Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Saul, Gloucestershire

Peace be with you

Wandering around the Gloucestershire village of Saul at the weekend, I noticed that several of the houses bore carved or plaster figures. Some, apparently depict the masters of ships who settled here, mostly in the middle decades of the 19th century, and built houses for themselves, according to the Victoria County History, with their own hands. Gloucestershire, one of England’s inland counties, has a venerable maritime history because it contains the tidal stretch of the River Severn, enabling the port of Gloucester, far from the sea though it is, to welcome sea-going ships in its docks. The Sharpness Canal was built to cut out the Severn’s big bend and some difficult stretches of the river, and Saul is close to the canal. Hence the ships’ masters’ presence here.

So I was all set to write a light-hearted post about houses called Dunsailin (although the houses mostly have much more decorous names), jolly jack tars and replacement windows, when I came across this pair above the entrance porch of a house in the main street. They’re said to represent twin brothers who married a pair of sisters, but who both drowned in the Severn. No jokes today, then. Just a respectful recognition that the Severn, with its enormous tidal range, treacherous mudflats, and sudden variations between depths and shallows, can be a very dangerous place. Peace be with you, twins of Saul.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Banbury, Oxfordshire

On course

When I first saw this building, its vast windows shining in the sun across a car park, I thought it must be a school. Did the stone torch at the tip of the main gable confirm this? It certainly seemed to. But a closer look revealed a damaged inscription on another gable: ‘The Banbury In titute’. A mechanics’ institute, then, shining its torch of instruction on the working people of north Oxfordshire.

Mechanics’ Institutes began in the early-19th century to provide adult education for the working classes. A typical institute offered courses of lectures (usually on a range of subjects, both vocational and academic), discussion groups, and a library, and these offerings were free in an age when the alternatives (for example, subscription libraries) were only available to those who could afford to pay. Pioneered by George Birkbeck, they spread across the country, clearly filling a gaping hole in the education system in the years before compulsory schooling for all children. Birkbeck worked in Glasgow before moving to London and founding the London Mechanics’ Institute in 1823. The next couple of decades saw the foundation of hundreds of institutes across the country.

Not all institutes lasted. As the public library movement gathered pace, for example, some became local libraries. And there’s a historical debate about how useful they were to the working classes, with some historians claiming that the free lectures were soon taken over by the middle classes. As institutes were locally founded and run, clearly, an institute’s success depended on specific organizers and conditions – and the fates of mechanics’ institutes vary from early closure to evolution into universities offering the best in higher education (that first institute evolved into London’s Birkbeck, for example).

Banbury’s institute, founded in 1835, seems to have been well used and by the early 1880s had outgrown its original building. Hence this one, built in 1884 and designed by local architect W E Mills in a kind of Tudor semi-Gothic. Mills was clearly the man for the job – he also taught at the Institute as ‘visiting master for architecture and building construction’. At night his rows of windows must have shone like true beacons of learning.

Art and Architecture, Mainly has some interesting posts about mechanics' institutes in Australia, the first of which is here.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Ten more of the best

It's time to revive my 'ten of the best' feature, in which I provide links (in the column on the right, underneath The English Buildings Book) to ten favourite posts from the past. This time I've chosen buildings made, or partly made, out of wood, and the craft of the carpenter is represented by frameworks, weatherboarding, intricate carving, and a wonderful circular roof, amongst other things. I hope that newcomers to this blog will enjoy them, and that some regular visitors will like making their acquaintance once more.

Monday, February 15, 2010

New Oxford Street, London

Umbrella men

This is one of my favourite London shop fronts, and I expect a lot of my readers are familiar with it too. So, instead of the main double-fronted New Oxford Street façade, here’s a photograph of the part around the corner in West Central Street, which, like its bigger conjoined sibling, is largely from about 1870 (although the business was established 40 years earlier) and packed full of Victorian exuberance. Gone is the restraint of the Georgian and Regency periods, when shops often had rather discreet bow windows and shoppers had to peer through small panes of glass at the goods within. Instead there’s Victorian display in all its hyperactive glory. The Gothic iron cresting above the fascia, the use of mirror glass, the division of the glazing into large sections, the brightly polished metalwork just below the window, and, most of all, the lettering – it is all very much and very richly of its time.

Most of the signage consists of lettering painted on to the back of glass panels. This is done in a choice of letterforms that will delight anyone with an interest in 19th-century graphic art – I especially like the capital J with its branching top and all the ornate gold capitals in the upper part of the window (the transom light in shop-parlance).

The stock that’s being advertised also harks back to another world. Not just umbrellas, but sticks and whips are offered, and, on the New Oxford Street front, Malacca canes and tropical sunshades evoke the imperial past. Dagger canes and swordsticks are mentioned too – you’ll not be able to get those today – all lovingly lettered as only the Victorians knew how.

