Friday, August 28, 2009

Wixford, Warwickshire

Inspecting Wixford

Following those narrow lanes in villages signposted ‘To the church’ is one of my pastimes, and I’m never quite sure what, apart from the church of course, I’m likely to find. In Wixford, having negotiated a Range Rover and a horse in a narrow, deeply sunken lane with minimal passing places, I found the churchyard. And in the corner near the gate was this: the horse house.

Apparently from the 18th century on, Wixford had no resident parish clergy, so a parson from a neighbouring village had to ride over of a Sunday. The thoughtful parishioners of Wixford provided this little stable for his mount to rest and chew over its oats while they sat in the church and chewed over the sermon.

As if that’s not odd enough, the gorse-and-hurdle walls and thatched roof of this unassuming but charming little building are a real surprise. I half expected one of those Morris dancers dressed as a bush to emerge from the doorway. But the horse house was unoccupied and quiet: only the breeze on the gorse and in the churchyard hedge ruffled the summer afternoon calm.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Clifford Chambers, Warwickshire

Place in the sun

Clifford Manor is at one end of the main street of a village nor far from Stratford-upon-Avon. A timber-framed house of the 15th or 16th century on the site was remodelled in 1903–9, but this building was badly damaged in a fire in 1918. Edwin Lutyens was called in to repair the house, and he and Gertrude Jekyll are also said to be responsible for the gardens.

I don’t know how much of the house as it stands today is Lutyens’ work, but this façade is certainly something he could have designed, taking the familiar English country-house look and giving it individuality with features such as the oeils de boeuf and small triangular pediment.

This house is not open to the public, so I felt privileged to get a glimpse of it. Lutyens designed and modified a lot of country houses, but so many of them are tucked away down long drives or hidden by trees. It’s good that this one, its bricks glowing in the late-afternoon sun, forms such a visual asset to its quiet village of timber-framed and brick houses.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Clevedon, Somerset

Back on track

The pier at Clevedon sits on top of hard limestone and mud in water with a dramatic tidal range of about 46 feet and currents up to 5 knots. This made building it a real challenge – the team of men on the job in 1867–69 took three months to build one of the 100-foot spans, although some of the other spans went much faster.

But it was worth the effort. They achieved one of the most elegant pier structures, with a series of delicate arches made of recycled rails from the defunct South-West Railway. The rather pagoda-like pavilions at the seaward end add to the effect and provide welcome shelter in the stiff Severn breezes.

Like many of our piers, the one at Clevedon was looking past its best by the 1960s and structural engineers recommended testing it every two years to make sure it was still safe. So the pier was regularly subjected to a rigorous loading with tanks of water and in October 1970 the structure collapsed during one of these tests.

For years the pier languished unrestored, and potential costs mounted as the need for further repairs became apparent. But at last, in 1989 the pier reopened and the entire restoration project was completed in 1998. The reborn pier was a triumph for local fundraising and effort plus grant-aid and the repair process was helped further by the lucky discovery of some of the old South-West rails in storage. A fine end for a fine pier.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Clevedon, Somerset

Watering place

In spite of the two previous brewery posts, I have a liking for small structures. I’m also an admirer of the work of the Doulton ceramics company, especially the wares that they produced in their Lambeth factory on the south bank of the Thames and that are often used as facing on buildings. So I was pleased, visiting Clevedon to look at the pier, to come across this, surely one of the smallest of listed structures, a Doulton drinking fountain erected by a Mr Sheldon in 1895.

As well as their large and lucrative business in domestic pottery (everything from vases to beer jugs, ash trays to loving cups), Doultons made all kinds of goods connected with the supply of water – plain earthenware pipes, more decorative jugs, water filters, drinking fountains, and so on and on. This one is typical of their wares of the 1890s – some flowers and foliage hinting at Art Nouveau, a pleasant and rich palette of greens, blues, and browns, a profusion of architectural decorations, from the plain base to the fancy finial. Altogether a refreshing surprise.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Devizes, Wiltshire

Beer and behemoths

Whenever someone decides to put up a new building in the middle of one of our historic towns and villages, the temperature of the inhabitants is apt to rise. New buildings are seen by many as a threat, and the greatest threat of all is posed by buildings that don’t ‘fit in’. People recognize certain key elements that buildings contribute to the character of a place – elements such as style, scale, and materials. A city like Bath, for example, is dominated by Georgian architecture no more than a few storeys tall, most of it faced with local limestone; a tall modernist skyscraper made of concrete would look out place there. And if someone came along with plans for a house made of concrete blocks in a Cotswold town, or a gigantic brick tower in a Warkwickshire ‘black and white’ village, or a creation in glass and steel amongst the weatherboard and brick of the rural southeast, hackles would rise.

