Saturday, December 27, 2008

Kean Street, London

Extreme windows

From the Cotswolds to London, the dormer window provides an excellent way of squeezing a little more accommodation out of a roof space. And so, in cottages, Georgian terraces, Regency villas, and flats above shops, builders put in dormers, and people sleep beneath the eaves. Now and then you see two rows of dormers, for yet more light and living space. But I don’t think I've ever seen anything like these massed ranks of windows looking out from a roof in a street behind Covent Garden.

Looking at the design of the window frames on this presumably Victorian or Edwardian building, the rows of windows must have been installed in at least two phases – the upper two rows look different from the others. The result is stunning to say the least, and the array of glass must constitute an efficient collector of solar heat. But what I really want to know is this: is five rows of dormers some kind of record?

Two men in a room

Harold Pinter, who died this Christmas, had been making us smile, and laugh, and wince, and think with his plays for 50 years. It occurred to me as I thought about the Pinter plays I’d seen over the years that their famously enigmatic scenes often took place in very realistic, tangible settings. At Pinter plays we peer through theatre’s notorious fourth wall at rooms, especially London rooms, lower and middle class. They seem like real rooms in real buildings and we could be at a kitchen-sink drama or a well-made play by Shaw. But what happens on stage is a world away from such certainties.

My most vivid Pinterian memory is of the first production of No Man’s Land, much of which consists of two men (sometimes with two others) conversing in a room. The two men, in that memorable National Theatre production, were played by Ralph Richardson and John Gielgud.

The set of No Man’s Land is a room in a house in Hampstead. It’s simple but well furnished: big curtains at a window; a wall of books; an expensive-looking armchair; a large, marble-topped cabinet covered with bottles of every drink you could imagine, and more. It’s solid, reassuring, the room of Hirst (the Richardson character) a literary man with a taste for the booze. The two characters are anchored to this room (at one point Spooner, the John Gielgud character, is even locked in it) for the whole play. It seems a place of certainties and solidities.

This being Pinter, it’s anything but. The relationship between the two men is far from clear – sometimes they seem just to have met for the first time; at others they appear to have known each other for years. Hirst seems to be offering Spooner hospitality, but is also dominating him. Spooner is trying to manipulate Hirst for his own advantage, but in an oblique, sometimes ham-fisted way; he is a literary man, but has also been spotted working in a pub. Even their names are uncertain – Spooner is sometimes called Weatherby. The other pair are ambiguous too – they seem to be the minders and servants of Hirst, but at one point seem to control him. And so it goes on, with the main pair talking, reminiscing, and drinking, their memories meeting and colliding and parting company again and again so we don’t know where we are – except in this very solid Hampstead room.

It’s like life, of course, for how can we know others and how can we defeat memory’s tricks? But Pinter would have scorned such trite summings-up. He did not want to paraphrase his creations: it was enough for him to create situations and breathe life into them. A life that gives us the essence of theatre: two men talking in a room.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Wells, Somerset

The silver swan

Swans – elegant, silent, monogamous, soft of down but powerful of wing – are amongst the most emblematic of our birds. They pop up in all kinds of odd places in English culture. As royal birds, the swans on the Thames, for example, are owned (if you can own a swan) by the queen – with exception of those belonging to the London livery companies of Vintners and Dyers, who mark their swans every year in the ceremony of swan upping, marvellously portrayed by the artist Stanley Spencer.

Poetically, the swan can be a symbol of the overmastering power of a god in the story of Leda and the Swan (in the work of Yeats, among others), but swansdown is symbolic of softness (as in a lyric by Ben Jonson). Swans hang around buildings, too. I have already blogged about their presence in the moat of the Archbishop’s Palace at Wells, and how they ring the bell when they want feeding. I was reminded of this the other day when watching the film Hot Fuzz, filmed in Wells (though the tiny city plays the role of a small town in Gloucestershire). In the film, ‘the swan’ goes missing, reappearing to interrupt in a very British way a hilarious car-chase across fields in police panda cars.

So here’s a picture of the sign of the Swan Hotel in Wells, the city’s three-dimensional and hospitable tribute to its avian inhabitants. Like its living counterparts, it’s mute, which reminds me of the madrigal and poem by the great English composer Orlando Gibbons, ‘The Silver Swan’ of 1612:
The silver swan, who living had no note,
When death approached unlocked her silent throat;
Leaning her breast against the reedy shore,
Thus sung her first and last, and sung no more:
Farewell, all joys; O death, come close mine eyes;
More geese than swans now live, more fools than wise.

More geese than swans will be consumed in the next few days, so enjoy yours. And enjoy too this version of the madrigal by the Hilliard Ensemble.

Then go out and buy their records, for their singing has all the swan’s strength and its delicacy too. Season’s greetings.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Lower Swell, Gloucestershire

Eastward ho!

Only a couple of miles from the Stow house in the previous post is this cottage on the edge of the village of Lower Swell. Very unusually, it’s in a style influenced by the architecture of India – what the builders of the 18th and 19th centuries, taking a wild linguistic lunge at sophistication and missing the target somewhat, called the ‘Hindoo’ style. It’s not that like a real Indian building, but it is heavily influenced by the great Cotswold house of Sezincote, all onion domes and lantern-like pavilions, begun in 1805.

This cottage was built a couple of years later as a spa, a chalybeate spring having been discovered nearby. The spa was not a success, but the building remains, now a house, its pineapple-finialled doorway, ogee-topped windows, and fir-coned dormers testimony to a very English idea of ‘the East’. The windows in the flanking cottages, just visible in the photograph, have the kind of multifoil tops, as if made with a pastry-cutter, that you also see at Sezincote. It’s weird, but just right.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Stow-on-the-Wold, Gloucestershire

Stone roses

There are some buildings that just make me smile, no matter how often I see them. This is one: a house of about 1730 (now a café) on the market place in Stow on the Wold. What I love about this house is the decoration. It’s Classical, up to a point – look at the fluted pilasters with their Corinthian capitals. But whoever built this place was determined not to stick to the rule book. Those pilasters begin, not with a base, anchoring them to the ground, but with a peculiar block of stone sticking out from the wall, a couple of feet above pavement level. The strips that run up from either side of the central niche, dotted with carvings of flowers, are another odd, but charming, touch.

