Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Chesterton Windmill, Warwickshire

Windmills are much more common in the east of England, where they take advantage of the stiff easterly breezes that blow across Lincolnshire and East Anglia, than in the west. But travellers along the Fosse Way, the Roman road that connects Cirencester in Gloucestershire with Lincoln, are used to seeing one windmill on a hilltop at Chesterton in Warwickshire. It’s one of the most striking mills in England, making a strong silhouette that’s visible for miles around.

Most windmills were built without the help of an architect. They were put up by builders or millwrights who knew how to construct a piece of machinery that worked efficiently and weren’t much interested in architectural airs and graces. But Chesterton Windmill, which was built in 1632, is very unusual because it was obviously built to the designs of an architect who had imbibed the influence of the Classical style. It was one of those buildings that people used to attribute to the great Classical architect Inigo Jones, though there’s no evidence that Jones designed it. A more likely candidate is Jones’s pupil John Stone, who worked on the manor house nearby.

The other odd thing about the mill is that the man who probably commissioned it, local grandee Sir Edward Peyto, was an astrologer and astronomer, and there’s a tradition that the building was originally an observatory that he used to look at the stars – presumably the rotating top, turned by means of a hand winch, housed Peyto’s telescope. If so, it was probably converted to milling quite early in its history, with added sails covered in sailcloth that cost 9 old pence per yard. It's very windy on top of this Warwickshire hill – it certainly was on the day I visited recently anyway – and Chesterton Windmill harnessed this energy to grind corn until around 1910, and was restored in 1969. For more about the history of this building, go here.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Bishop's Itchington, Warwickshire

Here's another nonconformist chapel, this time converted to a house. Unlike the one at Duntisbourne Abbots in the previous post, this Independent Chapel is built in brick and has pointed Gothic lancet windows. Brick, cheap and unpretentious, was often used to build dissenting chapels, and this humble material was often looked down on by Victorian Anglicans, who preferred their churches made of stone. Stone – worked by craftsmen and adorned with carving – was seen as the building material that had the highest status; brick came a poor second. But you'd have to be hard-hearted to look down on this lovely speckled Warwickshire brickwork. In addition, again in contrast to Duntisbourne Abbots, this chapel's date stone has been preserved in situ, revealing something of the building's history to passers-by.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Duntisbourne Abbots, Gloucestershire

There used to be thousands of nonconformist chapels and meeting houses dotted around the country. Even a small village sometimes had two, and they could be tiny buildings, put up and maintained by a sparse congregation of Methodists, Congregationalists, Baptists, Quakers, or others whose beliefs compelled them to worship separately from the established Church of England or the old Catholic Church. As congregations have declined or disappeared, many of these chapels have been demolished. But some survive.

Nonconformist chapels are at once among the most simple and most satisfying English buildings – simple because dissenters, with their Word-centred faith, tended to shun elaborate decoration and iconography, and so believed that there were better things to spend their sometimes limited money on than lavish fittings or statuary. So a small village chapel, like this one in the Cotswolds, often had this kind of simple frontage, with two tall windows and a door – and often a date stone above the door. Here, renewed stonework marks the place where the date stone was once set.

How can chapels survive where there are no longer worshippers enough to use and maintain them? Some have been converted to houses, with mixed results – a sensitive conversion can retain original features and create an inspiring living space. Some are village halls or other places of assembly, a use that can work well. A few are in industrial hands, again with varied success.

This one seems to be a double garage, the unlovely up-and-over door inserted at the East end. This is hardly an ideal solution – to some it will look like desecration. But at least most of the fabric of the building has been preserved – apart from this end wall and the vanished date stone there appear to be few other exterior modifications. At least the building is being used and what’s left of it is being maintained, and this unusual role is better than demolition. One hopes that one day some more appropriate use will come along.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Winterbourne, Berkshire

No apologies for blogging about signs again. I'm rather attached to the old-fashioned village signs that tell you not only the name of the place you're about to enter but also the distances to nearby towns. The usual kind, now vanishing from our roads, is white and rectangular, with the distances top and bottom. I like knowing how far I am away from places, even if the signs that tell me are being removed, in many cases to make room for some injunction to 'Please drive carefully through our Village'.

Here's something rather different and older still, an early AA sign that adds the distance to London. This kind of thing makes one think of the old milestones, setting its location in both local and national context. While it's unlikely now that most travellers, passing slowly through a small settlement like Winterbourne, need to know how far it is to London, it's good to see this sign retained, its eggy AA yellow setting off the red bricks of the wall. Safety first – and enamel a close second...

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Moor Street, London

Soho has always been a small world apart from the West End. Home to successive generations of outsiders – Huguenots, Italians, Chinese – its small houses and shops contrasted with the luxuries of Piccadilly and the commercial go-getting of Oxford Street, the thoroughfares that mark the boundaries of Soho to the west and north. In the 20th century the area was known for a heady mix of film companies and restaurants (some patronized by West End theatre people and bohemians from nearby Fitzrovia), plus London’s dark side – brothels, lap-dancing clubs, gambling dens, protectioneers, drug-dealers.

