Friday, August 27, 2010

Dymchurch, Kent

The lookers and their huts

The flat landscape of Romney Marsh is dotted with a number of small buildings that most of us would hardly give a second glance. Tiny, brick-built, with a pitched roof and a chimney at one end, these are the lookers’ huts that provided shelter for those who looked after sheep on the marsh and who needed to be near their flocks for weeks on end – especially during the lambing season. Although they’re not elaborate pieces of architecture, these huts are important because they were a vital part in the lives of ordinary people for many generations over a period of around 200 years.

Once there were hundreds of lookers’ huts, but now only 12 survive intact. Changes in farming and lifestyle have meant that many have disappeared and, because most of them were in isolated positions they often found no new use. As a result they were seen as superfluous and many were knocked down; others succumbed to time or vandals.

If the remaining lookers’ huts are not to go the way of the rest, wiping out a unique piece of history, they need advocates, and they have a powerful one in Mark Duncan, who has made it his mission to photograph all the remaining huts. Now there is an exhibition of some of his photographs of the huts, highlighting those that are most at risk. I for one hope that Duncan’s exhibition succeeds in its aim to raise awareness of these very special structures and their role in the lives of generations of lookers who worked beneath the endless open skies of Romney Marsh.

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Giving Up The Ghost, an exhibition of photographs by Mark Duncan, is at the Romney Marsh Visitor Centre, Dymchurch Road, New Romney, Kent, from 28 August to 25 October. There is more about it, with examples of Mark Duncan’s photographs, here.

The photograph above is by Mark Duncan.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Shorthampton, Oxfordshire


When it comes to parish churches, small is often both beautiful and interesting. Small churches in isolated locations sometimes survive with ancient features intact better than churches in towns and villages on the beaten track, where wealth, piety, and fashion often led to frequent restorations and renovations. Shorthampton in western Oxfordshire, set on a quiet lane not far from Charlbury, is a mixture of Norman, Gothic, and Georgian. But its main interest, apart from the quiet churchyard view views across undulating hills and farmland, lies in its wall paintings.

Because so many images in English churches were destroyed in the 17th century, English wall paintings are mostly fragmentary. What were once entire cycles of images, showing, say, the story of the Passion, are now reduced to a few scraps; a large Last Judgement may be recognisable only by a small group of devils; a feathered wing may be all that’s left of an angelic host. As a result, what survives has a quality of serendipity, and often, divorced form its context, of surprise. At Shorthampton we are treated to a dragon’s wing (presumably all that is left of a painting of St George), a Last Judgement so faded as to be virtually indecipherable, and images showing a bishop (above) and of various saints, not all identifiable but remarkably including St Zita, patron of domestic servants and a far from common subject.

And then there is this unusual subject, the Miracle of the Clay Birds. This is the story of how the infant Jesus modelled some birds out of clay and then brought them to life. If it’s unfamiliar, that’s because the story is told in one of the apocryphal gospels, that of St Thomas. At Shorthampton, although the painting is faded, the Virgin, the infant Jesus, and another child – perhaps John the Baptist – are clearly visible, along with one of the birds.

It is indeed surprising that in this tiny, isolated church, up a lane with just a few farms for company, this obscure story should be portrayed. But miracles fascinated the medieval artists, and miraculous episodes from apocryphal narratives by James, Thomas and the ‘pseudo-Matthew’ (all gospels that satisfied an understandable craving for information about the infancy of Jesus) appear in various churches. No doubt many such images have been lost. It’s a small miracle in itself that in this Oxfordshire church such a painting has survived.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Coptic Street, London

Cream of Bloomsbury

This building at the corner of Coptic Street and Little Russell Street in Bloomsbury is well known as the second restaurant to open in the Pizza Express chain. But the beautiful lettering high up on the wall proclaims its earlier history as the premises of the Dairy Supply Company. It dates from 1888 and was designed by R P Whellock, an architect I know nothing about – if you have any information about him, do please leave a comment.