Devizes, this conventional wisdom goes, is a stone-built market town. The houses and shops of its central streets are mostly three storeys or less, and the character of the place owes much to creamy limestone – and a bit of matching pale render here and there. What, then, are we to make of the brick-built behemoth at the end of the market place – not a new building but certainly not one that blends into the townscape? At around twice the height of the neighbouring houses and several times the width, this monster ought to have destroyed the town centre. But I don’t think it has. I think it makes a positive contribution to the town centre (and not just because of the beer it produces, to which I have a certain attachment, because the first pint I ever drank was a pint of Wadworth’s).

The Northgate Brewery in Devizes was designed by the firm’s proprietor, Henry Wadsworth, and completed in 1885. It’s functional – the large-scale brewing process called for generous height and a big footprint. And its red bricks were no doubt economical. It was a practical building, then, that must have pleased its original owners. But what do other people think about it? Alec Clifton-Taylor (in Another Six English Towns) found it ‘perhaps a little overpowering, but…undeniably a building of character’. John Piper praised it in Buildings and Prospects. Pevsner (in the first edition of his Wiltshire) reserved judgement, alliteratively noting the ‘big brick brewery’.

Not for the first time, I find myself with Alec Clifton-Taylor. It is a bit overpowering, especially close-to. But architecture is not only about blending in to the surroundings. It's also about standing out. And seen from the other side of the market place the brewery certainly does stand out, even though its red colour also echoes the mellower Georgian bricks of the non-stone houses that are scattered here and there. For Devizes is not simply a stone town. It’s on the edge of the stone country and bricks find their place here too, just as there is a place for beer as well as wine in the town’s many watering-holes. Devizes is diverse and big enough to accommodate its brewery, and be the better for it.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Shepton Mallet, Somerset

Amber nectar

This 1880s building, trying to look like a French palace with the addition of an Italianate chimney, began life as the Anglo-Bavarian Brewery, Shepton Mallet. It once had two towers, topped with pavilion roofs, that made it look even more French and palatial, but it’s still one of the most prominent buildings in the town.

The enterprise it was built to house was an interesting one. In 1872, what had been the Pale Ale Brewery took on a number of brewers from Bavaria and they began to brew lager – it’s said they were the first in this country to do so. To emphasize the uniqueness of their products, the company changed its name to the Anglo-Bavarian Brewery. It prospered, and exported the beers widely, especially to Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and other outposts of the British empire.

The brewery was rebuilt in 1881 in the Second Empire form it takes today, one of the great ornamental breweries of the late-19th century, with the company name emblazoned in the pediment. The architect is not known, but the firm was proud of its building and put the brewery’s image on its bottle labels, as brewers often did in the early-20th century. People liked the beer too, the ‘Celebrated Amber Ale’ as they called it, and it garnered prizes in Europe and Australia. No doubt the Bavarian input helped.

But at the time of World War I it didn’t do for a British company to have a German connection, and stockists removed the unpatriotic bottles from their displays. The business declined and although there was an inter-war revival under new owners it was too late. After the World War II the building became the Anglo Trading Estate. And so, for the moment, it remains, although there are plans for redevelopment. It’s listed, though, so will keep its status as a much-loved local landmark.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Birmingham Moor Street

Almost old, almost new

One wet Friday recently I found myself with a few minutes on my hands in the middle of Birmingham and I decided to peer inside Moor Street station. Its gabled brick structure is a standard design of the old GWR, created by their Superintendent Engineer W Y Armstrong in 1911–1914 as a kind of detached annexe to the nearby Snow Hill station, and acted as a terminus for trains from Warwickshire. It was good to see that the old building had been restored in 2002–3, and was still looking well cared for with its GWR brown paint, historically aware signage, and modern buffet facilities that don’t dominate the concourse too much.

Nowadays trains go from some more recent platforms to one side of the original station, from where they still make for Warwickshire destinations such as Stratford upon Avon, as well as London. Steam-hauled excursions depart on summer Sundays and a locomotive stands at one of the old platforms as a reminder.

This view of the station looks across the original platforms towards a building of our own era – Future Systems’ dramatic, blob-like, aluminium-disc-covered, Selfridge’s. This building is now well enough known to be no longer shocking. It’s such a familiar symbol of the rejuvenated centre of Birmingham, indeed, that the overused word ‘iconic’ has been applied to it a few times too often. It’s still a surprise to come across in this context, though, and as odd as the contrast between the steam locomotive standing insouciantly at the platform and the modern, advertisement-emblazoned omnibus beyond. The almost-shock of the nearly-new.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Dorchester, Oxfordshire

More nogging

Sorting through my photographs of Dorchester after doing the previous post, I found this image of yet more elaborate brick nogging. It is on the front of the White Hart Hotel, an interesting-looking building, one of many in this small but fascinating Oxfordshire town that has no doubt been remodelled and modified over many centuries.

The entry in Pevsner’s Oxfordshire in his Buildings of England series notes the date in the brickwork, but suggests that the building is much older than 1691. Probably the timber frame was put up long before this date and the infill replaced with brickwork in 1691, different-coloured bricks being used to bring out the pattern and the numerals. If so, this is an example of how one should never treat a date on a building at face value – it’s as likely to commemorate a restoration or remodelling as the original date of the building.