Monday, November 17, 2008

Brackley, Northamptonshire

Marking time

I have a fondness for the old town halls of the 17th and 18th centuries. They form visual climaxes to so many high streets and market places and they combine civic pride and usefulness in a way that seems just right. The typical layout is an open, arched ground floor where you can have a market, a big upper room for meetings, and a cupola on top, often with a clock.

The clock is important. Back when the Town Hall at Brackley was built (by the Duke of Bridgewater, in 1706) not many people had watches or clocks of their own. So they relied on the church clock or a town hall timepiece like this one to tell the hours. The church wasn’t always visible from the main street, so to give a town a clock, right in the centre where everyone gathered to meet, buy, sell, and gossip, was a real gift to a town.

Such a gift needed to be visible and town hall builders started adding these cupolas, perfect little bits of carpenter’s Classicism, to show them off. The cupola at Brackley is one of my favourites. Everything about this ornate little structure – the fancy weathervane, the neat dome on its eight Classical arches, the cube containing the clock with its white corner brackets – shows that the builders took special care and gave the job the time it deserved.


Peter Ashley said...

Can anybody confirm or deny, the reason that all clocks with Roman numerals have 'IIII' for 'four' instead of 'IV' was due to the fact that George III said that this was so in an argument with his clockmaker and ordered a Royal Decree?

CarolineLD said...

That is lovely - and what a great weather vane too. It's a shame that many of these public clocks aren't kept running to the right time today.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Peter: The story about 'IIII' and 'IV' is also told about Louis XIV of France. The use of 'IIII' may also have something to do with the fact that 'VI' is upside down on the clock face; if you had 'IV' as well it would be too, and the two would be easy to confuse, so they used 'IIII'. This might have been true at the beginning but would it remain so when people got used to read clocks by the position of the hands alone? – I mean, you don't really look at the numeral when you read a clock do you? And those clocks and watches with just little marks instead of numbers are just as easy to read once you've learned to tell the time.

By the way, Roman numeral notation has never been completely hard and fast. My college sports pavilion had a date stone saying 'MCMIX' for 1909 (though I always insisted that this actually meant that it was built by a Scottish civil engineer called McMix, but anyway...). A year later the Admiralty Arch has 'MDCCCCX' for 1910.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Caroline: Yes, the weather vane is great. It may be that some of the metalwork has been renewed (the clock face looks as if it has a date on in it the 1880s, but of course I didn't notice that when I was there so didn't check: doh!). But it's no less gorgeous for that.

Vincent said...

The cupola and weathervane are reminiscent of that on top of High Wycombe's Guildhall, which I use as the emblem for my own blog, A Wayfarer's Notes.

It was Google Reader which recommended me to visit yours, "by comparing your interests with the feeds of users similar to you."