Friday, February 16, 2018

Brant Broughton, Lincolnshire

February carvery (4)

For my final short post about church carvings, here’s one from Brant Broughton. This time it’s on the outside of the building and shows a beast less ambiguous than the Much Marcle creatures: a bear, by the look of things, and one that has been chained and muzzled. A dacning bear, perhaps, and part of a long and cruel tradition, but accepted in the Middle Ages and in some parts of the world today.

He’s part of a large collection of carvings high up on the outer walls, a display that reminded me of some of the glorious North Oxfordshire churches such as Adderbury. Like that area, Lincolnshire, and the bordering parts of Nottinghamshire, seem to have had a strong local tradition of medieval carving – and, in many places, enough prosperity to employ master craftsmen to do this work. Positioned on an outside wall, the bear and his neighbours have worn quite a lot. But there’s enough strength in the stone, and a bit of shelter from the cornice above, to ensure they still give pleasure.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Much Marcle, Herefordshire

February carvery (3)

A few years back I did a post about the great yew tree in the churchyard at Much Marcle and I’ve always meant to go back and look again at the church there. One reason is these charming, and rather odd, carvings, which I’ve chosen for the next in my series of short posts. Some of the capitals in this church are a cut above the usual parish church fare of plain mouldings, stiff leaf, or more realistic foliage.

Here we have a row of heads – and what else? A bird with a tail that has turned into a bit of foliage to the right of the central head; another creature with bird-like body but animal-like head on the other side, again with a foliate tail. We seem to be in the realms of the bestiary here. I’m intrigued, and, yes, when life is less busy, going back and having a further look must be on my list of expeditions.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Southwell, Nottinghamshire

February carvery (2)

For the next of my short posts showing medieval church carvings, an example from the best place of all to see this sort of thing: the chapter house at Southwell Minster. This is one of the great medieval rooms, a feast of carving, much of it very realistic depictions of leaves. Ever since Nikolaus Pevsner worse his little book about them (The Leaves of Southwell), they’ve been known among architecture buffs. But Southwell is not a major tourist centre, and Southwell Minster is one of our quietest major churches.

I’ve chosen an example from above one of the seats ranged around the wall. Not a Green Man with foliage coming out of his mouth or nostrils, but a face encircled with leaves. A beautiful way to fill up this space above the arch, and one of the best preserved of the carvings in Southwell’s chapter house. A real delicacy from the carvery.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Navenby, Lincolnshire

February carvery (1)

Life is very busy at the moment, so for the next two weeks or so, I’m going do to some short posts. I thought a common theme, medieval church carving, might be entertaining, and would enable me to share a few more pictures from some recent discoveries and rediscoveries.

To begin with, a bit of early-14th century Gothic from the chancel at Navenby. This is what 14th-century Gothic is meant to look like: lots of little arches and niches, so smothered with ornament that you can hardly see the structure – crockets, finials, pinnacles everywhere. But here, as so often, there’s also a human touch – little heads that make it all less serious, one sticking its tongue out, another with a rather grumpy expression. This visitor went away far from grumpy.

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Highley, Worcestershire

The signs of yesteryear

In the words of Chard Whitlow, Henry Reed’s amusing parody of T. S. Eliot, ‘As we get older we do not get any younger’. As I get older, I can’t say I experience outright rudeness that often, although the world is not short of oafish behaviour, as a swift walk through any provincial town on a Friday night will reveal. I wonder, though, whether in days gone by it wasn’t worse. One certainly might think so, look at old notices aimed at improving people’s behaviour. You didn’t have to go far before encountering a ‘COMMIT NO NUISANCE’ (low down, where an inconvenienced ‘gentleman’ might ‘aim’), an ‘ANYONE SMOKING WILL BE PROSECUTED’ (more likely at eye level), a ‘PLEASE REFRAIN FROM SPITTING’ (on buses), a ‘GENTLEMEN RAISE THE SEAT’¶ (on trains), or even an ‘ANY PERSON WILFULLY INJURING ANY PART OF THIS BRIDGE WILL BE GUILTY OF FELONY AND UPON CONVICTION LIABLE TO BE TRANSPORTED FOR LIFE’ (on bridges, in Dorset).

Oh, the signs of yesteryear. So people really had to be told not to spit on the bus or piddle in the corner? I suppose they did, oafs being as thick on the ground then as now, and hygiene being as important then as ever. So the Victorians and Edwardians got on and told them, in bold painted notices and cast-iron signs. Maybe some people even took notice of the notices. But above all, I suppose, it’s the language that marks them out, with its bracing mixture of euphemism (‘nuisance’) and dire warning (‘transported for life’).

