Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Ewelme, Oxfordshire

Stepping westwards

Alice de la Pole of Ewelme was the grand-daughter of the poet Chaucer and the wife of William de la Pole, who was made Duke of Suffolk in 1448 for his loyalty to the House of Lancaster. It was said that the couple, when not at court or at the de la Pole estate in Suffolk, lived much at Alice’s home village, bringing with them East Anglian retainers whose descendants still live in the area. They probably brought Suffolk craftsmen with them too, because when they rebuilt the church in the 1430s in a rich mixture of flint, stone, and brick, an East Anglian layout was adopted, with wooden screens rather than masonry used to divide the various parts of the building's interior.

One of the treasures of Ewelme church is a font cover built like a staggering spire of wooden tracery. This too looks just like an import from East Anglia, where there are a number of such tall and intricate covers, connected like this one to a pulley, so that they may be raised when the font is needed for a baptism.

In the year William was made Duke, the couple established a chantry, a foundation under which two priests and thirteen poor men were to pray for their souls and celebrate Mass at Ewelme. The priests and poor men were accommodated in an almshouse that William and Alice built near the church and the beautiful south-east chapel of the church was set aside as the place where the cycle of Masses and prayers could be said.

Alice's tomb, now sited in a space between this chapel and the chancel of the church, was installed just before she died in 1475/76. It is one of the most impressive of all 15th-century tombs, with a lifelike alabaster effigy of the deceased, a cadaver beneath (staring at a picture of the Annunciation), a host of angels above, and a row of standing figures – many still with their original painted colour.

Those traces of colour, making vibrant this reminder of mortality, was just one thing that made this building special when I visited it the other day. As the flag flew in the brisk breeze at the back end of April (the Chaucerian month) and the sun blazed through the windows, a group of ringers came to put the bells through their paces, adding music to colour to bring the place sonorously alive.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Easington, Oxfordshire

End of the trail

Drawn here by a mention of the place in John Piper's Shell Guide to Oxfordshire, I wasn't disappointed. In a churchyard full of leaning gravestones lies a small 14th-century church with  narrow lancet windows and simple wooden porch.

Opening the door you find an interior as simple and as satisfying as you could hope for: whitewash, a tiled floor, a handful of pews, the plainest of fonts, and a pulpit made of Jacobean wooden panels bodged together maybe in the 19th century. The focus is on the altar, of course, which is positioned between the building’s one elaborate window, with its lovely 14th-century tracery. It’s pleasing that the place has changed little since John Piper’s visit.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire

Another time, another place

It may look like a rusty old shipping container, but it’s actually the Courtyard Theatre, the temporary home of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford and the building that the company occupies while the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre across the road is being rebuilt. When I first saw it, I didn’t think it was going to be my sort of building. Although I rather like rusty old corrugated iron barns, this ugly duckling seemed at first sight a bit too industrial for Stratford’s swan-haunted riverside, too harsh for its cottage neighbours.

But the Courtyard Theatre has grown on me. It’s not just like I admire the warm tones of its rusty ridges as they glow in the sun; not only that I appreciate the rightness of a temporary metal building on the site of the RSC’s former ‘experimental’ space, The Other Place. I’ve also discovered the qualities of the interior, a compact and friendly theatrical arena that seems to inspire those who perform in it. A few weeks ago at the Courtyard I enjoyed hugely the combined RSC/Baxter Theatre Centre production of The Tempest. The other night I was entertained by As You Like It.

The entire audience is close to the stage, and the design of the interior gives plenty of opportunities for the actors to enter and exit between the seats, bringing players and spectators still closer together. And the whole space is warm and, for such a modern, box-like building, curiously responsive, housing equally happily As You Like It’s doom-laden, almost oppressive early scenes, and its cheerful, life-enhancing conclusion.

In the interval of The Tempest, various members of the audience were speculating about what would happen to this temporary building when the main theatre comes back into use towards the end of next year. I got the impression that most of them – including some local people who had to live with its industrial-looking exterior – rather hoped it would stay.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Winchcombe, Gloucestershire

Toil and rubble

I’ve mentioned before how it’s impossible to live in the Cotswolds without being aware of Cotswold stone. The stuff is everywhere: the lumps, bumps, cliffs and outcrops of old quarries are a familiar sight and in some fields the earth is so dotted with chips and fragments of oolitic limestone that the colour is an almost equal mix of brown and cream. And in many places nearly everything is built of the stone, which has been in use since (of course) the stone age.

So when doing some long overdue gardening this week, we expected to dig up quite a bit of stone – from the displaced lumps of old drystone walls and bed edges to miscellaneous flakes and chunks. But some bits of old rubble are more interesting than others. These two especially. One is a cylinder of stone between four and five inches in diameter; the other a piece worked with a straight incised groove. Chipped and worn as they are, these pieces look like a section of a small shaft (the kind of miniature column that ran up the sides of doorways or windows in high-status medieval buildings) and a length of moulding.

