Friday, August 5, 2022

Compton Beauchamp, Oxfordshire*

For the birds…and the rest of us

One of the incidental benefits of church crawling is the other buildings one encounters on the way or near the destination. Before I’d even entered the church at Compton Beauchamp I’d already glimpsed the neighbouring big house (too private to photograph) and as I walked up the path to the church, this little building met my eyes almost at the same time as the pale chalk walls of the church itself. It’s a wooden dovecote, and is best appreciated from inside the churchyard, where it sits on the edge of its own small enclave, behind a yew hedge, in a part of the churchyard apparently set aside for one or two secluded graves. There’s even a nearby bench on which to collect one’s thoughts.

Weatherboarded walls, a roof of stone ‘slates’, and a tiny structure on top, too small to be a turret, too slight to be a cupola, too open and louvreless to be a louvre. Pevsner assures us that the nest boxes are still within, and one would be tempted to introduce a dove or three and see if they took to it. It’s said to be 18th-century, and what my picture above doesn’t show is that it is raised on staddle stones, those mushroom-like structures usually used to raise granaries away from the ground and impede the progress of rats and other grain-eating rodents.

Albeit unoccupied now by birds, this building is a small delight. If it’s a reminder of an unsentimental time when people removed the young doves or pigeons (known as squabs) for the cooking pot, it’s also a testimony to a way of building that could make even a modest structure pleasant to look at. We’d do well to have a bit more of that today. 

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* Formerly in Berkshire, while as a devotee of the old county boundaries I fell compelled to mention; also because it is still included in the Berkshire volume of the Pevsner Buildings of England series.

Staddle stone supporting dovecote, Compton Beauchamp

Monday, August 1, 2022

Sharpness, Gloucestershire

A port with no sea…but lots of wood

Sharpness is on the River Severn and in the early-19th century was the starting point of a canal that took large ships to Gloucester, then a busy inland port dealing in goods from all over the world. Gloucester’s on the Severn too, but the river is far less easily navigable higher up, hence the need for the canal. Indeed even downstream, the river is not a straightforward one – although wide, it varies greatly in depth and its tidal range is the world’s second largest.

Today, the huge Victorian warehouses at Gloucester docks remain, but they’ve been converted to other uses – a museum, shopping, offices, apartments – because the docks were going into decline from the later part of the 19th century. The main reason for this was that ocean-going ships had become too large to use the canal, but they could sail up the Severn as far as Sharpness. So Sharpness, originally used mainly as the entrance to the canal, became a port in its own right, playing host to ships carrying timber, coal and above all grain.

The two most impressive structures at Sharpness are the two extraordinary wooden piers that stretch out into the river. Seen at the low point in the Severn’s vast tidal range, their remarkable framework of wooden uprights and horizontals can be seen quite clearly, although, when the place is deserted on a Sunday (the best time to get a good view) it’s hard to appreciate their actual scale. The tiny red marks on the top in my photograph are life belts and the pier’s uprights are some 11 metres in length. They are made of greenheart (Ocotea rodiei), a timber of huge density and immense durability, with acid qualities that repel fungi and insects. Some of these timbers are original, from the 1870s, although a programme of repair and replacement keeps the piers in usable condition.

For me these are structures that represent extraordinary construction skill, especially the northern pier, with its gentle curve. Standing by the riverside, near a patch of grass designated as a picnic area, but occupied only by two couples, getting close to one another on benches at the far end, and so quiet not even a gull seemed to be calling, I simply stared. Only Gateshead’s much longer Dunston Staiths rival it in my opinion. Looking at them, one’s first thought is that it’s amazing anything made of wood can last more than a few years in this place of such brutal tides. But of course the piers’ very openwork structure is a hidden strength: the tide runs through it, rather than battering against it. As so often, Victorian builders and engineers knew what they were about, and today’s shipping companies, albeit in smaller numbers now, still benefit.

Thursday, July 28, 2022

Leigh Brockamin, Worcestshire


Marking the way

Milestones go back as far as the Romans. The invaders who did so much for us erected a marker stone every 1000 double paces, or 1618 yards, the standard Roman mile, along their principle roads both to delineate distances between towns and to promote the name of the emperor who paid for them – milestones had political as well as navigational importance. However, there was a much later heyday of the milestone in the 18th century, when turnpike trusts were set up to build and improve roads as long-distance coach travel became more widespread. Turnpike trusts began in 1706 and lasted until the late-1880s (by which time signposts similar to those we use today were becoming more common) and during this period thousands of milestones were erected on Britain’s roads.

