Saturday, January 26, 2008

Bishop's Cleeve, Gloucestershire

This tiny structure – almost too small to be a building – is in a courtyard car park in the centre of Bishop’s Cleeve, a village that has expanded since the 1970s to become a dormitory settlement for Cheltenham. It’s surprising amongst the shops and houses to find an industrial building, for this is a wheelwright’s furnace, where iron rims were heated before being attached to wooden cart wheels and dunked in a trough of water so that they shrunk to fit. But every place of any size once had its wheelwright, a craftsman who had to be skilled in both wood- and metalwork, and who would mend buckets or do joinery when no wheels were needed.

Curiously, this furnace is dated to around 1910, which seems rather late for iron wheel rims. John Boyd Dunlop patented his pneumatic rubber tyre in 1888 and it caught on quickly. But old wooden-wheeled carts were used for decades afterwards, even though the iron rim and its furnace were already old technology in 1910. How fortunate that this relic of industrial technology has been preserved – appropriately bound with iron bars, presumably by the wheelwright himself.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Albert Embankment, London

Before I leave my exploration of friezes, decorations, and reliefs, features that seem to have been preoccupying me on my recent walks around London, here’s one more example. The headquarters building of the London Fire Brigade on Albert Embankment was built in 1937 to designs by architects of the London County Council. It’s a rather monolithic building, characteristic of the strong, silent phase of English building in the 1930s, and not everyone likes it. But it has a saving grace – a dazzling set of relief sculptures by Gilbert Bayes.

This one, part way up the Embankment façade, is a dramatic scene featuring firefighters, but not as we know them. These firefighters have fishy tails. Yes, they’re merfiremen, the perfect mythological creatures for a Fire Brigade HQ by the River Thames. Other reliefs depict galleys (the riverside theme again), and Phoebus with the rays of the risen sun. It’s not just the gilding that makes me think of the interwar period as something of a golden age of architectural. sculpture in London.

Thanks to Zoe, who blogs with such flair about her adventures in the Czech Republic here, for telling me to look at this building.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Black Prince Road, London

In Victorian England, Doulton pottery was everywhere. Doulton of Lambeth made drainpipes, sanitary ware, fireplaces, and all kinds of other practical wares. They also developed an enormous range of art pottery, employing men and women who trained at the nearby Lambeth Art College to decorate jugs, vases, plates, and everything else you could make out of clay. Doulton artists and craftworkers also produced architectural ceramics, cladding and decorating the walls of factories, offices, hotels, and hospitals. The whole enterprise was a typically Victorian marriage of art and industry.

Only part of their Lambeth headquarters remains, and the highlight of the building is this tympanum celebrating the artistic side of the Doulton ethos. While Henry Doulton (the seated figure towards the right) explains what goes on in the studios, two of his top artists are on hand to show what they do. On the left, seated and working on a pot, is Hannah Barlow, who specialized in incised line drawings of animals. Her pet cat is just visible under her chair; she had a pet fox, too, but he didn’t live at work. The bearded figure in the centre, holding a large urn, is George Tinworth, the virtuoso sculptor in clay who created this panel. His long and successful career for Doulton, producing figures, reliefs (often of Biblical subjects), decorated pots, and more, makes him famous among collectors. Tinworth Street, honouring his memory, is a couple of blocks away.

The Lambeth works closed in 1956, but there is still a lot of Doulton ware around on English buildings from the mid-Victorian period to the 1930s. Their terracotta panels often show Victorian decorative art at its best, their tiles sometimes give expression to the swirling rhythms of the Art Nouveau – and their brewery plaques occasionally still point the way towards a good pint. Here’s to art and industry.

Great Tew, previsited

Several people responded to my post about Great Tew with memories of how the place used to be about thirty years ago – neglected, with tattered thatch, broken windows, and a few tenants hanging on amongst the dilapidation. I seem to remember that the Sunday Times of the Harold Evans era featured it in a piece about shamefully unmaintained villages left to go to ruin by their landlords. When I went there in the 1970s the plight of the residents was dire. It seemed to take one back to the debunking essays of Robertson Scott (England's Green and Pleasant Land was the ironic title of his most famous book) that showed country life in the early 20th century for what it really was – cold, hard, and painful for many. And yet the place had an eery quality evocative of another time that no spruced-up picture-postcard village could ever have had. The lost domain.
The photograph comes from TrekEarth, here, with thanks to Liberal England for the original link.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Great Malvern, Worcestershire

This surprise is in the Barnard’s Green area of Malvern, standing proudly at a road junction from where you take your choice of Malvern’s attractions – the lovely Victorian railway station, the town centre, the stately and all-commanding hills. The little building is not the thing one expects in this elegant English town, a place in so many ways redolent of the age of Queen Victoria or of Edward Elgar. Malvern is all wells, Victorian hotels, and opulent villas behind conifers and laurel bushes.

