Monday, June 30, 2008

Rye, Sussex

Rye is one of England’s most beautiful towns, a beguiling collection of tile-hung houses and cobbled streets. Its notable buildings range from a medieval church and fortifications to Georgian houses and it boasts a number of literary associations as the home both of Henry James and the Bensons. It’s easy just to soak in the beauty of it all and wander around in a state of permanent drop-jaw.

But this is to short-change Rye, which exists because it was a port and a working town. Its people were merchants, sailors, fishermen, and smugglers, and the money they made was as likely to be spent on basic needs like fresh water as on the refinements valued by the likes of Henry James.

So in the 1730s, the town invested £600 in an improved water supply. They ran an elm-wood pipeline into the centre of Rye, and built this cistern as a reservoir, completing the building work in 1735. Inside, the oval cistern, with a floor about 3 feet below ground level, is big enough to store 20,000 gallons of water. A pump allowed residents to draw water for their needs.

We’re used to seeing water towers from the 19th century, when piped water became widespread in Britain and water supply was organized on a regional basis. Rye’s cistern was a century ahead of these developments, reminding us that what we think of as this picturesque old town was once at the cutting edge.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Harringworth, Northamptonshire

The 82 brick arches of the railway viaduct near Harringworth are one of the most staggering sights of England’s railway architecture. Completed in 1879 for the Midland Railway, this extraordinary structure stretches 1,275 yards, taking the railway 60 feet above the Welland Valley.

It’s imposing, this vast viaduct, but hardly beautiful. In her Shell Guide to Northamptonshire, Juliet Smith tells us how to look at it: ‘It is best seen in dull weather or at dusk, when the ugly materials used by its Victorian builders, an indiscriminate mixture of blue and red brick, cannot detract from the effect of the classical proportions of arch and pillar’. The artfulness of the proportions is enhanced by making every ninth pier (marked with a pilaster) slightly wider than the rest, setting up a rhythm that reduces the monotony.

Proportions are all very well, but what’s really impressive is the way the viaduct takes us on a mental journey back in time. To stumble across this structure is to be transported to the world of the Victorians, and to come face to face with their engineering flair, their determination, their ruthless ability to get big things done. All their major engineering projects – bridges, tunnels, sewers, and the rest – take the breath away with their sheer size and nerve. And we’re still benefiting from many of them today, 130 years on.

Perhaps something like this caught the imagination of the local parishioners, for in Harringworth's parish church the long kneelers in front of the altar rails depict the arches of the viaduct in colourful embroidery. An Intercity 125 train passes along the track, a streak of gold, red, white, and blue. Here at the altar, the depiction of the arches is rather more brightly colourful than they actually are, but the train reminds us that Victorian engineering is still a real presence in our world.

Thanks to Peter Ashley of Unmitigated England for showing me this place.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Harley Street, London

London’s Harley Street is well known for its doctors’ houses and consulting rooms, making the district, as it were, the capital’s bedside manor. The street was first built in the second half of the 18th century, but there are also plenty of houses from the Victorian and Edwardian periods that left such a mark on this part of London. Number 37, on its prominent corner site, is one of the most spectacular.

It was designed by the architect Beresford Pite, who threw at it all his skill in composing the facades of a building and marshalling all kinds of architectural bits and pieces to make a coherent whole. The two frontages are full of incident – windows of different sizes and shapes, the ornate corner oriel, the doorway and curved pediment, the skyline with its big dormer windows. And all this fits together wonderfully.

But what really take the breath away are the sculptures that encourage the eye to linger on the facades. One represents poetry, a laurel-crowned figure with a lyre and volumes of Homer and Milton behind him. Another is a reclining figure with a telescope and a star, representing the science of astronomy. At the top is a caryatid holding up the heavy cornice. The whole collection constitute a little-known London treasure, but the artist who created them was not a Londoner. His name was Frederick Schenk.Frederick Schenk was the son of a German lithographer who settled in Edinburgh. As a young man he worked in his father’s lithographic business before training as an artist in Edinburgh and London, and working as a modeller for various potteries in Staffordshire. Although he was successful in the precise and painstaking work of the ceramic modeller, a change in the pottery market led him to find a new direction in his career. He became an architectural sculptor, and specialized in low-relief work, especially on public buildings – town halls and the like – designed by the architect Henry Hare.

There weren’t that many houses grand enough for Schenk’s stone sculptures, especially as by the turn of the century tilework and terracotta were so fashionable. But the architect Beresford Pite, a man who combined skilful handling of shapes and masses with considerable decorative flair, gave him his chance on this corner site. Schenk picked up the scheme and ran with it, and his splendid reliefs of about 1900 still delight the eye.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Red Lion Court, London

During a short break after a publishing meeting yesterday I explored a couple of the alleys off London’s Fleet Street, places where evocative bits of old London rub shoulders with modern office-block extensions. In Red Lion Court (named after a tavern that was destroyed in the Great Fire of London) I found myself back in the world of publishing. The buildings, plain brick of the early-19th century, are described by Pevsner as typical of the unassuming style favoured by the printers who congregated in the Fleet Street area in this period.

