Thursday, March 25, 2010

Purton, Gloucestershire

Strangers on the shore

The British have been building boats for millennia, and sailing them, and wearing them out. When boats are no longer sea-worthy, they end up on the shore, getting recycled in interesting ways. Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes lived in a hut made of an upturned boat, like the fishermen’s huts of Lindisfarne. Masts become maypoles. Figureheads are made into garden ornaments. Countless wood-framed houses are said to be built of ‘old ship’s timbers’. As the salmon-fishers at the end of Andrew Marvell’s poem Upon Appleton House knew (who ‘like Antipodes in shoes, Have shod their heads in their canoes’) there are many things you can do with a boat as well as sailing it.

Near Purton, on the eastern bank of the River Severn (there’s a Purton over on the western bank, too, just to confuse us all) old boats have been used in a remarkable way. The Severn, with its great tidal range, challenging currents, and acres of mudflats, is a huge changing ecosystem. It deposits silt here and washes away banks there. In some places the banks need reinforcing, and here, it is old boats that have been used over the years to bring some stability to the shore.

At Purton, more than just the river bank was at stake. The Gloucester and Sharpness Canal, built to cut out some of the more difficult and winding stretches of the river on the way up to Gloucester, runs here parallel to the Severn and very close to its bank. In 1909, when the canal bank was threatened, a small fleet of old lighters was beached at Purton to reinforce the land and protect the inland waterway. As the years went by, more and more redundant vessels were beached here. Purton is now Britain’s largest ships’ graveyard.

Full or half-full of silt and tussocky vegetation, some 81 vessels reinforce the bank here. Timbers stick up from the ground; sometimes entire hulls remain, sometimes odd posts and tangles of ironwork. There are concrete boats too, and chunks of metal superstructure, and bits of old gearing.

They make a poignant collection ranging from Island Maid, built in Plymouth in 1863 and beached some time before May 1945, to the unpoetically named FCB 75, built in concrete by the Wates Building Group at Barrow in Furness in 1941 and beached in 1965. They were probably all as tough and utilitarian as FCB, but they had a job to do and they did it. And now they have another job, they do that too.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Capper Street, London

Backstreet moderne

I don’t know much about Shropshire House, tucked away in Capper Street off Tottenham Court Road, except that it was built in 1931–32, and is in that combination of pared-down modernism (strips of windows, white walls, flattish roof) and moderne (curved corners, bulbous balconies, horizontal bands), that people insist on calling Art Deco.

I think of Art Deco as the style of cinemas and chrome-trimmed restaurants from the interwar period – something altogether more over the top and wilfully decorative than this building. But, like postmodernism, Art Deco isn’t one style, but several – which is appropriate because both postmodernism and deco are reactions to modernism, ways of saying, ‘We can have pluralism, decoration, wit, style in buildings; we don’t have to wear the hair shirt of modernism, or the silk shirt of minimalism.'

So Art Deco can be, amongst other things, smart industrial deco, like the west London factories; deco with a touch of ancient Egypt; exuberant cinema deco, often adorned with reliefs and statues; or rich deco interior design using marble, chrome, and bakelite. Or this winning combination, not on a major road like a trophy factory but refreshingly gracing an obscure London backstreet.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Kemerton, Worcestershire

Waggonettes, Worcestershire, and Wessex

Buildings get under our skin for all kinds of reasons and often it’s the most incidental detail that catches the eye and stays in the memory. So here for me, it was not the double-fronted stone house but the brick extension, and most of all the sign above what must once have been a shop window. Not quite faded enough to be a ghost sign perhaps, it still comes to us as if from another era.

The sign looks Victorian in style – both the curlicues around the lettering and that final full stop have a 19th-century feel about them. But it could as easily be from the interwar period, a time when both horses and horse-drawn vehicles were still in demand, especially in the country – this village is several miles from the nearest town.

The carriages on offer provided transport for several passengers in two strikingly different forms. In a landau, with its pair of seats, passengers sat facing one another across a central dropped foot well, rather like travellers in an old-fashioned railway compartment, either facing the horse or with their back to the horse. With a top that could be left down or pulled up against the rain, it was a rather sophisticated vehicle. In a waggonette, by contrast, the pair of seats were set parallel to the road, with just the driver’s seat facing ahead. I think of waggonettes as usually open-topped vehicles with hard wooden seats, seen more often in the countryside than the more comfortable and urban landau. They were the minibuses of their time.

