Friday, November 26, 2010


Co-op modern

This 1936 design features the Midhill Road branch of the Sheffield and Ecclesall Co-operartive Society. Designed by J W Blackhurst, it is a resplendent combination of plate glass, chromium trim, lettering made up almost entirely of straight lines, and the signature material of 1930s shop fronts, Vitrolite. Vitrolite, a form of coloured glass available in a range of hues including orange, black, pale yellow, and pale green, produced hard shiny wipe-down surfaces that were much admired in the 1930s. The material is not so common today, but a skin of black Vitrolite still covers the Daily Express building in London’s Fleet Street.

Vitrolite and chrome were used with flair in this shop front, now alas demolished. The dark cornice, overhanging canopy, grids of glazing bars and railings, and the lettering, all combine in a glittering, angular whole. It’s flashy, in the way the Art Deco cinemas are flashy, but also hygienic and wholesome, a blending of apparent opposites not unlike the powerful combination of capitalism and mutual ownership on which the co-operative movement itself was built.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Edge Hill, Warwickshire

Cutting edge

Coming across this on an autumn morning on a quiet road in Warwickshire is enough to bring the curious traveller to a halt, and reduce one to slack-jawed and questioning amazement. What is it, exactly, and why is it here?

The short answer, it’s a pub, is only part of the story. This stone tower hasn’t been a pub all its life. It’s not a castle either. The windows are much too big for a medieval castle that had to defend itself against slings and arrows. The battlements are too slight to conceal all but the most elfin defender. The whole thing looks more like the fanciful Gothic (or ‘Gothick’) of the 18th century, intended to make its mark in the landscape. And so it proves.

The tower at Edge Hill was built by Sanderson Miller, a local gentleman and amateur architect who was improving his estate in the middle of the 18th century. As well as transforming his Tudor house at Radway in the Gothic style, and doing up his gardens, he built the octagonal tower as a combination of eyecatcher and viewpoint, right on the edge of the escarpment. According to legend, the place was also the precise spot where King Charles raised his standard before the battle of Edge Hill, the inconclusive clash of 1642 at the beginning of the English Civil War.

In 1747, Miller put up the octagonal tower, and he soon added the adjoining buildings, including the square tower and bridge, recently renewed, designed to span the road. The octagonal part is modelled on a tower at Warwick Castle, and commands panoramic views across the plain below. As if the links with the vast castle at Warwick, and with Charles I, weren’t allusions enough to English history, the interior included a ceiling decorated with the coats of arms of the Saxon kingdoms.

So the Edge Hill tower was a building with ‘heritage’ plastered all over it and tradition set in its stones. But in the 1740s this was all rather revolutionary. Gothic was still an unusual style for country houses, but at the same tima as Miller was working at Edge Hill and Radway, Horace Walpole, the man credited with kick-starting the 18th-century Gothic revival, was rebuilding his Twickenham House, Strawberry Hill, in a similar, yet more fanciful, Gothic style. Miller’s work, like the more famous Walpole’s, caught the imagination of country house owners. A number were soon asking Miller to redesign their homes, and a modest scattering of castle towers, fan vaults, tracery, and sham ruins began to spread across Warwickshire and beyond. Miller’s tower, at first glance a rich landowner’s folly, was also an architect’s calling card.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010


Old principles, modern building

From its 19th-century roots in the Rochdale, the co-operative movement grew rapidly in the Victorian and Edwardian periods to become a force to be reckoned with on Britain’s High Streets. There were co-ops everywhere, and they were prized for their combination of quality and fair pricing, and also for their values – from ownership by the members and democratic member control to the support of education and community. These values, enshrined in a list known as the Rochdale Principles, still shape the co-operative movement today.

By the 1930s, although the really big expansion was over, co-ops big and small were still being built. The principal architects who worked for the co-operative movement, William A. Johnson of Manchester and Leonard G Ekins of London, were both enthusiastic modernists. The work of Ekins, for example, developed from an Art Deco not unlike the style of 1920s and 1930s factory architecture to a more hard-edged steel and glass modernism.

