Saturday, January 31, 2009

Southwark Street and Price's Street, London

Testing, testing

Not many people notice the Kirkaldy Testing Museum, a building on London’s Southwark Street not far from the back of Tate Modern. I came across it by chance, and learned from the notice on the front wall that it was built for Scottish engineer David Kirkaldy (1820–97), who built the first machine capable of testing really large construction components to find out whether they would be strong enough for their planned use. With this device (built in 1865 or 1874 according to which notice you read), Kirkaldy could test full-size girders, beams, columns, and so on, in tension and compression, and could find out how they would respond to twisting, bending, impact, and other challenges. The Testing Works, as the building was originally called, was clearly a very important place for Victorian builders and engineers, and Kirkaldy’s amazing machine is still inside.

The Southwark Street front is a solid-looking brick facade in the round-arched style that the Victorians sometimes used, but I popped round the back to have a look at the rear elevation in Price’s Street. Here the building looks more like the archetypical Southwark warehouse, in stock brick with iron crane, but with the original name emblazoned across the top. I admired the lettering but was rather concerned about the broken downpipe: Kirkaldy would not have approved. This façade must have housed the working entrance, where all the beams, girders, ship plates, railway wheels, and so on were brought in to be put through their paces.

This was ground-breaking work in the days before simulation and computers, and when bridges, tunnels, factories, and other structures were growing bigger then ever before. We probably owe the durability of many of our Victorian structures to the tests carried out in this important but little-known place. I hope to go back some time, on one of the days when the museum is open (the first Sunday in each month), have a look inside, and see Kirkaldy’s machine – all 116 tons of it.

You can read more about Kirkaldy's Works and see a photograph of his machine here.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Tamworth, Staffordshire

A breath of fresh air

I was slightly baffled when I came across this building. Approaching from what turned out to be the back, I found a low-slung, green-tiled structure around a courtyard, with some concrete detailing that seemed to date from the 1930s. It had clearly been altered quite a bit, but some of the original metal-framed windows were still there. And those green tiles. Weren't they reminiscent of white-walled thirties houses and big cafés on trunk roads? As the wind howled across the courtyard I made my way around the building.

I kicked myself when I got to the front and saw the large sign: ‘BATHS’. Of course. The courtyard was once filled with water, and Tamworthians swam to and fro, or tried not to drop their ice-creams in the pool. As Peter Ashley of Unmitigated England remarked to me recently, Tamworth is probably as far away from the sea as any place in England. So it deserved a lido as much as anywhere. But lidos were all the fashion everywhere between the world wars, when the people began to appreciate anew the health-giving properties of fresh air, exercise, and sunshine. While the enlightened middle classes longed for snow-white modernist houses with big windows, terraces, and ‘sleeping porches’, the rest of the population got more real, and headed down to the lido.

I’m not sure when Tamworth’s baths closed, but many towns, mindful of the English climate, built new indoor pools in the 1960s and 1970s, leading to the demise of many a lido. It’s a shame, but at least we have some bits of concrete decoration, a few Crittall windows, and cherished memories.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Tamworth, Staffordshire

Back to the future

Shops are amongst the most frequently updated of all our buildings. During the past few years it has seemed as if some High Street shops have had their fronts ripped off and replaced with the latest signage or corporate redesign once a year or more. Now, as old retail names disappear, this process seems likely to be replaced with one of boarding-up. But both modern ‘instant signs’ and shuttering ply can leave bits of old shop fronts peeping through. I like these fragmentary reminders of older styles, former ways of selling, and lost businesses, like the evidence of fishmongering I spied recently on the front of a Cheltenham barber’s.

