Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Droitwich, Worcestershire

One more from Mr Pippet

I wanted to show you one more mosaic from the church of the Sacred Heart and St Catherine of Alexandria, Droitwich, the building that featured in the previous post. This image of St Philip shows the Apostle carrying bread, having been present at the miracle of the multiplication of loaves and fishes (the “feeding of the five thousand”). According to St John's Gospel, Philip remarked of Jesus’ five thousand followers that, “Two hundred pennyworth of bread is not sufficient for them, that every one of them may take a little.” The mosaic is also remarkable for the surrounding leaves and fruit, plus the charming population of birds with which the designer, Gabriel Pippet, enlivened the areas around the saint’s portrait.

Happy New Year to you all.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Droitwich, Worcestershire

Peacock and Pippet

I hope this blog has brought some interest and pleasure to my readers this year and that some at least of the pleasure has come from unexpected sources. I like to think that quite a lot of what I bring you is out-of-the-way stuff, buildings that are little known outside their immediate neighbourhood and passed over by the standard architectural histories. My subjects interest me for all sorts of reasons but the ones I like best are notable aesthetically while also throwing some light on the past – on social, industrial, or commercial history.

So this year we’ve had, among other things, village lockups, in which quirky architectural form embodies past notions of crime and punishment; factories, in which low-cost, utilitarian architecture survives (sometimes by the skin of its teeth) to tell the stories of past industries; and shop fronts, in which former fashions in display reveal something about the ways in which retailers liked to catch the attention of customers. All very revealing and often surprising too.

Christmas, though, is a time when surprises come in traditional packaging. This fact came into my mind when I was looking at a building that combines tradition with surprise: a 20th-century Byzantine-style church…in Droitwich. The Catholic Church of the Sacred Heart and St Catherine of Alexandria, designed by Barry Peacock, is based on the form of early Christian basilicas. The long nave, with its rows of seven arches, its small apse housing the high altar, its carved capitals, and, above all, its mosaic decoration, shows the influence of the great early churches of Constantinople and, especially, Ravenna.

Most of the mosaics were designed by Gabriel Pippet and executed by mosaicist Maurice Josey. Their subjects are various – one group tells the story of St Richard de Wyche, Droitwich’s saint; another depicts scenes from the life of the Virgin, including the Annunciation, the Nativity, and the Flight into Egypt. There are also portraits of saints and fathers of the Church – St Catherine’s mosaic in the apse of her little chapel is especially good. The details in these mosaics are beautiful. Interweaving plants and little groups of birds fill the gaps between the figures and narrative panels. Gold tesserae glitter. Even on a dull day in Droitwich, this lovely work of the 1920s catches the light like the mosaics of Ravenna in the Italian sunshine.

Season's Greetings to all my readers.

St Catherine, Church of the Sacred Heart and St Catherine of Alexandria, Droitwich

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Market Harborough, Leicestershire

Swans, up

I know I’ve gone on about swans on this blog before. About their seductive combination of strength and softness, their place in English tradition (swan-upping), their role in poetry and mythology, their presence near buildings such as the Archbishop’s Palace at Wells, even the memorable appearance of these usually quiet creatures in English music. Swans get me going, and there it is.

I was reminded of all this a while back when passing one of my favourite inn signs, which protrudes from the front of the Three Swans in the middle of Market Harborough. History books say that the first mention of the inn – then simply The Swan – dates from 1517. By the 18th century it was well established as a coaching inn, with stables at the back servicing regular coaches to London.

The central portion of the sign is probably the oldest – some sources guess 17th, others 18th century, when the inn was still The Swan. The collection of curlicues shows off not just the central sign but also the work of some local blacksmith. He was fortunate indeed to get the chance to display his work in such a prominent place, and took full advantage of the chance for a free advertisement. For who would not want a garden gate, or some andirons, or a trivet made by this craftsman?

At some later date, perhaps in the later-18th century, perhaps in the early 19th when the building was remodelled, the hostelry added a further two swans to its name and its sign. The smith’s successor came along and attached them in place, and, with their sinuous necks and the equally curvaceous ironwork that they bookend, they make distinctive silhouettes against the sky. No doubt I’m not the only one to crane my neck in homage.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Isle Abbots, Somerset

Rubble rouser

Back at the beginning of the year I did a post about the church at Isle Abbots, which has one of the graceful late-medieval Gothic towers for which Somerset’s parish churches are justly famous. Around the side of the church I was fascinated to find a few masonry fragments that had been removed from the building at some stage, probably during a restoration. One of them is the part of a pinnacle shown in my photograph, and what’s particularly interesting about it is that it has a piece of metal sticking out of the top. This is a rod, probably made of lead, that was used to help hold this piece and another, now vanished, stone together.