This co-operative store in Northampton shares several features with Ekins’ earlier work – the white walls with touches of green, the tall windows, the dark green plinth at the bottom and the stepped-back effect at the top. If it’s not actually by Ekins, it is probably the work of an architect who had studied his buildings. Whoever designed it, the building has proved durable. It’s now an arcade full of small independent shops, while the tiles of the street frontage still bear the name of the original owner, picked out in capitals.

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Here's another example of Art Deco tiling on a co-op, this time in Tamworth, which I blogged about a while ago.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Fairford, Gloucestershire

‘Get a cat’

Time for a break from the parade of shops currently occupying my mind. So, a little feline diversion...

In his book Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese, Patrick Leigh Fermor tells an old story about a Greek sea captain. Troubled by the number of rats on his boat, the seaman calls in a priest to perform the ceremony for casting our vermin. Chants, censing and asperging ensue, and the priest takes his fee, ensuring the man he’ll have no more trouble now, the rites have never failed. ‘”But there’s just one point,” he said. “What’s that, Father?” The priest stooped his bearded head to the seaman’s ear and whispered: “Get a cat.” Since then the phrase “getting a cat” means, in maritime circles, making surety doubly sure.’

Often, of course, the process of ‘getting’ a cat is rather passive. A cat arrives, and if the humans are welcoming enough, the cat stays. Something like this probably happened in 1963, when a tabby adopted the verger of Fairford church and his wife. Tiddles stayed, became the church cat, and attracted the affection of visitors, who come to Fairford to admire the stunning late-medieval stained glass, and of parishioners, on whose laps she sat during services. No doubt her mousing skills were not much used. But the parishioners of Fairford were doubly sure. And when Tiddles died in 1980, this stone, carved by Peter Juggins, was erected near the south porch. Requiescat.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Melbourne, Derbyshire

Tracing history

The High Street renews itself all the time. Old shops get makeovers, new businesses come along, and with each change a fresh signboard goes up. Sometimes, though, it’s just the sign that’s changed, or a coat of paint that’s added. And if that’s the case, part of the old shop front stays to tell us something about the history of the building. I like the way fragments of old decoration, bits of moulding, a pane of glass high up in a window, can drop quiet hints about a shop’s previous occupants. Tiles, among the most durable of decorations, sometimes linger in this way, and here are a couple of neighbouring examples in Melbourne, Derbyshire.

I don’t know exactly when these shop fronts were tiled, but I’d guess in the Edwardian period – the designs seem to bear that influence of Art Nouveau that I often saw in the tiled surrounds of Edwardian fireplaces when I lived in London. Back in the early-20th century, firms such as Minton and Doulton were producing millions of tiles that brought a bit of colour – and a sense of hygiene – to the High Street. Butchers, dairies, grocers, and fishmongers were among their most enthusiastic customers. They liked the bright, easy-care surfaces, which were often continued inside the shop.

On many early shops there was often a blurring of the boundary between inside and outside. Butchers, for example, would hang meat on rails in front of the window, and both butchers and fishmongers had opening shop windows, enabling customers to see the goods or talk to the proprietor without even stepping inside. The right-hand shop in the picture has an opening sash window, and probably once sold meat or fish.

Few High Streets have complete surviving Edwardian shops like the ones lovingly reconstructed in the BBC’s Turn Back Time series. But in many towns there are fragments like these strips of tiling, which afford colourful glimpses of the history of the High Street.

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For readers interested in Melbourne, there's a post about its wonderful Norman church, here.
For more on tiled shop fronts, see a post about a street in Cheltenham, here.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Charing Cross Road, London

Striking a light

Small-town shopkeepers like those in the excellent Turn Back Time: The High Street didn’t usually have shop fronts with the full complement of glittering effects that were sometimes seen in the Victorian period. But in London is was a different story. Where there were hundreds of shops competing for one’s attention, Victorian shop designers did everything they could to catch the eye of potential customers – bright colours, lots of lights, gilding, and lavish displays of goods.