Here’s another example, although this time the business remains the same. This Tamworth Cooperative store must date to the 1930s, its wonderful Art Deco tiling blending hints of ancient Egypt with the kind of ‘moderne’ proportions and abstract patterns that looked futuristic 75 years ago. The splash of colour, the lettering (straight out of advertisements in the backs of 1930s magazines), and that hint of community work (‘Hall & Offices’) are typical of times. So too are those thin lines of eau de nil just beneath the ‘lotus’ motif. The contrast with today’s Co-op logo couldn’t be greater. How marvellous that it’s all still there.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Drayton Bassett, Staffordshire

The Shock of the Old

Locks and lock-keepers’ cottages, warehouses, little storage buildings and sheds, and hump-backed bridges taking vehicles and pedestrians across the water – the canal-building boom of the late-18th and early-19th century produced a lot more than the waterways. The traffic itself – all those converted narrow-boats – can be picturesque too, and when I lived by the banks of a canal for a while I saw how tempting the slowed-down pace of inland waterways can be. None of which prepared me for this, a footbridge over the Birmingham and Fazeley Canal at Drayton Bassett, not far from Tamworth.

The Birmingham and Fazeley Canal was built in the 1780s as part of the effort to link Birmingham with other parts of the Midlands and with the southeast – it links to the Coventry Canal, which in turn joins the Oxford Canal. At Drayton Bassett the builders decided to put up this little Gothic towered structure to take walkers across the canal and over the passing barges – each tower contains a little brick-built spiral staircase to the elevated walkway. It’s a perfect and amusing bit of canalside Gothic and no doubt many more people would notice it if they weren’t looking for the entrance of the Drayton Manor theme park on the other side of the main road.

Pointed windows and battlements were popular at this time in all kinds of buildings from sham castles to cottages, and the proximity of this mock-medievalism to the ultra-modern canals must have amused people in the 1780s. Perhaps it annoyed some of them, too. Carts couldn’t drive across it, so a wood-and-metal swing bridge had to be provided in addition. One side of this structure is just visible behind and to the right of the left-hand tower in the photograph, the practical and the picturesque still close neighbours.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Cornwell, Oxfordshire

Village vision

My foggy morning visit to Great Rollright (see previous post) was followed by a brief stop in Cornwell on the other side of the A44. This is a tiny estate village full of typical Cotswold stone houses, all limestone walls, mullioned windows, and stone ‘tiled’ roofs. As you look, though, you detect that Cornwell is slightly different from the scores of other limestone villages on the Cotswolds. It’s not that most of it is gated off the main thoroughfare with ‘Private Road’ signs. The place just seems to have more than its fair share of whimsical details – gate posts with big ball finials, and, as on the cottage in the picture, lovely door canopies with curvy stone brackets and big chunky buttresses.

The reason is that the village was restored in the 1930s by the self-styled ‘architect errant’ Clough Williams-Ellis. Williams-Ellis, whose work ranges from the famous and fantastical Welsh village Portmeirion to a filling station in the form of a pagoda (long gone, alas) in Cheltenham, was a largely self-taught architect, an enthusiast of the baroque and of architectural fun, a committed proponent of conservation, an advocate of higher standards in town planning, and a persuasive writer (England and the Octopus) often in collaboration with his wife, Amabel. For Cornwell, the he designed an extraordinary centrepiece, the village hall, with its apsidal end and towering bell turret, and made a delightful feature out of the stream that flows through the village centre, over and under the cobbles of the street. Williams-Ellis worked on the big house in the village too, continuing the aqueous theme with a water garden. The whole place looks very much as it must have been when he left it, only the television aerials betraying the continuing modern life within the cottages. I almost expected a cart to go by, rather than the passing Land Rover, and even it seemed quieter than usual, as if its engine was muffled by the mist.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Great Rollright, Oxfordshire

All the king’s men

Going over to Oxfordshire the other morning for lunch with some friends, I decided to make a short diversion and visit the Rollright Stones. This stone circle on the Oxfordshire-Warwickshire borders is one of my favourite ancient sites and I’m not its only fan. The small site can get busy, but it was a cold, foggy day and I thought the stones would be deserted and atmospheric, and so they were.