This sign is on the wall of one of the buildings in Red Lion Court that was probably put up after another fire of 1808. It’s a printer’s emblem. Unlike many tradesmen of former centuries, who used rather literal signs of their businesses (a hat for a hatter, a pestle and mortar for a pharmacist, and so on), printers allowed themselves a little more artistic licence when it came to making their mark. Printing, after all, was related to scholarship, and scholars were expected to be cleverer than your average high-street tradesman. Also, a printer’s emblem or colophon was reproduced in their books, so each firm's emblem was expected to be different and memorable, and might combine words and images in an early form of corporate identity.

So whose was the sign in Red Lion Court? Well, this building has been the home of several different firms involved in the book trade, including the publishers Taylor and Francis. But the man who left his sign on the wall was the printer, publisher, and scholar Abraham Valpy (1787–1854).

Valpy came to Red Lion Court in 1822. He had been a scholar and, briefly, fellow, of Pembroke College, Oxford, and he published editions of classical writers. He also branched out into periodicals, producing the Classical Journal and The Museum. His sign, a hand pouring oil into a lamp, bears the motto, ‘ALERE FLAMMAM’ (feed the flame). Valpy nourished the flame of scholarship here, producing several long series of classical texts, until about 1837, when he sold his printing equipment, books, and copyrights, and retired, leaving just his mark on the wall.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Kings Norton, Birmingham

Congratulations to Canon Rob Morris and the other people of Kings Norton who have worked hard to preserve the Old Grammar School and Saracen’s Head. About four years ago the buildings were the winners in the second series of the BBC2 programme Restoration, in which viewers voted for it to be restored. Now the project is complete and yesterday Mark Thompson, the Director General of the BBC, officially opened the Saracen’s Head.

The two buildings date from the 15th century, although both have been adapted and altered over the centuries, this history of change and development adding to their interest. The Saracen’s Head (shown in the picture) was originally a merchant’s house. It was clearly built for someone with both money and status – the timber work is very showy for its period, with the vertical timbers placed close together (a technique called close studding) and an overhanging upper floor (known as a jetty) – both of these features were signs of a high-status building. Later the house became an inn, hence its name, and later still part of the building was used as a shop and tea room.

Now it is to be the parish office and provide community rooms and a venue for local events. The Old Grammar School is used educationally to show visitors how pupils were taught in earlier centuries. Both buildings are very special survivals in this built-up district on the edge of Birmingham and they richly deserve the support they gained from both the viewers of Restoration and the local team who brought the project to fruition.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The Concise Townscape

When I was a teenager, bumbling around the local public library, I came across a book called The Concise Townscape, by Gordon Cullen (1914–1994). It caught my eye because of the title: I’d not heard of townscape before but imagined, rightly as it turned out, that it was like landscape, but urban rather than rural. I picked the book up and, somewhat to my surprise, I was captivated.

I’d forgotten about this encounter until a few months ago when I found an old copy of the book in a secondhand bookshop. Opening it, bells began to ring and old connections to be made and it began to dawn on me that this book had been highly influential on the way I look at the world around me. For one thing it was full of things that I still enjoy and find interesting, but which don’t always appear in architectural history books – there’s a double-page spread with illustrations of shops covered with old advertising signs, for example; photographs of seaside fences, steps, lettering, and cobbled street textures; drawings of shelters and different kinds of city square.

Most interesting of all are several groups of pictures (of Oxford, Ipswich, and Westminster) showing the changing view as a person walks along a street, under an archway, through a group of buildings. These sequences, representing what Cullen calls ‘serial vision’, show how the townscape unfolds as one walks, and how new buildings and vistas appear in a series of revelations. In other words that buildings relate to one another and that, when looking at a piece of townscape, it is at least as good to travel as to arrive.

I now realise, of course, that The Concise Townscape is a kind of textbook for urban designers and city planners, and one that must have been very successful. It still seems to be in print, though without the old cover of my secondhand copy, which represents what happens when ‘a victim of prairie planning traces out his public protest, the reminder of a properly concentrated town’. The protest-drawing (which is signed TGC, for Thomas Gordon Cullen) is packed with all kinds of things that I love and that this blog celebrates – a pub, a fish shop, a nonconformist chapel, a church, the hint of some steps leading to a hidden alley. Thank you, Gordon Cullen.