‘Milestone’ is the name used for any roadside distance marker in the form of the short, vertical stone or post and not all are made of stone. The one in my photograph, which I happened to see when visiting the medieval barn in my previous post, is by the side of a quiet rural road in Worcestershire and shows distances to Worcester and Bromyard. Helpful pointing hands (manicules) indicate the direction of these two places. The form of this iron milestone is quite a common one – it’s triangular, with a sloping top so that the name of the location can easily be read by a passing rider or coachman looking down on it. I rather like the fact that it provides this additional piece of information. I had no idea that I was in a place called Leigh Brockamin – I’d seen it marked on a map as simply ‘Leigh’.

Reading that unfamiliar name, I was reminded of being lost years ago and pulling up by a remote rural post box. Getting out of the car, I read the name of the box’s location on the label that showed the collection times. Once I knew where I was, I could orient myself, and confirm that I was heading in roughly the right direction. Post boxes no longer show this useful information. Many milestones used to do so. Now they are disappearing. The Milestone Society* estimate that around 9000 may be left in the UK. They’re worth preserving, and worth more than a passing glance.

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* They aim to identify, record, research, conserve and interpret for public benefit the milestones and other waymarkers of the British Isles’. See their website, here.

Monday, July 25, 2022

Leigh Brockamin, Worcestershire

I still seem to be recovering from covid, which has left me easily exhausted and the victim from time to time of something I can only call brain fog. However I am now making small trips out, and plan to continue here with occasional short blog posts. This one describes a building only about 30 miles from where I live, but far, far away in terms of its architecture and structure from what we are used to in these postmodern times.

Cathedrals of wood

The great medieval barns of England are cathedrals of woodwork, and Leigh Court Barn in Worcestershire is one of the best. Its exterior a charming mixture of brick, weatherboarding and wattle with a big tiled roof, does not quiet have the grandeur of stone barns like the magnificent Great Coxwell, but the sheer size of the structure, with its pair of vast cart entrances and that sweeping roof, prepares us, up to a point, for the interior.

When we step through the door, the sight is breathtaking: a succession of eleven enormous trusses, each made of a large cruck frame held together by horizontal beams and diagonal braces. Crucks, the pairs of long timbers that form an inverted ‘V’, are normally made by splitting the trunk of a sizeable oak tree in two. Here, each side of each cruck was made with a single tree, to give thew maximum size and strength. The effect is awesome, and all the more remarkable for its early date – it was erected in the early 14th century.

This makes it one of the earliest extant cruck-framed buildings, and also the largest in Britain. It was built for the use of a farm belonging to Pershore Abbey and the walls were originally covered with wattles (panels of woven laths, looking from a distance like basketwork). Most of this original cladding has gone, and is mostly replaced with boarding. This is vernacular architecture, done by local craftsmen using local materials, to supply a practical need. But what a vivid demonstration they gave of how this ‘humble’ kind of building could produce an effect as magnificent as a great cathedral, larger in scale than a manor house. John Betjeman used to say that some churches made him immediately want to knell down in prayer. This building had a similarly humbling effect on me.

Thursday, July 7, 2022

Meysey Hampton, Gloucestershire

I am under the weather at the moment, because the 21st-century plague has struck me at last. So here is a reprise of a post from some years ago, showing a church monument to a doctor, who lived at a period when plagues were a constant threat. If you click on the image it should appear in a larger and clearer form...

A practised classicism

According to the way the history of English church architecture is usually written, there were relatively few churches built between the point when Henry VIII dealt his knock-out blow to the old religion by breaking with Rome and the rise of Classical architecture, which, although it had a brief flowering under Inigo Jones in the Jacobean period, really only got going with Wren after the Great Fire of London in 1666. The churches that were built in the years in between these two watersheds are often in a kind of hybrid style that isn't always easy to classify – a mix of Gothic, Classical, and vernacular – that means they're not 'good examples' of any one style, and so they get overlooked or glossed over.

