Friday, March 27, 2009

Reculver, Kent

Close shave

Between Herne Bay and Ramsgate, near the remains of the Roman fort of Regulbium, not far from swathes of caravans, on a cliff overlooking the relentless sea stand the two towers of St Mary’s Reculver. They are what’s left of St Mary’s Abbey, a church begun in the Saxon period – in around 669 – by followers of the St Augustine who converted the southeast of England to Christianity. The church survived the battering of the waves, the Norman invasion (after which the towers were added), the ups and downs of the Middle Ages, the dissolution of the monasteries, and the rest of the upheavals that time threw at Britain until 1809. But in that year everything changed, as the Parish Clerk recorded and Pevsner relates: ‘Mr C. C. Nailor been Vicar of the parish, his mother fancied that the church was kept for a poppet show, and she persuaded her son to take it down.’

All except for the west front with its pair of towers. Trinity House, mindful that church towers are often useful markers for those journeying on land and sea, realized the value of the towers as a sea mark for passing vessels. So they took over the towers and restored them. Tall, small windowed, once topped with spires, the pair are lovely examples of the building of the early Norman period, with their plain walls recalling those of contemporary castles. They make a stunning sight, whether seen from the land side through the ruins of the rest of the church, or, still more romantically, glimpsed on their cliff from the sea.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Kilve, Somerset

Scotch from the rocks

In 1851 the scientist James (‘Paraffin’) Young realized that oil could be distilled from shale, a kind of rock that could be found in, among other places, West Lothian and Fife. Once mined, the shale had to be heated in a retort to extract the oil. The resulting products included naphtha, lamp oil, paraffin, paraffin wax, motor spirit, and black tar of the sort used on roads. Scottish shale mining peaked in 1913, but the business carried on in other parts of the country, declining after World War II. Between the wars, with a nod to motor fuel’s origins in Scottish shale, petrol pumps were sometimes labelled, rather ambiguously, ‘Scotch’.

Kilve, not far from Minehead in Somerset, is one place where shale abounds in the coastal cliffs. In 1916 it was discovered that the rock contained oil and in 1924 the Shaline company was set up to begin oil production here. This small brick building housed a retort. It was probably the first to be built here in a rush of optimism in the 1920s, an optimism that now seems to be mocked by the rusty, plant-grown chimney.

Oil production on the Somerset coast was not profitable and the industry failed to take off. As a result, the landscape along the coast at Kilve is far from industrial. One can still admire the dramatic layers rock formations of the shale, and, rich in fossils, the cliffs and beach draw palaeontologists as well as those who come simply to admire the view. Rock pools, ammonites, and cream teas are more likely than oil to bring people to Kilve today.

Ammonite, Kilve

Friday, March 20, 2009

Long Compton, Warwickshire

Resting place

Many churchyards have a little entrance building called a lych gate. The word ‘lych’ means corpse, and the idea of a lych gate was that it was where the deceased and mourners stopped before going to the graveside. Traditionally what happened was that the bearers would bring the corpse, shrouded or coffined according to the custom of the time, to the gate. Here, beneath the sheltering lych gate roof, the priest would meet them and read the first part of the burial service before the body was placed on a bier and taken to the grave.

Lych gates are usually simple wooden structures, rather like a shed roof supported by a post at each corner. Sometimes, though, there’s a more substantial building at the entrance to the churchyard. In the Cotswolds there are quite a few stone ones and sometimes even when they’re made of wood lych gates can be substantial structures. But here is something completely different. This building began life as a small cottage, with stone end walls and timber-framed sides. It was originally part of a row, but the others were demolished, leaving this survivor – it was a shop for a while, apparently – eventually losing some of its lower walls to form an entranceway to the churchyard.

Round the back, on the church side of the building, the timber frame has brick infill. Just another small surprise in this little structure made of stone, brick, timber, and thatch. It’s an interesting example of the way buildings that are no longer needed for their original purpose can be adapted to play a new role. Sometimes this means making a radical change, as here, where entire lower walls were removed, opening up what was once a downstairs room. Ruthless surgery, then, saved the building, gave it a new life, and provided a welcome shelter and landmark in the centre of this attractive village.

Saturday, March 14, 2009


Underneath the arches

This blog is mostly about small and little known buildings, the ones that most of us ignore as we hurtle around. But now and then I like to stop and look at the less obvious bits of more famous buildings, the parts that other visitors do not always reach. Today it’s the turn of Worcester Cathedral, a building mostly of the 13th and 14th centuries, its Gothic forms enjoying a beautiful site above the River Severn. But this Gothic building was actually constructed on the site of an earlier Norman cathedral, itself on the site of a Saxon church.

The Norman rebuild was carried out in the years after 1084 under the auspices of Wulfstan, a Saxon bishop who, unusually, had kept his see when the Normans conquered England in 1066. Various fragments of this Norman cathedral are incorporated in the later building, but one of the best is hidden away underground: the crypt.