Pevsner (who describes this façade as ‘rather gauche’) tells us that there’s a local tradition that the building was the work of a pargetter named Shepherd. That’s odd, as pargetting (the art of decorative exterior plasterwork) is native to eastern England. It’s not something you see much round here, where the decorative medium is stone. And yet the exuberance and richness of the carving, especially the flowers, is not unlike the sort of thing you might see on a pargetted house in Essex or Suffolk. It certainly sticks out here, not in the manner of a sore thumb, but like an elegantly manicured digit raised in defiance of convention. Stow off the wall.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Farmcote, Gloucestershire

The end of the road

Take the steepest and narrowest of the roads leading out of the town where I live, a route that rises rapidly up the Cotswold escarpment. Turn left along a narrower lane that leads up again through remote country dotted with the odd farm and racehorse stable and bounded with fields where the brown ploughed soil reveals thousands of fragments of Cotswold limestone. Turn off once more up an even smaller lane that passes sheep pastures and offers glimpses from the high hills northwards and westwards towards Worcestershire and Wales. And at the end of the track you reach Farmcote, a tiny, isolated hamlet consisting of a few stone houses and a church.

From this angle, St Faith’s, Farmcote, could almost be a Tudor building – the windows and doorway are probably early-16th century and the furnishing inside is a satisfying mixture of Tudor and Jacobean. But in the end wall is a blocked archway indicating that this building was once bigger. Small as it is, the arch would have led to a demolished chancel, and the stonework of the arch is unmistakably Saxon. People have worshipped here for over a thousand years.

The evening light is often beautiful on this west-facing slope. When I first came here is was dusk, and I felt I needed a candle to see the medieval roof timbers and Jacobean furniture. Today there was more light, but it was fading as the sun began to drop behind the next hill. The farm dogs were quiet. The only thing moving was some smoke from a nearby chimney. Restored by the silence I crept back to the car, and drove off, making as little noise as I could.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Winchcombe, Gloucestershire

My world, and welcome to it

It’s customary, even in these difficult times, to count the number of shopping days to Christmas. But this year I’m counting the number of writing days left before the publishing business shuts down the corporate computers for the festive season, because I have a Christmas deadline. Travelling to look at old buildings has taken a backseat, and my blog posts may shrink in length and number. I’m fortunate, though, to live in Gloucestershire, a county rich in interesting buildings, so I’ll be putting up some posts about local buildings in the next week or two.

And for me, this is as local as it gets. If I crane my neck a bit, this is the view from my desk. It’s the tower of St Peter’s church, Winchcombe, its Cotswold stone walls glowing in the golden light of a winter’s afternoon a couple of days ago. The church was built in the 1460s, during a building boom in the area that saw many churches acquire new windows, extra aisles, taller towers, or complete makeovers. Winchcombe got its new church through the generosity in part of the abbot of Winchcombe Abbey, whose own church, long gone, was a close neighbour, and of Ralph Boteler, a local grandee – well, not that grand: his name suggests that he came from a rather distinguished family of butlers. The tower is not that grand, either. No elegant spire, as it might have in Northamptonshire; no elaborate carving as there might be in Somerset. Just good honest building in beautiful stone.

The fine weathercock was regilded recently and looked about 5 feet five tall when, swathed in bubblewrap, it was hoisted back up the tower. It came here in 1874 from the much larger church of St Mary Redcliffe, Bristol. According to which version of the story you believe it was either too small or too big for the spire of St Mary Redcliffe. A stonemason who worked on the Bristol spire claimed he’d climbed on to, or into, the cockerel, ‘which was the size of a donkey’. Having seen the bird close-up, I can tell you that’s not such a cock and bull story as it sounds.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Burford, Oxfordshire

From the Brazils

This is one of the figures on the monument of Edmund Harman, barber-surgeon to Henry VIII, in Burford parish church. Harman became a prominent Burford resident in the 1540s, when he was one of the beneficiaries of his boss’s dissolution of the country’s monasteries. He and his wife were granted Burford Priory.

Like many a big cheese before and since, he made sure his monument was made well before he died. Dating from 1569, it also commemorates Agnes, ‘his only and most faithful wife’ and their 16 children, only two of whom survived their parents. Quite why the wall plaque is surrounded by figures like this one, whose feathered headdresses seem a long way from standard Oxfordshire attire, is not known. The best guess as to their identity – though there’s been a lot of scholarly argument about it – is that they hail from the banks of the Amazon. They may have been copied from illustrations in a Flemish book that appeared a few years earlier.

But why are they in Burford, on this particular monument? Apparently Agnes Harman’s family included merchant adventurers and perhaps it was her connexion with people who had sailed across the Atlantic that inspired these unlikely carvings, creating in the process one of the many pleasant surprises in this beautiful church on the edge of the Cotswolds.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Page Street, London

Full English

Before I leave Page Street, here’s the other building I noticed as I made way to Tate Britain. The Regency Cafe (‘established 1946’) still has the black tiles and white lettering that must have gone up just after the end of the Second World War. It smacks a little of the ‘back end of Art Deco’ that cafe designers liked to use at around that time, but looks forward too to the clean modern lines of the 1950s. Just the thing, in fact, to represent the mix of post-war optimism, Italian flair, down-to-earth food, and good coffee that made the English ‘caff’ what it once was and, occasionally, still is.