Medieval masons used lead in their joints quite often, especially when building intricate, willowy structures such as window tracery, narrow shafts (mini-columns), and pinnacles. They did this by drilling vertical holes through the pieces of stone and lining them up. Then they called in the plumber – the man who worked with lead – and he undertook the painstaking task of pouring the molten lead in from the top. When the lead set, the pinnacle had a solid armature, adding greatly to its strength.

Working with molten lead in this way must have been a perilous business, especially if you were at the top of a 200-foot tower at the time. But it seems to have been a common occurrence in the Middle Ages, and helped architectural details such as this pinnacle survive from the 15th to the 20th or 21st century. Now some of these parts of the building have been renewed, it’s good to find some bits of the originals near ground level, so that one can look at them closely. Another medieval pinnacle seems to have found a new role in the garden of a nearby cottage.

Displaced pinnacle, Isle Abbots, Somerset

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Piccadilly, London

Space invader

An alien invader has appeared in the courtyard of the Royal Academy. It’s a scale model of one of the great unbuilt projects of Russian communism, the Monument to the Third International, designed in 1919–20 by Vladimir Tatlin and commonly known as Tatlin’s tower. The original was intended to be 400 m high and although known as a monument it was intended to house various functions of the Third International, also known as Comintern, the organization set up in 1919 to fight for communism in Russia and beyond. Inside the tower’s double spiral of twisted metal were to be four structures of steel and glass, each in effect a separate building. These inner structures – in the model they are made of wire – were designed to accommodate separate parts of Comintern. Each was to be a perfect form (a cube, a pyramid, a cylinder, and a hemisphere) and the three lower ones were meant to rotate at different speeds.

Perhaps it’s not entirely surprising that this monster monument was never built. The constructional challenges were immense and the amount of steel required was enormous. But not for the first or last time, an unbuilt structure started balls rolling. The idea of its intricate steel network inspired architects and engineers, and the tower (and its enigmatic designer) has enjoyed a long afterlife in books about architecture, histories of the Soviet Union, and even fiction. Now architects Dixon Jones have built this replica to accompany the Royal Academy’s exhibition Building the Revolution: Soviet Art and Architecture, 1915-–1935, which is on at the RA until 22 January. The tower looks rather odd against the Palladian-Victorian background of Burlington House. As I was trying to photograph it, I longed for a neutral background. But the contrast between the constructivist steelwork of Tatlin’s tower and the stonework behind is, I suppose, part of the point. It was always meant to stick out and in its new incarnation in Piccadilly it still does.

There are details of the exhibition here.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Devizes, Wiltshire

Piper and after

One of my favourite blogs is Adventures in the Print Trade, in which Neil Philip, proprietor of the online gallery Idbury Prints, shares some of his discoveries and enthusiasms. Neil recently posted about some images of 1940s Devizes by John Piper and I was particularly pleased to see these prints because I’d already read Piper’s short essay about the town reprinted in his book Buildings and Prospects (the dust jacket of which is illustrated with versions of some of the Devizes images). In the essay, Piper praises the town’s ‘good minor architecture, magnificent museum (contents not building), brewery and tobacco factory (sensible, small-scale manufactures for such a town), branch-line railway, good inns and bars, hotels… fair churches and chapels, canal of handsome appearance, sensible plan, bracing air, good-looking inhabitants, cinemas (old-fashioned and super, the super not ostentatious).’ If the place has lost some of these amenities since Piper wrote in 1944, it retains enough of them, from inns to churches, to make it recognisably the same town.

Piper’s approach in his illustrations is similar to the way he worked on prints of towns such as Penzance for the Architectural Review. He shows us groups of buildings, throwing light on how they relate to one another along a street, and conjuring up in the process a powerful sense of place. I’ve chosen a couple of examples from Neil’s collection to show what I mean. The simple outlines, blocks of colour, and rapidly sketched details give us the essential information – the shapes of the buildings, their materials, key details such as windows and doors. We quickly grasp the character of the place – a mix of Georgian and Victorian buildings in stone, brick, and colourwash, with a minimum of modern modification.