Worcester’s crypt is lovely early Norman work of the 1080s. It consists of a small forest of some 50 round columns topped with simple capitals and supporting a groin- vaulted ceiling. The rows of columns define a rectangular space with an apsidal (semi-circular) end that would have been directly below the east end of the Norman cathedral, showing us that this building would have had an apse above ground too.

John Russell, in his book Shakespeare’s Country, compares this crypt to Istanbul’s wonderful ‘hall of a thousand columns’, the Byzantine water cistern so vast that it is like an entire subterranean cathedral. Although this is overegging it a bit, the crypt’s simple repeating patterns of columns and pale vaulted ceilings create a space of calm and special beauty. Crypts like this (there are similar ones at Canterbury, Gloucester, and Winchester) are not the best known parts of our cathedrals, but are well worth seeking out for their tranquil atmosphere and the pleasing regularity of their architecture. Above ground level there is nothing quite like them.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Hawling, Gloucestershire

The bends

I love corrugated iron. It’s both strong and light. It’s simple to work with, easy to bend to make gently curving roofs. It’s endlessly adaptable. Visually, it’s a material with light and shade built into it – the ridges create a wonderful texture in the sun, a rich grain because the ridges are never quite perfect, the lines never quite straight. What’s more, corrugated iron can be painted any colour, or it can be galvanized, when it gleams. With these different finishes it can look good in the walls of a barn, a shed, even a church. But corrugated iron is often seen as a low-status material. It’s for sheds and privies and outhouses on the cheap. And so it’s often left uncared-for, and allowed to rust. I’d argue that even then, it can look good. The deep oranges and browns of rusty iron can glow in the sun.

This is a rather extreme example. An iron barn in a field in the Cotswolds that has been left to the vagaries of neglect, wind, rain, and who knows what else. The result is a barn that Salvador Dali might have painted. A melting structure that won’t quite give up the ghost. The barn is next to a narrow lane in the middle of nowhere. Not too many people see it, though I pass it regularly on a back route at the beginning of my journey to London. I guess that some of those who do go past it see it as an eyesore, an example of the junk that farmers leave lying around spoiling the view in fields and yards: old harrows, decaying bits of tractors, oil drums, jerry-built chicken sheds, bendy barns.

But the countryside isn’t all rural idyll. It’s a workplace too, with all the detritus that entails. Some of the junk is useful; some of it looks interesting; some of it has a kind of in-your-face resilience. Often, like this barn, it stays in the same state, defying time, for years on end. All of which, along with the colour of the rust and the craziness of the curves, goes some way to explaining why, against all the odds, this building makes me smile.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Bath, Somerset

Plumb good

Now I’ve started, here is a little more plumbing from Bath. Literal plumbing, since plumbers were originally those who worked with lead (Latin plumbum). Those with sharp eyes will spot that this is a branch of W H Smith’s. Smith’s went in for rather beautifully designed stores in the 1920s – the shop fronts often featured stone, rich oak finishes, windows with small panes, and, sometimes, beautiful tiles. Here, though, it was the down-pipe and associated plumbing that caught my eye.

You quite often get the date embossed in rainwater fittings like this, perhaps mainly because it’s not difficult to do, lead being a soft metal that takes this sort of decoration and information with ease. But the openwork ‘WHS’ monogram is a special treat here, as are the scallop shells, the kind of thing that on a medieval building would symbolize a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. Why are they here, on a 1920s shop front? Maybe it’s enough that they look right.

Look at the way, too, in which the pipe in recessed into the stonework, so that its outer edge is flush with the wall. This was shop design that was conceived as a whole, and built to last. How refreshing compared to the ephemeral, here today, revamped tomorrow retail design that’s common now. Here’s to the stationers, and their plumbers, and their long view.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Bath, Somerset

Royal flush

I know, I know. I go to Bath and spend my time looking not at the Georgian squares and crescents but at the plumbing. Well, I do like and admire the great Georgian buildings of Bath, but I wanted also to pay tribute to a town that has tried hard with its more mundane buildings. After all, Bath has been associated with quality plumbing since the Roman period at least.

Public lavatories became popular in England in the 1850s and 1860s, which was when Joseph Bazalgette was providing London with its system of sewers. The public loo caught on partly as a result of the work of George Jennings. Jennings was an inventive plumber who introduced public loos at the Great Exhibition at Crystal Palace in 1851 and persuaded the exhibition authorities to charge everyone a penny to use them. The organizers were sceptical about the idea of charging, but 827,000 visitors spent a penny, and the idea caught on. In the following years, Jennings took out patents for improved lavatories, very much like the ones we use now, and during the next few decades many towns built public loos.

This example is in Charlotte Street, near the car park below Royal Avenue and east of Queen Square. I’m not sure how old it is. Much of Charlotte Street is mid-19th century, but this building is likely to be a bit later. Perhaps those heavily rusticated doorways are Edwardian. Whatever the date, it is good to see stone loos with carefully carved signs, reflecting Bath’s long tradition of cut lettering for street names. It’s not so good to see them battered, closed, and padlocked. One hopes they are not allowed to go down the pan.