A sign of the euphemistic sort that I’d never seen was ‘PLEASE ADJUST YOUR DRESS BEFORE LEAVING’. How can I have missed that one? Too busy admiring the plumbing in the Gents? I don’t know. I became aware of the existence of such signs years ago, reading an excellent book, The Faber Book of Parodies.* This contains not only the poem quoted at the beginning of this post, but a further go at T. S. Eliot, a sort of synoptic parody, called Sweeney in Articulo, attributed to Myra Buttle.† One section of this mock-epic concludes with a random-seeming bunch of quotations, in allusion to the allusive way in which Eliot’s The Waste Land ends. There’s one from Baudelaire, a bit of Latin, some Chinese characters, and then, mixing the highfalutin with the lowly:

‘Love thy neighbour as thyself,’
‘Couldn’t you bring better weather with you?’ and,
Above all,
‘Please adjust your dress before leaving.’

Like anything about T S Eliot, the poem has to have footnotes, and the final line is glossed, ‘Reproduced by permission of Westminster City Council’.

I was thrilled, therefore, some forty years on from reading the parody, to visit the railway station at Highley on the Severn Valley Railway§ and find, not only a ‘Paisley’ water cistern by Doulton and Co, looking like a large butler’s sink painted black, held above my head on two very sturdy iron brackets, but also this notice, a cast-iron plate with letters picked out in white on a black background. Thank you to the Severn Valley Railway for paying attention to the small things. As one must do when adjusting one’s dress before leaving…

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¶ Jonathan Miller, in Beyond the Fringe, offered the suggestion that this might be a loyal toast.

* Dwight MacDonald (ed), The Faber Book of Parodies (Faber and Faber, 1961)

† After wondering for a minute whether ‘Myra Buttle’ might be a pseudonym of one of my Oxford tutors, Marilyn Butler, I read that Myra Buttle was a Cambridge don, a Sinologist called Victor Purcell. Anyone who likes parodies might also want to search out Myra Buttle, The Sweeniad (Secker & Warburg, 1958), which contains the Sweeney epic. 

§ Like many preserved railway lines, the Severn Valley is a good hunting-ground for sign-fanciers: it has an abundance of old enamel advertising signs.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Stewkley, Buckinghamshire


When looking at a building form the outside, we often think in terms of its façade, ‘The face or front of a building towards a street or other open place, esp. the principal front,’ as the OED has it. Lots of buildings – Palladian houses, Victorian town halls, Gothic cathedrals – have very beautiful façades, formal, symmetrical, and attention-grabbing.

Medieval English parish churches, though, often don’t have formal façades in this way. They have their entrances on the side, usually the south side, and churches aren’t usually symmetrical from the side. The porch might have a grand frontage, but there’s nothing you could call a façade. Cathedrals traditionally have their main entrance at the west end, so buildings like Peterborough and Wells cathedral have beautiful west fronts. But parish churches rarely have west fronts because they have western towers: the view from the west is usually of a tower and the ends of two aisles sticking out at either side.

Here’s an exception, though. The church at Stewkley, built by the Normans, has a central tower, leaving room for a grand entrance façade facing the street, at the west end (photograph above). And very odd it is too. There’s a central doorway, decorated with chevron ornament and flanks by two blind arches, also with chevron. This is a pleasantly balanced group of features, although the bifurcated or double arch above the door is rather odd. Above the door it gets odder, with a single, rather meanly small window crashing into the top of the doorway arch and a tiny round window high above. The window above the door owes its size and position to the fact that it matches windows on the flanking walls, by the way.

I find all this rather eccentric in its mixture of balance below and gaucheness above. Not that I mind eccentricity – this blog has been thriving on architectural eccentricity for years. I think what we’re looking at here is a builder working things out as he goes along, and making a stab at doing something that he didn’t often get the chance to do: building a symmetrical façade for a substantial church.
Stewkley church, from the south

Saturday, January 27, 2018


Squared up

To complete my trio of posts from Lincoln, here’s a couple of street name signs that caught my eye. I can’t say I like them quite as much as the strong and characterful Egyptian letters that I’ve always admired in Louth, my favourite Lincolnshire market town, northeast of Lincoln itself on the way to the coast. The Louth signs have everything going for them, it seems to me – clarity, distinctiveness, a style that works well across the varied town centre, a coherent overall shape.

These Lincoln signs, by contrast, have letters which seem rather constricted. This is particularly true of some of the rounded letters, the S especially, which looks as if it has been squashed so that it has flattened at the top and bottom. The same effect appears on the O, although the curve of the U has a more rounded form. However, the signs are clear, and the even effect when the letters are set quite close together. as in ’St Swithins Square’ is elegant. The border, formed like a picture frame, is effective too, and unusual in my experience.*

The more I look at these signs, the more I like them. And they are wearing well, although the left-hand one could perhaps do with a bit of rubbing down and painting up. I’d much rather have these than the flat, plastic signboards that are now so common in many places. I hope Lincoln hangs on to them.

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* I’m having fun, by the way, trying to guess what was painted on the wall before the signs were fitted. The ghostly letter that’s just visible does not seem to be of the current street name.