There’s not so much of the old Soho left now. There’s the odd Greek restaurant, all formica and cheapo ouzo, the occasional old-fashioned barber, a sex shop or two. There are also the cherished and precarious survivors – Maison Bertaux with its pastries and rickety stairs, the bohemian Colony Club in a building that seems so fragile it might be held up by the thick green paint on the walls. Mostly, though, the lights are brighter and the businesses less seamy or steamy than they were.

One area where the dodgy Soho clung on was the bit known to the police as the Moor Street Triangle, bounded by Old Compton Street, Charing Cross Road, and Moor Street itself. Fronted by restaurants, a hairdresser’s, a taxi office, and defined at its corners by a diner, a pub, and a bookshop, this enclave also sheltered drug-dealing, a lap-dancing club, and the kind of rooms you hired by the hour. The properties in the triangle had been unofficially converted and adapted – extra ceiling height for the lap dancing, lower ceilings for the more horizontal activities above, lean-tos in the courtyard to provide extra kitchen space for the restaurants, interconnecting corridors allowing those in the know to enter from Moor Street and exit via Old Compton.

The triangle is being redeveloped now. Gone are the jerry-built additions; gone the low-ceilinged bedrooms; gone the tawdry shop fronts. Out have come the detritus of sex slavery and cheap restaurant food, together with the desiccated python, star of an exotic dancing act, that escaped and lurked in the yard, living off kitchen scraps. The Soho-Georgian parts of the facades are preserved or replaced with finishes that are in keeping with what’s already there, and the corner buildings – diner, bookshop, and pub – remain as they were. It’s a neat scheme, which looks as if it will resist the temptation to sanitize completely this knockabout corner of London. But no doubt the shady businesses that once traded here have set up shop elsewhere.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Hoarwithy, Herefordshire

With its green hills, apple orchards, and unspoilt villages, Herefordshire is what a lot of us think of as typical England. How surprising, then, to come across the parish church of Hoarwithy, its Romanesque belfry clinging to the hilltop like a North Italian campanile. This wonderful landmark, a reworking and expansion of an earlier church, was designed by J P Seddon in the 1870s, and a visit is a succession of revelatory experiences through spaces and past works of art that are like little else in the history of the English country church.

You enter up a sloping path towards the bell tower, entering through the round-headed doorway. This leads through the base of the tower into a cloister walk that runs along one side of the church, its arches offering shelter from the rain, shade from the sunshine, and occasional views of the churchyard and the green landscape beyond. The arches are supported on twin shafts, like cloister arches in Italy or France, and have carved sandstone capitals with intertwining abstract designs that are worthy of the 12th-century Herefordshire school of sculptors that created churches like Castle Frome or Kilpeck. Beyond is the doorway through which you enter the church proper.Inside the eye is led eastwards past rows of windows and pews to a quartet of columns supporting a small dome. Here the sculpture has an intricacy that takes us south again – but this time to Constantinople or Ravenna, where the churches of the Byzantine empire have just such delicate carving.

At the visual climax, in a semi-dome above the altar, is a mosaic of Christ Pantokrator – again, just what you would expect to see in a Byzantine church. The hand of God reaches down from the clouds and the sunlight catches the golden tesserae of the mosaic, as Seddon, and the Byzantine builders who inspired him, intended. Hoarwithy contains many other delights – carved stalls, a pulpit like one at Fiesole, Venetian hanging lamps. Altogether, this is a magical place, a testimony to Seddon’s vision, the skills of the craftsmen, local and from further afield, who built it, and the capacity of the English landscape to accommodate happily a building that is in many ways so foreign.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Arthur's Stone, Dorstone, Herefordshire

Above the east Herefordshire village of Dorstone the lane rises, flattens, bends, and rises again. You know, when you’ve visited a few Stone Age burial chambers, that your goal is likely to be at the top of the last rise, on a ridge, with views for miles. And so, after another short rise, here is Arthur’s Stone, and beyond it views of the Herefordshire hills and the Welsh hills too.

This late-Stone-Age monument is a burial mound without the mound – in other words, it consists of the stones that line and cover the burial chamber and entrance, the earth mound that covered them having eroded away. The large capstone is about 20 feet in length and lifting it must have taken all the manpower and technology that the builders of 3400-2400 BC could muster.

Burial sites like this were among the grands projets of prehistoric England, and the people who built them weren’t going to hide their light under a bushel. Such a mound, the result of long labour, was a conspicuous memorial to those buried there, as well as being a major landmark. You don’t have to believe in ley lines to appreciate that hill-top barrows provided a good way of orienting yourself, as well as being powerful symbols of community and place.

The symbolism could get a bit mixed up in later centuries though. I don’t know when this place became known as Arthur’s Stone, but associations with King Arthur are not uncommon with hill-top monuments, especially in the south and west. It’s not hard to see why the Arthurian associations could multiply hereabouts – the king demonstrated his royal rank by pulling a sword from a stone, and he and his knights might be sleeping in such a burial mound, waiting for the time when they will return to supply England’s need. More prosaically, the mound was said to mark the site of one of the king’s battles. All evidence that Arthur’s Stone – technologically, scenically, mythically – is a place with the power to make us wonder.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

New Street, Birmingham

In spite of blitzkrieg, modernism, decay, and demolition, there are still plenty of Classical buildings in England. And so architecture buffs, who know their metopes from their triglyphs, get used to recognising the Classical orders. But how often do we really look at their details, the curving spiral volutes of Ionic capitals, the curly acanthus leaves of the Corinthian?

