Monday, April 28, 2008

Little Washbourne, Gloucestershire

Hidden among fruit trees in the low-lying country between the Cotswold escarpment and Tewkesbury, Little Washbourne is easy to miss. There’s not much here: a farm, a house, a roadside inn, and this tiny church, approached along a grass path through an orchard. But there’s more to this building than the passing motorist, speeding between Stow and Tewkesbury, might imagine.

Some details of masonry and a small window around the back shows us that this is a Norman church, but the big window to the right of the doorway tells a different story. It’s Georgian, and the 18th-century has left a lasting and wonderful imprint on this building, as we see immediately on opening the door.

Filling the nave is a complete set of 18th-century box pews, including four big family pews at the front and smaller ones behind, plus a two-decker pulpit (a piece of furniture fashionable in the 18th century, combining a pulpit for preaching and a desk for reading the lessons). Beyond, in the chancel, are matching altar rails and communion table. Candles provide the only artificial light. As Pevsner says, the whole lot doesn’t look as if it’s been touched since 1800.

These are not, let me make clear, the kind of furnishings I’d remove from a church to make it suitable for dance classes or village bean-feasts, although, as I’ve said in another post, I’m sometimes in favour of removing pews. No, the furnishings at Little Washbourne are in a special class and, as there’s no longer a congregation to use them regularly in this scattered community, the building is now vested in the Churches Conservation Trust. Thanks to their care, we can now visit this place and appreciate how a Norman building and Georgian interior can come together to create a unique atmosphere, taking us back to the time of Jane Austen and her predecessors.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Upton on Severn, Worcestershire

I’ve always liked Upton on Severn, an inland town with a marine feel to it, thanks to a riverside location that has brought trade and pleasure traffic to the place for centuries. The town is full of old inns, 19th- and early-20th-century shop fronts, and other points of interest, but what caught my attention on my most recent visit were two early garages.

The architectural history of the garage is hardly a tale of glory. Apart from the occasional Art Deco eyecatcher, it’s a story that began with converted farm buildings, makeshift huts, and former stables, and ended with corporate dreariness. Yet early survivors often rise above the total blandness and minimalist shells we’re used to when we fill up now.

Take Shipp’s Garage, up a side street in Upton. This building began life in the 1890s as a nonconformist chapel, but the garage proprietor found the building’s height and location conducive to conversion, A plaque on the wall says ‘Established 1926’, though I don’t know whether they’ve been in the old chapel that long. Of course, part of me thinks that converting a building like this is a travesty. Violence has been done to the front to knock through the big doorways, the one remaining window is a sorry version of its former self – and one could go on. But the rest of me likes what’s happened, for the building’s knockabout visual charm and for the fact that it wears its troubled history on its sleeve, for us all to see and read.

A few streets away, on the road out of Upton towards Malvern, is Pane’s Regal Garage, a place to make you swerve.

It has a big moderne frontage with the name Regal Garage spelled out in huge tall cut letters. But a building’s surroundings are often as important as the building itself, and what marks out this place is the remarkable collection of very large and very red trucks, breakdown wagons, and cranes parked on either side. This one, probably American and probably as old as the garage itself, caught the sun, and my eye.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Launde Abbey, Leicestershire

England is a small and tightly packed country, in which unexpected vistas open up and architectural surprises await one around corners, in valleys, and behind trees. One of these pleasant surprises was arranged for me by a friend the other day as he drove me through rural Leicestershire. As we rounded a bend and rattled over a cattle grid a vista opened up to reveal this.
Launde Abbey was originally an Augustinian priory founded in the 12th century. Beautifully sited in this dip, it must have looked inviting with its church and group of stone buildings. Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s minister who organized the survey of England’s monasteries that eventually led to the dissolution, certainly thought so. When the religious houses closed in the 1530s, of all the monasteries in England, Cromwell bagged Launde for himself. ‘Myself for Launde,’ he wrote in his journal.

