Friday, November 16, 2012
Every day except Christmas
For some years in the 1980s and 1990s I crossed the piazza of Covent Garden every day on my way to and from my desk in the office of a publishing company. Now and then I paused to admire the main market building, the market house designed by Charles Fowler and built in 1828–30, still largely intact but with roofs (glass and slate supported on iron columns) added in the later 19th century. The rows of Tuscan columns and the corner pavilions with their lower storey picked out with banded rustication, defined the outside and are visible in my photograph of the east end of the market house.
By the time I began work in this part of London, the market was already beginning its second life as a tourist attraction, the original raison d'être of the place, the wholesale selling of fruit and vegetables, having been moved to a site at Vauxhall. But I'm old enough to remember the vegetable market at Covent Garden with its nocturnal life, its lippy porters, its pubs open in the mornings when this was unknown elsewhere in England, its surrounding labyrinth of lanes and alleys in which opera-goers heading for the "other" Covent Garden would occasionally get lost.
I was reminded of all this the other night by a chance online viewing of Lindsay Anderson's documentary Every Day Except Christmas (1957), which chronicles in black and white a day in the life of the market. It is all beautifully shot and composed, from the midnight loading of lorries in Kent, to the organised chaos of the arrival of trucks (apples from the Vale of Evesham, flowers from Lincolnshire, mushrooms from the southeast, and so on) in the crowded streets around the market; from the stallholders' careful arrangement of their stock to their moment of relaxation in a nearby café (this place also inhabited by nocturnal "characters" who seem to have sidled in from another, edgier, world); from the first sale to the removal of vegetables and fruit on precariously loaded barrows and packed vans.
Much of what I saw was familiar, from chance late-night crossings of the market years ago and, perhaps, from an earlier viewing of the film itself. But this is where memory starts to play tricks. I hold in my mind a memory of a documentary about the market set to the music of Beethoven's Pathétique sonata, structured around the piece's three movements (fast-slow-fast, mirroring the market's phases of frenetic activity punctuated by an interlude of calm). But there is no such music in Lindsay Anderson's film. Could there have been another documentary covering a day in the life of Covent Garden? Or have I confused Anderson's film with another, on a different subject, but using Beethoven's music? Or have I imagined the whole thing? Googling has not given me an answer. I continue to rack my brains.
Saturday, April 28, 2012
A place in the sun
Long ago when I was a teenager, I occasionally accompanied a relative of mine on journeys to do with his business, taking the opportunity to discover bits of the country I’d not normally have known about in the process. One regular trip was to Loughborough, and the last leg was up the A6 from Leicester. We didn’t have much time for places like Mountsorrel, a small town on the A6 that I remember as being full of grime, noise, and fumes from the cars and lorries on the main road, which carved its way straight through the centre. ‘A decayed market town,’ Pevsner called it, and no wonder. And as for the church. Well, who would bother to pay attention to a building so pulled about, patched up with brick, apparently unloved, its walls of local granite graying over with dust? Added to which, it always seemed to be raining.
When I revisited Mountsorrel a couple of weeks ago I was amazed how different my impressions were. The main road now skirts the town, the place has been cleaned up, and, wonder of wonders, the sun was shining. The granite buildings were glowing with a pinkish hue and even the brick patching on St Peter’s church had a warmth to it that made me want to look, not turn away. The building is still a strange mixture – the gable, aspiring to be a classical pediment but not quite making it, sits oddly with the Gothic windows – a state of affairs that is the result of successive remodellings (in 1794 and the 1880s) of an originally medieval building. But I like the way that its chequered history is visible in the morning light, the lines of brickwork embodying in a ghostly fashion the shapes of past windows and doorways, and I was pleased that when I passed by, the building had found its place in the sun.
Sunday, March 4, 2012
The Buttercross, before...
Last time I was in Ludlow, which was last year, I noticed the way the stone of the Buttercross, a building I’d long admired, was glowing in the sun, and took the photograph above. This building, part market, part Town Hall, was built in 1743–4 to designs by William Baker (1705–71), an architect who was busy in Shropshire, Staffordshire, and neighbouring counties in the middle of the 18th century. Pevsner, describing the architecture of the building, says while it is “not polished, [it] has an attractive robustness”. The classical portico with its four Tuscan columns is offset by less formal details, such as the semicircular window and the clock turret, with its lovely cupola. The whole thing is a worthy centrepiece to this part of the town centre, and looks good from Broad Street, where I took the picture.
Since last year, the builders have been in, doing major works to the roof. Then, in November, disaster struck in the form of falling chunks of plaster from one of the ceilings. Further internal problems have since been discovered and Ludlow’s council have a much bigger and more complex restoration project on their hands. The plaster seems to have come down without much provocation. According to the Shropshire Star, Ludlow’s Mayor, Martin Taylor-Smith, said, “We think the initial fall was when the clock-winder went up, just from the vibration.”