Of course, capitals are usually high up on a building. You need binoculars and toned neck muscles to look at them closely. One of the joys of visiting the great cities of the ancient world – Istanbul is supreme in this respect – is the amount of Classical rubble lying around on the ground. In places like that you can look at all kinds of architectural sculpture close-up, without craning your neck.

Now and then in England, though, the accidents of building design bring you face to face with this kind of detail.This Corinthian capital is in the New Street branch of Waterstone’s bookshop in the centre of Birmingham, which occupies the former Midland Bank, a building of the late-1860s designed by Edward Holmes. The style is a grand, confident Classicism. It’s just the kind of thing for a High Victorian bank but the generous spaces also make it a good setting for a large bookshop.

The stairs afford interesting glimpses of some of the Classical details, and the invention and craftsmanship that went into their creation. The picture shows the capital atop one of the giant Corinthian pilasters inside the shop. Face to face with this capital, we see the Corinthian order, or an eccentric Victorian adaptation of it, afresh. Crisp acanthus leaves curve inwards and outwards, spirals thrust up and forward like springs, and the whole thing supports, not an entablature or lintel, but another piece of decoration, an even bigger piece of foliage. The most striking touch of all, though, is the centrepiece – a bird opening its wings amongst the scrolls and leaves. All praise to the Victorians for their whimsy, and to Waterstone’s for their conveniently sited staircase that gives us this close-up view.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Ladybellegate Street, Gloucester

Walking around Gloucester this afternoon and wondering for the umpteenth time if the latest wave of regeneration will achieve anything more than an outbreak of urban regenerator’s bum†, I was pleased to be reminded of this chunk of wall. This is the kind of signwriting that makes me lie on my back and purr, and somehow the decay that’s taken place makes it more evocative, not less.

Why get worked up about a painted notice on an old wall? Well, for several reasons, actually. First, it’s a reminder of a kind of craftsmanship we don’t much see these days, now that the laser printer has replaced the brush and mahl-stick; someone chose the letters, laid them out, and painted them with care and skill – the person who could do this so well deserves our admiration. Second, it tells us about a forgotten industry: quite a lot of us know that Gloucester produced matches, flour, and aeroplanes; it’s interesting to know that beer was bottled here too. Third, this place is right in the centre of Gloucester, alerting us to the fact that this town was once home to a diverse inner-city economy, where manufacturing, processing, packing, and merchandizing went on in the same neighbourhood.

It tells us a lot, then, this fading, scuffed paintwork. But its age and battered condition stand for something more. I’ll try and illustrate this with a personal story. Over thirty years ago, in my last year at school, I set out on a series of journeys across England and Wales to attend university interviews. One of these grillings was at Swansea, and as my train slowed and pulled into Cardiff station I caught sight of a poster, then common in Wales, advertising the local brew: ‘It’s Brains you want!’ said the slogan on the poster, a remark that seemed cruelly apposite in view of the purpose of my journey. A few years ago I made the same train journey and was astonished to see that, although the poster had long been stripped away, its ghost, in the form of a faint residual image, was still there on the wall.

How many hundreds of thousands of people had seen that poster and its ghostly image? What pints had it evoked in the minds’ eyes (or minds’ taste-buds) of passengers? What other imaginings had it inspired? Talbot’s wall must have sparked off similar trains of thought, renewed on reacquaintance, redoubled even with a passing glimpse of this tantalizing fragment. Such signs are triggers of memory, and repositories of dreams.

* * *

† When I wrote this post I had a link here, to a piece by Jonathan Meades in which he explained how "urban regeneration" is now widely equated simply with "building". So whereas people once referred to "builder's bum" or "workman's bum", to describe the rear view of a worker bent double at some strenuous task, it's now possible to imagine regenerators adopting the builders'role, position, and cleavage. The link died, hence this note.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Old Gaol, Buckingham

Nowadays we tend to prefer our prisons out of sight and out of mind. But in the Middle Ages and for centuries afterwards, it was common to put the town gaol on the market place – conveniently near the Town Hall, the court, and the likely centres of criminal activity. At Buckingham, the Town Hall is at one end of the market place, the old gaol at the other, two images of authority framing the commercial and social activity going on in between.

The gaol was built in 1748, and in the fashion of the time it took the form of a four-square castle keep – stone-walled, minimally-windowed, and crenellated, an embodiment of security and power. It was paid for by Lord Cobham of nearby Stowe, a man who, having laid out one of the great landscape gardens and filled it with eye-catching buildings, knew a lot about the symbolic power of architecture.

In 1839 the building was extended with the addition of the rounded front portion, which served as the gaoler’s house. This extension was designed by George Gilbert Scott, a young local man who was to become one of the most prominent Victorian architects. Its friendlier Gothic details evoke a less sombre mood, but Cobham’s castellated pile still lurks solidly behind.