The prints also appeal to me because they bring out an essential difference between the way an artist like Piper worked and the way I work when I point my camera at the same place. Piper could include or exclude anything or anyone he liked from his sketchbook. My camera is not so selective. So when I last went to this town on a busy Saturday morning (and I was pleased to see that the place was busy and the shops well used), I tended not to take general views like Piper’s which would have been full of cars and shoppers, but to concentrate on individual buildings when there happened to be fewer passers-by in front of them.

So I went, for example, for the Old Town Hall (also known as the Cheese Hall), visible in Piper’s print down a street of the Market Place itself. This George II building (see my photograph above) shouldn’t work really – the old open arches of the ground floor have been glazed to make offices for a bank. And even in its original state the building was a cobble: an even number of arches (and, therefore, a column in the middle of the façade) is a no-no in Classical architecture. But from chunky ground floor to sculpted pediment it holds together. And look how Piper, in the upper print at the top of this post, has caught the context – the distant tower of the church to the right, the elaborate shop (a former Boots) with domed white tower to the left, and the framing buildings on either side.

Likewise with Piper’s view of the side of the Market Place containing the Black Swan, a coaching inn dating from the 1730s. His sketchy style doesn’t show as many details as a photograph might, but he’s got the gist of it. And the setting – including the streamlined 1930s Co-op to the right, now replaced, as you can see in my photograph, with a blander building, no doubt designed to “fit in” to the townscape, but sadly losing the struggle.

There’s so much more in Piper’s Devizes prints, and looking at them again makes me want to revisit the town and see what other details noted by the artist are still there. These small works show that Piper, whether he was producing a very worked-up, consciously grand, print or painting of a big country house, or these more modest images of a market town, could pack in telling details – and make us look, and look again with fresh eyes.

Monday, December 5, 2011


Simple gift

A stomach bug laid me low on Sunday, putting me off my stride and kicking my usual weekend post off the field of play. Here’s a brief post as compensation: one of my favourite pieces of monumental sculpture.

This monument is to Charlotte Elizabeth Digby, who died in 1820. She was wife of William Digby, who was a prebendary of Worcester Cathedral, which is how she comes to be here. Her monument was created by Francis Chantrey, who completed it in 1825. Chantrey, a prolific sculptor, was famous for his monuments to children. Some of the simplicity of his carvings of children is perhaps also seen in this reminder that after centuries of sleeping figures, putti, urns, berobed belledames, and theratrical gestures, a monument could show simply this: a young woman reclining on a couch, her hands together but not demonstrably prayerful, her head raised and calm, not downcast. Idealized? Yes. Classical? Certainly. But she belongs to the real world too.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Bisley, Gloucestershire

Under lock and key (2)

Here’s another example of a local lock-up designed to be easy on the eye, but in a different style from the round, domed one at Shrewton in the previous post. The ogee-shaped gable, its double curves rising to a ball finial in the centre, is a baroque touch that’s quite surprising on what is basically a small prison. The gable conceals a roof covered in Cotswold stone “slates”, just visible in the picture. Beneath this roof are two separate cells with barred doors and above the doors are semi-circular openings like little barred fanlights. Inside, the cells have stone-vaulted ceilings, to prevent inmates from dismantling the roof and escaping.

For all the bars, the symmetrical front, with its curvaceous gable and finial, make this lock-up look rather like a picturesque garden building – a rather different visual approach from the usual “castle turret” appearance of many village lock-ups. The double accommodation, in contrast to the usual single cell, sets this building apart too. Bisley is quite a large village, but I don’t know if it was a particularly lawless place in 1824, when this little structure was built. For whatever reason, its builders felt that two cells were better than one.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Shrewton, Wiltshire

Under lock and key (1)

I’ve blogged before about lock-ups, the small village prisons that were used until the 19th century. They catch my eye because they’re often unusual shapes (one like a pyramid, another with a conical top) and because they have interesting roofs, built with heavy stone blocks to make them secure. There are quite a lot of lock-ups still standing.

This domed example in the middle of the Wiltshire village of Shrewton is known locally as the Blind House, from its lack of windows. It was probably built in the ealy-18th century, and, as well as being a place to detain local wrongdoers, it may have been used as an overnight stop for prisoners being taken from the Devizes Assize Courts to the gaol at Fisherton.