Inside this resilient survivor there’s some original wall tiling to set off some classic posters, plus a lot of later formica-topped tables and plastic chairs. We’re in archetypal cafe territory, in other words: a lived-in place that looks as if it’s been delivering a hearty breakfast and decent coffee since the time when muffins were always toasted and barristas stood up in court not behind counters. I hope when next I’m passing I’ll have time to go in and try the place for myself.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Page Street, London


A few years ago I was involved in a campaign to provide more affordable housing in the small Cotswold town where I live. Some people argued that they didn't want new buildings cluttering up the town, and I would say that social housing didn't have to be ugly. It could be well designed and a visual asset to a place. It could be well built in local stone in the Cotswolds, whereas in London, maybe brick or stucco might be more appropriate materials. Get a good architect to do the designs and you'd really enhace the neighbourhood. Well, I know it doesn't always work out like that, but it's good to aim high.

I was reminded of these discussions the other day when I was on my way to Tate Britain. I’d often admired and boggled at these flats in Page Street and neighbouring Vincent Street before finding out their history. Interestingly, they're an example of getting a successful architect to design social housing using, as it happens, those quintessentially London materials, brick and stucco. Of course there are plenty of brick and stucco buildings around, some as vibrantly patterned as streaky bacon, some more restrained. But none of them are quite like this. The chequerboard-patterned blocks were designed by Edwin Lutyens no less, and built in 1929–30. Lutyens was the great master of country houses, banks, and other grand buildings, and, famously, did the design for the Cenotaph in Whitehall. These flats were his only large-scale social housing scheme, and were done for the Westminster City Council. The blocks, by the way, are divided by little Classical pavilions containing shops and entrance halls that are much more in the expected Lutyens style. But what catches the eye are these expanses of brick and stucco, traditional materials put to unprecedented use. On the eve of the 1930s, the Edwardian master had not lost his eccentric touch.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Brackley, Northamptonshire

Marking time

I have a fondness for the old town halls of the 17th and 18th centuries. They form visual climaxes to so many high streets and market places and they combine civic pride and usefulness in a way that seems just right. The typical layout is an open, arched ground floor where you can have a market, a big upper room for meetings, and a cupola on top, often with a clock.

The clock is important. Back when the Town Hall at Brackley was built (by the Duke of Bridgewater, in 1706) not many people had watches or clocks of their own. So they relied on the church clock or a town hall timepiece like this one to tell the hours. The church wasn’t always visible from the main street, so to give a town a clock, right in the centre where everyone gathered to meet, buy, sell, and gossip, was a real gift to a town.

Such a gift needed to be visible and town hall builders started adding these cupolas, perfect little bits of carpenter’s Classicism, to show them off. The cupola at Brackley is one of my favourites. Everything about this ornate little structure – the fancy weathervane, the neat dome on its eight Classical arches, the cube containing the clock with its white corner brackets – shows that the builders took special care and gave the job the time it deserved.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Leamington Spa, Warwickshire

French curves

When someone says ‘Art Nouveau’, I automatically think of Paris Metro stations and large houses in Brussels, buildings put up around the beginning of the 20th century and decorated in a style that owes its extraordinary movement and plasticity to curving, sinuous lines. It’s a style that lends itself to pottery, glass lampshades, ironwork, and jewellery, but it doesn’t always sit happily on buildings, which tend to have lots of straight lines and rectangles in them. As if recognizing this fact, the architects of Vienna – and their great Scottish colleague, Charles Rennie Macintosh – developed a more rectilinear form of Art Nouveau, involving abstract patterns and geometrical shapes, that they applied to all kinds of buildings from houses to art galleries. In Central Europe this style is called Secessionist, after the group of Viennese artists who seceded from the establishment.

All of this means that Art Nouveau architecture isn’t a very English phenomenon. Edwardian architecture was a riot of styles, from Arts and Crafts to Bankers’ Baroque, and the delicate wave patterns of Art Nouveau got squeezed out rather. But now and then you spot these forms, especially at the point where architecture and decoration intersect, and one of these points is the shop front.

The picture shows part of a shop front in Leamington. These little curved mouldings caught my eye and immediately reminded me of the sinuous Parisian Art Nouveau. How satisfying that some shop designer should have thought to set off his glass window – itself a great curving swathe of transparency – with this small detail. High up above eye level, mouldings like this are ignored by most shoppers. Why look at the window frame when you’re interested in the goods inside? But no doubt the designer was after a subliminal hint of quality and European sophistication. Hence, for a moment, this fleeting imitation of the way they ordered these matters in France.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Stanway, Gloucestershire

Remember them

Here are last year's snows on my favourite war memorial, not far from where I live. The 1920 bronze statue of St George and the Dragon is by Alexander Fisher, the column was designed by Sir Philip Stott, architect-squire of the nearby village of Stanton, and the lettering on the memorial is by Eric Gill. The memorial is wonderfully sited at a junction as the road begins to rise up the hill, past Stanway's few stone and thatched cottages, and on towards Stow on the Wold. Its sculpture, arresting in form and beautiful in detail, does its job well: makes us pause, and look, and remember. It's a work of real quality, and that is, after all, what those who died in war deserve.
Thanks to Zoë, who took the evocative photograph while I scraped the white stuff off the car.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Whittonditch, Wiltshire

Landmark cottages (1)

At the entrances to villages, on dangerous bends, in fields, at wide places in the road, landmark cottages stand and stand out. Often they seem to be in strange locations: not next to a farm or in the centre of a settlement but on the edge or in the middle of nowhere. To the casual passer-by they seem oddly sited. But there’s usually a reason for their being where they are – housing a cowman near the pastures or a gamekeeper where he can get quickly to the covers, for example.

This one is on a now minor road near Whittonditch between Newbury and Swindon (a route now eclipsed by the M4, which roars not far away). It began life as a toll house. The projecting bay, with good views either way along the road, is typical turnpike architecture. The pointed windows and overhanging thatched roof speak of something still more special – this is a cottage orné, the kind of extra-cottagey cottage that architects and pioneers of the Picturesque movement of the late-18th and early-19th centuries loved.

The 20th century, of course, has added its share of special effects: the staddle stones linked by chain, the tools displayed on the wall. But such things are just as much part of what people call home as thatched roofs and log fires. They’re part of the building’s history too. They all help make this building something to look out for, whether it gives us a lesson in social history, or simply reminds us that we’re only 8 miles from Swindon.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Wickham, Berkshire

The elephant in the gloom

Grubbing around in Berkshire looking for a Gothick gatehouse that escaped my searching, I found myself in Wickham. The church looked immediately appealing and I was sure I’d read something about it. But what?

