Friday, September 15, 2017



I was saddened to read about the demolition of a Jacobean plaster ceiling in a building in Bristol the other day. This beautiful piece of craftsmanship, which was neatly 400 years old, was in a building in Small Street which had been a bar and which a developer is converting into student flats. The removal of the ceiling was quite legal, but an application had been made to protect the building by listing it and the destruction of the plasterwork was carried out before the listings officers from Historic England had been able to inspect the building and carry out their assessment.

This sort of thing is not unusual. My mind went back to one of the most famous cases, the Firestone factory in West London, which was bulldozered over a Bank Holiday weekend in 1980, hours before a listing was due to come into force. The Bristol case is different – even if they’d had the chance to look at it, the inspectors may have decided not to list the building – but just as deplorable: 400 years of history gone with a few strokes of the sledgehammer.

There is a way of making pre-emptive demolition more difficult: introducing interim protection of buildings while the listings assessment takes place. Such a system already operates in Wales and in the opinion of many it’s time it did in England too. A petition, supported by groups such as the C20 Society, has been started to urge the government to bring in such a measure. I’d encourage readers who can do so to sign the petition here.

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The picture above comes from the SAVE Britain's Heritage website, where there is more about the ceiling here

Monday, September 11, 2017

Walpole St Peter, Norfolk

It does something to me

A regular reader of the English Buildings blog, or someone glancing at the tag cloud in the right-hand column, would realise quickly that churches are a major interest of mine. I visit churches a lot, and I seem to blog about a church at least once a month. Many things draw me to churches – sometimes it’s their long history, sometimes their architecture, sometimes specific objects or works of art they contain, sometimes what I can only call their atmosphere.

The atmosphere I most eagerly savour is the kind that is summoned up by centuries of accumulated history. It’s what I find, typically, in small isolated country churches that have not been over-restored – churches like Inglesham in Wiltshire, to give just one favourite example. There’s something else I get from churches like that, and it’s signalled perhaps by the world ‘isolated’. In a world that contains, in my opinion, far too much noise, a church can be an almost silent place. I find quietude helpful, even restorative, and value the combination of quiet and atmosphere* found in some old churches enough make a special journey to find it.

But there’s another thing that sometimes happens in churches that is the opposite of silence, and can be equally nourishing: the sudden unexpected performance of music. I have been surprised by music in churches quite a few times, and it has always made my visit memorable. This is not, or not usually, run of the mill organ practice – though I have been captivated by that too (one organ piece I heard, in Gloucester cathedral, stayed in my head for years before I discovered what it was). What I mean is rehearsals for special musical events. From time to time I have come across a trio playing Mendelssohn, a choir singing Handel, a bizarre duet for organ and violin, a Schubert impromptu on the piano, and an unidentified baroque cantata – all of these in old churches. All have given me pleasure, in part because these ad hoc performances have been a total surprise.

It’s not just about church acoustics, which can vary quite a bit. In one of our more beautiful cathedrals I can remember a choral rehearsal in which it took me a few minutes to grasp the fact that the words the choir were singing were English ones – the reverberation was playing havoc with the singers’ diction. After a while the conductor dropped her arms in despair, bringing everyone to a halt, and wailed desperately,’I need to hear the altos!’ Often, though, church acoustics are crystal clear. The setting, conducive to worship, is also likely to be apt for the kind of attention that good, unamplified music demands. And in a small church one can get very close to the performers, lending great immediacy to the proceedings.

At Walpole St Peter in Norfolk, the church offers many of the things I most enjoy – airy, late-medieval architecture with repeating patterns of window tracery, impressive woodwork including screens and pews with carved poppyheads and other details, clear glass that lets the sun bathe the interior with light and warmth. But it was music that was in my mind even before I walked past the notice reminding me to remove the pattens from my feet¶ and pushed open the door. I have a recording of a fine Bach concert by the English Baroque Soloists and Monteverdi Choir under John Eliot Gardiner that was made in this glorious 15th-century church. How wonderful it would be, I thought, if someone’s playing Bach in here. Imagine my surprise as I opened the door to hear not ‘Wachet auf’ or ‘Jesu, meine Freude’ but a woman singing Cole Porter. There followed a long selection from the American songbook, most of it beautifully sung, a rehearsal for a concert later the same day. The person minding the singers was quite happy for me to wander around, so I tiptoed quietly, admiring the window tracery and the woodwork, and savouring the way the sunlight coming through the clear glass windows illuminated pews and carvings, to the accompaniment of ‘Night and Day’, ‘You’re the Top’, and ‘You Do Something to Me’.