The waggonette, then, seems a kind of carriage that would have been at home in rural Worcestershire. As it was too in Hardy’s Wessex, and when I saw the sign I was instantly reminded of Hardy’s poem, ‘At Castle Boterel’, in which the poet pauses at a junction familiar because of something important that happened there when he was much younger:

As I drive to the junction of lane and highway,
And rain bedrenches the waggonette,
I look behind at the fading byway,
And see on its slope, now glistening wet,
Distinctly yet

Myself and a girlish form benighted
In dry March weather. We climb the road
Beside a chaise. We had just alighted
To ease the sturdy pony’s load
When he sighed and slowed.

Hardy doesn’t explain exactly what happened all those years ago – could it have been a declaration of love? – but emphasizes its significance. As the poem goes on (you can read all of it here), the twin scenes – the young poet and the ‘girlish form’, the older poet looking back – are seen against a broader picture of passing time. There was never a moment of such quality, Hardy says, as that first time all those years ago, even though we’re all transitory beings in the context of ‘Earth’s long order’. In such a setting, vivid details such as the sodden waggonette become moving in a surprising and rather unnerving way.

Looking at an old sign advertising forms of horse-drawn transport triggers an association for me because I happen to have read Hardy’s poem. For some, it’s just an old sign. But such scraps and fragments of former days shown forth in old signs – waggonettes and landaus, seed potatoes and hay, Bovril and Bile Beans – are apt to act as bridges to former times in this way, bringing us suddenly into close connection with the past. And some of the backward glances they illuminate are as bright and arresting as Hardy’s on that rainy byway long ago.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Tudeley, Kent

Through the paths of the seas

I usually blog about buildings I’ve seen or visited recently, but today I’m breaking this rule to turn your attention to a church I visited years ago, but which I’ve been reminded of a couple of times in the last few weeks. It’s the church of All Saints, Tudeley and this unassuming building is remarkable because it contains a complete set of twelve windows designed by Marc Chagall.

In 1963, Sarah, the daughter of Sir Henry and Lady d’Avigdor Goldsmid, was killed in a sailing accident at the age of 21. The family commissioned Chagall to create an east window for the church as a memorial to Sarah, and it was installed in 1967. Subsequent commissions led to all the other windows in the building being reglazed with magnificent Chagall glass.

In the east window, a girl floats among blue waves, almost as if cradled on the water. Mourners are beside her, and there is a vision of the Crucifixion and angels above. To the right, a ladder connects the two parts of the scene, and a figure climbs the ladder towards Christ. There’s a tremendous strength here – the figures don’t flirt with sentimentality as Chagall sometimes seems to me to do – and the way the artist has used the shapes of the individual pieces of glass to suggest the swirling waves works superbly. You’d not think that Chagall turned to glass design towards the end of his life. These windows are the work of a master.

The combination of blues and yellows in the east window sets the tone for the rest of the glass, which is predominantly blue, and, in the nave’s south wall, yellow, to invite and complement the sun’s rays. It’s impossible to describe the effect of the Chagall windows, with their birds, figures, and angels. You have to visit the place yourself and experience the visual immersion in blue, and, if you are fortunate, the warming yellow rays of the sun.

Further illumination and interest can also be had from visiting an exhibition, currently on at Mascalls Galley in Paddock Wood, which includes Chagall’s designs for the Tudeley windows and a number of representations of the Crucifixion by British artists from Eric Gill to Tracey Emin.

There is more information about the exhibition here and about the church here.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Eastnor, Herefordshire

The splendour falls on castle walls

In early March the trees are still bare of leaves and the landscape yields enticing views. This one, through a hedge on the A438 not far from Ledbury, is of Eastnor Castle, rising massively like the border strongholds built by the Normans to defend their lands against the Welsh. ‘Like’ being the operative word. Eastnor is no 12th-century pile, but a Norman revival castle built in the second decade of the 19th century. It was designed by Robert Smirke for the 1st Earl Somers and was perhaps intended to add the stamp of antique status to a man whose wealth came partly from banking and a judicious marriage.

