Sunday, June 16, 2019

Bishop’s Castle, Shropshire

A strong support

The House on Crutches is next to the Town Hall in Bishop’s Castle. It’s a 16th-century house with stout oak frame filled in between with wattle and daub and covered by a 19th-century slate roof. The upper floor is a few feet larger than the ground flood and projects beyond it, supported over the pavement beneath with two very solid-looking posts. Many timber-framed houses have a projecting upper floor, its timbered cantilevered out a bit in a feature called a jetty. Among other advantages, the jetty arrangement provides a little more room upstairs. But this house is different: the overhang is enormous and in an altogether different league: no wonder it has been noticed in the building’s name.

Like many an old building, the House on Crutches has seen various uses. Originally presumably a house, it shows signs of commercial use, and is now a museum, so people can learn not only about the town’s history but also marvel at the crooked stairs, fine oak beams, and the rest, within. It surveys the history of Bishop’s Castle – it has been in its time a border settlement with a castle, market town, ‘rotten borough’ with two MPs representing a place with just a few hundred people, and staging post on the route between England and Wales. Now it is supporting the variety of activities (cattle market, two micro breweries, shops, coffee shops) that a town, even a tiny town, needs in order to thrive. The House on Crutches seems to be playing a vital part.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Eardisland, Herefordshire

Fit for new purposes

Looking for something to post at a time when I'd not seen anything new recently, I made a virtual visit to Eardisland by browsing through my photo library. I was reminded that, have diverted to this Herefordshire place when en route to somewhere else, I'd found not only the preserved AA telephone box that I posted some years ago, but also a wonderful brick-built dovecote. They say it's 18th century, although at least one source dates the building to the 17th. The most recent edition of the Pevsner Buildings of England Herefordshire volume sums it up: c. 1700.

Whatever its exact age, it's impressive, even though it shows signs of repair and alteration in the 20th century. The louvre at the top where the doves came in and out, at the junction of the four-gabled roof, is still there, and there are still large stretches of original brickwork, albeit punctuated by a large section of presumably later bricks in a different colour on the flank wall. The square, four-gable shape is not an unusual one for a dovecote. I suppose it has the twin benefits of allowing the birds to fly up into the louvre exit from whichever side they're nesting on, while also producing a pleasing shape that can often act as a focal point in a yard, garden, or, as here, a village street. This dovecote is quite tall, and unusually has ground and upper floors: the ground floor was originally a garden room while the doves occupied the upper space.

The dovecote looks well as you approach it over the bridge, and it's good to see it has found new uses – changes of use are often vital if ancient buildings are to be preserved, and can enable a building to become not just a heritage asset but also useful, and so more likely to last. The dovecote now houses a museum on the upper floor and a small shop downstairs. As I was passing quickly through when I took this photograph, I didn't call in at the the shop, but I see online that it's run by volunteers for the benefit of the community. Such an enterprise can be an asset to a village, especially if it has has lost an earlier village store or Post Office. Small shops become community hubs, centres where people not only buy provisions but also exchange news and information, and pass the time of day. Next time I'm passing, I'll make a point of stopping, saying 'hello', and, I hope, making a purchase or two.

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* There is a reference to a dovecote here in 1469, but that would have been a different structure.

Saturday, June 8, 2019

Redcross Way, London

Five per cent philanthropy

The second half of the 19th century saw those in power taking belated but welcome interest in the health and wellbeing of the English working classes, and a major issue was providing poor people with adequate housing. This was a particularly pressing issue in big cities, where slums abounded, rents were often high, and tenancies were precarious. The need was publicised not only by works of the likes of Friedrich Engels, but also by the efforts of various high-ranking advocates and philanthropists, not least Prince Albert himself, who was president of the Society for Improving the Condition of the Labouring Classes. An example of a ‘model cottage’ (actually four flats on two floors) was built in Hyde Park for the 1851 Great Exhibition – it was rebuilt in Kennington Park the following year.

