Thursday, July 19, 2018


Lost in the post?

This post is by way of an apology to a number of my readers. One of the pleasures of having this blog is the number of comments I’ve received about my posts. Nearly all these comments are positive and constructive, they are often informative, and not infrequently appreciative: I enjoy getting them, and often respond to them.

For years now I’ve had a system set up that alerts me to each comment by sending me an email. For some reason, this system no longer seems to work, probably because Google, who host the blog on their servers, have changed the way things work. They often make such changes, usually notifying bloggers of what they are doing, and I generally take notice of these notifications. But this time, I didn’t realise what was going on. As a result, many of you have made comments and I’ve not read them. But they are not lost in the post: most of them are there, in the system, and I have now bulk published many of them to their relevant posts, and over the coming weeks will go through them, read, digest, and comment myself.

I’m sorry about this. I do value your comments, will continue to respond, and will now look out for them. I hope that all of you – old friends, longstanding online acquaintances, new readers, and the rest – will forgive me, and carry on reading.

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The letter box that illustrates this post is one I saw in Bath. Its rather lovely ‘Greek key’ decoration, architectural as it is, particularly appealed to me.

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.