But not quite all. Meet the modernist war memorial bus shelter and clock tower of Barnard’s Green. I don’t know much about this building. It has a British Legion plaque on it and is in a 1930s modernist style that recalls seaside pavilions. There’s a neat clock, some masonry fins, an overhanging flat roof typical of the style, and seats inside, occupied the day I was there by a group of gentlemen somewhat the worse for drink who shuffled into the shadows when I got my camera out.
Best of all are the war memorial poppies that adorn the end panels around the outside of the little building. Buildings in this idiom aren’t normally allowed floral ornament, but this is different, of course. The poppies give us all the message we need.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Leicester Square Station, London

On the winter-time walk along Cranbourn Street that inspired the previous post I also saw this charming reminder of the summer game. Part of the tiling above Leicester Square underground station, it marks the site of the one-time offices of Wisden, the people who produce the yearly almanac that is the cricketer’s Bible. The ox-blood tiles that cover so many of London’s tube stations deserve a post, or two, or their own. They’re the brain-children of Leslie Green, the young architect of around 40 turn-of-the-century stations with tile-clad facades that gave the underground a house style or corporate identity long before these terms were familiar. Leicester Square station opened in 1906 and its resilient tiles have worn well. Thankfully, the Wisden tiles also promise to outwear the recent signage beneath them.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Cinema, Cranbourn Street, London

Movie posters are often so large and garish that they quite overshadow the buildings they’re attached to. This is a pity because cinemas can be interesting buildings. Some of the best come from the 1930s, like the one now called the Vue in London’s Cranbourn Street, just off Leicester Square. Like many cinemas this 1938 structure has been much altered over the years, but the owners have kept these two chunky expressionistic reliefs, high up on the entrance front, which obviously represent sight and sound. They are by Bainbridge Copnall and they do a better job of representing the aspirations of cinema than the tawdry typography and crude shopfront modernism that most cinemas resort to today. They're an asset to Leicester Square.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Chiselhampton, Oxfordshire

One of the purposes of this blog is to record accidental architectural discoveries and to preserve those moments of surprise when I come across unexpected or unusual buildings. Recently I was taking the coach from London to Oxford when we hit a diversion. Because an accident was blocking the M40, the coach approached Oxford along a different road, taking us through the village of Chiselhampton. As we did so, I looked up from my newspaper to see this building through a gap in the hedge. Next time I was doing the same journey in the car, I reran the diversion so that I could have a better look.

There’s a date inscription telling us the church was built in 1762, but that’s all that’s known. It must be the work of a local builder and carpenter, interpreting the language of Classical architecture in their own way. What they came up with, a plain façade rising to an ornate, town-hall-style, clock turret, is not the kind of thing you normally find on a sophisticated town church, where convention demanded a proper pediment and bell tower in the style of St Martin in the Fields. But how much better this provincial version works for a small country church, lifting your heart as you enter and take your place in box pew or gallery (all the original furnishings are still there, by the way). Or as you pass, hassled and late, on your way towards the more pretentious turrets and spires of Oxford.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Great Tew, Oxfordshire

Great Tew is all like this – thatched roofs, glowing, almost toffee-coloured ironstone walls, evergreen trees and hedges, all tucked neatly away in deepest North Oxfordshire. It’s archetypal rural England, the kind of village that’s been here for hundreds of years, growing organically and acquiring more patina with each century. But that’s not quite the story. The village is actually the creation of the early-19th century, when the estate was remodelled and the village became a star feature in the landscape. Thatched roofs were fitted or repaired, Gothic details added to the cottages, trees and hedges planted. The result is an uncanny combination of model estate village and old England. It’s not known for sure who masterminded the transformation, but the brain behind it might well have been landscape-gardener, writer, and horticulturalist J C Loudon. Loudon managed the estate for a few years and established a model farm. Whoever it was distilled the essence of the English village and left it in this North Oxfordshire valley.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Purton, Wiltshire

Hexagonal or octagonal buildings often started life as the dwellings of the people responsible for collecting tolls on the turnpike roads of the 18th and 19th centuries – that’s why they’re often referred to as pike houses. They are this peculiar shape for a reason – having sides facing different ways meant that the toll-collector could easily see people coming along the road from more than one direction, and could be ready to leap out and collect the appropriate dues before a traveller slipped swiftly by in his gig or chaise.

By the year 1800 there were around 23,000 miles of turnpike road in England controlled by more than 1,000 separate local turnpike trusts. There are still lots of their former pike houses dotted all over the country. But not many of these survivors bear their old toll boards, listing the fees charged to different kinds of traffic, wheeled and/or hoofed. Tenpence for a score of oxen, fourpence halfpenny for a coach, and so on. This signboard is on a polygonal pike house in Purton, Wiltshire, that was built in the early-19th century by the Swindon, Calne and Cricklade Turnpike Trust. Its occupant would have collected tolls from traffic travelling between Cricklade and Wootton Bassett. It’s good to know that both house and signboard are still there, even though a man doesn’t pop out and demand fourpence halfpenny as one passes.