The Cromwell family built themselves a house at Launde, incorporating the priory’s church into the new fabric. The house has been altered quite a bit since, and it’s not known how much of the Cromwell house actually remains, although it shares the site and the inviting prospect afforded by the monastery. With its projecting side wings, steep gables, and big mullioned windows, the building has an air of the early-17th century, but the Cromwells sold up in around 1611 so it’s hard to know how much of what’s there was built by them. Generations of residents turned the landscape around the house into beautiful parkland and woodland, and some of the old monastic fishponds are still visible.

There’s a vestige of the priory in the house itself, too. The chancel of the old church still forms part of the structure and is used as a chapel. This is no doubt well used, since the house now belongs to the diocese of Leicester, who use it as a retreat and conference centre.

Thanks to Peter Ashley for pointing me in the direction of this wonderful place.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Hallaton, Leicestershire

Hallaton is one of those villages whose upland location and rich variety of ironstone buildings help make eastern Leicestershire a little known delight. The conical structure in front of this thatched cottage is the buttercross, which, like many such early marketing and landmark ‘crosses’ isn’t at all cross-shaped, but provides an eye-catching focal point to the village green. It’s also a reminder that this village isn’t always as quiet and tranquil as it seems.

The buttercross plays a role in an event that transforms Hallaton every Easter Monday, and has done so for hundreds of years – the hare pie scramble and bottle-kicking contest. The scramble for bits of hare pie is a throwback to a charitable hand-out, and the tradition of donating food to the poor is continued in a ceremony of giving penny loaves at the buttercross before the main even of the day, the bottle-kicking contest itself.

Bottle-kicking is a game played between the villages of Hallaton and neighbouring Medbourne. The aim is to get two out of three 'bottles' (actually small beer barrels) across your village stream and into your village’s territory. The method is a kind of rumpus resembling coarse rugby with very few rules and involving scrums, lots of ‘contact’, and not much actual kicking of the bottle. The competitors are many in number and regard rugby players as somewhat soft. The climax occurs when the winners climb the buttercross, lift the bottles in the air, and triumphantly drink the contents. Here’s to Hallaton, tranquil for 364 days of the year.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Crown Passage, London

The web site of the most famous London hatters tells us that if we jump into a London cab and ask for the premises of Lock, the driver will point his vehicle towards St James’s Street and deposit us at the door of number 6, home of the best hatter in the world. The St James’s Street frontage is reassuringly Regency, just the kind of shop window we’d expect for a traditional business like this, the sort of place where you can still buy a top hat or a bowler. They don’t call it a bowler here, though. At Lock, it’s a Coke hat, after William Coke of Holkham, Norfolk, landowner and farmer, for whom the Locks made the first such headgear in 1850. But not all Coke-wearers or Fedora-fanciers know that this important emporium has a back entrance, in the appropriately named Crown Passage, which you can find off King Street.

The facade in Crown Passage is even older than the main one. Many of the little shop fronts in this side street are Georgian, and Lock’s looks late-18th century. The small wooden bay window on its serpentine brackets is a reminder of the period when shopkeepers were starting to be a bit more assertive in their architectural display, pushing their windows out towards the street to attract passers-by. But they were only allowed to invade the pavement-space by so much – there were strict regulations about how far they could protrude. In a narrow street like this – it’s little more than an alley, really – your windows were only meant to stick out 5 inches or less.

So this shop front, like its Georgian neighbours, is quite modest. Glazing bars divide the panes, and we’re a world away from the big plate-glass windows of today. There’s only room in there for a few hats, tastefully displayed. But that’s all they need. After all, the name ‘Lock’ above the window tells us all we need to know.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Toddington, Gloucestershire

Here in the Cotswolds, celebrity neighbours are so common they’re usually greeted with a shrug. Half the royal family lives round here, after all. (‘Tetbury man to wed’ was the local paper’s laconic headline when Charles and Camilla announced that the time had come to put their relationship on a more formal footing.) So the revelation that no-longer-Young British Artist Damien Hirst was buying Toddington Manor hardly raised an eyebrow in these parts, except among those for whom sharks, dot paintings, and diamond-studded skulls aren’t the last word in art.