The lock-up has been rebuilt twice – once after being hit by a tank during World War II and once in the 1980s, when it was moved back from its original site very close to the road, to make further mishaps with passing traffic less likely. In its safer, set-back position, it looks solid enough to stay standing for another two or three centuries.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Shipston-on-Stour, Warwickshire

Top shop

On either side of a traditional shop front are vertical features called pilasters. They frame the façade and may be topped with a kind of bracket (known as a console) that helps to support the signboard. Pilasters can take various forms, from plain wooden or tiled uprights to full-blown classical half-columns that reveal how, somewhere in the genetics of shop-front design, the architecture of ancient Greece and Rome is lurking. Few of these designs draw attention to themselves. The shopkeeper wants us to look at the stuff in the window, after all, not at the pilasters. Very often, therefore, designing a traditional shop front is an exercise in restraint.

Now and then, though, the inventiveness of Victorian design was unleashed on a shop front with all the ingenuity of Rube Goldberg solving a simple problem. The results include this stunner in Shipston-on-Stour. Here the pilaster is an unlikely mixture of vaguely classical and vaguely Gothic elements, with the addition of a stylized plant that looks as if it’s been borrowed from some Arts and Crafts source. But from plain fluted base to pointed finial it works, and the black-and-white colour scheme sets it off well. Small towns like Shipston, which still have their fair share of small independent local shops, are full of such gems, though few are quite as dazzling as this one.

One of the joys of this blog is being able to share finds like this with you all, and to benefit in turn from the sharp eyes of others. I’m reminded of this because friends who often go to Shipston once told me about this shop front, and encouraged me to do a post about it. I’d noticed it before, as it happens. But their encouragement made me look again, and appreciate it more, and tap it to make sure it was made of wood. Such small acts of togetherness and connection are shafts of light in a sometimes gloomy world.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Faringdon, Berkshire

Town hall Tuscan

So you want your town to have a dignified civic building, with a hint of classical sophistication, but you can only give your local builder a limited budget. What do you do? For dozens of small towns, building a two-storey town hall with an upper room raised on columns, the answer was to use the Tuscan order. Tuscan, invented by the Romans, was the plainest of all the classical orders. Tuscan columns are plain, without flutes, there’s a base to connect the column to the ground, and the capital is very simple.

In the late-17th or early-18th century that’s the kind of building that the burghers of Faringdon provided for their town hall. It’s basic and functional, but those Tuscan columns give it just a hint of classicism. It seems that people have liked this building, and found it valuable, because it has survived numerous adaptations and changes of use. It has been, at different times, a library, shop, and fire station, in addition to the combination of civic meeting place, court, and market for which it was originally built. It’s a war memorial as well, as purpose that helped secure its survival when, after World War I, people wanted to pull it down.

This town hall is a modest building, a far cry from the glorious structure the citizens of nearby Abingdon built at around the same time. But it’s been useful, and it provides an unpretentious focus for the town centre. Civic pride doesn’t have to involve constructing grand, or grandiose, buildings. There’s room for the little ones too.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Broughton, Oxfordshire


In compensation for the gloomy picture in the previous post, here’s a more sunny image from earlier this year. It’s the parish church of Broughton, Oxfordshire, near to Broughton Castle, about which I posted back in April. I chose this picture partly because of the sunshine and partly because of the window tracery.

The use of window tracery, the intricate stonework in the heads of Gothic windows, was one way in which the masons of the Middle Ages could put an individual decorative stamp on their churches. Tracery developed steadily during the medieval period. In the 13th century it was usually made up of quite simple patterns, with standard elements such as circles or quatrefoils repeated in a symmetrical fashion. By the 14th century, though, tracery had got much more elaborate. 14th- century windows are often a riot of multiple curves, with stonework making exotic shapes and designs reaching sometimes dazzling complexity. It’s no wonder that the Victorians, classifying medieval architectural styles, called this kind of Gothic “Decorated”.*

These two windows at Broughton have outstanding tracery of the early-14th century, one ornately geometrical the other curvilinear in the classic Decorated style. The window on the left is a beautiful bit of geometry raised to the level of art. The circle at the top is divided by two triangles to form a six-pointed star, the points of which are themselves small triangles arranged around a central hexagon. But none of these shapes is left plain – they’re adorned with little stone flourishes called cusps, which break up al the straight lines.

