Wednesday, December 2, 2020

Black Country Living Museum, Dudley

New departure 

With England still under restrictions of various kinds, my mind goes back with something like nostalgia to a visit the Resident Wise Woman and I made to the Black Country Living Museum (BCLM), several months before Covid 19 struck. Britain has some magnificent open-air museums. Some are places like Avoncroft or the Weald and Downland Museum, where the primary aim is to relocate and preserve interesting old buildings that would almost certainly have been demolished; these are totally fascinating places that do wonderful work in both architectural and social history. At the other end of the scale are enormous sites like the Black Country Living Museum, at which costumed guides explain exhibits that range from rolling mills to Victorian sweetshops and you can buy fish and chips using Britain’s pre-1971 non-decimal currency. I have to say, before I went to the BCLM, I’d thought this was too gimmicky for me, but the guides are well informed, the food decent, and the work of architectural preservation very impressive indeed.§  

The BCLM contains several houses, all well cared for and beautifully displayed. Most of them are built of brick, but this one is different and without the museum’s excellent guidebook I’d not have known what it was. It’s actually a pair of semi-detached council houses, built in Dudley in 1925. It’s a reminder that, after World War I, people tried alternative ways of house-building because of a shortage of materials and skilled labour. This pair, one of only two pairs built, was an experiment with building using two-foot-square cast-iron panels, made in the Eclipse Foundry in Dudley and bolted together on-site.  

The house was impressive to anyone brought up on Victorian accommodation and its basic or absent plumbing – there were bathrooms with fitted baths and hot and cold running water for a start, although the kitchen had a traditional coal-burning range and the house was lit by gas.* But the main problem was not the mix of old- and new-style fittings. The problem for Dudley council was that the dwellings cost more to build than traditional houses, so this type of house was not produced in volume. 

So few people had the chance even to see this innovative dwelling (or to think of an ‘iron house’ as anything other than a corrugated iron house) until this one ended up in the museum. Something similar happened with the attempts at prefabricated house building after World War II. Postwar prefabs were built in large numbers, but most have now vanished and today you’re almost as likely to see one in a museum as anywhere else.† We’re still putting up houses using old technology today.  

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§ I should add that such performative and informative fare is also sometimes available at museums like Avoncroft, where I once saw nails made by hand, just as they were in the Victorian Midlands (John Ruskin memorably described nail-making in Fors Clavigera). But there such things are occasional extras, not part of the usual offering as they are at the BCLM. 

* When we visited, the interiors were not open because work was being done on the houses; a further reason to return to the Black Country Living Museum, one day. 

† I exaggerate slightly. There are still postwar prefabs about, but most have been adapted and reclad out of all recognition. There are some pristine ones, well looked after and listed, at Moseley, Birmingham.

Sunday, November 29, 2020

Ludlow, Shropshire

Looking up, looking down

St Laurence’s, Ludlow, is a large parish church (the largest in Shropshire) and its tall crossing tower is a fitting crown for the building and the beautiful town where it stands. And yet Ludlow’s tightly packed streets make the rest of the church difficult to see in the town centre, and hard to photograph. A good view is to be had from within the castle, from which the way the tower dominates the surrounding countryside is clear. It’s also clear that the architecture of the tower is 15th century, in what was fittingly called the Perpendicular style by 19th-century antiquarian Thomas Rickman and those who followed him. The quality of verticality is embodied not only in the sheer height and the upward-pointing corner pinnacles, but also in the perpendicular mouldings that cast shadows across he middle part of the tower wall and the mullions of the windows, which stretch from the bottom of the window almost to the very top, rather than getting interrupted by complex patterns of tracery as they usually did in 14th-century architecture.

The interior is high, airy, and full of windows in the same style. But one feature that has engaged me on several visits to this outstanding church is the carving of the misericord seats. Looking through some of the very few photographs I have kept from before the digital era, I see that shadows and backache seem to have prevented me from getting decent images of many of them – when visiting churches it is just as important to look down as to look up, but this can be a painful business! This is a shame since there’s a rich array of medieval carving in these stalls, from satirical images such as the fox preaching to the geese, through bits of everyday life, to heraldic designs, such as the falcon and fetterlock badge of Richard Duke of York, lord of Ludlow. Here is a rather splendidly leonine king to give readers who’ve not seen the originals an idea of the quality of the carving. I must return when I can, and see if the churchwardens still allow photography.