But if there's not much church building, there's certainly a lot of church architecture from this period. How can this be? Because the architecture is not for the living but for the dead: it is the architecture of church monuments. Here's a wonderful example, from the church at Meysey Hampton in Gloucestershire – it's worth clicking on the picture to reveal some of the detail. It's the monument of James Vaulx (c. 1580–1625), a physician, and his two wives, Editha (on his right) and Philipe (a Jacobean Phillippa, presumably, on his left). The portraits of the three are charming – Vaulx in his doctor's gown and pointed beard, resting his arm on a skull and leaning towards his first wife, whose head is slightly inclined, in turn, towards him. Philipe stares ahead, by contrast, looking life in the face. She has no skull and carries a protective pomander: she survived her husband and lived to marry again. I find these figures rather moving and the nuances of pose that the sculptor allowed himself (or was allowed by eldest son Francis who commissioned the monument) very English in their restraint. Below them are tiny images of the children, Editha's twelve (how those women worked at childbirth) and Philipe's four; some, shown in bed, presumably died before their father. Above amongst the pediments at the top of the monument are figures of the virtues. 

And then there is the architecture. Look at the way the sculptor has invoked the panoply of Jacobean classicism – pediments variously shaped, scrolls, composite columns, panels, keystones, cartouches, cherubim with winged heads, niches – to frame and display his subjects. He was able to add colour too, reminding us that even in the supposedly retrained phase of the English church, things were brighter and more vivid than we sometimes think. It all adds up to a grand monument but in a rough-hewn provincial manner. Perhaps this is right for its subject. Vaulx was eminent but didn't make it to the top job of royal physician. When King James asked him how he knew how to heal, the doctor replied that he had learned through his practice. 'Then by my saule thou hast killed money a man,' responded James. 'Thou shalt na'practise on me.' 


Monday, June 27, 2022

St Neots, Cambridgeshire

Caught on the hop

Seeing this building first from a distance, I thought it must be an old bottle kiln – after all, there were potteries everywhere, not just in the ‘potteries’, the towns of Staffordshire once famous as the centre of England’s ceramics industry. However, the louvre at the top made me doubt this, and a little research revealed that it actually began life as an oast house. For those who don’t know, an oast house is a different kind of kiln, one used in the brewing industry to dry hops or barley. 

This oast house was built in the 18th century by one William Fowler and is best known to history as part of Day’s brewery, the business of John Day, who acquired and ran it, together with a complex of other brewery buildings, now mostly demolished, nearby. On the ground floor of the oast there would have been a fire to provide the heat source. Above this, was a floor made of wooden battens with spaces between them, covered with cloth; the ingredients to be dried would be spread on the floor. When the fire was lit, warm air would travel upward through the cloth to dry the hops. Moist air escaped through the vent at the top. Oast houses are most often seen in Kent and Herefordshire, both important hop-growing regions. In the case of these areas, the hop growers processed the hops before selling them to brewers. This oast, however, reminds us that they were built in other places, and by brewers too.

Thursday, June 23, 2022

Didbrook, Gloucestershire


I’ve mentioned before on this blog that I have long been a fan of the work of the great English photographer Edwin Smith. Among the books I have that are illustrated with his photographs is English Cottages and Farmhouses, a large volume with text by Olive Cook published by Thames & Hudson in 1954, which includes a photograph of a cottage in the village of Didbrook, just three or four miles away from where I live.* I don’t often go through Didbrook, which is tucked away off the main road, but the other day I made a brief diversion. My photograph shows the cottage today, partly concealed behind the branches of a tree, but not much changed, when seen from this angle anyway, from what it was like in Smith’s photograph.§

What attracts me to it – and the reason for its inclusion in Olive Cook and Edwin Smith’s book, is that it is an excellent example of a cottage built using cruck frames.† Crucks are the pairs of massive timbers that are set together at an angle to form an inverted V-shape. A cruck building has a pair of crucks at each end, and, depending on the structure’s size, may have several others placed at intervals between. Other cross-pieces and braces add to the frame’s strength, and further bits of framing are added to give the building straight, upright side walls. By looking at an end wall, one can see how the cruck structure is put together.

The cruck frame is an ancient architectural form that was especially popular in the West of England. This cottage has been dated to the 15th century, and although it has been modified several times in later centuries, its roof is still supported by the paired oak beams that have been there for perhaps 600 years.

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* The Royal Institute of British Architects holds Smith’s archive of photographs; his image of the Didbrook cottage is here.

§ In Smith’s time a small porch protected the front door; this has now been removed.

† There’s another post showing a cruck-framed house here.