Now the Town Council, which used the upper part of the building, has found alternative accommodation, work has begun on finding a new use for the Butter Cross. An application in underway to turn the building into an education and interpretation centre, where, for example, traditional building skills might be shown. Here’s hoping the extra funding can be found to make the repairs and preserve this landmark.
Sunday, February 5, 2012
In Kidderminster, while I had my eyes on the towers of distant carpet factories, the Resident Wise Woman (who can spot an edible mushroom at 200 yards through her eye corner while driving at speed along a country road) had her attention fixed on the small but significant things around her: “Look at that!”
“That” turns out to be the one surviving gate pier of Kidderminster’s former cattle market. Having been held on the streets, the market was moved here in 1871, when presumably this pier (and at least one other to match it) was put up, along with the nearby brick Jacobean-style entrance lodge. The pier and lodge are the only market structures that remain on the site, and livestock are no longer sold here, although the town still has a large general street market.
The coat of arms is the one used by the town between the 18th century and 1963, although the colours have been tampered with. The two chevrons and three large roundels should be gold and the four roundels on each chevron black. Battered and bruised, the coat of arms remains on this corroded iron pier that is coming apart but, wonderfully, has resisted the elements, the demolition men, and the heraldic perfectionists to survive to attract and please those with sharp eyes.
Wednesday, August 18, 2010
Uncommon markets (3)
In contrast to the grand town hall of the previous post, here is a market hall, plain and simple, in the middle of the beautiful Cotswold town of Chipping Campden. The market hall was put up in 1627 by Sir Baptist Hicks, a London mercer who built a mansion for himself at one end of Camden and made various gifts to his adopted town. The building was intended for use for the sale of poultry, butter, and cheese. It consists of little more than three rows of arches, a stone floor, and a roof, but they are done with such simplicity in golden Cotswold stone, that the building provides the perfect centrepiece to the main street.
Chipping Campden, which came to prominence as a centre of the wool trade in the late Middle Ages, is one of the most perfect of all the Cotswold towns. That it is still so perfect is due in part to the numerous craftsmen and artists who lived there in the early-20th century, many of whom came to Gloucestershire under the auspices of C R Ashbee’s Guild of Handicraft. It was Ashbee who repaired the market hall in 1903 and the artist F L Griggs, another Campden resident, who designed the war memorial, partly visible to the right of the picture. This is a place that has inspired artists and artisans, and they have repaid it with the work of hand, heart, and head.
Saturday, August 14, 2010
Uncommon markets (2)
Of all the town halls that take the traditional form, with arches for a market on the ground floor, Abingdon’s is probably the most imposing. Its size is a reminder that Abingdon was once the county town – of Berkshire, not the Oxfordshire that it has found itself in since the sorry bodge that was the local government reorganization of 1974.
This stupendous building was constructed in 1678–82 by Christopher Kempster, one of the master masons who worked for Christopher Wren on his projects in the City of London. No architect is recorded. Maybe Kempster did the drawings, maybe Wren himself was involved – Pevsner points out that the large first-floor windows are like the ones Wren designed for the library of Trinity College, Cambridge. Whoever did the design, it’s a triumph, from the vast arches to the dainty cupola set in the middle of the hipped roof. Although it is made of traditional ingredients, combining the old market-hall concept with Classical details and the familiar hipped roof, it still manages to surprise and impress: there is nothing quite like it.
Tuesday, August 10, 2010
Uncommon markets (1)
I’ve posted at least once before about my liking for traditional English town halls – the kind that form a central landmark in a town, often with a space for a market beneath and a wooden turret or cupola on top. This is one of my favourites, and it provides a stunning centrepiece to the town of Tamworth. I admire its chequered brickwork, its simple Tuscan arches under which the market was once held, and the collection of engaging details on this end wall. I suppose if I were being critical I’d say that the generous round-headed windows and the triangular pediment with its enormous dentils are enough – the design doesn’t exactly need all the bits in the middle – the clock (a later addition), the plaque, the heraldry. But, cluttered as they are, they add to the charm of this building and to the information it imparts.
The plaque, for example, tells us that the town hall was built by Thomas Guy, no less, the founder of Guy’s Hospital in London. Guy, whose mother came from Tamworth, made his money as a publisher and bookseller in London. He made some generous gifts – to St Thomas’s Hospital, to Guy’s itself, and to Tamworth, where he built almshouses as well as the town hall. The coat of arms relates to Guy too, and also appears on Guy’s hospital in London.
In spite of his benefactions, Guy had a reputation for being mean. Perhaps that’s partly to do with his reaction in 1708, when he was unseated as Tamworth’s MP. In response he excluded Tamworth residents from his almshouses, restricting them to people from the nearby area and to his own relations. But at least by then the people of Tamworth had their town hall. He couldn’t take that away from them.