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Cheltenham, Gloucestershire

Municipal picturesque

Cheltenham is a town of parks and gardens. Among the best known of these is Pittville Gardens (centrepiece of the Regency Pittville estate: squares, terraces, and vast detached villas), with swathes of lawn, mature trees, and a delightful ornamental lake. What a lot of visitors don’t realise is that this greenery continues on the other side of the main road that runs nearby, where there’s a large stretch of parkland around a bigger lake where people walk, exercise their dogs, or sit admiring the trees. Another activity possible here was to hire a rowing boat and row up and down the lake.

Boats need a boathouse and this wooden building, put up in the 1890s, was designed for this role, although nowadays it seems to be devoted mainly to the provision of socially distanced tea, coffee, and snacks.* It’s a simple structure of wooden frame and cladding with a practical, generously overhanging roof. The structure is reinforced or decorated with a further array of outside timbers, painted black, so that from a distance (the other side of the lake, say) it looks a bit like a ‘black and white’ cottage of the kind common in the Vale of Evesham just a few miles to the north.

It’s a bit of a sham, and a bit of a folly, but one devoted to a practical purpose and fitting for its site. And fitting for the town’s history in a way, because if it had been around in the early-19th century, knowledgeable visitors to this once fashionable inland resort would have seen it as picturesque in the sense of something added to create a landscape that looked good, just like a well composed landscape painting. Perhaps the local council had similar thoughts when they built the boathouse in the 1890s. The vessel Martha in the foreground, by the way, has been sliced in two and turned into a sheltering bench seat – a small and inviting bit of picturesque detail from a more recent era. Here’s to the varieties of municipal picturesque!

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Aylton, Herefordshire


Buildings great and small 

A while back, well before the curse that is Covid 19 restricted everyone’s movements, my son and his girlfriend, who live in London, came to visit us in the Cotswolds. At some point their two laptops were placed on our dining table, along with my own. So there were three silver laptops, all made by Apple and including one (belonging to my son) that had a much bigger screen than the other two. I was instantly reminded of Horace Walpole’s remark about the Brighton Pavilion: ‘It is as if the dome of St Paul’s had come down to Brighton and pupped.’ A similar thought stirred in my mind when I passed these farm buildings in a remote Herefordshire setting. This is an unremarkable sight – corrugated iron barns and sheds are everywhere – but I feel that part of what I’m for is to notice the unremarkable, which often seems to me to be standing around waiting to have remarks made about it.

It appears to have been in the 1820s that an engineer called Henry Robinson Palmer had the idea of putting corrugations into thin iron sheets, to make them stronger. He took out a patent in 1829 and designed large sheds for the London Dock Company, for which he worked, with corrugated iron roofs. These roofs were curved, giving them still greater strength and enabling water to run off, and from the mid-19th century onwards curved corrugated iron roofs – on everything from large railway train sheds to tiny trackside lamp huts – have been common.

The barn in my photograph is typical of this – capacious, curved-roofed, and bought prefabricated from a company that specialised in this kind of structure. As usual, their name appears on the gable end. This one bears he name Phillips & Co of Hereford, but many companies made iron buildings and Britain’s once extensive railway network allowed them to be delivered to a more or less convenient station, from which a local carrier would bring them to the site. This one did not have to travel far, but firms like Boulton & Paul of Norwich, Frederick Braby of Glasgow, or Hill & Smith of Brierley Hill, sent a variety of corrugated iron structures far and wide, including to distant corners of the British empire.

Next to this barn is what looks like its tiny offspring. At first, distant glance I took it to be a railway lamp hut repurposed for the farm, and maybe it is. But its sides don’t seem to be corrugated as they are on the classic lamp huts used for example by the Great Western Railway, so I think it’s more likely to be a home-made wooden shed roofed with corrugated iron to take advantage of this durable, practical, and inexpensive material. Whoever made it, I hope it still has years of service ahead of it.