They probably came from Winchcombe Abbey, a large medieval Benedictine monastery that vanished after it was dissolved by Henry VIII. We’re only a few hundred yards form the site of the abbey, and many houses in our street, not to mention our local pub, have bits of medieval carving let into their walls. More than one neighbour has unearthed something more spectacular than our bits of rubble – chunks of Norman zigzag carving, for example.

The buildings of the monasteries that Henry dissolved had many fates. Some were turned into country houses by the grandees who acquired them; some became parish churches; some, like the one in Winchcombe, were largely demolished, and no doubt most of the stone was recycled elsewhere: some 470 years later, we’re still finding the rest.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

High Holborn, London

French dressing
Now I’ve got my discontent about the current state of our public libraries off my chest, I’ll get back to what this blog is really about, which is sharing buildings that I like. This building was once St Giles’ Library, and it’s one of the many public buildings put up in London during the building boom of the late-19th and early-20th centuries. By 1894, when St Giles’ Library was built, Victorian architects had revived virtually every past European style and British cities were full of Gothic revival churches, Classical public buildings, and houses built in a style copying the Tudors or Jacobeans.

With the old St Giles’ Library the predominant effect is created by the rich carved decoration in the French Renaissance style. This kind of extravaganza of curvaceous plant forms, cartouches, scrolls, and faces, is yet another of the styles the Victorians revived. The architect of this building is said by Pevsner to be W. Rushworth. I’ve not been able to find out anything about him, but he was clearly adept at the kind of ornament fashionable on the other side of the Channel in the 16th century. But with an added British touch. Amongst the Francophile curves and medallions, in pride of place in the lower part of the oriel, Rushworth placed a bust of Shakespeare – just to remind us where we are.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

More on libraries

A number of things that have happened recently make me want to say a few more words about libraries. For one thing, there have been persistent and worrying stories in the press about cuts in the public library service in different parts of Britain. For another, opening this morning’s paper, I have just read a story about Manchester University library, where Chris Stringer’s Homo Britannicus, a book about the beginnings of the human species in Britain, has been shelved in the gay and lesbian section. For yet another, I’m worried that every time I go into my local library there seem to be fewer books on the shelves. Libraries, for all their PCs, bright paintwork, and rebranding as “knowledge stores”, seem to be in decline.

I was in a local library the other day. While I was sitting at a table sorting my papers I earwigged a conversation between one of the librarians and a teenager. The young library user told the librarian that she was doing a project on the Romantic poets at school, and needed to read some poems by two of the English Romantics. She knew that she wanted one of the poets to be Blake, but wasn’t sure about the second – Wordsworth, maybe, or Coleridge, or Shelley. The librarian explained that no books by the English Romantics were on open shelves – they were in the basement store. She’d go down and bring up a selection so that the girl could make her choice. After a few minutes the librarian, who I must say was helpful, polite, and knowledgeable, returned with a small pile of poetry books, including one or two Romantics, such as Byron, who had not been mentioned so far, and the young student looked through them and chose.

So all ended well, with the librarian offering valuable assistance, the library’s collection yielding the required volumes, and the student getting what she wanted. But wouldn’t it have been much better if Wordsworth, Coleridge, and co had been on open shelves, so that people could check them out for themselves without asking for them to be brought up from the basement? I wandered over to the library’s poetry section. It consisted almost entirely of books by recent poets, plus a shelf of anthologies, plus one or two ‘classics’ including Milton and Keats (aha! a Romantic on open shelves after all!). It seems to me that the library was diminished by this unwillingness to display the classics of English literature on its open shelves, as it is diminished too by the small number of novels published more than 50 years ago – and by the relatively small number of books generally visible.

Why does all this matter when the girl got what she wanted anyway? And when you can find the whole of English poetry on the internet, and even download for free the complete works of Shakespeare to read on your iPhone?

Well. Because books are actually a rather good medium for sustained reading. Because there are people who don’t know quite what they’re looking for, but who will make important discoveries and have their eyes and minds opened by browsing books on open shelves. Because books properly shelved in the context of other similar books show knowledge in context and continuum – there are all the Metaphysical poets together, all the books on Norman history next to one another. Because librarians ought to be allowed to make sensible, educative, structured choices about what books to display. Because there are clear and specific advantages to reading literary works such as the poems of Byron or Keats in book form instead of, or as well as, online.

For example, not every copy of a literary work has exactly the same text. This is because, for all kinds of reasons, the original words of the poet don’t always make it into print exactly as they should have done. Or, in some cases, it’s by no means clear precisely what those words were in the first place. So different copies have different texts. And some copies have useful notes, provided by the editor, to clarify meaning, sketch in historical background, or discuss precisely those pesky variations of wording.