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Bazza, at the blog To Discover Ice, has a post about the Guildhall at Thaxted, which is the timber-framed 16th-century grandparent, as it were, of the Tamworth town hall and other buildings of its ilk.
Tuesday, April 13, 2010
Times of change
Another white van goes past, and then a car, and as the traffic clears and I raise the camera to my eye a steady procession of pedestrians crosses between me and the building. I lower the camera again and wait. It’s not that I necessarily object to including people in my pictures – there are always people in a busy market place on a Saturday, after all. But not everyone wants to be photographed, and not everyone wants to appear on the web, so I lower the camera.
Perhaps I should just take a photograph of the clock turret and leave it at that. I’m an admirer of the wooden clock towers that often appear on traditional market halls and town halls. Architecture books seem to say little about them – they’re seen, I think, as minor carpentry-stuff, rarely attributable to a specific craftsman or designer, and fit more for the fancier of clocks than for the serious business of architectural history. However, I like their variety and their usefulness and I’m pleased to spot this one. I’ve already assumed, without looking very hard, that the red-brick building that it’s topping is the town’s market hall. Another gap in the traffic, and I look more closely. The building bears a sign saying ‘Fire Station’. ‘Wrong again!’ I think.
But not entirely. This was indeed the site of Leighton’s market hall, and for centuries there was a market building here with an arched lower section for stalls and an upper room used for courts and meetings. The structure was rebuilt in 1851 in brick along similar lines and that, substantially, is the building that still exists. Except that in the early-20th century it was converted for use as a fire station, with a big arched opening for whatever appliances there were to come and go.
The upper part of the building – the big window, the pinnacles, the decent brickwork in a sort of honest simplified Gothic, the clock turret that caught my eye – is very much as it was in the Victorian period. The lower part was remodelled for the fire service with the addition of the big arch and the neat stone plaque. It continued as a fire station until 1963 and has since had other uses. It’s a restaurant now, and is not the first garage-style building with generous floor space to make this transition.
Buildings (like pop stars, political parties, magazines, and the rest) seem to need to reinvent themselves from time to time in order to survive. Buildings are often made redundant because their original user needs more modern premises, or goes bust, or relocates. At this point, many buildings remain empty and decaying until the land they stand on is worth more than the bricks and mortar, and they get pulled down. Unless, that is, someone comes along with some lateral thoughts about how the structure can be used. That’s where the reinvention comes in, and here in Leighton Buzzard instead of firemen sliding down slippery poles there is pasta sliding off forks. And we can all enjoy this Leighton landmark standing proud among the clutter and the crowds. Tortellini, anyone?
Wednesday, February 18, 2009
A costly piece of work
Many English market towns have a cross to act as a marker of the market place, and sometimes this cross is an elaborate structure offering shelter too. Cities such as Salisbury and Chichester have big crosses like this, and so does the Wiltshire market town of Malmesbury. Malmesbury’s market cross is a really fancy octagonal stone structure, encrusted with carving, and the Tudor writer John Leland described it as ‘a right costly piece of work’. For me it’s certainly the most outstanding structure in the town apart from the terrific Norman abbey.
Although the cross is a popular shelter and meeting place for local people, probably most visitors to the town, hot-footing it to the abbey or the shops, only give the structure a rapid glance. That’s a pity because the carving repays a closer look. As well as the truly top-notch Gothic detailing – pinnacles, crockets, and that dazzling structure at the top – there are some marvellous grotesques. These are small versions of the grotesques (often referred to as gargoyles) on medieval churches, and make up a small rogues’ gallery of medieval humour. The spitting image of the Middle Ages.
Monday, February 11, 2008
In my undergraduate days you could get most things in Oxford’s Covered Market – fruit, vegetables, meat, fish, secondhand books and records, and discounted jeans. It was also home to a couple of tea shops the provided a welcome refuge from the Bodleian Library when the afternoon energy gap yawned.
The Covered Market, tucked behind the High, has been serving both town and gown for about 230 years. It was originally built in the early 1770s as a way of tidying away the stalls that cluttered the city’s main streets. The architect was John Gwynn, who also designed Magdalen Bridge, but most of what we see today, including the intricate roof trusses, dates from a 19th-century rebuild. It’s thus a typical Victorian market hall, with partly glazed roof and stalls that are mostly enclosed like miniature shops. The shops are arranged along four aisles, which open up here and there into cross-passages and spaces bathed in light that comes in through the roof and the high windows.
Nowadays the Covered Market has quite a lot of gift shops that cater for the tourists who venture in off the High Street. But you can still buy all kinds of food there too, and the wholesome smell of veg and fish mean that the place retains the atmosphere of a market rather than a mall.