Monday, June 9, 2008

South Woodchester, Gloucestershire

A few months ago on this blog a post about the roundhouse in Melksham, Wiltshire, provoked some interesting comparisons both on and offline. Here’s another round building, one that used to be known as the teasel tower, because it was once used for drying teasel seed heads for use in the cloth industry.

The clothier’s teasel, Dipsacus sativus, is slightly different from the native teasel, Dipsacus sylvestris, in that its prickles have recurved hooks. It is these that are useful to the cloth-worker, because when drawn across the cloth they pull out loose fibres and raise a nap on the surface. To begin with the heads were arranged in a wooden frame which was drawn across the fabric by hand like a large brush. Later they were fixed to turning cylinders in a mechanical device called a gig, which from the time of the industrial revolution onwards could be driven by steam. This kind of gig mill could process the cloth more quickly than a hand worker and, it was alleged, produced a more uniform surface.

The cloth industry of the Stroudwater area used teasel heads by the thousand, and they were still being grown near Cheltenham just before World War II. This building just off the Stroud to Nailsworth road was apparently one of the places where they were made ready for use. It is part of a house now, but is in its way as interesting a reminder of the old industry of the Stroud valleys as the many mills in the area.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Barton on the Heath, Warwickshire

Village greens are amongst our most cherished public spaces. A village green can be the site of a cross, well, pump, seat, or bus shelter, the setting for cricket matches and informal gatherings, the summer extension of the local pub. The trees that often grow around the green provide welcome shade, shelter, and visual focus. The occasional structures that lurk amongst them can be interesting too.

Near the trees and limestone cottages of the green at Barton on the Heath is this surprising and intelligent piece of design. It’s a water fountain, donated to the village by Major and Mrs R W Bird in memory of their son, who died on 12 July 1874. No doubt it was a valued water source when it was first installed. Now it’s appreciated as a landmark, valued as a bit of visual punctuation.

The fountain is rather too small to be a building, but with its little dome and trio of columns, it is undoubtedly architectural. It finds its place here because such miniature structures have an impact beyond their size. Prominently placed, Classical in style, and simply pretty, structures like this fountain bring a bit of country house style to the village green, a touch of the palace to the people. And that means us all.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Oxhill, Warwickshire

Samuel Beckett, as ever, puts it so well: ‘Personally I have no bone to pick with graveyards. I take the air there willingly, perhaps more willingly than elsewhere, when take the air I must.’* You will often find me taking the air in graveyards and I find their rewards – crosses, lychgates and, above all, gravestones – rich, varied, and far from musty. And so, as I probably will again, I digress in this post from buildings to their settings and surroundings, and to what can be read on one stone near a country church in Warwickshire.

Eighteenth-century gravestones are amongst the most beautiful of all, often carved in a chunky vernacular style with everything from swags to skulls. Their characterful, sometimes spindly and often lichen-covered lettering delineates the lives of many thousands of people of whom otherwise we know nothing, a faint trace caught by the rising or declining sun.

At Oxhill, another of the places near the Fosse Way that I was exploring recently, the most fascinating stone is one of the smallest. It marks the grave of Myrtilla, ‘Negro Slave to Mr Thomas Beauchamp of Nevis’, who died in 1705. The burial register refers to Myrtilla as ‘a Negro Girl of Mrs Beauchamp’s’. Thomas Beauchamp was a member of the local family that once held Warwick Castle and his wife came from nearby Idlicote. They owned land on Nevis – a document of 1744 records a Thomas Beauchamp, perhaps this one or his son, also Thomas, selling a sugar plantation there in 1744.

Not much else is known of Myrtilla, although one account alleges she was 72 when she died – this seems unlikely in view of her description as a ‘Girl’ in the burial register, and the source of this figure is elsewhere unreliable. A footstone, matching this headstone, would have recorded her age, but the footstones in this churchyard were moved in the 1970s. So all that’s left is a stone and a name – the kind of shadowy vestige that makes the traveller pause in a sunlit churchyard in the middle of England.

* Samuel Beckett, First Love (first English publication, 1973)

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Harbury, Warwickshire

In around 1910 the hand winch with which the miller at Chesterton Windmill (see previous post) turned his sails into the wind failed and the miller moved a mile or so up the road to Harbury, where there was a fine tower mill in the middle of the village. Although the sails and the original boat-shaped cap have have long gone, the tower is still there, providing a rounded point of interest in the rectilinear environment of this English village.

Harbury windmill is a much more conventional design that Chesterton. It’s basically a round tapering tower of brick and stone, on top of which there was originally a revolving cap that held the sails – the standard tower mill, in fact. It was built in the early-19th century and its four sails turned the millstones until just before the First World War, when the miller introduced a steam engine – this power plant was later followed by oil and later electrical power. Milling stopped in 1952 and after other industrial uses the building became a home in the late 1980s.