Well, I was immediately impressed by the tower, which is Saxon and has little paired windows, high up, which are typical of church architecture just before the Normans arrived in 1066. The rest of the building looks very different, though – perfect 14th-century Gothic, with fancy window tracery and flint walls. When I got inside I realised, once my eyes had adjusted to the incredibly dark interior on this dull, cloudy day, that it’s far too perfect to be medieval. The main body of the church is a Victorian recreation of 14th-century Gothic, full of elaborate carvings of foliage, curvaceous arches, and angels looking down from the roof. It was the creation of Benjamin Ferrey, pupil, follower, and biographer of the great A W N Pugin himself.

The real surprise comes when you look up at the roof of the north aisle. The timbers here are supported by angels, but with the addition of elephants. These elephants, which are made out of papier mâché, of all things, were shown at the Paris Exhibition of 1862 before being presented to the Nicholson family, one of whom, Rev William Nicholson, paid for the construction of the church. The tuskers, of which there were originally four, were intended for the parsonage, but they turned out to be too big, so four more were made and this octet of elephants now looks down from the roof of the north aisle. The wooden font cover, carved by Maoris (I am not making this up) came from the same source.

Ancient stones, a quiet village, a leaf-strewn path: you think you have a parish church taped. And then, again and again, the building produces something to amaze you. Looking up at the elephant in the gloom even made up for the terrible weather.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Market Bosworth, Leicsetershire

Regular readers of this blog will have realized by now that it’s mostly about the outsides of buildings. There’s a reason for this, which is that I want to share with you the buildings that I see on my journeys around bits of our country, many of which are glimpsed en passant as I travel around. I’m constantly impressed by the richness of our built environment – by the history, design, construction, decoration, evolution, and use of our buildings – and by the way these things can be appreciated all the time, as we go about our business. So, more days than not, I find myself peering down alleys, going around the backs of houses to see what they look like from behind, taking diversions up promising lanes, and craning my neck over garden walls.

This picture is the view over a garden wall in Market Bosworth. It shows a brick-built tower, and I presume it’s the belvedere that was put up in the garden of Bosworth Hall. This house was originally built in the late-17th century but was substantially altered twice during the 19th century. The belvedere was probably put up when the place was made over in the 1880s. A belvedere is rather like a gazebo, but in tower form. In other words it’s a tall building from which one may admire the view, usually the view of a garden or an estate. Perhaps when I took this picture there was someone inside looking out at the strange fellow trying to get a better view of its Italian-style brickwork and stone dressings.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

South Bank, London

It would take a Piranesi to do justice to the shell of London’s Battersea Power Station, vast, roofless, and decaying by the side of Chelsea Bridge. I was reminded of it recently as I crossed the bridge in a train from Victoria on my way to a meeting, and I photographed it hastily through the dirty window of the carriage. Hence this picture, as far a cry from Piranesi as possible. Perhaps this sorry gap between ideal and actuality is appropriate in this case. Battersea Power Station, which came into service in 1939 on the back of the establishment of the National Grid, is said to be Britain’s biggest brick building. It’s a towering masterpiece designed by J Theo Halliday with Sir Giles Gilbert Scott (the latter also architect of Bankside Power Station, now Tate Modern, and the red telephone box) and represented something of a great hope for power generation in the mid-20th century – a hope fulfilled until 1983, when the enormous power plant was decommissioned. Scott was responsible for many of the most creative design touches, and the building set the style for power stations – and sundry other kinds of industrial building – for a couple of decades.

Since then the glory – the citadel-like walls, the Art Deco interior, the four great chimneys – has been in decline. The roof has gone (taken off to remove some of the building’s contents) and much of the structure is propped up with scaffolding. Meanwhile, several ambitious plans for the place (a theme park, a mixed development) have come and gone. Another scheme, featuring a large and controversial ‘eco-dome’, is being worked up and presented to the planners. Further controversy surrounds the state of the chimneys, with different authorities agreeing that they are in need of work, but disagreeing about whether this should involve a rebuild or a repair.

Much as I like the gaunt, desolate quality of the power station as it is now, I know that this structure needs looking after if its condition is not to get seriously worse. So whatever in the way of renovation, restoration, or conservation is needed, I hope it’s done soon, before the whole lot collapses on to the surrounding wasteland, leaving still more work for the modern-day Piranesi to come.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Cheltenham, Gloucestershire

The Cheltenham Festival of Literature is in full swing at the moment, so I thought it might be interesting, in between listening to what the writers have to tell us, to listen to what some of Cheltenham’s buildings have to say. I could, of course, go on at length about the town’s Regency architecture – and very beautiful its stuccoed terraces look between the autumn trees – but everyone does that, so I’ve plumped for a different approach: to look at one minor street in the town centre and see what catches my eye.

So here are some buildings in Winchcombe Street, which contains a few Regency houses, some modern sheltered flats, some shops, and several hairdressing salons. One of the latter occupies the former premises of W. W. Dowty’s Photographic Studio. They’ve kept the original sign on the fascia, and there’s a door with a tall oval pane and glazed spandrels with bevelled glass. I’m not sure of the date: perhaps some time between the end of the First World War and the beginning of the second. At the other end of the street, another hairdresser occupies a shop that must have once housed purveyors of fish and game, narrow panels of Edwardian or Victorian tiles illustrating the goods within. Tiles like these are a telling reminder that the town once had several fishmongers, whereas now people have to go to a supermarket to find someone who will mong them some fish. Meanwhile, these tiles remain, a source of historical evidence and visual pleasure.As is Cheltenham’s former Odeon cinema. This finally closed when another chain opened a multiplex in the town. It’s an undistinguished Art Deco building, with the redeeming feature of these two naked women tangled in celluloid high up on the façade. Most passers-by see only the boarded-up entrance of the cinema, steadily becoming more and more of a blot on the townscape. I’d lay odds that most of them never notice the silver ladies, two of several reminders of the unregarded past of a quiet Cheltenham side-street.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Great Witley, Worcestershire

I enjoy it when my explorations of buildings coincide with things I’m doing in other parts of my life. At the moment, I’m writing a book about mythology, so I was pleased to visit Witley Court in Worcestershire, with its fountain based on the Greek myth of Perseus and Andromeda.