Thursday, November 19, 2020

Great Malvern, Worcestershire

What shall we do at quarter to two…

Although I’ve passed it dozens of times, I’ve never photographed the front of the Post Office in Great Malvern. That’s surprising in a way, because it’s a memorable neo-Georgian building, mostly of brick, with a big hipped roof and a central section with three large stone semicircular arches that breaks forward on the ground floor. The contrast between the grand arches – two with windows, one with the doorway – of the central section and the modest remainder of the building makes it all look a bit awkward. But there’s something civic and satisfying about it nonetheless, as there often is with the many neo-Georgian Post Offices built in the 1930s.

As I was passing a few weeks ago, it occurred to me that, even if the front was too cluttered with cars to make a photograph worthwhile, I could at least take a detail of an arch or two. Above the doorway, the classical lettering (not the usual Post Office letterform, but still effective), the big keystone with date and royal monogram, the ironwork, even the little clock all work together. Maybe the clock is too small – I’d guess there was one with a slightly larger face there originally. Maybe the lettering would be clearer with a broader stroke width. But it’s all better than the plastic signage – or, worse, a Post Office stuck in a corner of a high street shop – that we get today. And look at the window arches: little reliefs of Mercury to signify in another way the building’s purpose and to delight the eye.

A quick web search yielded a decent photograph of the whole building. There are still cars outside, true, but the photographer struck lucky with the middle one. It’s a Morgan, a beautiful hand-made English sports car with a classic design. And it was made in Malvern, in a factory that still produces cars with a similar traditional design – it’s the car to see in this town. Meanwhile, as I sit indoors (where I am too often these days) I offer my thanks to the Post Office for its part in keeping the mail coming. This year, mail deliveries have been bringing a rich and strange assortment of goods – from printer paper to teabags, secondhand books to cleaning products – to our door. Such deliveries are just as much a lifeline now as when this Post Office was built in 1935.

Photograph below of Great Malvern Post Office by Bob Embleton CC BY-SA 2.0

Monday, November 16, 2020

Avebury, Wiltshire

Dream topping 

Was I dreaming? The west churchyard wall at Avebury seemed to have a roof of very neatly finished thatch. It seemed an unlikely covering for a wall made of sarsen stones, among the toughest kind around. The result seemed worthy at least of a photograph and some later research. 

Looking it up when I reached home, I discovered that this exceptional wall is listed at Grade II. The listing text describes the structure as built of ‘Squared sarsen approximately 1.6 m high, with topping of cob and thatched coping.’ So there we have it. The top of the wall, oddly is made of cob, a mix made with mud and vulnerable to damage if exposed to the rain. Wiltshire has many cob walls that have thatched coping, and this is one with a difference. 

The thatch also helps shelter a rather well cut monument to Francis Knowles, a biologist (and an FRS) and Professor of Anatomy at King’s College, London. Knowles bought the manor from Francis Keiller in 1955 and lovingly restored it.* It’s good that his memorial is nearby, protected by the thatched coping of the churchyard wall.  

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* The house is now owned by the National Trust, who did further conservation work around ten years ago. 

Friday, November 13, 2020

Avebury, Wiltshire

Humans and other animals

Another of the incidental joys of Avebury, ignored by many visitors, or at least taken in with a rapid glance, is this dovecote. It is not the first dovecote I’ve posted in the long history of this blog, which is in part here to celebrate buildings that are out of the ordinary run of domestic, religious, or industrial architecture (although there’s plenty of all that here too). I particularly like many dovecotes because they are round – a shape that’s visually pleasing but also well suited to an internal design in which a central post carries a ladder that can be rotated so that one can reach any one of the hundreds of nest boxes inside.

Like the museum in my previous post and the stones in Avebury’s great prehistoric circle, this building is made of sarsen stone, with a couple of details in brick. This helps this out of the ordinary structure belong in its grassy spot among a collection of buildings, including the wooden barn that houses one of Avebury’s two museum spaces and the stone stables now occupied by the other museum. Stables, barns, dovecotes: this corner of Avebury would once have been home to a variety of creatures. Now the human animal – behaving in an admirably civilized manner when we were there – is the most usual living thing, its English variety frequently in search of coffee or tea.