In the dairy on Coptic Street, Whellock put in big, round-headed windows on the ground floor – these were apparently typical of the architecture favoured by the Dairy Supply Company. Original diary tiles are preserved inside, too. Outside, the mix of coloured bricks and the other details are typical of the period, but this lettering with its interweaving foliage helps the building stand out above the crowd. A reminder that there were once dairies all over the capital and another reason to look up in London.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Chipping Campden, Gloucestershire

Uncommon markets (3)

In contrast to the grand town hall of the previous post, here is a market hall, plain and simple, in the middle of the beautiful Cotswold town of Chipping Campden. The market hall was put up in 1627 by Sir Baptist Hicks, a London mercer who built a mansion for himself at one end of Camden and made various gifts to his adopted town. The building was intended for use for the sale of poultry, butter, and cheese. It consists of little more than three rows of arches, a stone floor, and a roof, but they are done with such simplicity in golden Cotswold stone, that the building provides the perfect centrepiece to the main street.

Chipping Campden, which came to prominence as a centre of the wool trade in the late Middle Ages, is one of the most perfect of all the Cotswold towns. That it is still so perfect is due in part to the numerous craftsmen and artists who lived there in the early-20th century, many of whom came to Gloucestershire under the auspices of C R Ashbee’s Guild of Handicraft. It was Ashbee who repaired the market hall in 1903 and the artist F L Griggs, another Campden resident, who designed the war memorial, partly visible to the right of the picture. This is a place that has inspired artists and artisans, and they have repaid it with the work of hand, heart, and head.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Abingdon, Oxfordshire

Uncommon markets (2)

Of all the town halls that take the traditional form, with arches for a market on the ground floor, Abingdon’s is probably the most imposing. Its size is a reminder that Abingdon was once the county town – of Berkshire, not the Oxfordshire that it has found itself in since the sorry bodge that was the local government reorganization of 1974.

This stupendous building was constructed in 1678–82 by Christopher Kempster, one of the master masons who worked for Christopher Wren on his projects in the City of London. No architect is recorded. Maybe Kempster did the drawings, maybe Wren himself was involved – Pevsner points out that the large first-floor windows are like the ones Wren designed for the library of Trinity College, Cambridge. Whoever did the design, it’s a triumph, from the vast arches to the dainty cupola set in the middle of the hipped roof. Although it is made of traditional ingredients, combining the old market-hall concept with Classical details and the familiar hipped roof, it still manages to surprise and impress: there is nothing quite like it.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Tamworth, Staffordshire

Uncommon markets (1)

I’ve posted at least once before about my liking for traditional English town halls – the kind that form a central landmark in a town, often with a space for a market beneath and a wooden turret or cupola on top. This is one of my favourites, and it provides a stunning centrepiece to the town of Tamworth. I admire its chequered brickwork, its simple Tuscan arches under which the market was once held, and the collection of engaging details on this end wall. I suppose if I were being critical I’d say that the generous round-headed windows and the triangular pediment with its enormous dentils are enough – the design doesn’t exactly need all the bits in the middle – the clock (a later addition), the plaque, the heraldry. But, cluttered as they are, they add to the charm of this building and to the information it imparts.

The plaque, for example, tells us that the town hall was built by Thomas Guy, no less, the founder of Guy’s Hospital in London. Guy, whose mother came from Tamworth, made his money as a publisher and bookseller in London. He made some generous gifts – to St Thomas’s Hospital, to Guy’s itself, and to Tamworth, where he built almshouses as well as the town hall. The coat of arms relates to Guy too, and also appears on Guy’s hospital in London.

In spite of his benefactions, Guy had a reputation for being mean. Perhaps that’s partly to do with his reaction in 1708, when he was unseated as Tamworth’s MP. In response he excluded Tamworth residents from his almshouses, restricting them to people from the nearby area and to his own relations. But at least by then the people of Tamworth had their town hall. He couldn’t take that away from them.

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Bazza, at the blog To Discover Ice, has a post about the Guildhall at Thaxted, which is the timber-framed 16th-century grandparent, as it were, of the Tamworth town hall and other buildings of its ilk.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Inglesham, Wiltshire

More layers

I recently did a couple of posts called ‘Layers of history’ about places constructed on prehistoric sites. As more than one reader said, this whole blog is really about layers of history – and they could have gone further and said that virtually every building that’s not spick and span new is an example of historical layering, so great is our passion for altering and adapting buildings, furnishing them and leaving our stamp on them. The tiny church at Inglesham in Wiltshire is one of the most layered of them all. A largely 13th-century structure, based probably on a late-Saxon original, it contains a Saxon carving of the Madonna and Child, windows from the 14th and 15th centuries, timber screens of the 15th and 16th centuries, 17th-century pews and pulpit, and a range of wall paintings representing every century from the 13th to the 19th.

