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 Originally made for ironmongers, these fronts are made, appropriately enough, of cast iron.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.


bazza said...

There is something very reassuring about grand shop-fronts which these example epitomise.
Of all the old-style shops that seem to be totally disappearing I think Ironmongers are the ones I miss most. When I come across an old-fashioned ironmongers I have to be dragged away!
Bazza’s Blog ‘To Discover Ice’

The Vintage Knitter said...

Aha, now I know where the inspiration behind the Shepton Mallet ironmonger's shopfront came from.

I watched first episode and really enjoyed it; I can't wait for the rest of the series.

I'm looking forward to reading your future posts on the series too.

Philip Wilkinson said...

VK: The one in the series is even closer to a shop front that is or was in Bow Lane, London. But the Witney one is certainly along similar lines.

Bazza: It's brilliant when one comes across an old-fashioned ironmonger. I always end up buying something that 'might come in useful'.

Sir Tom Eagerly said...

Hello Mr W, I'm here on Bazza's recommendation and jolly good it is too! When I was a lad the local ironmonger used to deliver to our old stately pile in a horse and cart, you know.
His horse would often leave a calling-card, if you know what I mean. Good old days full of sepia-tinted memories.
Bottoms up!

Philip Wilkinson said...

Oh, yes, Sir Tom. You had to watch it if you were loitering around near the tradesmen's entrance...


aw said...

Know Witney well but had never before noticed the similarity between these two buildings. The ironmongers used to be painted a deep maroon colour when still in business as I recall. A number of old established ironmongers have closed in the last ten years or so within the county although not all sported such wonderful shop fronts.

Checking my own photos on this topic I see many of those still in business are over the border in Wales.

martin said...

Living in London,where corporate branding has spread like a rash over pretty much everything,one has to seek out small enclaves where the individual proprietor is still making a go of it.
Do you know Paxton and Whitfield's cheese shop in Jermyn Street? Its a joy,and,when you step inside,it has an odour that is truly essence of cheese.

Philip Wilkinson said...

AW: Yes, still quite a few traditional shops in small towns in Wales.

Martin: I remember this shop well - used to pass it on my way to the London Library – and hope it's still there. One of the classic London shops.

martin said...

Established 1797 and still in business.It probably helps that it has royal patronage.It's the equivalent of a listed building.

Neil said...

The shop by the green was still an ironmongers until maybe 4 years ago, but has been through a couple of incarnations since, the quick turnover being a sign of the times, I guess. The way the two shopfronts bracket the town is a lovely thing to notice.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Neil: I didn't realise it was an ironmonger's so recently. Like so many people I bypass Witney often, but visit rarely.