan’s Conservative administration. It was not all tower blocks: the ‘cottage estate’, with much in common with garden cities and suburbs, had a major role, especially in the interwar period. Tower blocks do not provide higher-density housing than low-rise: tall towers need space between them (to reduce the effect of shadowing and overlooking) and this evens out the density. Not all high-rise estates became ‘problem estates’. And so on.

Boughton is a passionate, but measured, advocate of public housing, who has produced a highly readable narrative with great pace. His book is written from a left-wing perspective (and comes from Verso, who publish Bernie Sanders and Tariq Ali – and also, with concerns relevant to this blog, Owen Hatherley and John Berger) but this shouldn’t suggest that it is unbalanced or unaware of the problems surrounding social housing. Municipal Dreams is an inclusive account, covering a neglected aspect of British history that has had a huge impact on both our built environment and our wider society. I’ve learned a lot from it, as I have in the past from Colin Ward’s work on housing (written from a very different political perspective) and the pioneering text book A Social History of Housing by John Burnett. Apart from such histories, it’s not a well ploughed field, and Boughton has cultivated it richly.

Monday, June 25, 2018

Opening doors

The third of my summer book reviews is a general book on world architecture with a fresh and visual approach.

John Zukowsky and Robbie Polley, Architecture Inside + Out: 50 Iconic Buildings In Detail
Published by Thames & Hudson

When I was a teenager and starting to become interested in architecture, I looked everywhere – bookshops, the local library, other people’s houses – for information about the subject. After a while it became clear that certain buildings – star examples – recurred in many books, and some of these buildings baffled me. Two of the most baffling were Le Corbusier’s pilgrimage chapel of Note Dame du Haut, Ronchamp; another was Erich Mendelsohn’s Einstein Tower, Potsdam. Both of these unusual, curvaceous structures seemed to be puzzles. What, I asked myself, was going on in the Ronchamp chapel’s extraordinary billowing roof? Whatever, apart from the telescope at the top, was inside the Einstein Tower – what did it do? There were plenty of books that told me about how the structure of a Gothic cathedral worked, but few that explained how the shell-like roofs of Sydney Opera House stood up or even that showed me the spatial organisation (if organisation is the word) of Sir John Soane’s Museum in London. I wanted not just to look inside these buildings, to open their doors, but to get deeper under their skins.

It’s a bit easier to find this kind of thing out today, but the range of architecture and its bewildering forms (think the Guggenheim Bilbao, all wriggling shimmering curves, or Calatrava’s various essays in white-painted steel) means that there’s still a role for a book that gets under the surface of some of the world’s great buildings. That’s where Architecture Inside + Out comes in. It shows us 50 buildings (a representative selection, featuring a wide range of places and styles, but with a heavy stress on the 20th century architecture), each in a selection of colour photographs and in Robbie Polley’s cutaway drawings that reveal interiors, spatial layouts, and structures.

To take one example, at Bilbao, the short explanatory text is accompanied by a colour photograph of the Guggenheim’s exterior plus a couple of interior shots that give a sense of the character of the museum’s diverse internal spaces. To these are added a drawing of the exterior (giving a sense of the titanium skin and the rectilinear organisation of the building, something difficult to grasp in most photographs), a cutaway drawing showing the way the skin and inner framework connect, a cross-section, and a plan.

Each of the 50 buildings has a series of variations on this mix, which takes in – inter alia – public buildings from the Colosseum to the London Aquatics Centre, buildings for the arts an education from the Soane museum to the National Museum for African American History and Culture in Washington D.C., places to worship from Hagia Sophia to the Sagrada Familia, and, yes, Ronchamp. The approach of photographs plus drawings works less well in some cases – there’s a limit, for example, to how much a cutaway of a an honest, almost transparent building like the Charles and Ray Eames House in Pacific Palisades can tell us – but overall the approach works and gets us closer to what makes these diverse buildings tick. Anyone looking for fifty ways into architecture should consider this book.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

The Brutalist world

The second of my quartet of summer book reviews is a massive work of reference on an architectural style that, having fallen out of favour, now seems to be fashionable again.

Oliver Elser et al (eds), SOS Brutalism: A Global Survey
Published by Park Books 

I’ve been impressed by a number of the recent books that have helped us to look with a more informed eye on the concrete buildings of the 1960s and 1970s and have led to a new appreciation of the architectural style known as Brutalism. One of these books has already been reviewed here; others have got me thinking too. I lived through the period when these buildings went up and was educated in a school designed by one of the most celebrated (and occasionally reviled) architectural practices of the period, but these books have told me more about the period and the interest of its architecture.

But I’ve been left uncertain of the wider context, and of the definition. What exactly is Brutalism? Every book seems to have a different perspective on this, and much of what I’ve read covers Britain, but doesn’t set this country in the wider picture of world architecture. How unlike books about 1930s modernism, which can’t wait to tell us about Le Corbusier, Watler Gropius, and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and rightly so.

SOS Brutalism helps with this context. It’s a global survey in two large volumes of Brutalist architecture, combining the views of one hundred authors, several of whom have written extended essays and case studies published here. The first of the two volumes, the big fat one, begins with a short series of essays and case studies. British readers will be especially interested in two contributions by leading authorities: ‘British Brutalisms: New and newer’ by Barnabas Calder and ‘British Universities: Opportunities for a rising generation’ by Elain Harwood. But there are also pieces looking at varieties of Brutalism, and at the style in places from Japan to the former Yugoslavia.

The rest of the fat volume consists of a generous coverage of 120 buildings from all over the world. This gives a broad picture of Brutalism across the world, with enough illustration in the form exterior and interior photographs, details, and, sometimes, plans or cross-sections, to give a sense of each example. This reader was pleased to be introduced to a variety of interesting buildings in South Asia and Latin America, and to be reminded of the Brutalist architecture of Eastern Europe (and by a writer ready to admit the elasticity of the term ‘Eastern Europe’* and keen to stress that generally architects in this region did not use the term ‘Brutalism’ at all). Concrete addicts will not be able to get enough of all this, and some of us will marvel at the depth of interest in parts of the world we’ve not visited, from Africa to South Asia.

This volume is bundled with a second, slimmer but still substantial, of contributions to a symposium held in Berlin in 2012, and published under the auspices of the Wüstenrot Foundation. This material consists of a further 17 essays, some on specific buildings such as Hunstanton School and the Czech embassy in East Berlin, some on particular countries (Italy, the USA, Japan, Germany), still others on more general themes, wrapping up with studies of New Brutalism’s relevance today and on the issue of giving these buildings the status of historical monuments. This whole project, which includes a huge amount of previously unpublished material, is impressive, monumental, and far too large to be done justice in a short review like this. This review is simply a pointer. If you’re at all interested in the subject, find a copy of this impressive double volume, look at it, and decide: it will almost certainly be for you.

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*Many Czechs. for example, insist that their country is in Central Europe, and they have a point. Vienna is more easterly than Prague.

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.