But a few of us rejoiced. Toddington Manor is a stunning Victorian house that has been empty and unloved for years. It was designed by its first owner, Charles Hanbury Tracy, who was on the committee that chose Barry’s design for the then-new Houses of Parliament. The building has more than a touch of the Houses of Parliament about it – late-Gothic windows and tower, some stunning gargoyles, a cloister corridor, lots of Gothic details inside and out.

It’s very grand, but it isn’t exactly homely. Which is why, I think, that many of the well-heeled who’ve considered it have backed out. The rooms are grandiose – but not that big. The main route around the house is the cloister, which is more churchy than housey. Putting en suites in upstairs would cause all kinds of conservation nightmares. And the repair bill must be stratospheric. What it needs is an owner who’s rich, but doesn’t just want to live there.

Enter Mr Hirst and his art. He plans to restore the house and use it to show off his collection. And he seems to be getting on with the task in hand. Shortly after he bought the place, the whole house was covered by the world’s biggest span of scaffolding. Now he’s sheathing the place in plastic too. It looks as if he’s commissioned Christo and Jeanne-Claude, wrap-artists extraordinaire, to do what they did to the Reichstag a few years back. But it’s probably an indication that there’s some serious restoration going on in there. Roll on the time when the work’s done and we can visit the house. After all, if we don’t like the art, we can still admire the gargoyles and the stained glass. As Grand Designs’ Kevin McCloud is fond of saying, ‘It might just work.’

Toddington Manor: the house as it was

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Ludlow, Shropshire

You know the Orders, the modes, as it were, of Classical architecture? Doric, with its fluted columns topped with square abaci, Ionic with its spiral volute capitals, Corinthian, with its gorgeous bunches of acanthus leaves? The Orders were designed to provide builders with a complete architectural vocabulary, a set of standard designs for the key bits of a building – columns, with capitals on top of them, and entablatures on top of them. Everything standardized. Everything in order.

It was never quite like that, of course. The ancient Greeks rang changes on the orders and the Romans introduced two others (Tuscan and Composite). But there was still a sense of correctness, of decorum, to use a Classical word, about how to use these bits of architectural vocabulary. When English builders get their hands on the orders, though, quite different and bizarre things sometimes happen. What, for example, if you were to combine the idea of a Classical Order, with its column, capital, and entablature, with the pointed-arched Gothic style of the Middle Ages?

What you get is this Gothic doorcase of 1768 on the Guildhall in Ludlow. It’s all there – column, capital, entablature, but the columns are slender triple shafts, and the entablature is adorned with little quatrefoils, details straight from the visual vocabulary of the medieval parish church. And so between the columns is a doorway topped not with a flat Classical lintel but with a gently curving arch above which is a pointed Gothic arch. It’s a delightful combination, architecturally incorrect and very English. Capital!

Monday, April 7, 2008

Temple Meads Station, Bristol

Before leaving Bristol for the moment, it seemed a good idea to have a look at Temple Meads Station. This of course is an old station, originally opened in 1840 and forming the terminus of Brunel’s Great Western line from London Paddington. Much of the Brunel structure is still standing, but last time I was there, I was struck by the way the sunlight caught a slightly more recent bit of the station, the part added in the 1860s and 1870s, when the three railways who shared the site (the Bristol and Exeter and the Midland were the other two) modified and extended the layout and the buildings.