Soon, other campaigners took up the challenge of building better homes for the poor, and a number of organisations were set up. The usual idea was to attract investment in companies that would provide decent homes for poor people. The investors would get a reasonable, but not excessive, return on their investment, foregoing big profits for the satisfaction of helping those in need – hence such schemes were sometimes referred to as ‘five per cent philanthropy’. A number of housing organisations started in this way. Perhaps the most famous was the Peabody Trust, founded with a large donation from the banker George Peabody. The flats in my picture were built by the Improved Industrial Dwellings Company, started by Sir Sydney Waterlow, printer, banker, and Liberal politician. Waterlow set the company up in 1863 with capital of £50,000 and by 1900 it was said to be housing some 30,000 people in London.
Cromwell Buildings, in Southwark, a stone’s throw from the one of the railway lines that snake their way above this part of South London, was one block of flats built by the Improved Industrial Dwellings Company. This five-storey block now has ten flats. Originally the block housed 24 units: 10 flats with four rooms, 12 with 3 rooms, and 2 shops. The flats were said to be modelled along the lines of the prince’s model cottage, and each had its own proper cooking facilities and WC. The balconies are a common feature of this type of workers’ housing, intended to provide fresh air. Good ventilation and adequate space were priorities in communities in which people had been forced to live in cramped accommodation with few windows. So was adequate sanitation – apparently the rooms containing the lavatories jut out at the back, promoting good air flow.

Housing like this benefitted the working classes hugely in late-Victorian and Edwardian London. However, even the flats were out of reach of the very poor. Most of the tenants of the Improved Industrial Dwellings Company seem to have been skilled artisans, together with people who worked in services such as the police, plus a handful of labourers. Even so, their impact was huge. It has been estimated that in Southwark alone, about ten per cent of the population lived in blocks built and run by companies and trusts like the IIDC and Peabody. Most of the dwellings are still dong good service today.

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For earlier pieces on model dwellings, see my post on the ornate examples in Pimlico here and the plainer but admirable Peabody flats here.

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Clink Street, London

In the Clink: bishops, actors, geese

Medieval architecture is not thick on the ground in central London, and it’s a rare pleasure to come across this fragment in a back street not far from Borough Market. When I first saw it, in the 1980s, this area was usually deserted and run down. I only knew about it because I worked nearby for a couple of years, and because, before that, studying English literature, I’d come across references to the area when reading about Shakespeare and Dickens. This is the part of London that housed the original Globe Theatre, where many of Shakespeare’s plays were put on, and is now home to the reconstructed Globe – as well as to Borough Market, with its cornucopia of food stalls. So this part of Southwark is a magnet for anyone who likes good food and good drama. But many of those people probably miss this building.

It’s a wall of the great hall of Winchester Palace, the town house of the bishops of Winchester in the Middle Ages. The palace was built mostly by Henry of Blois, who was bishop in the 12th century, although the beautiful tracery of the rose window at the top of the wall is a later addition – possibly in the time of William of Wykeham, bishop in the late-14th century. Why did these men have a palace in London? Because in the Middle Ages, bishops were powerful men with strong connections to the capital: most had a residence in London. After Canterbury, Winchester was one of the most powerful bishoprics of all. The diocese had a lot of property in this part of London, and Winchester was a town with strong royal connections – it was once the capital. Its bishops were usually well connected men from the upper aristocracy: Henry of Blois was a brother of King Stephen; William of Wykeham was not born into the nobility, but rose to a high level in the administration of England under Edward III; he was, famously, the founder of Winchester College and of New College, Oxford.

These important people had a big London home, a palace built around two courtyards, of which this hall would have been the heart. The land controlled by the bishops, outside the jurisdiction of the City of London or the adjoining Southwark parishes, even contained its own prison, known as the the Clink, to which the bishop’s courts could send wrongdoers. The area became known as the Liberty of the Clink.† By Shakespeare’s time, because the Liberty of the Clink lay outside of London’s legal sway, it attracted all kinds of activities frowned upon in the City. One of these was the theatre, hence the presence of the Globe (and the Rose) nearby. Prostitution was also tolerated more here than in the City, and the local members of the oldest profession were known, bizarrely, as ‘Winchester geese’.