In the top of the right-hand window there are hardly any straight lines at all: everything looks as if it’s about to melt. Every line curves restlessly this way and that, producing in the head of the window a collection of shapes ranging from ellipses and squashed circles to forms that look like flames or tears. The whole design threatens to fall apart, but it doesn’t, because the layout of the tracery is symmetrical and everything is held together by the emphatic overall pointed shape of the window.

We know nothing about the people who built this church, but perhaps they were brought here, or attracted here, nearly 700 years ago by the rich family living in the neighbouring castle. They brought with them skills in geometry and pattern-making together with great visual flair, Add warm morning sun and you have a treat indeed.

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* A reader correctly points out that the term was invented by the antiquary Thomas Rickman in the Georgian period. I meant to suggest here that it was in the Victorian period that Rickman's classification of Gothic architecture became popular. Rickman's book, An Attempt to Discriminate the Styles of English Architecture From the Conquest to the Reformation (1817), was reprinted many times.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Atherstone, Warwickshire

Forgotten industries (2): Where you got that hat

I know, I know. Today’s building is hardly a beauty. An abandoned, brick-and-concrete factory, built probably at some time in the early-20th century, looking as if it’s waiting for what is tamely known as “the economic downturn” to come to an end before the speculators get busy on another canalside development. But even such unloved lumpen-architecture has its history and its interest.

Look at some film footage of a busy city centre in the early-to-mid 20th century – the period between the two World Wars, perhaps, or even the 1950s. Look at the men and at what’s different about their appearance: nearly every one is wearing a hat.† A sea of trilbies or flat caps in most towns, the occasional fedora or Homburg, endless bobbing bowlers in the City of London. Hats had long been part of the male wardrobe and were long part of the economy – a multitude of hat shops and, in the background, people and companies making hats. So where did they all come from, these hats of yore? If you were rich or upper class or both, you could buy your hats from one of the upmarket hatters in town. But the masses were more likely to wear mass-produced hats made in factories, and for centuries there were several of these factories in the town of Atherstone in Warwickshire.

Hats produced in Atherstone found their way all over the world. Billycock hats for slaves in the southern states of the USA, military headgear for British troops, trilbies by the million for everyday wear, they were all made in Atherstone, which had been a centre for hatting since at least the 17th century. When some of these markets disappeared, there was a decline in the industry, and some firms closed. The legion of hat-wearers, however, those British men who wore hats to keep their heads warm and to shade their eyes from the sun and because wearing hats was what men did, kept some of Atherstone’s hat-makers going. But in the end, hat-wearing fell out of fashion and there was just one firm, Wilson and Stafford, who took over a couple of their rivals and carried on making hats in this building by the canal until 1999.§

So there it is. Rows of broken windows (facing roughly northeast, to give useful working light, I suppose); purposeful if dingy brickwork and concrete framework; the Coventry Canal. A building that’s not important enough to be listed, or beautiful enough to be looked at by many except disaffected stone-throwers. But a vital part of history and everyday life for past generations of local people. As vital and everyday as the hats on their heads.

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† They’re in books, too. Once you start looking, hats are everywhere in the literature of the not-so-distant past. From the headgear of James Joyce’s Leopold Bloom, which bears the worn inscription “Plasto’s high grade ha”, to the “disreputable” hat of John Mortimer’s Rumpole of the Bailey, they are rarely items of glamour, but often revealing of their wearers. For treatments of hats and what they mean to their owners, I’d recommend searching out the elegiac piece on “Hats” in Michael Bywater’s glorious Lost Worlds and the short memoir “The Homburg Hat” in Richard Cobb’s People and Places, in which Cobb recalls a train journey to his public school and evokes the cringing embarrassment that can ensue when a teenage boy is not dressed exactly as his peers expect and require him to be.

§ And now if you buy a hat in the UK from anywhere other than a prestige hatter like Lock, it’s likely to have been made abroad. As an occasional hat-wearer myself, I can report that two of the three in my own wardrobe were made in South and Central America.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Fazeley, Staffordshire

Forgotten industries (1): Red brick, red tape

This imposing red-brick mill was constructed in 1886 and is in many ways a typical 19th-century factory building – its brick walls conceal a metal frame, its rows of windows and long, narrow shape ensure that there’s plenty of natural light inside. The canal-side site is typical too: from the 18th century onwards thousands of factories and mills were built beside canals, to ensure that raw materials could be delivered with ease and manufactured goods transported across the canal network.