Perseus has recently killed the Gorgon Medusa, and is flying through the sky on the winged horse Pegasus when he sees Andromeda chained to a rock. She’s been left there because her mother, Cassiopeia, has insulted some sea nymphs by saying that she, Cassiopeia, is more beautiful than them. Poseidon, god of the sea, is angered by this insult, so sends a sea monster to ravage the coast of Ethiopia, where Cassiopiea lives, and the beast will only be satisfied with the flesh of Andromeda. In the fountain sculpture, Perseus is about to dispatch the monster, before carrying off Andromeda and marrying her.

Witley Court itself is a fascinating building, now an evocative ruin. It began as a Jacobean country house, but was massively extended in both the Regency and Victorian periods to become one of the largest houses in the country. It was the famous scene of lavish house parties hosted by the owners, the Earl of Dudley, until the house was gutted in a fire in 1937. The ruin has now been stabilized and, courtesy of English Heritage, one can walk through the empty shells of rooms open to the skies, admiring fragments of wall decoration (a lot of it in carton pierre, which is rather like papier mâché) and meditating on charred timbers and lost glory.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Uffington, Oxfordshire*

Chalk, pale and friable, seems an unlikely building material, but it’s the local stone on the Hampshire, Berkshire, Wiltshire, and Dorset Downs, on the Chilterns, on the North and South Downs, in parts of Cambridgeshire, and on the Yorkshire and Lincolnshire Wolds. In many of these areas you can find traditional buildings constructed of blocks of chalk. Builders liked this material because it is easy to shape, but they had to use it wisely if it was to last.

The village of Uffington is famous for the chalk figure of a horse, cut into the turf of the nearby hillside and best viewed from the air. The place has a number of old chalk buildings too, notably this schoolhouse, which dates form the Jacobean period as wears its 400 years well. Like many chalk buildings it stands on a base of stronger stone. It’s interesting to contrast the quality of the masonry of the upper and lower portions of the building. The tougher stone is rougher of surface and laid in irregular, rubble-like pieces. The chalk has been cut into larger blocks laid in regular courses, neatly jointed. This soft stone was much easier to cut finely and joint precisely, and masons no doubt liked the neat finish they could achieve with it.

A cottage in the same village shows the traditional roof for a chalk building – thick thatch with a generous overhang. The stone base and thatch covering give the house, in the old phrase, ‘a good hat and a good pair of shoes’, so relatively little rain gets to the chalk in between. Well constructed and cared for, this house has lasted for centuries in spite of the soft and yielding material of its walls.

*Postscript: To me, Uffington is still in Berkshire, and it is to be found in the Berkshire volume of Pevsner's Buildings of England series, which still adheres to the old county boundaries, praise be.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

The Map That Came to Life

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 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.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Brockhampton-by-Ross, Herefordshire

Hidden among the green hills and evergreens of rural Herefordshire is All Saints, Brockhampton, the perfect Arts and Crafts church, built in the first years of the 20th century to the designs of W. R. Lethaby, the architect about whom I enthused in the previous post. Although it’s constructed mainly of local sandstone and looks perfectly at home in its quiet corner of Herefordshire, this church is quite unlike anything else you’ll find locally – or anywhere else.

It’s outstanding in several ways – the resourceful use of materials (timber and thatch as well as stone), the pleasing balance of masses (the two towers, the porch and transept), the careful fit of building and site. More than this, there’s an artful combination of simplicity (the pointed entrance arch, the rectangular window openings on either side of it, the plain thatch of the nave roof) with decoration (the more ornate windows of the tower, transept and chancel, and the decorated chancel thatch). The decoration, in other words, emphasizes the eastern end of the church, the most sacred space where the high altar is placed. Inside, once we’ve got over the pleasant surprise of the sweeping vault (concrete with stone ribs), there’s a similar effect. Looking down the simple nave, one sees the choir beyond, flooded with light from the tower windows above, and beyond it the chancel. This is a holy of holies, but it’s made special not by being screened off from the rest of the building, as a medieval church would have been, but by being beautifully furnished with tapestries, altar hangings, and carvings. It’s lit by a lovely three-light window with a charming Star-of-David-shaped opening above.

The story of the Arts and Crafts movement is a two-fold one. On the one hand there’s the traditionalism – the respect for craftsmanship, the interest in ancient forms, the love of the imagery of nature. On the other hand, there’s the sense in which Lethaby and his peers were pioneering modern design, with bold forms like this church’s vault, and touches like the light fittings that hang from the ceiling. These two sides of the Arts and Crafts movement sometimes seem at odds, but at Brockhampton they fit beautifully together to make a building that’s both fascinating and moving.Detail, font, Brockhampton

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Colmore Row, Birmingham

William Richard Lethaby is one of my architectural heroes. Born in Devon in 1857 he served his apprenticeship locally before working for Richard Norman Shaw, one of the most versatile and influential late-Victorian architects. Through Shaw, he met William Morris and joined Morris’s circle, becoming an early member of the SPAB. He was committed to craftsmanship, the tactful treatment of old buildings, and to old-fashioned quality – what he called ‘Good honest building’. As a result he had a significant influence on the Arts and Crafts movement.

