Saturday, July 11, 2020

Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire

Local hero

Looking at this little bit of pleasant small-town classicism on Tewkesbury’s High Street, I was reminded what a rich resource the vocabulary of classical architecture has been for provincial builders and architects. A pediment, some pilasters or half-columns in the right proportions, maybe a little statuary, and you are on the way to a pleasing, balanced facade, and one that seems to speak of the civic virtues too. And civic virtues are relevant in this case, since the building houses Tewkesbury’s Town Hall.

But pausing outside it to look more closely on a walk under the relaxed conditions of lockdown-light, I noticed that this building has not just one but three pediments – one on the facade, one further back and higher, and a tiny one on the bell turret. The rear pediment is there because the original Town Hall was built set back from the street in 1788. The street facade in front of it was added in 1857 as the entrance to the town’s Corn Hall, the place where farmers would come to sell their grain. So what we’re looking at here is two halls in one: Town Hall at the back, Corn Hall at the front.

The facade, when you look closely, expresses the Corn Hall’s purpose symbolically with the sculpture, which is by Henry Frith. The two figures flanking the clock represent Agricultural Labour and Ceres, Roman goddess of fertility, farming, and corn in particular. There are also sheaves of corn carved on the left- and right-hand corbels, which double as the keystones of the arches that contain the windows – and there’s carved corn around the clock. Pevsner compares the design, by Gloucestershire architect James Medland, to that of similar facades in Cirencester and Gloucester. Cirencester’s Corn Hall bears similar lavish ornament, while the entrance to Gloucester’s former Eastgate street market, now the entrance to the Eastgate Shopping Centre, is a much larger and more monumental three-arched and pedimented design, with similar proportions to the Tewkesbury building. All three structures are by Medland’s firm.

Hats off, then, to a little known local architect working in a classical idiom and producing decent buildings that have acted as landmarks and valued facilities for over 150 years. Given the rate at which some of our more recent buildings have succumbed to structural collapse, safety issues, neglect, or changes in fashion, such people deserve our appreciation.

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire

No madding crowd

Yes, this is something you don’t often see on this blog: a really famous building. It’s Shakespeare’s birthplace, the house in Stratford that in normal times attracts crowds inside and out. But as we were emerging out of lockdown last month, Stratford was still quiet and I took the opportunity to take a photograph of the building without anyone standing in front of it. It’s not known for sure how long this house has stood here, but we do know that John Shakespeare, the poet’s father, was living here by 1552, when he was fined for leaving a midden heap (dumping trash, you might say) in the street outside. Not an auspicious entry into the historical record, but Shakespeare senior rose to prominence in Stratford-upon-Avon. A dealer in wool and hides and a maker of gloves, he was an alderman and spent a period as the town’s High Bailiff.

William Shakespeare inherited the house in 1601, by which time he was a successful playwright in London with his own house in his home town. So he leased the house to tenants. By the early-19th century, there were no surviving direct descendants of the dramatist, and the house fell into disrepair and was partly refaced in brick. When it came on the market in 1849, P. T. Barnum announced that he wanted to buy it, take it apart, and rebuild it in America. This was the spur that the British admirers of Shakespeare needed to buy the house themselves and preserve it. They raised the money, and repaired and refaced the building so that it looked much more like its 16th-century self.

At the same time, the second half of the 19th century saw a revaluation of Shakespeare as a writer. New editions of his works came out, a Shakespeare festival was started in Stratford, and a theatre was built to put on the plays. Shakespeare turned into a kind of national symbol (or at least into a symbol of England’s outstanding achievements in the arts), and Stratford attracted visitors from all over the world. Insofar as the street was quiet the other day, I welcomed the fact that the crowds of Shakespearian pilgrims were not visiting Stratford. But the bustle of the town in normal times, with its mixture of shoppers, theatre-goers, students, culture tourists, and even the odd literary scholar, cannot be too far from the diverse crowd that attended the plays in London’s Globe theatre in Shakespeare’s lifetime. Let’s hope they can return soon.

