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.