Friday, December 8, 2023

Shrewton, Wiltshire


Looking through my pictures the other day for something else, I found this picture that I took years ago and probably meant to blog. It’s the gate lodge to an adjacent manor house and stands proud and white near a road junction (near where the village lock-up is also to be found), a very effective architectural signpost, as it were, to the gate to the larger dwelling. It’s built of cob, a material consisting of earth, water, sand, and straw. Cob is associated most closely with Devon, Cornwall, and Norfolk, although it’s also found in Wiltshire (and in Buckinghamshire, where it’s known as wychert). The walls are likely to be quite thick (about 2 ft) and offer good heat insulation, but need a well maintained overhanging roof to keep them dry. This one has a hipped roof of thatch to do the job.

The Gothic windows suggest a late-18th century date, which is what is suggested in the official listing description of this building. The house looks substantial, and also has a modern extension, part of which is just visible in my photograph, so would provide accommodation for someone who worked for the owners of the manor house, together with their family. I’ve written blog posts about several lodges before,* including a number with thatched roofs, because these are often striking, ornamental buildings. I was glad to find this one again among my pictures, and looking at it has made me resolve to return to Shrewton one day – according to the revised Pevsner volume for Wiltshire, there’s a cob crinkle-crankle wall somewhere nearby, which I missed. When you visit a place once, there’s nearly always something else to see when you retiurn.

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* For more, click the word ‘lodge’ in the list of topics in the right-hand column.

Friday, December 1, 2023

Birlingham, Worcestershire



Many English churches were built in the Victorian period. Lots of these served new parishes, created to serve a population that was growing faster than ever before. But some were replacements of older buildings, churches that had deteriorated structurally, or were too small for current needs, or just had the misfortune to have been built in a way that offended Victorian sensibilities. When this was the case, one cannot help but wonder what the original building was like, and whether it was really necessary to knock it down.

Sometimes there are clues in old watercolours or engravings, or written accounts by antiquarians. Occasionally, there are architectural fragments of the old building sill to be seen. This is the case in the village of Birlingham, where the Norman chancel arch of the old church (rebuilt in 1871–72 by Benjamin Ferrey with the exception of the tower) was reused as the gateway to the churchyard. So what could have become a heap of rubble has been turned into a rather grand ceremonial entrance. It does, of course, contain much 19th-century workmanship (‘much renewed by Ferrey’ is Pevsner’s comment), but it gives us an idea of the old arch, and forms a pleasant focal point (not to mention a talking-point) in the centre of the village. Here’s to recycling.

Monday, November 20, 2023

Launceston, Cornwall

Music for a long while

On several occasions when exploring English buildings I’ve come across ancient carvings of musicians. Blog posts from years ago have featured a bagpiper in Cornwall and a player of a medieval woodwind instrument called a rackett in Gloucestershire. Some years ago in Cornwall again, visiting St Mary Magdalene’s church at Launceston, I found a whole band of musicians carved into the stone of the outside walls.

Launceston church, like many in Cornwall, is built of local granite, one of the hardest of all stones and difficult, for that reason, to carve. Yet the stonemasons of Launceston, rebuilding the church in around 1511, were determined to decorate it as ornately as any other. In fact I can’t think of another English parish church so richly encrusted with carvings – Pevsner says that the building is decorated with ‘barbarous profuseness’. I’d not use such loaded language. I find the carvings fascinating, and I’m awed by the masons who could carve this intractable material, even though the granite’s hard surface means that they could not carve with the depth or detail that they might have achieved in, for example, limestone.

Amongst the decorative profusion – leaves, ferns, roses, thistles, pomegranates, heraldry – are several relief carvings showing musicians (in the upper left part of my photograph: click it for an enlargement). In the photograph are a fiddler, a lutenist, and a harpist, forming a kind of procession led by an official or cleric with a chain around his neck. Other panels show a bagpiper and a shawm player. Some or all the musicians are probably members of a group called the Confratrie Ministralorum Beate Marie Magdalene (the Brotherhood of Minstrels of Blessed Mary Magdalene), and so were almost certain to have played in St Mary Magdalene’s church.* Some scholars believe that, this being the case, the carvings of the instruments would have been quite realistic, unlike carvings of instrumentalists on gargoyles, for example, which were more likely to have been caricatures, and unlike angels carved in roofs, where ‘realism’ has to be aided by imagination and where the instruments may be generic. Alas! the wear and tear of time, together with the granite’s toughness, have scuppered our chances of making out much detail today.

Nevertheless, one of the joys of visiting old churches is the evidence they give of the activities of the past generations who built and used them. It’s good to find these musicians here and to think about the kinds of sounds they might have made in a market town in Cornwall some 500 years ago.

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* St Mary herself, resting with her pot of ointment, is visible to the right of the musicians.

Tuesday, November 14, 2023

Chipping Campden, Gloucestershire

Clean-up time

Beside the street opposite Chipping Campden’s 17th-century almshouses is this unusual feature. It now looks like a stretch of paved road that dips below the normal street level and it was originally full of water. This is a cart wash, and it dates to the early-19th century. Back then, mud could build up badly on cart wheels – not only on carts that had been in the fields, but on those hauled along rough and sometimes rutted roads or tracks. So the idea of a public cart wash was to enable carters to clean the mud off their wheels before entering the centre of town.

There was another use of the cart wash and this was to stand the vehicle in it for a while, to give the wheels a good soaking. Old-fashioned horse-drawn carts had wooden wheels protected by metal tyres around the rims. If the wheels got too dry, the tyres could loosen and fall off. Soaking the wheels was a way of making them expand a little, to tighten the tyres and keep the wooden wheels properly protected.