Nave and aisle: 13th-century pier, 15th-century screen, Jacobean pews

But that prosaic list tells not half the story. This isolated church – it has just a couple of houses for company down a lane that leads nowhere else – has an atmosphere of quiet and calm like few others, testimony to the care that has been lavished on its fragile fabric and furnishings, especially over the last century or so. That it has survived is largely due to William Morris, who lived at Kelmscott not far away, loved this place, and knew the Victorian rector, Oswald Birchall. Birchall wrote to Morris saying that he had no money to carry out the necessary repairs to the church, and neither had the parishioners. Morris put Birchall in touch with the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, who both supervised the restoration in the 1880s and 1890s and, in an unusual move, also raised money for it. Morris too contributed money, anonymously, to keep the work going. And so the repairs were carried out with the greatest care and respect for the building, under SPAB principles – nothing old was destroyed if it could be repaired, new work was not disguised, new additions were made to fit the old fabric (not the other way round), and so on.

As a result of Morris’s commitment, this wonderful church survives, with both its historical layers and its ancient peace. On my last visit to Inglesham I was enjoying the building in solitude when the door opened and a party of half a dozen visitors came in. Frankly, my heart sank. No more contemplative silence, I thought. How wrong could I be? Each of the visitors approached the chancel, bowed towards the altar, and made the sign of the cross, before inspecting the building in awed reverence. After a while, one of them came up to me. ‘They are from Warsaw,’ he explained, in good but accented English. ‘They have been to the Tower of London and Windsor, so I had to bring them here. To show them this unbroken link with the Middle Ages, even with the Saxons.’ An unbroken link with the layers of history. And one of the best. How true.

Chancel: Fragment of 13th-century reredos, painting of various dates

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Note A commenter has pointed out that conservation work is now (20 August 2010) underway on some of the wall paintings at Inglesham. This means that there is a lot of scaffolding in the church and the opening times are restricted.

This church is in the care of the Churches Conservation Trust, which looks after churches of historical and architectural interest that are no longer needed for worship. They deserve our support.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Winchcombe, Gloucestershire

Line and light

One sunny afternoon in 1904 the artist F L Griggs came to the small town of Winchcombe in Gloucestershire, paused in the main street, and began to draw. Griggs, who had settled in Chipping Camden the previous year, was getting to know the Cotswolds well because he was doing the illustrations for the book Highways and Byways in Oxford and the Cotswolds, one of a series on British counties and regions. The book was to be published by Macmillan in time for Christmas 1905. With his newly acquired local knowledge, Griggs no doubt came prepared for the strong shadow cast across this street, which runs basically east-west, although with such a concatenation of curves that its limestone houses, bonded together in a continuous terrace running towards the 15th-century church, are all higgledy-piggledy.

At this stage in his career as an illustrator, Griggs used ink, and he employed thousands of fine lines to depict the play of shadow on cobbles and limestone, and a much more sparing, almost hesitant line for the houses and church tower bathed in sunshine, so that they seem to shimmer in the light. Using this painstaking way of working, Griggs could sometimes delineate buildings with startling precision – in some of his other drawings, virtually every stone is outlined, every warp in the timbers of a weatherboarded barn. This illustration is slightly looser but still meticulous and wonderfully conveys a sense of place – and as it virtually depicts the view from my front door, I can say this with confidence. This remarkable collection of houses – of various dates between the 16th and 20th centuries, and many containing within them fragments of still older buildings – not to mention the play of sun and shadow, have been caught well.

But Griggs’s way of working also caused him problems. He drew very slowly, and his publishers got frustrated, eventually bringing out the book with fewer illustrations than planned, and reducing the artist’s fee by ten per cent. So for future books in the Highways and Byways series, Griggs used pencil, in which he could work faster in a slightly looser, though still detailed, style. He was a good draftsman with the pencil, but something was lost, and I’m pleased that when he came to this street in Winchcombe – a street that has changed little since 1904 apart from the replacement of cobbles with asphalt and the arrival of a large number of cars – he was still using his painstaking pen.