Saturday, November 28, 2009

Kilpeck, Herefordshire

Virtuoso carvings

Last week I went to Herefordshire to show some friends one of my favourite buildings, the parish church at Kilpeck. It rained, and the local countryside, already sodden, took on a dark beauty all its own, the contrast between wet green grass and red soil and stone as powerful as ever. The light wasn’t ideal for photography, though, so the pictures are from an earlier trip.

The church of Saints Mary and David, Kilpeck, was built in the 12th century, probably the 1130s, and survives intact with very few later alterations. It is the best place to go to look at the sculpture of the extraordinary ‘Herefordshire school’, whose work is scattered through many Norman churches in the county and in parts of neighbouring Worcestershire and Gloucestershire, but is seen in its most concentrated form in Kilpeck’s small church, which is both well preserved and stunningly decorated.

The 12th-century Herefordshire sculptors produced carvings not only of saints and priests, but also of animals, monsters, and grotesques. Their work is capable of both stylish simplicity and complex detail, high seriousness and earthy humour, and it encompasses huge fonts, Kilpeck’s elaborate doorway, carved shafts and panels, and small, often humorous corbels. The photographs here show part of the doorway and a few of the corbels, which depict a range of subjects from real animals and musicians to mythical beasts.

Scholars have detected Celtic, French, Spanish, and Scandinavian influences in the Herefordshire carvings. The Scandinavian element may come via the Normans’ Viking heritage, the western French and Spanish from a trip made by local pilgrims through France to Compostela. The synthesis, though, carved in the red sandstone so typical of the area, is pure Herefordshire.

If I get the chance to return to Kilpeck in better weather I will post more photographs of this building. But meanwhile, most of the sculptures on the church can be seen here.

Kilpeck, a selection of corbels

Kilpeck, south doorway, drawing by G R Lewis, 1840

Monday, November 23, 2009

Bishopsgate Churchyard, London

Desirable alien (1)

The Ottoman architects of Turkey, famous the world over for vast domed mosques covered in polychrome tiles, were also masters of small buildings. Little pavilions and kiosks, intricately carved tombs, structures sheltering fountains – all, in years gone by, have been given the kind of ornate treatment that in Europe is more often reserved for a place of worship or for the most exclusive of shops.

It’s a wonderful shock, therefore, to come across this tiny late-19th century Turkish pavilion in a paved courtyard in the City. It began life as part of a Turkish bath with a design that wonderfully put the fashion of the time for tile and terracotta decoration to a use foreign to London but apt for the building’s purpose. Thanks to committed supporters, the structure has survived against all the odds, in the face of changing bathing tastes, the Blitz, and office developers. It now forms one of the most memorable settings for a restaurant in central London.

Almost completely hemmed in by the glass-and-steel modernism of the late-20th century, this Turkish pavilion is a brilliant and welcome blast from the past. Thanks to colourful tiles, ornate terracotta, and stained-glass windows, it more than holds its own in its rather bleak setting, and is clearly something of an oasis – it was full of City gents getting outside a morning coffee when I passed by.

There are more photographs of this wonderful little building in More London Peculiars by Peter Ashley, of Unmitigated England.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Bredon, Worcestershire


‘Where do you thinking you’re going?’ asked Alan Bennett, taking on cliché-ridden sermons in Beyond the Fringe and implying that a swift trip out of the back of the railway station without showing a ticket could turn into a journey to the bad place. Looking at this scene in the middle of Bredon in Worcestershire reminded me of such directional questions. In the Middle Ages, when St Giles’ church behind the trees was built, most people did not travel very far at all, until the hoped-for final journey to meet their maker; church spires pointed upwards, towards heaven, the one direction that mattered. By the time the rationalist 18th century came along, things were different. Industry was expanding, and with it trade and the necessary roads – and we needed road signs to guide us and tell us how far it was to the next town.

It wasn’t quite as simple at that, of course. In the Middle Ages, some people – pilgrims, masons, those fighting during wartime – did make long journeys. And road improvement was beginning well before the industrial revolution took hold. But it’s still true that many of our early road signs – milestones, fingerposts, and fancy obelisks like this one of 1808 – date from the 18th and early-19th centuries, the time when the turnpike trusts were building and maintaining roads and charging people tolls for the privilege of travelling on them.

There was plenty of turnpike activity in southern Worcestershire in the 18th century, though I’ve not been able to establish who put up this obelisk with its happy combination of stone and cast iron. It’s one that’s not so strong on directions – there are no arrows and, unlike some obelisks, this one does not use its faces to indicate the direction of different places.