The world of horse-drawn carts and their maintenance seems remote now, but it’s not that long ago. I never knew my great uncle, whose business involved carting goods around rural north Lincolnshire, although my mother remembered him fondly. Just over a century ago, such people played an important role in rural communities, as did the men who built and repaired their carts. The Wheelwright’s Shop, George Sturt’s evocative 1923 account of this world of craftsmanship and toil, is well worth reading. Seeing Chipping Campden’s Cotswold stone cart wash brings it all back.

Wednesday, November 8, 2023

Ledbury, Herefordshire


This beautiful sign in Ledbury has a special resonance for me, because I had a much-loved relative who was a confectioner. R, a cousin of my mother’s, could do the lot, from chocolate work to making boiled sweets, from seaside rock to luxurious coconut ice or fudge. For a while he had a shop next to a venue – a combined cinema and theatre – where famous stars performed. Many of them dropped in for something sweet and some came back whenever they were performing next door. The demise of live gigs there was a blow, and he moved on.

His wares were good enough to sell without advertisement, and his shop didn’t have a wonderful glass sign like this. But what a joy it is.* That graceful lettering with its gradually widening and narrowing stroke widths is a delight: how difficult it must have been to do that in glass. Just as good is the crazy-paving style background, made up of glass so richly coloured it reminds me of Fruit Gums.¶ I know, I know: there weren’t blue Fruit Gums. But the raspberry red, lemon yellow, lime green, and orange seem to fit the part.

Not knowing for sure the date of this glazing, I’m going to suggest a vague ‘early 20th century’. I like to imagine glazing like this lit from behind on a dark night, so that the colours glow. Bulbs placed behind the sign could also shine their light downwards, to illuminate the goods in the window, drawing the eyes of passers-by, making their mouths water, and luring them inside. Delicious!

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* It will be even clearer if you click on the picture to enlarge it. 

¶ Rowntree’s Fruit Gums: fruit sweets that were part of my childhood and which turn out to be still available, in the UK at least.

Thursday, November 2, 2023

Strand, London

Tea break

The last few months have seen me wind down my paid work as part of my preparation for retirement. This process has involved saying farewell to my time as a teacher of courses – I did my last in August – and I have just done what is probably the last of my various talks and lectures. I’ve enjoyed this activity hugely. One of the drawbacks of life as an author is that writing is a solitary activity. Getting out and speaking and teaching means I get out and meet people, mostly people I’d never have met otherwise. I’ll miss that, but I’ll not be sorry to give up the travelling. In the past, driving to a venue to teach or speak has had the bonus of taking me to new places and countryside too. But increasingly it is feeling like hard work.

My last talk happens to be one I call ‘Great British Brands’, a brief introduction to the history of a number of famous food and drink brands, a subject that caught my interest when I wrote a book about the history ofd shops and shopping, years ago. Among the companies featured in the talk is Twining’s, one of the most celebrated British tea brands, which has been going strong for more than 300 years, albeit these days as a part of a larger conglomerate. So here’s a picture of the entrance to Twining’s premises in London’s Strand, the site where the founder, Thomas Twining, set up Tom’s Coffee House in 1706.

Tom, who was from a family of Gloucestershire weavers, came with his family to London to find work, did his weaver’s apprenticeship, but decided that he’d prefer to work for one of London’s merchants instead. The merchant was handling shipments of tea, and Tom eventually went it alone in the tea trade. He succeeded because tea was newly fashionable and because he sold dry tea to women, who were not allowed into conventional coffee houses in London, which were men-only. This doorway is later than the original coffee house, and was built for Tom’s grandson, Richard Twining, in 1787. The two men in Chinese dress refer to the source of the tea and the lion symbolises Twining’s dry tea and coffee shop, which was known as the Golden Lion.

And so you see even a talk on food brands has been an excuse to show people memorable bits of architecture and design – from Cadbury’s factory at Bournville to shop signs advertising Hovis bread. For now, I’m not retiring from sharing similar things on this blog, for those who are interested enough to look and read about them over a cup of tea, and, I hope, go and see for themselves.

Sunday, October 29, 2023

Walford, Herefordshire

Not so primitive, 2

Spotted on the same day as the chapel in my previous post, this building is in Walford, between Brampton Bryan and Leintwardine in far northwest Herefordshire. It’s another Primitive Methodist chapel and, like the one in Weobley, it’s a brick building with a pitched roof and stone dressings around the windows and doors. And yet it looks very different from the Weobley chapel because it’s in the Gothic style – all the openings are pointed and those at the front have some extra elaboration in the form of carved terminations to the hood moulds over the windows and doorway. There’s also a charming quatrefoil-shaped opening in the gable, the frame of which contains the inscription, ‘Primitive Methodist Chapel 1866’.

The wing to the right was built as a schoolroom. Its glazing bars have a simpler pattern than those at the front of the chapel, but are still probably original. Both roofs are enhanced by curvaceous bargeboards of a kind I associate more with large suburban villas than Primitive Methodist Chapels, but why should the devil have all the good carpentry?

As can be seen from the signage, the chapel, the building is not longer used for worship, housing instead a gallery where drawings are exhibited. Chapels can make good gallery spaces, and this seems a dream use for such a building that is no longer required for its original purpose. Someone said that the latest art galleries, designed by starry architects and filled with works that are designed to shock or awe, are the cathedrals of our time. But I appreciate this chapel-gallery too.*

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* See the gallery’s website for information about The Drawing Gallery and its exhibitions.