Saturday, July 4, 2020

Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire

Wise foolery

There’s something satisfying about the fact that the Stratford-upon-Avon branch of W. H. Smith, newsagents, stationers and booksellers, should be housed in a timber-framed building that looks very much at home in this town of famous timber-framed structures. But this shop isn’t one of the celebrated ancient buildings of Stratford (Shakespeare’s Birthplace, Harvard House, Hall’s Croft, and the rest): it’s only about one hundred years old. So what’s the story?

In the early-20th century, W. H. Smith had its own Estates Department, led by the architect Frank C. Bayliss, which designed and developed new shops, refurbished old ones, and was responsible for such things as lighting, heating, and decoration.* By the early-1920s, when the Stratford shop was built, they’d developed a house style, with shopfronts in light oak, with many small panes of glass, classic Roman lettering (designed by Eric Gill) for the signage, and the frequent use of colourful tiling. The red ‘newsboy’ hanging sign (the work of Septimus Scott) was ubiquitous and the half-timbered look was often employed for the upper floors of the building. The 1920s were a busy time for Bayliss, so he often commissioned local architects to work on specific branches. The firm of Osborn, Pemberton and White was responsible for this one and they followed the house style.§

Smith’s weren’t new to Stratford when they built this shop. In fact they had occupied the property next door, a building once home to Shakespeare’s daughter Judith, before they moved to these larger premises. The architects added a couple of appropriate touches that have survived recent modifications to the frontage.† A panel above the shop sign contains a quotation from Shakespeare’s early play Titus Andronicus: ‘Come and take choice of all my library and so beguile thy sorrow’ – spot on for Stratford, of course, but also used by the company on their Kingsway branch in London. William Henry Smith, the man who built up the business in the 19th century using the profits he made from station bookstalls, was on a mission to sell good literature to the masses; his company produced pioneering cheap editions of literary classics and liked literary quotations – the branch in my home town, Cheltenham, used to have a line of Wordsworth on the shop front. The other unusual touch is provided by the carved heads on the consoles (the brackets at either end of the shop sign). One, the head of a jester (below), feels just right for the town of Shakespeare, whose plays often include a jester or ‘fool’. Shakespeare’s fools generally prove wiser than the kings, queens, and aristocrats that they serve. In this age of anonymous, plastic-fronted retailing, W. H. Smith’s are wise to have preserved shops such as this.

* I’m indebted for my information on the history of W. H. Smith’s shops to Kathryn A. Morrison’s excellent book, English Shops and Shopping (Yale University Press, 2003).

§ The best surviving example of this house style is the branch at Newtown, Powys, technically outside the scope of this English Buildings blog, but it’s so outstanding that one of these days I’ll have to post it anyway.

† The sign uses Smith’s current letterform, and I think there would originally have been small panes of glass lower down the window too.

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire

Worth the money

Every time the Resident Wise Woman and I go to the theatre at Stratford, we approach the town by a back round in the northern Cotswolds and, just before we reach our destination, cross the Clopton Bridge. This long and magnificent stone structure was originally built in the 1480s. Although it has undergone numerous repairs and alterations since then, it’s still one of the most important and striking of all medieval bridges, with its long parapets (what we usually see from the car) and its fourteen pointed stone arches. It’s not the widest of bridges – there’s room for two-way traffic and for a pavement on one side, but no-one crossing can feel they have much elbow room. But it was even narrower before a widening exercise was carried in 1814. At the same time as the widening, this large ten-sided toll house was built on the southern side of the bridge at the town centre end.

It’s big for a toll house – two floors visible from the bridge and another one below, and each of them substantial. Crenellations on the parapet and an array of windows with four-centred heads and glazing with small panes help it stand out further. The shape allows for windows facing either way along the bridge, so that the bridge-keeper can seem traffic coming from both directions – but that would have been the case with an eight-sided building (the more usual shape for a toll house). I don’t know why this one has ten sides, but it must make for more usable space inside than an octagon and certainly catches the eye.