A reader discovering poetry needs the best text they can get, properly edited, and preferably with explanatory notes and an introduction. This is not the kind of plain text that you usually find on the web. This is the kind of thing that should be in libraries, and was, not so long ago. Now if it is there it’s hidden away in a basement, waiting for readers who know what they want and a helpful member of staff to find it for them.

Books can be life-changing. I came from a family with few books and 40 years ago my eyes and mind were opened by libraries. I could follow the evolution of English literature, satisfy my nascent passion for architecture, and discover all kinds of things about history by just browsing. I didn’t have to ask anyone’s help; I could follow the shelves. So much was right there because librarians as competent and knowledgeable as today’s had put lots of good, revelatory, inspiring books on shelves, in order, under my nose. People today have the right to expect a service that’s just as good.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Lichfield, Staffordshire

Palace of the book

Before the mid-19th century there were no public libraries in the sense that we have them today. Apart from those belonging to private individuals or universities, most libraries charged the public a fee to borrow books. Such commercial libraries flourished with the rise of the novel in the 18th and 19th centuries, and the middle classes flocked to the circulating libraries to get the latest Henry Fielding or Fanny Burney. Those amongst the poorer classes who could read were excluded.

This state of affairs exercised those who campaigned for social reform, especially the Chartists, who, as well as agitating for electoral reform and building land colonies, set up reading rooms that were run on a cooperative basis. It wasn’t just the Chartists who did this. The early-19th century saw numerous societies and institutes for working people who, in return for a small annual payment, could attend lectures and borrow books. In Lichfield a Reading and Mutual Instruction Society was set up for just this purpose in 1850, and it soon had over 100 members.

This kind of thing worried the establishment – if the lower orders got hold of too much education, they might rebel, and then where would we all be? But by 1850 parliament passed the Public Libraries Act, allowing local councils to levy a halfpenny rate to fund local libraries and museums. Not many councils rushed to do this, but one of the first was Lichfield, whose Free Library and Museum opened in this Italianate building in 1859.

There was a catch with the halfpenny rate, though. The council could use it t build a library but not to buy books. The money for those had to come from somewhere else, a problem that stymied a few library projects before they got off the ground. In Lichfield, the Reading and Mutual Instruction Society wound itself up and donated its books to the new library. And so, in the city of Dr Johnson and David Garrick, everyone had access to books, and this grand building seems to express pride that literature is available to all.

Sunday, April 5, 2009


What the Romans did for me

Some time at the very end of the 19th century, my maternal grandmother lived with her parents and siblings in a house close to the Roman Newport Arch in Lincoln. I’m not sure if it was the house just visible through the arch in the picture, but it was either that one or one very close to it. My great uncle was a chorister in the cathedral, which is only a few hundred yards away, and my grandmother and various great aunts were getting their schooling nearby too. And each evening they came home through the only surviving full-size Roman arch in Britain.

Lincoln began life as a fort for the Ninth Legion in about AD 60 or 61. The Ninth were succeeded by another legion, the Second Adiutrix, but soon after, as at many Roman forts, the legion moved on and the place was resettled as a colonia, in other words a town for retired legionaries and their families. It was fortified, at first with walls that followed the line of those of the original fort, though later the walls were expanded to take in a larger area as the town throve.

My grandmother’s Roman neighbour the Newport Arch formed the town’s northern gate and was built in the early third century. It would originally have looked taller – the road levels have risen over the centuries with the accretion of stone and tar – and it has been restored several times (including once in 1964 when it was partly knocked down by a lorry). But it’s still an impressive fragment and a tantalizing hint of the scale and grandeur of the Roman city.

I’m not sure how having ‘roots’ among the Roman remains of Lincoln has affected me, though I do know that a visit to the city when I was about eight years old opened my eyes to the beauty, fascination, and oddity of old buildings. More recently I’ve lived for long stretches in London and Gloucestershire, both places in different ways haunted by the presence of the Romans. Though so much of what they built vanished quickly, Roman remains surface in all kinds of ways, from the more predictable (artefacts in museums, place names, the routes of roads) to the surprising (such as Saxon churches built partly of re-used Roman bricks). And there are some fields on the Cotswolds where it is still possible to pick up fragments of Roman pottery. So a resounding ‘thank you’ my ancestors for tipping me off about our ubiquitous Roman neighbours.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Bromyard, Herefordshire

April foolery

This clock was designed by Michael N. Oxenham and made by Robert Race. It was put up to commemorate the Millennium and I prefer it to some of the more grandiose and overblown structures that were erected at that time. It makes a pleasant distraction on the front of a timber-framed building, now a gallery, in the square in the Herefordshire town of Bromyard, a place full of interest, to which I hope to return. Meanwhile I shall savour this unusual way of making a mark and marking the time.