The new front was designed by Sir Matthew Digby Wyatt. The style is a rather flashy French Gothic, as if the architect had picked up the late-Gothic style of the Houses of Parliament, with its turrets and mullioned windows, and run all the way across the Channel with it. The variegated stone stands out at the best of times, but looks remarkable when stormy evening sunlight catches the masonry. It’s an appropriately cosmopolitan touch in this city that has so long been the starting point for great journeys.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Corn Street, Bristol

Less famous than the cathedral (see previous post), but even more ornate and just as amazing in its way is the former West of England and South West District Bank, now Lloyd's TSB, in Bristol's Corn Street. The picture shows a small section of the upper floor and cornice of this building, built in the 1850s and modelled on St Mark’s Library, Venice. The Italianate proportions (using the plain Doric order on the ground floor, the more elaborate Ionic order above) are impressive. But what really sets this building apart is the carving with which it is smothered. Using pale Portland stone to stand out from the Bath stone of the main structure, sculptor John Evan Thomas let himself go, with the arms and symbols of the towns and cities where the bank had its branches and up in the entablature, a host of putti busy working away as bankers. How unlike the bankers of today these innocent figures seem.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Bristol Cathedral

The great modernist architect Le Corbusier wrote a book called Quand les cathédrales étaient blanches (When the Cathedrals Were White). In other words, when they were new. Le Corbusier liked things that were new and white and most people think that whiteness is the natural state of old cathedrals, their stone chastely expressing their structure. But actually medieval cathedrals were painted in glowing colours, their interiors resembling jewel boxes or manuals of heraldry. Go inside the wonderful Sainte Chapelle, the royal chapel in Paris, a vast kaleidoscopic casket of painted stone and stained glass, and you get the idea.

Ancient English churches and cathedrals on the whole have lost their ancient coloured interiors, but here at Bristol, a little bit of the colour has been restored. The picture shows part of the 14th-century reredos – that’s the decorated wall behind the altar – in the Eastern Lady Chapel of the cathedral. This part of the building was constructed between 1298 and 1330, and the reredos is a classic 14th-century piece of stone carving. The curvaceous double-curved ogee arches, the circular flowers, the little pinnacles and the other intricate details are all typical of the highly ornate style that the Victorians appropriately christened Decorated. In 1935 the reredos was restored and the restorers repainted it using evidence from remains of the medieval paint so that it displays something like its original colour. When the cathedrals were red, green, gold…

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Avebury, Wiltshire

This is one of England’s most magical places. The vast stone circle, so big it encloses the entire village, and the archaeological landscape in which it sits, make up a complex whole that is rightly a World Heritage Site. Sometime between c. 3700 and 2200 BC, people in this part of Wiltshire constructed earthworks, arranged the large stone circle, erected other standing stones and stone alignments, and raised up long barrows to bury their dead.

Although the people who erected the stones lived millennia ago, there is a feeling of continuity too, whether in the happy combination of field walls and cottages made of the same hard sarsen as the standing stones, or in the fact that later houses, not to mention Christian places of worship, have been built within the vast stone circle. This combination of ancient stones and earthworks and a modern community living amongst it all is one of the things that makes Avebury special.

The exact dates, construction methods, and precise purpose of most of Avebury’s monuments is not known exactly, but the sheer size of the site makes its importance obvious. The careful alignment of the stones, the way in which they engage with the patterns of the movements of the sun and moon, point to a religious use. So does the atmosphere of the place. As one walks around the site, seemingly endless stones are revealed, and a combination of trees, deep ditches, and steep banks creates a play of shadows and light, of mystery and revelation.

Many have responded to the atmosphere of Avebury. The painter Paul Nash, for example. In his contribution to Herbert Read's Unit One anthology of 1934, he wrote: ‘Last summer I walked in a field near Avebury where two rough monoliths stand up, 16 feet high, miraculously patterned with black and orange lichen, remnants of an avenue of stones which led to the Great Circle. A mile away, a green pyramid casts a gigantic shadow. In the hedge, at hand, the white trumpet of a convolvulus turns from its spiral stem, following the sun. In my art I would solve such an equation.’ Stones, earth, lichen, and flowers: all followed the sun and do so still.