Swordsticks or not, there’s something satisfying about the fact that, after 170 years in business, the umbrella men are still plying their trade here, with ranks of brollies at the ready for a London downpour. And if your fabric’s torn or a spoke gets bent, the Victorian signage advertises repairs too: ‘Umbrellas recovered, renovated & repaired. Sticks repolished.’ Bring your parasol…

Wednesday, February 10, 2010



As a regular visitor to the Czech Republic, I’ve often been impressed by the giant carvings of Atlas-like figures who hold up doorways, porches, and similar features on some of the most imposing Baroque and Neoclassical houses in Prague. On buildings like Prague’s great Clam-Gallas Palace, giants, all bulging thews and flowing hair, strain their muscles in an eternal struggle to stop the structure falling down.

English buildings occasionally have supporting figures, but these supporters, chunky male descendants of the caryatids of ancient Greece, are apt to be more phlegmatic. The rather homely statues in the photograph support the entrance porch of a house near the cathedral in Norwich. They depict a pair of heroes – Samson (is he carrying the jawbone of an ass?) on the left and Hercules (with his lion-pelt cloak) on the right. They seem to have walked straight out of a 17th-century woodcut or emblem book, and wonderfully combine folk art with knowing allusion to the Biblical and Classical worlds. They are the kind of figures around which legends are apt to cluster, and one story maintains that when the cathedral clock strikes midnight, the pair leave their posts and wallop one another with their clubs.

Samson and Hercules form a memorable entrance for a house built by a mayor of Norwich, Christopher Jay, in 1657. They’re apparently replacements of the original 17th-century figures, but retain the vigour of their predecessors, even if their crispness of line and form has been smoothed over somewhat by various repaintings. Sadly, the wrong kind of painting has begun to appear – the kind of graffiti that represents the human equivalent of canine leg-cocking. The building, which was once a nightclub, now seems to be vacant. One hopes that it will attract a caring owner or tenant. And soon.

Many thanks to Zoë for the photograph.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Meare, Somerset

House with a history

A few hundred yards form the Fish House described in the previous post is this house. It is set back from the road and it’s easy to admire its partly rendered stone walls and mullioned windows – an example of Somerset vernacular from the 16th century, perhaps?

Not entirely. Look more closely at the right-hand part of the wall and blocked openings can be seen between the buttresses. These openings are pointed, evidence of a row of 14th-century windows lighting a rather grand chamber inside. The upward-pointing curve of the porch roof looks 14th-century too, and the statue that acts as its finial clinches the medieval connection. This piece of carved stone is very worn now, but clearly portrays a mitred abbot. This was the country residence of the abbots of Glastonbury and the statue may portray Richard Whiting, the last abbot of Glastonbury, who was executed in 1539 (for reasons that are murky, although the charge was Treason) and is considered by the Roman Catholic Church to be a martyr.

After the dissolution, the building became a farmhouse, and there is an attached range of outbuildings, mostly 18th and 19th century, but apparently with a medieval core, beyond the main house. The building’s farming inhabitants no doubt found smaller openings (and perhaps an altered interior layout) more practical than the abbot’s grand windows, but the solid walls of the medieval builders are still doing good service, nearly 500 years after the monastic community closed.

There is more about the restoration of the building, and close-ups of the statue, here.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Meare, Somerset

Phone for the fish knives, Dunstan

At Meare, a few miles from Glastonbury, this plain but striking medieval building stands in the middle of a field. It was the fish house of the great abbey at Glastonbury, and, as well as accommodating the abbey’s water bailiff, provided somewhere where the salting and drying of the monastery’s fish could take place. When it was built, in the 14th century, it stood right next to the fish-filled lake that gave Meare its name.

Medieval domestic and industrial buildings are rare enough, but this is the only surviving building relating to the fishery activities of an English monastery. Fishing and monasticism might seem odd bedfellows, but in fact fish formed an important part of the monastic diet, and the earthworks of many former abbey fishponds survive all over the country. A lot of them are marked on Ordnance Survey maps, which are invaluable tools for anyone looking for interesting lumps and bumps in the landscape, and monasteries often had several pons, to help in management of the supply of fish.

Fish were eaten widely in medieval monasteries, but it’s not known for sure how much fish the monks ate or when. Studies of monastic accounts suggest that when monks could get them, sea fish such as cod were eaten on feast days. But because freshwater fish (such as carp, tench, and bream) were farmed by the monks themselves, they don’t necessarily appear in the records which mostly account for foods brought in from outside.

Amounts consumed would also have varied according to the wealth of the monastery. While the inhabitants of smaller, poorer abbeys might have put up with a mainly vegetarian diet, those of larger, richer monastic houses probably ate meat and fish regularly. There's also evidence that, while meat was often looked upon as a luxury food, fit for worldly lay people but not for monks, fish was sometimes seen as lower-status food. So more than one reforming abbot weaned his well fed carnivorous monks off meat by increasing their fish intake.

Another issue was the size of the available ponds. According to one estimate, to produce a regular supply of fish, a monastery needed some 2 acres of pond per monk. So not every monastic house could provide all the necessary fish on site – some had to come in from local rivers, and monasteries guarded their river-fishing rights jealously.

Glastonbury was a large monastery and at Meare they had a huge pond – a mile and half across, apparently. A medieval account says that the Meare pond contained 'an abundance of pike, tench, roach and ells and of divers other kinds of fishes'. It sounds as if the monks of Glastonbury were very well provided with fish for the table.