And the whole experience did do something to me, and I was very grateful. I did not resent losing a few minutes’ silence for some good music-making. Music and silence, apparent opposites, are not so far apart after all. There have been whole books written about silence, but perhaps the best thing I’ve read about the subject is the shortest and most laconic, the exhortation of Alfred Brendel, master interpreter of the Viennese piano classics† and revelatory writer about music. He told us simply to remember the anagram: LISTEN = SILENT.§

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* Compare Philip Larkin, ‘Church Going’: ‘It pleases me to stand in silence here’.

¶ A notice left over from the 19th century, at least: ‘It is requested that all persons will take off their Pattens at the Church Door’.

† Now retired from the concert platform, but his recordings remain.

§ Alfred Brendel, A Pianist’s A – Z (Faber & Faber, 2013)

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Ironbridge and Coalbrookdale, Shropshire

 A view of the bridge

The Darby family of Coalbrookdale were among the greatest industrialists of their time, the people who revolutionized the production of iron. Abraham Darby I pioneered ironmaking in blast furnaces fuelled by coke, enabling the metal to be produced in the quantities needed for industry to expand rapidly. He also developed a way of casting pots using sand moulds that proved very lucrative. Later generations carried on in the business and Abraham Darby III, grandson of the first Abraham, working with the architect Thomas Pritchard, gave us the area’s most famous structure, the world’s first iron bridge.

The Darbys lived in a pair of houses a couple of hundred yards up the hill from their furnace and works. These houses are substantial Georgian middle-class homes, but not at all flashy. The Darbys were Quakers and did not go in for lavish living – the rooms are quite small and rather plain. But look closely, and one sees evidence of their achievements. This fireplace must be one of thousands produced at Coalbrookdale. But they don’t all have an image of the celebrated iron bridge cast into them. Examine the lower arch of this fireplace and that’s just what you see – an outline that’s world famous now and must have been one of the things of which the Darbys were most proud. How like them to mark this achievement so discreetly.
The iron bridge itself has survived over 230 years, a marvel of graceful design. It manages to span the Severn almost transparently, but its outline is instantly recognisable. It’s in need of repair now – ground movement over the years, an earthquake in the 19th century, and stresses that have always existed have caused cracking. A major project is beginning to repair the bridge, so that it can last far into the future as a monument to the skill and ingenuity of the Darbys and their architect.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Broseley, Shropshire

Hurrah for Filocalus!

After the small tiled extravaganza of a butcher’s shop in my previous post I didn’t expect to find any more memorable tiles in Broseley, but then I spotted the mass of brownish brickwork that is the Victoria Hall. Dark and brooding, with arches of blue, rather industrial-looking bricks, this building doesn’t have the kind of look that immediately appeals to me…but then I spotted the tile panels and I looked again. I took the building to be some kind of community hall, built in 1867 to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Queen Victoria’s coronation, but in size and proportions it reminded me of a nonconformist chapel.

The enigma was solved when I looked it up online, simultaneously remembering that the Brethren often call their places of worship halls. This one was put up by the Plymouth Brethren in 1867. It remained in their hands until about 1905, when it passed into wider community use as the Victoria Institute and Assembly Hall. It looks as if they kept the original tiles, which no doubt came from Maw’s works in Jackfield. The ornate lettering contrasts with the sombre appearance of the rest of the building. The date numerals are typical of the kind of fancy figures used on Victorian Gothic buildings. The letters of ‘VICTORIA HALL’, with their bifurcated endings to the strokes, are another Victorian speciality, though one more often seen on flashy shopfronts than places of worship.

This fancy letterform is what the writer and scholar Nicolete Gray* called the ‘Filocalian letter’, after the 4th-century Roman letterer Furius Dionysius Filocalus, who made a number of inscriptions with similar ornate forms for Pope Damasus I. As Niolete Gray points out, the Victorians used this kind of lettering with great freedom and whenever I see it I give an inner cheer for the wonderfully named Roman letterer† and the Victorians who picked up his idea and ran with it.

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*See Nicolete [yes, just the one ‘t’] Gray, Lettering on Buildings (Architectural Press, 1960); a very good book – it’s a shame it’s now so hard to find.

† Ms Gray believed the name Furius Dionysius Filocalus to be a pseudonym and that it ‘expresses the man’s attitude to his work: conscious, devoted and expressionist’.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Broseley, Shropshire

A short trip to tile heaven

With a bit of time on our hands in Broseley, the Resident Wise Woman and I had a wander around, heading in the direction of an interesting-looking spire as rain clouds gathered overhead. Suddenly, between houses, we spotted a tiny shopfront covered with a surprisingly colourful and rather miscellaneous collection of tiles. More tiles, more random still, covered the interior walls, glimpsed through the window. It looked like a butcher’s shop, but ‘M. DAVIS’ seemed no longer to be in business.

