Saturday, May 14, 2022

St Mary in the Marsh, Kent


On the marsh, 2

Of the many churches on Romney Marsh, St Mary in the Marsh is now one of my favourites. Standing alone except for a pub and a small group of houses, it signals its presence with a lovely splay-footed spire, on which the shingles make the transition from the the upper steep slope of the spire to the lower splay with a satisfying curve. From a little nearer one can see a small church of grey stone and the red roof tiles so common in Kent and Sussex, mostly built in c. 1300. On either side of the porch, though, are two large later windows of two round-headed lights and dripstone in the shape of a shallow arch – the hybrid form of design is a feature of that late Gothic (but without pointed arches) that antiquarians used to sneer at and call ‘debased’. These two windows are said to have been inserted in around 1800. On making their acquaintance, I was inclined to ignore the antiquarians’ sneers and to like them, and to reflect that their clear glass should make for a pleasant, light interior.

And so it proves. Inside, the church is whitewashed, paved with quarry tiles, furnished with box pews, and topped with crown-post roofs. These elements suggest that there has been no Victorian restoration and that nothing much beyond discreet repair has been done to the building since the insertion of those two large windows. The arms of George III, vigorously painted on canvas, no doubt by a local artist, adorn the north aisle. The result is both beautiful and, as we stood there on a quiet spring afternoon, it exuded an atmosphere of spirituality that made one happy to be present.

Wednesday, May 4, 2022

New Romney, Kent

On the Marsh, 1

Driving across Romney Marsh in Kent, near the border with Sussex, you cross a flat landscape, characterized by pasture, occasional drainage channels, and isolated, scattered settlements. Here and there the emptiness is relieved by a small medieval church and here and there you spot tiny buildings in fields, like stone or brick sheds. Too small to be houses or barns, they’re lookers’ huts, a unique phenomenon of the marsh, and one that might have vanished completely had it not been for the interest of a few enthusiasts.

The lookers owed their existence to the economic changes that occurred after the Black Death in the mid-14th century. The plague killed a vast number of people (estimates vary between a half and one-third of the population), and the remaining landlords on the marsh bought up small landholdings that no longer had owners or tenants and combined them into larger estates. Here they ran sheep in extensive flocks, and they employed ‘lookers’ to tend them. Lookers worked over a large area, and needed a base where they could store equipment and food, and that would sometimes provide a bed for the night. Hence their huts, which were basic in the extreme (one window, a door) but also had a chimney so that the looker could keep warm in the winter. The lookers’ huts that survive today are not as old as the 14th century – I’d guess most of them are 19th century.

The huts were useful all the year round and vital during the lambing season, when the sheep needled to be constantly checked and cared for, and during shearing, the shepherd’s other time of intensive hands-on work. By the early-20th century, agriculture and then transport were transformed, and there was no longer a need for lookers or their huts. Although robust, many of these buildings, left to decay, have now gone. Around 20 remain, some well maintained, others in ruins. The example in my photograph is a reconstructed looker’s hut at the Romney Marsh Visitor Centre, outside New Romney. It’s there to explain the story of the lookers and their buildings and, as long as a few huts remain in situ, to answer the inevitable questions of observant tourists, who want to know why these tiny structures were sited in the middle of Kentish fields.

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For an account of the similar ‘hovels’ of Worcestershire, see my earlier post, here.

Friday, April 29, 2022

Hardham, Sussex

Ribs, bellies, pointing fingers…

Andrew Graham-Dixon, in a recent talk I heard, engaged enthusiastically with English medieval art. He pointed out that 99 per cent of it has been lost, as a result mainly of the various depredations of the Reformation. But he quickly encouraged his listeners to look at the quality of what’s left. His energetic praise for astonishing remnants of large-scale medieval woodcarving (the Abergavenny Jesse, the Cullompton golgotha, both staggering) was infectious. I hope it made people want to make immediate pilgrimages to Gwent and Devon. And the wall-paintings, faded and defaced, are still there in their faint and sometimes barely distinguishable scores. They make one strain to make out details, and marvel.

There’s a marvellous group of churches in Sussex in which frescoes survive in surprising quantity. Occasional details emerge from them to give us an idea of their quality too. One of the best is the small church at Hardham, near Pulborough. I’d been meaning to go there for years, and was glad I visited a few days ago. It’s surprising, if you’ve not read about it, to come across this tiny church in which both spaces, nave and chancel, are full of wall-to-wall frescoes, and that these paintings date from around 1100. They’re very faded, but some of the subjects – a Flight into Egypt, an Annunciation – are not hard to identify.