So this quaint looking wall harks back to a time when high churchmen played a very different role in society from the one they adopt now. A time when they wielded considerable worldly power, and tolerated activities that would earn them condemnation today.§ They also played host to Britain’s greatest dramatist and were patrons of great artists and craftsmen. We’re most used to seeing the results of that patronage in the great cathedrals. This tantalizing wall is a reminder that they could extend their patronage into the worldly sphere too.

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† A ‘liberty’ was a manorial jurisdiction; nobody knows where the name ‘Clink’ came from, but its similarity to the metallic sound of chains or barred doors is suggestive.

§ As indeed many of us do condemn church authorities for tolerating moral misdemeanours today, when such things come to light.

Thursday, May 30, 2019

Norham Castle, Northumberland

Mapping and drawing

As the previous post makes clear, I’ve always liked maps, and find them fascinating. Their variety, and the sheer skill of the people who make them, is admirable, as is the ingenuity with which so much information gets included on the best maps. The task of collecting the information needed to make a map, and to transfer it to paper, is a formidable one, even today, when satellites and computers make it easier, and when we are apt to look at maps not on paper at all, but on some kind of screen. I quickly learned that there were many ways of doing this, and that the surface of the earth can be represented in a host of different ways. As well as the one or two OS maps covering the local area, there were also other kinds of maps at home. Apart from a World Atlas (I remember being told it was out of date, but then they nearly always are), there were some guide books with maps in them, ones like the example above, showing the part of Gloucestershire where I now live, from one of the series of Shell Guides to the English counties. This uses colour to show relief – high land in increasingly deeper orange – and different colours to indicate different grades of road. Railway lines are in black, with stations marked; churches are another kind of building indicated, with a tiny cross; one or two landmark buildings (especially castles) are also marked. There’s not much more fine detail, but what’s there gives a good picture of the land, towns and villages, and major landmarks: it’s a serviceable map, produced in a pleasing style.

But there’s more to it than this. Maps are indeed immensely useful, to help us find out way around, and to tell us what’s on the ground, but they’re also pleasing in themselves – I’d say that maps, at their best, are art. Maps made before the last 30 years of the 20th century have a ‘drawn’ quality to them – after all, someone did draw them originally – and when the drawing has been done well, the result looks attractive, as well as being clear to read. To make the map above, which shows the edge of the Cotswold Hills near Cheltenham, someone working for Bartholomew & Co, who provided the maps for the Shell Guides, actually formed each letter with a pen; they would also have drawn in pen the other black lines on the map – the key lines running along the outer edges of all the red and orange roads, for example, and the flowing black lines that mark the railway lines. Probably on a separate layer, all the colour – such as those shades of orange for the uplands and green for the lowlands – would be added. This was all an enormous amount of hand-work by skilled people, unsung and dedicated, for the benefit of users who appreciated clarity, richness of information, and, I’d say, a result that’s visually very satisfying.
Perhaps I can further demonstrate what I mean by this ‘drawn’ quality by showing a plan of a castle from a 1960s guide book to Norham Castle.* This is one of a series produced by the British Department of the Environment (and their predecessors the Ministry of Public Building and Works) of ancient monuments. The plan was pasted into the back of the guide book, and when you unfolded it you could see at a glance the buildings, earthworks, and other features on the site. The lettering is done in strong calligraphic capitals, the buildings are shaded in different ways to indicate dates of construction,¶ and there’s a clear scale.† Best of all, eloquent strokes of the pen called hachures indicate the ups and downs of the terrain – the thicker end of each hachure is where the higher ground is, the lower ground is indicated by the narrow end.§

I’ve had hours of pleasure walking around castles, hill forts, monasteries and so on, holding a map like this, working out the history of the structure as I go. On a breezy day, the map would flap around, and if one didn’t hold it carefully, it might tear, or even slip out of the fingers and take a short flight like a rather ineffective kite, leaving one, coat similarly flapping, in pathetic pursuit. But I soon learned to hang on, and received both instruction and entertainment as I did so. Nowadays English Heritage produce much glossier guides, with full colour maps and illustrations, as well as putting up interpretation boards here and there to tell visitors about history and architecture. All very good. But there’s nothing to beat the clarity and artistic integrity of these old plans – or of the more conventional maps, sometimes also with hachures, with which we once guided ourselves around the country.

