Saturday, May 29, 2010

Horningsham, Wiltshire

Discreet meeting place

Strung out along a valley in Wiltshire, Horningsham is a straggling village belonging to the estate of Longleat, the 16th-century prodigy house belonging to the Marquis of Bath. Scattered thatched cottages, a pub (the Bath Arms, naturally), and a church sit behind hedges, down slopes, and across greens. There is a backdrop of woods and parkland and a pervasive feeling that the great house cannot be far away. And down one lane is this building, which may be England’s oldest nonconformist chapel.

The traditional story is that the Congregational Chapel or meeting house at Horningsham was built in 1566 for Scottish workers who were building the great house. Its sweeping thatched roof and unassuming design certainly look as if they belong to a building from the earliest era of religious dissent, when places of worship had a domestic appearance, because dissenting groups spurned the decoration and imagery of Catholic churches, were persecuted and so had to be discreet about their religious observance – and anyway mostly lacked the money for an elaborate church.

There seems to be no documentary evidence that the chapel actually dates back to 1566 and the story of its origins has been questioned. But there are plenty of references to people worshipping here by the end of the 17th century, by which time the chapel was clearly well established. Some of the worshippers were coming from neighbouring towns and villages. And still they come. Whatever the building’s exact age, it is certainly one of the oldest nonconformist chapels still in use and, in both its setting and simple construction, one of the most attractive too.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Ten more of the best

It's time for my latest selection of favourite posts from this blog, with a new set of links in the column to the right underneath The English Buildings Book. This time, it's a selection of ruins, stretching across time from the Roman period to the twentieth century. My ten ruins range from the ecclesiastical to the industrial, the palatial to the humble. I hope those of you who are new to the blog will enjoy looking at some of these.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Badby, Northamptonshire

Roadside eyecatcher

We’re so used to rectangular and square buildings that different shapes stand out. This house, on the A361 in Northamptonshire, is built on an octagonal plan, and immediately catches the eye. By why an octagonal house on its own on a main road? When I see something like this two things come to mind. First, a turnpike house where a toll-collector was based; such buildings are often polygonal, so that the occupant can see traffic approaching both ways along the road. Second, a gate lodge, a building type that’s often ornamental and frequently designed to stand out from the crowd.

This example began life as a gate lodge: it stands at what was an entrance to the grounds of a house called Fawsley Park and was probably built in the late-18th or early-19th century, possibly by James Wyatt. Its builders used the local ironstone, gave the windows leaded lights, and put buttresses at some of the corners, probably as much for ornament as for strength. There was originally a stone chimney at the centre of the roof.

By the 1970s the house was derelict, but it was restored in the early 1980s, when the leaded flue was added – perhaps the extension is of a similar date. It certainly seems to have made the lodge into a viable house once more, so that it remains as an attractive feature, next to some bluebell woods on the busy road not far outside Daventry on the way to Banbury.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Horton, Dorset

Inspired by Vanbrugh?

Readers of my previous post may be interested to see a picture of the church at Horton that I mentioned there. It’s a very unusual building, with a curious L-shaped plan and a striking tower topped with a stone spire like an elongated truncated pyramid. This spire and the tower’s cornice are similar to details appearing on plans made by Sir John Vanbrugh, famous as the designer of Blenheim Palace and Castle Howard, for Eastbury Manor at Tarrant Gunville. It’s not known who designed the church. There is a chance it could have been Vanbrugh himself, but it is more likely that it was designed under his influence, perhaps by John Chapman, the mason who is recorded in the churchwarden’s accounts as having rebuilt the tower and other parts of the building in the 1720s.

Whoever it was produced a strong design, in which the tower’s exaggerated cornice, the chunky window surrounds, and other details catch the light memorably, and in which the spire gives the place a special character. When Vanbrugh wrote a memorandum on church-building for the Commission for Building Fifty New Churches in London in the 1712, he expressed his wish that the new churches should be ‘monuments to posterity…ornaments to the Town, and a credit to the Nation.’ The imposing quality of the tower and spire at Horton embodies this wish for monumental churches – but this time in a rural setting. The result is as characterful a country church as you could wish for. Vanbrugh would no doubt have approved.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Horton, Dorset

Vantage point

This tall brick tower, which dominates high ground near Chalbury Common in Dorset, is the kind of thing I normally leave to Peter Ashley, chronicler of Unmitigated England and connoisseur of bizarre and wonderful towers. But so memorable was my encounter with this building that I feel compelled to blog about it here. I could see the tower from the village, where I was visiting the strange, Vanbrugh-ish church, and made my way in its direction, soon realising that it must be some distance from the road. At first I could see no path to it, but then discovered that what I’d taken to be someone’s drive was actually the bridleway leading in the tower’s direction. So I was soon striding through bushes and trees following the sound of slowly moving hooves.