The various smooth, new pieces of stone in the building are the legacy of a recent restoration, when the noticeboard was also renewed. This lists tolls for a variety of users, based on tolls fond in a record in the archives of Shakespeare’s Birthplace. The tolls for wheeled transport are very specific, for example: ‘For every coach, Berlin, landau, chariot, calash, chaise, or chair drawn by six horses, mares, geldings, or mules, the sum of one shilling and sixpence.’ That takes care, presumably, of would-be Scrooges who might try to harness up mules and try to get across for no charge, on the basis that only horses are mentioned on the price list. Today everyone crosses free of charge, giving me some extra pennies to help pay for my coffee in the theatre foyer cafe.

Sunday, June 28, 2020

Bewdley, Worcestershire

Hard cell

Being stuck at home made me think of this place. It’s a rather impressive lock-up, built at one end of the late-18th century Shambles (market) building in the centre of Bewdley. There are actually three cells, one of which is oriented differently and so not visible in my photograph. The whole complex is now part of Bewdley Museum. As is common with lock-ups of the period, the structure is strong and windowless, with brick walls and – a touch which relates the little building to larger-scale prison architecture – stone door surrounds with heavily rusticated blocks.

Those blocks seem to speak of high security, but their symbolism goes beyond this, I think. Their hint of urban grandeur – with the implication that the town had spent more than the minimum on its small prison – speaks of a place that was said to have had quite a bit of use for a lock-up. In the 19th century, Bewdley apparently had some 30 pubs – a large number in what was then a small town – and a resultant persistent problem with drunkenness. It could be, then, that the main use for these cells was to bang up drunks behind the heavy studded iron-bound wooden doors until they sobered up and dried out.

The doors are in fact replacements, but they give a good idea what the lock-up would have been like (the originals are displayed in the museum too), as do the spartan cell interiors. These have a masonry platform on which was the occupant’s bed, plus a ceramic tiled floor, a tiny fireplace, and not much else. It’s very basic, but then 18th-century prisons usually were. The prevailing view of the architecture and the inmates was no doubt that this was ‘as good as they deserve’. Other times, other ways.

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Aldeburgh, Suffolk


What does a cinema look like? If you have an image of a ‘typical’ cinema in your mind’s eye, it might look like something from the interwar period, maybe an Art Deco monster cinema like the one in Balham that I posted not long ago, or a structure adorned with decoration evocation the glamour of the cinema, such as the pair of naked women circled in strips of celluloid that once signposted a cinema in Cheltenham. Or, these days, it might be one of the anonymous town centre multiplexes of which only the front door and a panel of posters is visible.

But there is no ‘standard’ cinema design. People project films in all kinds of settings. In the small Cotswold town where I live, there was once a cinema in the Town Hall, whereas Woodhall Spa, a small town in Lincolnshire, is home to the Kiinema in the Woods, a surprising and picturesque former sports pavilion. The cinema in Aldeburgh is similarly surprising, a half-timbered building, small enough not to look at all out of scale in the town’s lovely main street. But it’s not exactly discreet – the half-timbering means it’s easy to find and gives it that touch of whimsy that has seen its larger cousins dressed up in a 1930s version of ancient Egyptian or Grecian garb.

The building is also one of the oldest cinemas in continuous operation. It began in 1919,* when an existing shop was extended to house the auditorium, and, like many an early cinema, has also hosted live theatre shows. The cinema has kept going with a mix of feature films, ‘art house’ screenings, and even, recently, a documentary festival. It also caught on early to the recent trend for offering ‘live’ screenings of major theatre and opera productions. So, what do you think of when someone mentions Aldeburgh? Benjamin Britten? Maggi Hambling? Fish and chips? Festivals of music or poetry or comedy? Perhaps film should be on the list too. Although I didn’t make it inside when I visited Aldeburgh late last year, the cinema still seemed to be thriving, with the very active support of the local community. And I hope, when normal conditions eventually resume, it will thrive again.