One of the very best is the temptation of Adam and Eve, not least because the two main figures are bounded by strong outlines, enabling their graphic impact to hit us in the eyeballs. Ribs, bellies, pointing fingers, and Eve’s hand with which she is taking the apple, are all beautifully clear. Only the area around Adam’s groin has been defaced – the Puritans, no doubt, were here. Satan, a fat, coiled serpent, is less clear at the tail end, but has wings (well delineated) and passes the apple from his mouth to Eve’s hand. She points to the apple with her other hand, as if to encourage Adam.

It’s easy to become so carried away with some details that one misses others, some of which are very surprising. Above the painting of the Annunciation and the Visitation in the nave, for example, is an inscription in Latin, a hexameter, and in Lombardic capitals too: ‘VIRGO SALUTATUR STERILIS FECUNDA PROBATUR’ (The virgin is greeted; the infertile woman is shown to be fruitful’*). It’s wrong to think of medieval wall paintings as the unsophisticated products of an illiterate culture. Few medieval people could read and write, but some could, priests (generally) could do so, and would have explained to others what the words meant – as they would also have explained the stories behind the pictures,† whose quality need not astound us – though their preservation is a cause for wonder.

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* I think. I have very little Latin and less Greek.

† It’s generally thought that sermonizing was not a major part of early medieval religion and the notion of their being ‘the Bible of the poor’ is, I think, only one aspect of wall paintings’ significance and use. But explanation, reflection, and literacy for some provided the key to meanings at which many, for all their literacy, have to struggle to understand today.

Monday, April 25, 2022

Great Malvern, Worcestershire

The Worm

Years ago, when I started this blog, Great Malvern station was one of the buildings I wanted to include. Its combination of impressive sandstone masonry, typical of its architect E. W. Elmslie, and ornate ironwork makes it one of my favourite stations. But back then, there was one feature of this station I did not know about. My recent photograph shows the view towards the tracks from the railway bridge in Avenue Road, close to the station. Next to the tracks, and curving away from them, is a structure of masonry, wood and corrugated iron. It’s a walkway linking Platform 2 with the building that was the Imperial Hotel, on the other side of the road.*

This extraordinary passage – which as far as I know is unique – was a concession to visitors, because you do not come to the West of England for the weather and there is a good chance of getting rained on if you leave the station and cross the road to your hotel. It’s wet here in the West, so if you were more hoity-toity than hoi polloi, you could get straight off your train and walk the short distance to your hotel without getting wet. This direct route is also quicker than going out of the main entrance and doubling back before crossing the road. Exclusivity, comfort, and convenience, Great Malvern Station offered it all.

The locals would look down from the bridge (as visitors travelling through it did not) and marvel at the elegance of its corrugated iron roof, with its slight curving dip towards the eaves. With its clever use of the flexible quality of corrugated iron, combined with the ornate cresting on top and the ornamental supporting framework beneath, it might have made them proud. But they had a sense of humour, and coined a nickname for the posh passengers’ pathway: they called it ‘the worm’.

It must be at least 50 years since the worm has been used, during which time the hotel closed, its building taken over by a school. Rusty and largely unregarded, the structure clings on, amid periodic schemes to restore it. It’s listed, so there’s hope. Long may the worm wriggle.

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*The hotel and bridge are by Elmslie too.

Thursday, April 21, 2022

Bridgnorth, Shropshire

 

Tribute bands

It’s easy to be dismissive about this sort of thing: a pattern of faux-timber framing painted on to a brick wall. ‘It’s not real,’ people say, hinting that it’s such a complete fake that it hardly exists at all. It’s the sort of thing you see quite often in counties such as Shropshire and Worcestershire, where there’s a long tradition of genuine timber-framed buildings. You’ll enter a ‘black and white’ village and stand at one end, admiring the view. Then you walk slowly forwards, realising as you go that, while many of the timbers are real, structural wood, a few are of this painted variety…and that there might also be some that are indeed genuine timber but are merely ornamental, tacked on to make the building look old.

There’s another ‘authenticity’ issue to consider when looking at this kind of thing. The familiar and much loved ‘black and white’ pattern of timber-framed buildings is itself something not quite original – most such buildings were constructed of oak that was left untreated, so that it aged to a beautiful silvery grey; infill panels were sometimes coloured with some natural pigment. Pink and grey, anyone? You can find this combination right across England now, from Tewkesbury to Lavenham.

So painted timber framing on a building like this one in a corner of Bridgnorth is obviously fake. And yet I’d not always want to remove it, to reveal the colour of the brickwork in a gesture of architectural ‘honesty’. Why? Because fake timber framing is itself now part of the history of many buildings. It is, one could argue, as much a part of the story of vernacular architecture in the West of England as oak beams and cruck frames. And it speaks of many things – an interest in history, or a respect for and tribute to the appearance of genuine timber frames, or a desire for a building to ‘fit in’. I’d not want every building to be like this, but I’m happy to find them here and there, wearing their artificial struts and showy braces with pride – and making some of us smile as we realise what’s going on.