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* Norham Castle is by the River Tweed, one of the medieval defences of the border between England and Scotland. It’s also the subject of a glorious late painting by Turner.

¶ No colour printing was used – these guides were inexpensive and colour was costly in 1966. The guide to Norham Castle cost just 2 shillings and six old pence (a mere 12.5 pence in today’s money), map and all.

† The metres have got cropped off my photograph.

§ Another nuance of meaning is that the closer together and thicker the hachures are, the steeper the gradient being represented. Many modern maps that use hachures represent them as elongated triangles: these tend to have a more stylised look, without the hand-drawn quality of the earlier ones.

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Mapping, walking, looking

The Map that Came to Life

I took to maps instinctively as a child, needing little encouragement apart from there actually being a few decent maps in the house to get me going, as I recalled in my previous post. Some children (the Resident Wise Woman included) found another introduction to maps in a wonderful book, H. J. Deverson and Ronald Lampitt’s The Map That Came to Life. As a further commemoration of National Map-Reading Week, here’s what I wrote about this book back in 2008, when this blog itself was in its infancy:
On one of our recent visits to a local secondhand bookshop, my wife came across a copy of The Map That Came to Life, a book she had read avidly when she was a child. Written by H. J. Deverson and illustrated by Ronald Lampitt, The Map That Came to Life was first published in 1948, and was much reprinted. It describes how two children (and a dog) go on a walk across the English countryside with an Ordnance Survey map to guide them. Much of what they find on the way is marked on the map, whose symbols for roads, railways, telephone boxes, tumuli, and so on and on, turn to reality along the way. The reader, meanwhile, learns how to read a map, and how maps have much to teach us about the world around us.

In some ways the world of The Map That Came to Life does not exist today. These two children set off on a walk across unfamiliar country with only their map for guidance. They talk to strangers – who give them fascinating nuggets of local information rather than luring them into dark corners. Their dog spends most of its time off its lead, rivers and lakes hold no terrors for them, and, of course, this being 1948, they are not much troubled by traffic.

It’s different in other ways too. The villages through which they pass are well provided with the kind of facilities – shops, pubs, Post Offices, a forge – that we mourn the passing of today. Interesting antiquities, such as a ruined abbey and a castle, abound, giving me an excuse for including the book in a blog about English Buildings. If truth be told, all these ancient and modern details are probably rather thick on the ground even for 1948, because their purpose after all is to show us as many map symbols coming to life as can be reasonably encompassed in 32 pages.
And not just the symbols, but what’s behind them. Joanna and John learn about ruined buildings, tumuli, tithe barns, and ancient churches. They listen to bird song and discover what kinds of trees grow beside rivers. They find out the relationship between contours and man-made features like railway lines and viaducts. And by helping to alert some farm workers to a fire in a wood, they learn about one potential danger in the countryside.

Sadly, this book would not be published today. For one thing, it’s very specifically British in its content, and publishers nowadays cry out for books that will work in an international market. For another, it’s not an outwardly exciting book – its information about the past contains no pillaging Vikings, no bombs, none of the opportunistic stink and goo of ‘Horrible History’. Yet in its quiet way it conveys a different kind of excitement – the excitement of finding things out, of being inquisitive about the environment, of thinking about what you see. And that is one of the best kinds of excitement there is.

In 2008 that post garnered quite a few comments and emails: maybe 11 years on it will still strike a few more chords. I might have added that OS maps are still going strong, and still present (on paper and on screen) a superior form of mapping that, in my opinion, conveys more information than any other. For the architectural enthusiast and historian, they include such a lot, from churches (their symbols indicating whether they have a tower or spire or neither) to Roman villas, from tumuli to manor houses. Much of this information just isn’t on other maps. True, it’s all there on satellite view or Google Earth, but often not identified, so it can be hard to know what you’re looking at. And today, more than 70 years after The Map That Came to Life was published, there are new layers of more recent history – things identified as ‘Airfield (disused)’ and ‘dismtd rly’, for the curious to investigate. Such a map is a world.
If you click on this photograph of two pages from the book, it should be visible at a larger size.