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* The Lumières’ first public screening was in 1895.

Sunday, June 21, 2020

Markham Moor, Nottinghamshire

Filling up, filling in

The frustrations of lockdown: lack of contact with friends and family; lack of secondhand bookshops in which to browse; inability to go and look at interesting buildings. Antidotes to the above: keep in touch with people by telephone, email, social media (the latter in moderation); rereading books I like, browsing my own shelves for inspiration; doing blog posts about buildings I have seen in the past but not got around to writing about, researching places to visit in the future when travel and social contact are possible once more. Here’s one of the latter.

Before the motorway age really got going, those planning a car journey over a long distance thought in terms of major roads. And there was no road more major, no more obvious symbol of moving around by road, than the Great North Road, the artery running from London northwards to Doncaster, York, Darlington, and on to Scotland, a route so important that when the roads were numbered it became the A1. When the route was joined by the first extended north-south motorway, the M1 that runs slightly to the west of the A1, the Great North Road did not fall into disuse. It was still much-used and still is in normal times. And as traffic increased in the 1950s and 1960s, it acquired numerous garages and filling stations, the ubiquitous accompanists of the lorry and car.

Most of these buildings are unremarkable architecturally, but there was one that was rather special. This was the filling station at Markham Moor, Nottinghamshire, between Newark and Doncaster. The distinguishing thing about it is the roof, made of a thin shell of reinforced concrete in a hyperbolic parabaloid shape. The architect was Sam Scorer* (he designed a church with a similar shaped roof in Lincoln), and he worked with the engineer Kalman Hajnal-Kónyi. I love the sweeping shape of the roof, but I don’t like what happened to it later, when someone built a restaurant underneath it, in place of the forecourt where the pumps originally were. The arrival of the Little Chef, however, may have saved the roof from demolition, and it is said that the restaurant building does not compromise the roof’s structure and could be removed without harming the shell. An earlier photograph gives an idea what the building was like in its heyday.

Why such an extravagant roof for such a modest building? First, it’s a landmark. That means that it’s easily visible from passing vehicles. Drivers can see it coming, and have time to stop and pull in. If they pass regularly they recognise it, and maybe will make a point of filling up there – so the roof is an advert, in a way. Second, fashion. When it was built (1959–60), architects and engineers were enthusiastically exploring the new kinds of structures they could build with concrete. Shell roofs like this had a hint of the future about them – even more so a couple of years later when those flying to New York might see Eliel Saarinen’s remarkable TWA Terminal building, with its roofs like aeroplane wings. Third, economics. Steel was rationed, and this kind of roof used much less of the material than a roof with steel posts and beams.†

What will happen to this building after coronavirus? The Little Chef restaurant business closed a few years ago. As far I know, the site is empty now, and fuel is supplied from a more modern facility nearby. The roof structure is listed, so its demolition is unlikely. However, it also needs to be looked after and used somehow. I for one hope a role can be found for it – if only for the selfish reason that I’d like my spirits to be lifted by it as I make my way, one of these days, along the sometimes relentless Great North Road.§

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* Hugh Segar ‘Sam’ Scorer (1923–2003) lived and worked in Lincoln, where he designed numerous buildings including the church of St John the Baptist, Ermine. He liked fast cars, especially Jaguars.

† I am indebted to an article by Karolina Szynalska, ‘The Markham Moor Papilio: A Picturesque Commentary’, Open Arts Journal, Issue 2, Winter 2013–2014, here.

§ Thanks to two readers, who have told me that the building now houses a branch of Starbucks.

The recent photograph below is by Richard Croft and used under this Creative Commons licence. The early photograph above is reproduced in Karolina Szynalska’s article; apologies if I have infringed anyone’s copyright – I will credit or remove the image if the copyright owner wishes.