The Rollright Stones are some 70-odd lumps of limestone arranged in a circle about 31 metres across. The stones are not very big (few of them are higher than about 1.2 metres) and, as they’re limestone, they’ve eroded into a wonderful range of shapes – the standard cliché in books and websites compares them to rotten teeth, which does them no favours at all. They’re hard to date, but I think archaeologists refer to them as late Neolithic or early Bronze Age – in other words around 2100 BC. Of course, no one knows exactly how they were used, but such circles were clearly religious sites.

The stones have their fair share of legends. The most famous story tells of a king and a group of knights who were marching across the countryside. They met a witch hereabouts, who told the king that he would be ruler of all England if, when he took seven strides, he could see the nearby village of Long Compton. The king strode forwards – but the village, which should have been easy to see, was shielded from his gaze by a hillock. Then the witch turned the king and his men to stones – the knights became the stone circle, while their leader became the so-called King Stone, a megalith that stands across the road from the main group. In another legend, the stones regularly leave their field to walk down to a local spring and take a drink, while another tale says that the stones are impossible to count.

Looking at the stones on a misty morning, a sharp wind blowing and the sun struggling to get through, it’s easy to believe how legends formed about this place. It’s easy too, to understand how people still see the circle as a sacred space. Those who had left sprigs of ivy and mistletoe and a holly wreath on top of some of the stones clearly felt the same way. There are some fine druids in West Oxfordshire, as my friends told me over lunch.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Deerhurst, Gloucestershire

Saxon Severnside

This is the other Saxon church at Deerhurst, to which I referred in the previous post. It’s now the parish church of St Mary, though it began life as a Saxon minster, becoming a Benedictine priory a few years before the Norman conquest. The building has been much altered over the centuries, and architectural historians have traced many phases of construction, including several in the Saxon period as the church grew form a small, narrow building without a tower to the larger, wider structure, with its tall west tower, that we see today. The tower is a real local landmark, visible from a long way across the low-lying Severnside country.

From the outside, the building doesn’t look that much like a Saxon church, because most of the windows are late-medieval. But many of the walls they pierce are Saxon, and inside there are the outlines of numerous earlier blocked window openings that allow one to imagine what the building must once have been like.

The interior is full of fascinating details from the Saxon period and later. Here are just a couple, first a detail of the carved design on the font. This kind of spiral motif also appears on English manuscripts of the 9th century and before, and Anglo-Saxon jewellery of the same period, leading experts to date the font to before 875. I once read that it had disappeared for years before being found in a farmyard in use as a trough, but I’ve been unable to verify this story.

There are several other outstanding pieces of Saxon carving in the church, including an angel, a Madonna, and this animal head projecting from a wall at the west end. Those incised lines reveal a sure touch, as does the way the stone is slightly asymmetrical, in sensitive and lifelike counterpoint to the stylized lines. This may have been a remote, provincial church, but a thousand years or more ago it played host to some fine artists.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Deerhurst, Gloucestershire

Lost and found

Saxon churches are rare, but in the village of Deerhurst, not far from the River Severn, there are two. This is the smaller, Odda’s Chapel, a very simple stone building now attached to a timber-framed farmhouse. For years – indeed centuries – it vanished from view, incorporated into the house, the stone nave serving as a kitchen, the small chancel divided into upstairs and downstairs rooms. No one knew that it was anything other than an old part of the house.

In 1675, a stone with a Latin inscription was discovered nearby. The text says that ‘Earl Odda ordered this royal chapel to be built and dedicated in honour of the Holy Trinity, for the soul of his brother Aelfric who left his body in this place,’ and goes on to date the building’s dedication to 12 April 1056. A dated foundation stone like this for such an early building is very unusual, but back in 1675 when it was found, no one knew the whereabouts of the building to which it referred.

Then in 1885 someone doing some repair work to the farmhouse discovered an old window and the truth began to dawn. Archaeologists unpicked the two buildings in the 1960s, restoring the chapel’s separate entrance and repairing the roof. The small, bare space inside is lit by tiny, narrow windows, the chancel arch is a simple stone horseshoe design, details that would be familiar to masons and worshippers almost a thousand years ago.