Sunday, May 26, 2019

Somewhere in Gloucestershire

On the paper, on the ground

So it’s National Map-Reading Week. I’m not a great one for all the commemorative ‘weeks’ and ‘days’ that social media seem so keen on, but they allow people to promote good causes, so they can’t be all bad. I think map-reading is, if not a good cause exactly, certainly a good thing. I’m as likely as anyone to get out my phone and open the Map App when I’m in a hurry and trying to get somewhere in an unfamiliar city. But I believe that ability to plot one’s progress, step by step, on a proper map, taking in not just the thin line of the planned route but also the context – what lies on either side, in terms of landscape, settlements, and (you saw it coming) buildings – is an essential skill that should be nurtured.

One day when I was a teenager, I realised another unexpected benefit of being able to read a map. I had to sit an O Level exam* in Geography and for some reason I found the main part of this ordeal difficult – I’d not been bad at the subject at school and everyone else seemed to think the paper wasn’t hard, but somehow I didn’t connect with it. I thought I was staring failure in the face. I tried not to panic, and got down on paper everything I knew that seemed connected in some way with the questions, and hoped for the best. But there was another part to the exam, and this involved being given a section of an Ordnance Survey map of an unfamiliar bit of Britain and answering questions about it.§ Luckily, maps had always fascinated me. I was able to answer all the questions, and I was confident that my answers were right. No doubt my high marks in that part compensated for my abysmal showing in the first bit, and so I scraped through with a low grade. I’ve been thankful to map reading ever since.

I’d already discovered that maps helped me navigate effectively. I learned to recognise landmarks on paper, and use them to work out where I was, and where I was going. I saw that OS maps pointed out things like churches, telephone boxes, and industrial buildings often identified with the word ‘Works’†, and I was soon using these to tell my father, at the wheel of the car, where he should be heading: ‘Just past the factory, turn left by a telephone box’: that sort of thing. It made me more observant, and more appreciative of my surroundings. I like to think these qualities have stood me in good stead.

Having introduced myself to maps by looking at the one or two Ordnance Survey maps that we had at home, I realised that they opened my eyes, and my imagination. I could sometimes see places in my mind’s eye from just looking at the map. And when I came to be interested in architecture, I could see the buildings too – abbeys, churches, town halls, railway stations, ‘works’: there they all were. You don’t get this driving along using a satnav – though, heaven knows, satnavs have their uses when you need to get somewhere quickly – and I for one am sad that the rise of this powerful technology has meant that fewer of us get the thrill of map reading and the revelation it can bring.

Of course, there are Google Satellite View and Street View – hugely useful tools. They’ve helped me locate a building precisely on many occasions, and have led me to remote rural locations when the paper map in my car was not detailed enough and when the postcode information I’d put into the satnav sent me to a geographical area so huge it seemed to encompass half of Oxfordshire. But if we can’t read this information on paper, something has been lost: the thrill of seeing a place or a landscape came alive through the symbols on a map.

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* Subject-based examinations set in British secondary schools between 1951 and 1988 for students aged around 16. The O stood for ‘ordinary’. Students who stayed on at school after O Levels sat A (advanced) Level exams two years later.

§ My illustration shows a section of an early – 1907 – OS map for Dursley and Cam in Gloucestershire; clicking on the map will make it larger. I show this because it gives an idea of the ‘drawn’ quality of the early, pre-computer, maps, which I find pleasing. It features a fair share of landmarks: mills, churches, inns, farms, a Roman camp, etc, etc. Woods are green, and height above sea level is indicated by thin brown contour lines (and numerical heights for hill tops), just as on current OS maps. Although old, this map may be © Crown copyright.

† Often abbreviated to ‘Wks’. Ordnance Survey abbreviations (Fm, Wks, Tk of old rly) have a poetry of their own.