Sunday, April 17, 2022

Hereford

Interesting old rubble

Back in November last year, the Resident Wise Woman and I made a trip to Hereford, with the aim of revisiting the cathedral (see my post Pigs in Blankets from back then) and doing a little early Christmas shopping. One of the joys of exploring once more a building of the size and age of a medieval cathedral is that there’s always some detail to find that one hasn’t spotted before, or that had escaped one’s memory – the joy of rediscovery is almost as great as the wonder of a totally new find.

I can’t remember seeing this pile of architectural fragments before. They’re kept in a passage off the cloisters, and are testimony to the sort of change and upheaval that is very much of the essence of large medieval buildings. All the great English medieval cathedrals, with the partial exception of Salisbury, are the fruit of centuries of extension, rebuilding, and design alteration – much of which took place before the Reformation brought its own cataclysmic transformations. Usually this history of change is perfectly clear from the fabric of the building – changes of architectural style from one part to the next, joins in the walls that don’t quite match, differences in the design of windows and vaults, and so on and on. Occasionally though, there’s another kind of evidence, in the form of preserved fragments like these.

All too often pieces of stone that came from a demolished or altered part of the building were reused or simply discarded as so much old rubble. Here some have been kept as a miniature museum of architectural oddments. A lot of the Hereford fragments are carved capitals from the Norman or Romanesque period. Whoever put them here clearly admired the artistry of their carving, even if they no longer felt they were worth actually keeping in situ. Among them are quite simple scalloped capitals, quite a bit of vigorous interlace design, and the occasional monster. But there are also other gems of medieval carving – a bird, a small capital from a shaft with some stylized Gothic carving, a foliate head with tongue sticking out flanked by leaves, a beast with exaggeratedly spiralling horns.

Who knows who put these carvings here, or when? Hereford cathedral suffered many vicissitudes between the 17th and 19th centuries. It was damaged during the English Civil Wars, repaired after a tower collapse in the 18th century, and comprehensively and somewhat drastically restored in the 19th century by Lewis Nockalls Cottingham, his son (also Nockalls), and George Gilbert Scott. Major alterations to the west front were done in the early 1900s by John Oldrid Scott, George Gilbert Scott’s son. Any of these could have been responsible – part of the work of ‘restoration’ was ‘correcting’ what was seen as uncouth non-Gothic medieval work with fabric in a style of Gothic that the Victorians thought better. We can be thankful for the small mercy of these preserved blocks of stone.

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Long ago I did a post about another collection of medieval fragments, here.

Monday, April 11, 2022

Gloucester

The Golden Minster

Dominating a small patch of green space by St Oswald’s Road in Gloucester is a piece of wall with a story going back more than one thousand years.

In around 900, Æthelflæd, daughter of King Alfred the Great, built a large church, known at first as the New Minster, in Gloucester. It became a shrine when Æthelflæd and her brother Edward led a military expedition into Lincolnshire, which was then occupied by the Vikings, and brought back a number of holy relics. Amongst these were the bones of St Oswald, who had been king of Northumbria, a keen supporter of the spread of Christianity in the North of England, and bringer of St Aidan to his kingdom to preach the Christian faith. Oswald’s saintly life – both his encouragement of Christian missionaries like Aidan and his selfless support of the poor – led people to revere him, and after his death miracles were said to take place at his grave. It was said too that miracles occurred at his shrine in the church at Gloucester, to which so much wealth flowed that it become known as the Golden Minster.

After the Norman conquest the minster became an Augustinian priory (one of several priories and friaries in the city) and the building was extended to provide domestic quarters for the monks, to create accommodation for guests, and to upgrade the church. However, in the 16th century the priory was dissolved by Henry VIII and the church was partially demolished. Part of the building survived as a parish church but by 1656 this had been replaced with another building and soon just this wall was left.

The surviving hotchpotch is not much, just part of one wall of the nave, but even this shows several different phases of the building. The semicircular arches are early medieval; the pointed arches represent the later extension of the priory church to the west, and the walls that infill the spaces beneath the arches date from the period after the dissolution when the building was reduced in size for use as a parish church. It’s a rather sad ruin, in a little visited part of the city, probably mostly just glanced at by motorists as they whiz past on a nearby ring road. A reminder of the ways in which this large city changed over the centuries, from a religious centre to an industrial and trading one, of how much has been lost, but of how many traces of the past remain for those with the time and the eyes to see.