Painted glass, often with mirror effects, was a favourite material for shop names, numbers, and glittering descriptions of the goods on sale, especially in the second half of the 19th century. Passing fashions and the fragility of glass mean that few of these dazzling signs have survived. Some of the best loved are on the umbrella shop in New Oxford Street that I blogged about a while back. This is another, on Smith’s tobacconists in Charing Cross Road. This was apparently the first shop to open when this stretch of the street was redeveloped at the end of the 1860s. The sparkling glass welcomes cigar-smokers in particular, as it did in the 19th century, testimony to the Victorian shopkeeper’s skill at attracting the notice and the money of those who passed by.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Witney, Oxfordshire

Iron appeal

BBC1’s series Turn Back Time: The High Street has now begun, and, as I wrote the book to go with series, there will be a few posts on shops this month, in the spirit of spreading information about this neglected aspect of architecture – and in the cause of unashamed pluggery.

The Victorian High Street could be a dangerous place, where bakers laboured in dingy back rooms, using flour adulterated with alum, and where grocers happily sold cheese coloured with copper sulphate. They did all this with a grand flourish of showmanship, and this love of show was sometimes reflected in extravagant shop fronts. Ironmongers liked to set off their vast and bewildering stock (everything from nails and screws to grates and stoves) with a good-looking frontage. There are still a few of these around, including two magnificent Victorian shop fronts in Witney. Originally made for ironmongers, these fronts are made, appropriately enough, of cast iron.

They’re a matching pair, at opposite ends of the town, and made around 1870–1880 by some unsung foundry. At the top of each frontage are intricate diamond shapes linked together and enclosing rosettes. Up each shaft winds twining foliage. Delicate scrolls twirl across the corners of the glazing. This feast of decoration must have amazed the Victorian shoppers of Witney, and must have drawn people towards Leigh’s at one end of the town, by the green, and Thomas Clark and Son at the other end, in the High Street. Neither of the shops is now an ironmonger’s, but these stunning iron frontages still house businesses – a bakery and an estate agent – that contribute to a vibrant and busy High Street.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Ashby St Ledgers, Northamptonshire

Plotters' place
I remember that when I was a child my parents had a book with a picture of this gatehouse in it. The gatehouse was identified as belonging to the manor house at Ashby St Ledgers in Northamptonshire, and the reason it was illustrated was because this house was the home of Robert Catesby, leader of the group of Catholics who plotted to blow up Parliament and James I on November 5th 1605 in the hope of then installing the king’s nine-year-old daughter as a Catholic head of state. Plots of all kinds fascinated me, especially the Gunpowder Plot, not because of any Catholic or republican sympathies but because it was the cause of fireworks, bonfires, Guys, sausages, and other delights.* I imagined people plotting in the upper room of this gatehouse, from which, no doubt, they’d be able to escape in a hurry if royal spies got wind of their scheming.

When I finally visited Ashby St Ledgers, I was amazed that the gatehouse forms a tiny part of the whole house, which is huge – more like a cluster of large houses than a single dwelling. But being near the road, the gatehouse is indeed a good place for plotters, who could both keep a lookout and decamp quickly if they needed to. Its simple architecture, a good deal more rustic than that of the main house, also lends it a useful air of innocence. When the plot was discovered, Robert Catesby fled from London and when trying to make a stand against his pursuers in Staffordshire was shot dead. I must admit that I was pleased to find that his gatehouse had survived.

*My overseas readers may need to know that these things, especially fireworks, attend the yearly celebrations of the discovery of the plot on November 5th. Fireworks are lit all over the country, but the towns of Sussex, where pyrotechnics become spectacle on the grandest of scales, excel in the art of whiz, flash, and bang.