And then, once I was past the trees and the riders and into the bright spring sunshine, there it was: 140 feet of stunning mid-18th-century brickwork surrounded by sheep and lambs. Coming upon it like this, when my earlier view of it had been from some way off, confronted me instantly with its huge height and bulk, so the building was a surprise again, even though I’d seen it from afar, looking much smaller, only a few minutes before.

The tower was built by Humphrey Sturt, lord of the manor of Horton and MP for Dorset, and may have been intended as an observatory or to provide views of the local hunt making its way across the landscape. It’s so tall, and so bizarre with its combination of turrets and octagonal top, that it became known as Sturt’s folly. But let’s be grateful to Sturt for building this tower, which both enhances the view by its presence and gives us a pleasant, extra shock when we get up close to it and realise how big it really is. I for one am grateful that Mr Sturt wanted a good view, across the land or into the heavens.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Stanbridge, Dorset

Into the woods

Driving around Dorset in search of churches and follies, I half expected to come across this house, having read about it in Pevsner’s Buildings of England volume on Dorset. But it was still a surprise, since it seems to be nearer Stanbridge than Hinton Martell, the village in which Pevsner includes it and where I was expecting it. The little building has been surprising passers-by since about 1809, when it was built as a gate lodge for a nearby country house. The lodge is in the form of a cottage orné, the style of utterly cottagey cottage that became fashionable in the Regency period.

The dumpy thatched roof, with upper windows under ‘eyebrows’ of thatch, and the additional little thatched porches are typical features of the cottage orné style. So too are the pointed windows glazed with diamond panes. Since my copy of Pevsner (the 1972 edition) was produced, the house has been rethatched – the roof previously had eaves with repeated concave curves like the edges of an umbrella. The little points that fringe the roof today are nearly as picturesque. In its roadside setting surrounded by trees, it’s a place where a woodcutter in a folk tale might feel at home.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Stanway, Gloucestershire

Jack and Percy

Yes, those of you who saw my previous post about the notices will probably have guessed that it was Jack in the Green who arrived yesterday, May Day, to mark the season with Morris dancing and other celebrations. There’s a photograph of Jack below, walking through Winchombe on his way to morning coffee. He appeared together with a group who make it their business around these parts to mark the stages of the year, an enterprise I admire greatly. This weekend of celebrations had an additional and unexpected pleasure, which provided a surprising link with another English building. During the afternoon of 1 May, Gwilym Davies gave a fascinating talk about some of the area’s traditional songs. The talk centred on the colourful figure of the Australian composer Percy Grainger, who was famous not only for writing his own music and for arranging (or ‘dishing up’, as he put it) the music of others in new, fresh forms, but also for travelling around collecting folk songs, which he might then ‘dish up’ in their turn. Grainger both wrote these songs down and recorded them on his wax-cylinder phonograph, still new technology in the early 1900s. Some of these songs would be quite lost today if Grainger (or colleagues such as Ralph Vaughan Williams) had not captured them on paper or wax.

In 1907, Grainger came to Gloucestershire and stayed at Stanway House, then the home of Lady Elcho, who threw interesting and rather arty house parties where one might come across the likes of J M Barrie or John Singer Sargent. Grainger travelled a few miles down the road to Winchcombe, where he visited the town’s workhouse and recorded several of the inmates singing their favourite songs. It was fascinating to hear some of Grainger’s recordings, crackly and indistinct but moving nonetheless, and to imagine him and his friends at Stanway, this golden house of the 16th and 17th centuries with its Cotswold stone gables and giant five-sided bay window. At Stanway there is also a terrific gatehouse of the 1630s, visible to the right of the photograph. And a medieval barn. And a cricket pavilion built for J M Barrie. And a water garden with the world's tallest gravity-fed fountain. I like to think of Percy Grainger performing one of his favourite tricks, hurling a tennis ball into the air over a house, and running round the back to catch it. But the tall gables of Stanway House would probably have defeated him.

Jack in the Green, Winchcombe

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Winchcombe, Gloucestershire

'What, has this thing appeared again tonight?'*

One aspect of looking at buildings is noticing the notices that appear on them. On my walk to buy a newspaper this morning, I was surprised to see that the walls of Winchcombe, the Cotswold home town of your English Buildings blogger, have been festooned with enigmatic signs. Something is afoot. Who is this Jack, where has he come from, and where is he now? Could there be a clue in the colour of the notices?

* Hamlet, Act I scene i