But for all its shortcomings, the obelisk is a visual asset to this village rich in visual assets. And it does give mileages to half a dozen local towns – from nearby Tewkesbury to more distant Evesham. So after 1808 travellers through Bredon knew where they were in the scheme of things. They could decide whether to pull in at Tewkesbury for the night or carry on to Upton on Severn – and if quizzed by the parson about their destination they could come up with a credible answer.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Cote, Oxfordshire

Rural restraint

In around 1703, a group of Baptists from Longworth near Kingston Bagpuize in Oxfordshire acquired some land across the Thames at Cote and built a new chapel there. A few decades later, probably during the 1750s, they enlarged the chapel to create this lovely building with its symmetrical front (the bush conceals a second doorway), plain window openings, and truncated gable.

This building marks what I think of as the second phase of nonconformist worship in England. In the 17th century it had been against the law for dissenters from the Church of England to gather in their own places of worship. They could face penalties both for not attending church and for holding illegal meetings of their own. As a result, nonconformists met in studied obscurity – in people’s houses in isolated country spots and in obscure town buildings up quiet alleys.

In 1689 the Toleration Act granted certain non-Anglicans the right to assemble for worship under certain conditions – they had to register their places of worship, swear allegiance to the monarch (this ruled out Quakers, who swear no oaths, from the benefits of the Act), and to reject the doctrine of transubstantiation (this ruled out Catholics). The Act meant that Protestant groups such as the Baptists could worship more publicly, and build proper chapels for themselves. Hence buildings like this one.

John Piper thought the chapel at Cote one of the most beautiful buildings in Oxfordshire. I suspect that he liked, as I do, its combination of local materials and chaste symmetry – there’s a very English restraint about it, as there is about many early chapels. The setting is delightful too, amongst trees and headstones, some of which go back to the 18th century to remind us of the first Baptists who came here and raised this simple, fitting building amongst the fields and farms.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Snowshill, Gloucestershire

Memories of summer

Having returned from a dry but chilly Czech Republic to an England dampened by winter rain in full spate, I felt that I needed a memory of summer. So here's a picture of one of the lavender fields that paint the landscape around Snowshill, high in the North Cotswolds, with their special and evocative colour. Many fields round here are still bounded by their traditional Cotswold drystone walls, structures held together without mortar by the skill of the waller in selecting and placing appropriately shaped chunks of limestone. Many people don't realise, though, that some humble buildings – farm buildings, especially – also have drystone walls.

This example is a case in point. No doubt it was once roofed with Cotswold stone 'slates' too, but these have been replaced with corrugated iron. Regular readers of this blog will know that I have a weakness for this humble sheeting, which ranks right at the bottom of the conventional pecking-order of building materials. Satisfying as a stone roof would be, I can also find a place in my heart for this iron roof covering, for the practical solution it offers when the investment required for the older material is simply too great – and even for the rich colour of its rust.

If you think the eye of this beholder is eccentric in finding beauty in the rusty roof, enjoy the flowers.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Pirton, Worcestershire

Art of oak

This is the unusual church tower I mentioned in the previous post. There are not many timber-framed church towers around, but Worcestershire, one of those western counties where timber-framed buildings are quite common, has a few. Even so, encountering this one a real surprise, not least because the church is way outside its village, so the black and white tower rears up in contrast to a background of russet trees and green and brown fields.

The wooden frame of St Peter’s, Pirton, has a profusion of uprights or studs – what timber-frame specialists refer to as ‘close-studding’. This is a form of framework most common in southeast England, but it is used in the West Midlands for high-status buildings (put up by people who could afford the oak and the skilled labour) and where the structure warrants it. It suits a tall building, giving it plenty of strength when combined with the flanking structures, almost like miniature aisles, with their sloping crucks that brace the building. These putative aisles are also unusual, although Pevsner points out that there are similar structures flanking church towers in Essex.

How old is it? This can be a difficult question with timber-framed buildings, where there is often little of the stylistic evidence that helps us to date stone buildings. The details of carpentry that can sometimes help date wooden buildings haven’t helped here, and estimates range from the 14th to the 16th century.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Pirton, Worcestershire

In the mist

On my way to find an unusual church tower I was driving through quiet country in Worcestershire now sandwiched between the M5 and the railway line that links Cheltenham and Bristol to the Midlands and the north. I rounded a bend and caught sight of this ruin hugging a hillside next to some trees.

Glimpsed through the mist like this it could easily be a forgotten fragment of medieval castle wall with one mural tower still clinging on. But it’s not medieval at all. It’s actually one of several eyecatchers erected in the countryside around the great house of Croome Court, once home of the Earls of Coventry. As well as garden buildings near the great house, there are several of these more distant structures scattered around the nearby countryside, designed either by Robert Adam (who did the interiors of the house in the mid-18th century) or by James Wyatt (who began work on the house and estate in 1792).

This sham ruin is by Wyatt. It is well over a mile from the house and an effective reminder of the size of the Coventry estate. And it was by no means the furthest away. Broadway Tower, a much bigger prospect tower, some 15 miles away, is also one of Lord Coventry’s buildings.