He had another side, yearning for a quality of efficiency in building that has led some to see him as a precursor of Le Corbusier and the modernists. ‘A house should be as efficient as a bicycle,’ he said. These two sides of Lethaby come together in interesting ways. His stunning church at Brockhampton-by-Ross, Herefordshire (subject of a post on this blog soon, I hope) has stone walls, thatched roofs – and a concrete vault. And the building illustrated here, one of Birmingham’s finest, is a happy marriage of craftsmanlike detail and rather modern lines. It was built as the offices of the Eagle Insurance Company, though nowadays, in keeping with these sybaritic times, it’s a coffee house. I love the big window, making a bold statement on Colmore Row, and the decorated parapet, which still has its emblematic eagle. The door on the left is simply stunning, a piece of beaten metalwork under a curving stone canopy that must have given Lethaby particular pleasure.
So why isn’t England full of landmark buildings by this fine architect? The rigours of life on site don’t seem to have suited Lethaby that well. Bad experiences managing the construction of the church at Brockhampton caused him major problems – he acted as master builder as well as architect and when things did not go smoothly Lethaby suffered both financial loss and severe mental strain. It was his last building.

But Lethaby had at least three other creative lives. At Westminster Abbey, where he was surveyor to the fabric, he had the chance to put into practice his ideas about restoration. He was also a pioneering educator, founder of the Central School of Art and Design in London and, from 1901, first Professor of Design at the Royal College of Art. Third, he worked in architectural history and theory, publishing on medieval art, on the great church of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul (to get inside of which he apparently had to disguise himself as a woman, the building being closed to western men at the time), and on Architecture, Mysticism, and Myth. That rather odd title perhaps sums up his mixture of interests: like the really great modern artists, he could be very old and very new at once. Hats off to William Richard Lethaby.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Ludlow, Shropshire

The Venetian window, also known as the serliana, after the Italian architect Sebastiano Serlio, was an invention of the Italians that first appeared in English buildings in the 17th century. This kind of window has three lights, the central one being wider than the other two and arched, to give a pleasing symmetrical design. Such a window often formed a centrepiece to a façade. There would usually be just one, in the middle of the main storey, generally the first floor where the grand reception rooms were. A Venetian window gave a sense of balance, focus, and sophistication to the front of many a Stuart and Georgian house.

On a really large country house front, with side wings, an architect might include three Venetian windows. It wasn’t quite the done thing to have a whole façade-full of them, as here in Ludlow. But whoever lived here clearly couldn’t have enough of them. Or perhaps they were trying to set some sort of record. And why not, for once? The interiors must be beautifully light and the exterior has that sense of difference, that disregard for the norm, that makes some English buildings stand out.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Wigmore, Herefordshire

I grew up visiting castles. As a child I loved their otherness, and got as good at identifying shell keeps and barbicans as imagining Sir Nigel and Ivanhoe rampaging around inside. Like old churches, medieval castles were a rapid and accessible escape route into the rich parallel world of history.

Ancient as they were, the castles of my youth had, for the most part, a particular quality that wasn’t much to do with their medieval origins. They were nearly all in the care of the Ministry of Public Building and Works. You found them by following official governmental signs. Once there, you found your way round using smaller signs and a guidebook, bound in blue and, if you were lucky, equipped with a fold-out map stuck into the back of the booklet. You unfolded this rather beautifully drawn map, and tried to work out where you were while it tried to blow away in the wind or invert itself like a flimsy umbrella. And it was quite easy to see where you were going because everything was so cared for. Lawns were manicured, paths were well laid, walls were pointed.

I’m very grateful to the Ministry of Public Building and Works, later the Department of the Environment, later English Heritage, for looking after our castles in this way, and for giving me enjoyment and education in equal measure. But wasn’t it all a bit too kempt? And how much did those lawns and concrete paths have to do with medieval history? There is another way: welcome to Wigmore Castle.

The fragmentary 12th-century ruins of Wigmore Castle are on a hill overlooking the Welsh-English border. When conservators looked at how best to preserve these isolated towers, arches, and bits of wall a few years ago, they decided to stabilize the masonry but not to clean up the growths of plant and bush that have invaded the place over the last few centuries. So an expert in nature conservation worked alongside those in building conservation.

The result is wonderful. Coming here you get a sense that you’re exploring as walls and towers loom out of the undergrowth. And my foraging wife found ripe blackberries for us to eat while I admired the masonry. Be warned: with its steep steps and muddy paths this isn’t a place for people who are unsteady on their legs. But if you can put up with the rough terrain, it’s a good place to come to witness the flowering of a ruin.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Elton, Herefordshire

I thought I knew what to expect in the countryside of the Herefordshire-Shropshire borders. Hills stretching for miles, forests, open views towards Wales, a timber-framed farmstead or two, and perhaps one of the Norman churches that are such a feature of the Herefordshire landscape. The road between Ludlow and Wigmore offers all these things. But as we negotiated another bend, we were confronted with Elton, to remind us how England always has the capacity to pull something unexpected out of the hat. When you glimpse something like this, you do a double-take. What is a low-slung building like this doing in a field? What style is it in? What is it exactly? Then you look again and see that it’s in a field and low-slung because it’s a hen house. And as to style, it’s a one-off mixture of attached columns, ball finials, and intricate glazing bars. The residents seem contented with their unusual home – one of them is clucking around happily on the right of the picture.This unique animal house is next to beautiful brick-fronted 18th-century Elton Hall, where the garden (not normally open to the public) is full of statuary and eccentric buildings, including a hermitage and a castle for the family’s tortoises. If there’s something endearingly dotty about all this, there’s also something historically appropriate. Elton Hall was once home to Thomas Andrew Knight, brother to Richard Payne Knight, one of the chief theorists of the Picturesque, the movement in taste which in the late-18th and early-19th centuries advocated designing gardens and buildings as if they formed part of a picture. The ideal Picturesque landscape was usually irregular, asymmetrically composed, and full of ragged rocks and trees. As often as not, it included sham castles and similar buildings that either clothed some useful function in an arresting exterior or simply caught and held the eye. Buildings like this unusual one at Elton, indeed. Two hundred years on, the Picturesque is alive and well.

Thanks to Zoë for leaping out of the car and taking pictures while I tried not to block the road.