It crossed my mind that we might be looking at a recent assemblage of late-Victorian tiles, gathered together by a modern collector, but the condition of the tiles, the shop name, and the interior layout, seemed to suggest that they been there a long time. What could their story be?

An answer came thanks to Lynn Pearson’s excellent Tile Gazetteer (Richard Dennis, 2005). Apparently a local man, Matthew Davis, emigrated to South America in the 1890s, but thought better of it, returned home in short order, and set up as a butcher. He went to Maw’s factory in nearby Jackfield (heaven for tile worshippers), bought up a load of tiles from a heap outside the works, and employed someone to attach them to the front of the shop. The tiles may were no doubt from Maw’s equivalent of the bargain basement or seconds counter and this may explain their somewhat miscellaneous quality. The randomness, it’s said,* was made more random by the fact that the tiler often got drunk.

The result, says Lynn Pearson, is ‘happily eccentric’. I agree. The sight of this colourful shop front certainly improved my mood as the rain clouds gathered.

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* Lynn Pearson credits the archive of Michael Stratton, industrial archaeologist and one-time director of the Ironbridge Institute, for information about this building.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Coalbrookdale, Shropshire

 Showing your wares

In my previous post I focused on the former Severn Warehouse at Ironbridge, an industrial building that was built with an eye to appearances, a deliberate eye-catcher. This time, a rather plainer industrial building not far from the one in the previous post, but one with one particularly eye-catching feature, something that is perhaps more effective as advertising than the Gothic structure of the old Severn Warehouse.

My photograph above shows the building housing the Museum of Iron, which the Resident Wise Woman and I had decided to visit. It’s a fascinating museum, giving us plenty of background on iron and inorworking in general, on the various generations of the Darby family and the great John ‘Iron Mad’ Wilkinson in particular, and on the products of the industry in Coalbrookdale, from fire grates to firearms. All this is housed in a brick-walled warehouse building, put up by the the Coalbrookdale Company some time in the first half of the 19th century. The striking clock tower bears the date 1843, but this is said to be a later addition to an already existing building. Some sources say that the warehouse was first built in 1792, but it’s not shown on a map of 1805. 1838 is the likely year of construction.

Part of the structure is appropriately of iron – there are iron columns inside holding up the floors, but there’s also much wood in evidence: this is not one of those fireproof buildings that many textile mill owners, mindful of sparks igniting wool or cotton, liked to put up. Iron is also in evidence on the outside. The white-painted window lintels and sills are cast iron and the window frames are metal. So too is the clock tower, an elaborately decorative addition to an otherwise utilitarian building. It’s an effective piece of publicity for what you could do with metal in a decorative way, and a signal, perhaps, that as the Victorian era got up steam, manufacturers in Ironbridge and Coalbrookdale would increasingly be asked to produce highly decorative items – kitchen ranges, stoves, tables and chairs, not to mention garden railings and post boxes. There is a lot of this sort of stuff inside the museum. The clock tower is, you might say, exhibit number one.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Ironbridge, Shropshire

Industrial eyecatcher

You drive through Ironbridge with the river on your left and suddenly you see a row of brick gables with a pointed Gothic window under each and buttresses sticking out on to the pavement. A little further on, the end of the building reveals its from behind some trees and your jaw drops as a pair of slender turrets – crenellated and with faux arrow loops, but far too small for an archer to stand inside – and an apse-like structure with more crenellations and pointed windows appears. Whatever can it be?

The short answer is that it’s the Museum of the Gorge, where visitors can go to learn all about the  Ironbridge area. But of course it has not always been a museum. It was built in around 1840 as the Severn Warehouse, where finished items from the foundries were stored until the River Severn’s water level, which varied greatly from season to season, was high enough for boats to transport them away. The main block, with the row of gables, was the warehouse; the apse was an office; the turrets conceal chimneys. The architect of all this was Samuel Cookson, who clearly wanted a ‘statement building’, something to stand out and catch the eye: architecture as advertisement. There are other warehouses nearby, but they are quite plain.
Looking at the end of the building, one can see a bit more clearly how it worked. On either side of the office are large doors, through which big cast iron objects could be wheeled on carts down the slope to the river. The paved slope has grooves – plateways – along which the carts would run, down to the sandstone walls of the riverside wharf to the waiting Severn trows.

The ironmasters of the industrial revolution liked to show off the versatility of their chosen material, making furniture, signs, even coffins of iron, as well as the more expected industrial machinery and bridge components. But this area was not just a source of iron, it was also rich in clay, spawning potteries, tileworks, and brickworks. Cookson’s extraordinary building is an example of what Ironbridge’s brick workers could do when they tried.