The building is massive and the task of constructing it was formidable – a workforce of 250, stone brought from the Forest of Dean by water and cart, ten years of toil. Even under construction, the castle must have seemed a romantic place, a world away from the Napoleonic Wars. And yet these wars had an impact. Timber, in demand for ship building, was at a premium, and the builders drew heavily on the trees on the estate. Smirke looked to new technology for a way around the problem. Many of the roof trusses and beams in this neo-Norman building are made of iron.

In spite of its massive masonry and iron beams, Eastnor was suffering huge structural problems by the end of World War II. Perhaps with less tenacious owners than the Hervey-Bathursts the castle might have turned into a sad but Romantic ruin. But the last few decades have seen huge efforts made to repair the building, and it’s at last in very good shape. You can read more about it here.

Eastnor is now in fighting trim to host visitors, corporate hirers, weddings, and all the other uses that generate the income necessary to support a huge structure like this. One should not be sad about these new uses of this old building. Country houses have always been businesses, and their farms, timber yards, workshops, and kitchens supported armies of workers. Tourism to country houses has a long history too – remember those Jane Austen characters visiting big houses and being shown around by housekeepers. Eastnor has been open to visitors almost since it was built. The tradition continues.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010


Rich Nouveau... 

Many shopping arcades were built in English towns and cities in the last three decades of the 19th century. They provided elegant shopping for the prosperous middle classes of late-Victorian England and their sheltered indoor walks afforded a protected environment away from the mud and mess of the streets. Cities such as Manchester and Leeds acquired large arcades, but many smaller cities had at least one example to attract the well heeled.

Norwich, for example. The Royal Arcade was built in 1899 on ground previously occupied by the yard of the Royal Hotel. The front entrance is through the old hotel building, but for the rest of the arcade its architect, George Skipper, produced something dramatically different. This was a time when the curvaceous flair of Art Nouveau was adding something fresh to Victorian design, and arcades, with their ironwork and tiled decoration lent themselves well to this new style. So Skipper gave the Royal Arcade a strong, high-arched ‘rear’ entrance and a delicate glazed roof to flood the interior with light.

The true stroke of genius was in employing one of the best designers at Doulton’s, W J Neatby, to do the tilework. A mass of Art Nouveau patterning, foliate detail, and lettering greets the visitor at Skipper’s entrance. Lavish peacocks enliven the interior. An atmosphere combining lightness with richness is the result – there is jewel-like colour to make the shopper feel good, and plenty of light to show off the goods. No wonder it has lasted so well.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Newnham on Severn, Gloucestershire

The colour of masonry

We get used to linking localities with building stone: Cornish granite, East Anglian flint, Derbyshire millstone grit, and so on. In Gloucestershire, the best known local stones are the golden limestone of the Cotswolds and the pinkish sandstone of the Forest of Dean. Between them, in the clayey Vale of Severn, though, there is no dominant building stone and many of the older houses are timber framed or built of brick. So what is this curious dark material that forms part of a house in Newnham, by the western bank of the Severn? None of the above, clearly. The surprising answer is that it’s slag, waste material from copper-smelting, and it must have had an interesting journey to get here.

In the 18th century copper smelting took place at Redbrook, on the River Wye not far from Monmouth, and at several sites in the Bristol area. The best guess is that the slag used for this building came from one of these sites and got to Newnham by boat – Newnham was once a river port. There are several buildings in the locality, and in other Severnside villages, made partly of the material.

Some say that the slag was used as ballast in ships, but the material must have been specifically intended for building because it was deliberately formed into blocks. William Marshall in his Rural Economy of Glocestershire (1789), explained how it was used:

‘Until of late years, it was cast away as useless, or was used as a material of roads only. Now it is thrown, while hot, into moulds, of different figures and dimensions, and thus becomes an admirable building material. It is proof against all seasons, in every situation; consequently, becomes an excellent material for foundations; and still more valuable for copings of fence walls; for which use it is sometimes cast of a semi-elliptical form. It is also used as quoins, in brick buildings; in which case, the blocks are run about nine inches square, and eighteen inches long. It is of a dark copper colour and has the appearance of a rich metal; but flies under the hammer as flint.’

It was relatively easy, when the Severn was a busy highway of cargo vessels, to ship this heavy material upstream and offload it at the various ports and inlets along the river’s course. Ever since there have been a smattering of walls like this hereabouts, adding a dark coppery tinge to Gloucestershire’s architectural palette of pink, and gold.