Saturday, September 13, 2008


You could be forgiven for thinking that this has become the Scottish Buildings blog. But now and then a bit of Scottish-baronial-influenced architecture rears its turrets and pointed roofs south of the border. And the associations are immediate – even if you miss the Scottishness of a place like this, how can it fail to remind you of castles and fortresses? How can it not make you think of medieval banquets and chaps tearing around in iron suits? Even though, of course, no real medieval castle ever had windows the size of this one.Quite why Alexander Anderson, the architect of this 1919 Memorial Hall in a back street in Northampton chose this style, I don’t know. Round turrets, stepped gables, conical roofs, and rock-faced masonry certainly make their mark here. Anderson was a locally based architect and must have been well aware of the pressures of working in a town with its fair share of striking buildings – including several interesting churches and a Town Hall covered with outstanding relief carvings. In such eminent company, this one definitely and defiantly stands out.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Salisbury, Wiltshire

The last of my trio of bits of lettering from Salisbury buildings is what’s left of the shop front of Knight and Company, dealers is poultry, fish, and game. Tiles formed a very popular finish in the late-Victorian and Edwardian periods for food shops and pubs. They were prized because they could be embossed with interesting designs and glazed with bright, eye-catching colours. They were also easy to clean – a plus for food retailers.

Companies such as Maws, Minton, Doulton, and Craven Dunnill produced acres of these tiles, which were stuck up walls and around windows, each piece moulded to fit the architecture. The lettering was part and parcel of the ceramic design, and often the strokes and serifs of the letterforms took on some of the flowing curves of Art Nouveau. There’s a hint of that tendency here in way the R breaks out of the imaginary box that normally confines an upper-case letter.

Pheasants no longer hang in Knight’s Game Mart and its façade is a sorry ghost of its old self. My guess is that the protruding bits were chiselled off when someone attached another sign, now vanished, over the tiles. The survivors stubbornly remain, to remind us of a time when shop fronts were seen not as the fruits of ephemeral fashion but as something built to last.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Salisbury, Wiltshire

These carved letters are from a building that began life as the city’s hospital in 1767. The building was designed by John Wood the Younger, son of the great architect of Bath, in the form of a single big brick block, topped with battlements and bookended with side towers containing services such as water tanks and privies.

The inscription proclaims proudly ‘GENERAL INFIRMARY SUPPORTED BY VOLUNTARY CONTRIBUTION’ and by setting it in a band of stone the architect made sure it stood out from the surrounding brickwork. The incised lettering is reminiscent of the Georgian street signs that Wood would have seen on the stone-clad houses of Bath.

The infirmary’s exterior is dominated by rows of big sash windows. Plenty of fresh air was said in the 18th century to be good for the sick, and architects and doctors alike saw the generous provision of windows as essential in hospital buildings. No doubt these windows also make for light interiors in the apartments to which the building has been converted.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Salisbury, Wiltshire

Walking around Salisbury recently I decided to avert my eyes from the cathedral for once and have a close look at the magnificent buildings that surround it. But before I got to the cathedral close, something else began to strike me. This city has several interesting examples of old lettering on buildings. Inspired by the recent talk about Antonioni’s film Blow-Up over at Unmitigated England I thought I’d see what would happen if I blew up one or two of my pictures of these signs.

Well, no murders, thankfully, or lurking gunmen, but some rather less sensational details. This is an old newspaper office and printing works, probably dating to the 1870s or 1880s, home to two titles proud of their steam printing press. Although the green eyeshades have long been hung up and the presses moved to some Wiltshire Wapping, the names of two indigenous papers remain, reminders of a time when the local press was the source of regional and national news for almost everyone.
Look more closely and you can see how deeply cut these letters – and their frame – are. In spite of the fact that several generations’-worth of white paint have blurred their edges somewhat, they still stand out in the sun. The frame of the sign rests on little metal lugs, suggesting that it’s structurally separate from the façade. And yet the crack that’s snaking it’s way down the front goes though the sign too, so the connection is clearly quite close. So my blow-up reveals, if not some threat to human life, a bit of wall trouble, at least. Watch out as you pass...

Monday, September 1, 2008

Canons Ashby, Northamptonshire

I remember when I first stumbled across this place. Passing a knot of stone outbuildings and rounding a sharp bend, there was a high brick wall pierced with mullioned windows. As we continued a little further and pulled up by the side of the lane, this beautiful front was revealed across a lawn. We had found Canons Ashby.

All those years ago, the house looked neglected and sad. Walls were bowing. I think I remember weeds sprouting from the fabric here and there. We poked around a bit and a local woman appeared from a nearby cottage. We learned that Canons Ashby was the ancestral home of the Drydens (the poet’s family), who had lived here since the 17th century, but who now lived in Africa. As the sun warmed the Northamptonshire stone and and brought out colours ranging from raspberry to apricot in the brickwork, the place looked magical. Inside, we were told, nothing much had changed for 250 years. And all this history looked as if it would soon turn into another ruin, another lost country house.

That it did not do so was mostly due to Gervase Jackson-Stops, architectural advisor to the National Trust and a great scholar of and friend of country houses. Jackson-Stops not only fought to save the place, but also pioneered an arrangement under which government money was used to endow a house given to the National Trust – the first time the Trust had accepted a building with this source of endowment.

The place has blossomed since it was taken under the National Trust’s wing in 1981. The dry rot is gone, the structure has been strengthened, and conservators working for the Trust discovered enchanting 16th-century murals under layers of paint, to add to delights ranging from elaborate plaster ceilings to the vast kitchen, which, until 1938 contained the only tap (cold, of course) in the house. The library even houses a signed copy of Sir Charles Grandison by Samuel Richardson, one of the fathers of the English novel. Apparently he wrote the book at Canons Ashby: another literary link. It’s heartening to know that the fragile beauty of this place has been saved.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Sherborne, Gloucestershire

Limestone is one of the most versatile of England’s traditional materials. It runs in a band from Lyme Bay in Dorset to a point north of Filey in Yorkshire, a belt of stone that has given us some of our most memorable buildings – the terraces of Bath, the cottages of the Cotswolds, the church spires of Northamptonshire. Where I live in the Cotswolds nearly everything in some buildings is made of oolitic limestone - roofs, walls, window frames, floors, pavements. For centuries, Cotswolders came into the world to the sound of water boiling in a stone fireplace, and left it to be buried in a grave marked with a headstone made of the same oolite.

Everyone who has been to the Gloucestershire Cotswolds has seen houses like this – stone walls, stone roofs, dormer windows, and probably a stone garden wall and roses around the door too. The one I show above is in a village full of them. But if you look closely at it you’ll see something slightly unusual.

The doorway of this cottage has a rounded top with zigzag carving around it and the semi-circular stone above the door is carved with crosses. In other words, this house has a church doorway – and that zigzag carving reveals that it’s a Norman church doorway dating to the 12th century. What’s more, Pevsner informs us that there’s another Norman doorway around the back. If there had been one doorway, I'd have guessed that it had been moved to the site from somewhere else. But a pair of church doorways suggested to me when I first saw this house that the building began life as a place of worship before being converted (perhaps in the 19th century) for residential use – there’s another, still functioning, parish church in the village. Now a reader with a connection to the village (to whom many thanks for the information) has put me right. Apparently the foundations of a former church are still visible in the field opposite: the doorways were moved across the road.

Here in the Cotswolds we’re apt to get a bit blasé about our stone buildings. They’re everywhere and it’s easy to let them become part of the background, ignoring their details, their colour, and their beauty. Surprises like this one remind us to keep our eyes open. And as we look, to prepare to be amazed.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Lyndhurst, Hampshire

There are a lot of red brick buildings in Lyndhurst, and they glow a rich orangey colour in the afternoon sun. One of the more striking ones, the Stag Hotel, was built, on the site of an old coaching inn, in 1907 – it’s hard not to miss this as the date is emblazoned both over the entrance archway and on this bow window. The building has many features of the typical pub of the time – leaded-light windows, etched glass, ornate details – but they combine with the warm brick and clay tiles to create an air more of good taste than of brash pubbishness.

Talking of taste, this window seems to show that whoever designed the building wanted to pay homage to recent architectural fashions. The numerals show the influence of Art Nouveau, the curvaceous decorative style that was sweeping Paris metro stations and big houses in Belgium but which made less impact in England. And those hearts: they seem to be an allusion to the work of the great Arts and Crafts architect C F A Voysey. Voysey often used heart motifs – on wallpaper, key escutcheons, and other details – and the architect of the Stag no doubt learned from Voysey’s flair in other areas too: the Arts and Crafts master was good at bow-windows, for example.

It’s this mixture of elements and styles – Edwardian pub, Art Nouveau, Arts and Crafts – that makes this building a show-stopper. And that makes it catch the eye as you pause and look around you when caught in one of Lyndhurst’s notorious traffic jams. Even gridlock can have its compensations.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Stoke Edith, Herefordshire

Lost domains. The twentieth century saw the obliteration of hundreds of country houses. Agricultural depressions and the resulting falling rents, the carnage of the First World War and the consequent disappearance of a vast swathe of the servant class, the Second World War, trumping the First with more deaths and death duties, the wear and tear put on buildings that were requisitioned during wartime, and escalating repair costs – all these things meant that for many country-house owners demolition was the only way out. And in such a climate, if a house succumbed to damage in some other way – a fire, say – it was unlikely to be rebuilt. In 1955 the peak of demolitions was reached: that year roughly five houses were bulldozed every fortnight.

Often, there’s nothing left at all of these places, but now and then something survives – some service buildings, perhaps, or gate lodges. Lodges are usually big enough to make a small house, small enough to be maintained without punishing expense. They’re also generally a fair distance from the main house (those mile-long drives) so the bulldozer passes them by. Some of these resilient survivors are little architectural gems.

This lodge at Stoke Edith, on a bend in the road between Ledbury and Hereford, was once the prelude to a beautiful 17th-century country house. The lodge itself dates from 1792, but its brick and stone dressings presumably echo the materials of the older house, which was destroyed in a fire in the 1920s. The sixteen-sided footprint of this little building is about as complex as they come, and the dome, with its central chimney, is a memorable touch. The inventive architect was William Wilkins (father of the better known William Wilkins who designed the National Gallery). He obviously had flair. Little did he know that his small contribution to this Herefordshire estate would long outlast the big house, and remain for 80 years and more after its demolition to signpost the vanished mansion and make the passing traveller smile. Stoke Edith House

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Wells, Somerset

I have lived in houses with mice, watched swallows nest under neighbours’ eaves, and fretted about martens in roof spaces. I’ve found wasps’ nests in attics, heard tales of badgers undermining foundations, and once lived in a house where there was a fox’s earth beneath the garden shed. In a country house I’ve visited, bats (members of a protected species) fluttered around the upper floors, the owners nonchalantly ignoring the daily fly-past.

Animals have a way of colonizing our spaces. We’re not always pleased about this of course. Few of us take kindly to the common furniture beetle or his other timber-destroying cousins. And some owners of buildings go to great lengths to prevent birds landing on ledges and dropping droppings on the masonry. But there are more benign animal visitors to our buildings. Take the bishop’s palace at Wells. Perhaps the most outstanding bishop’s residence in England, it dates from the 13th century, and is surrounded by a set of outer walls from the 14th century that are in turn surrounded by a moat fed by one of the wells of Wells, around the back. This moat is remarkable for its occupants, for swans have lived here for many long generations. The current pair have managed to produce a very healthy family of eight cygnets this year, and they have gathered by the gatehouse bridge because someone, just out of shot, has begun to throw bits of bread into the water for them to eat.

This bounty means that these elegant creatures are not doing what Wells swans are supposed to do. Around the corner there is a metal chain attached to the palace wall, its lower end comfortably within beak’s range. At the other end of the chain is a bell. The swans of Wells know if they ring this bell someone will be summoned, bearing swan-food. Bell ringing. It’s hungry work, as any campanologist will tell you.

The bell-ringer at work