So what were the goods produced here? This building was owned by the Tolson family who were manufacturers of narrow fabric strips – basically tapes and webbing. This is an industry that goes back in this part of Staffordshire at least to the 18th century. Tolson’s developed it, making red tape to tie up legal documents, among other products. Their machinery was originally steam driven, with the engine house at this end of the building and the boiler house integrated into the main structure below the tall chimney.

I believe that fabric tape is still made in the mill, although parts of the building are now let as separate units to other businesses. The whole building is awaiting refurbishment, but it looks solid and functional (factories like this are among the ancestors of 20th-century functionalist architecture) and should continue to find a use for years to come. Even if the canal no longer brings deliveries, the waterside setting ensures that the building finds its admirers amongst those who pass by in boats – although few of them know about the red tape that circles its history.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Pevensey Bay, Sussex

Window on the waves

A couple of months back, en route to a friend’s birthday party in Hastings and running early, I pulled in at Pevensey Bay because the map told me that there were Martello towers there. I’d also read something about plotland developments in the area and was wondering whether I would come across any interesting old wooden buildings or railway carriages made into bungalows. I didn’t find any railway carriages, but one of the Martello towers proved well worth the stop.

Martello towers are named after the Torre di Mortella in Corsica and were built along England’s southern and eastern coasts between 1804 and 1812, as part of the country’s defences against a possible French invasion. They are extremely solid brick buildings, with outer walls up to 13 feet thick and roofs at least 10 feet in thickness. They are elliptical on the outside with round interiors, meaning that the outer walls vary in thickness, and the thickest walls, in the narrow ends of the ellipse, face the sea. There were very few windows and the entrance was on an upper level, reached either by a retractable ladder or a drawbridge. Inside, a garrison of up to 24 men and officers lived and waited to train their cannon on approaching enemy shipping. In the event, the towers were not tested by a French invasion, but some 47 of them remain, rendered obsolete by advances in both armour and artillery, as reminders of an age gone by.

Each Martello tower was built with a flat top, on which was mounted a single 24-pound gun on a rotating platform that allowed it to be turned through 360 degrees. But this Martello tower at Pevensey Bay is unusual in that it is topped with a later superstructure of glass and concrete. I looked at this and assumed, since the tower had obviously been converted for domestic use, that some architect of the 1960s or 1970s had added this rather purposeful construction on top, to provide some rooms reached by natural light, life in an otherwise almost windowless Martello tower being a rather dingy business. The addition looked for all the world as if the 1960s architect, in love with the “white heat of technology”, had wanted the upper part of the building to look like the top of an airport control tower.

But when I got home and looked up the listing for the tower, I found that the reality was rather more interesting. The modern-looking top was actually added during World War II to house range-finding equipment serving a gun battery on the shore in front of the tower. Wartime functionalism looks, not for the first time, like post-war architecture, and the resemblance to a control tower was not accidental, for the wartime users of the tower needed to look out just as much as the occupants of a control tower need to keep an eye on the runway. Now that the tower is used as a home, this two-storey addition, with its rows of windows facing the sea, contains light rooms that must be assets to the owners, as they look across the shingle to the sea.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Nunhead Green, London

Whizz and bang

Now we’ve got over Hallowe’en, it’s time to look forward to a festival I’ve more time for: Guy Fawkes’, the night of bangs and whizzes. I’ve always liked a firework, and I’ve been to some memorable Guy Fawkes’ dos in my time, which have ranged from occasions of Handelian gentility to some raucous, politically incorrect, and highly enjoyable displays in Sussex and Kent. And they remind me of something else. Long ago I lived in southeast London, not far away from Nunhead, an area on the edges of SE4 and SE15 known, if it’s known at all, for being the home of one the capital’s great Victorian cemeteries. Nunhead is also notable for Soper’s, one of London’s best fishmongers, and for the pub that has one of my all-time favourite names: the Pyrotechnist’s Arms.

The Pyrotechnist’s Arms is named in homage to Brock’s, probably Britain’s oldest fireworks manufacturers, who used to have their factory nearby. Brock’s began in Islington in the early 18th century and moved south of the river, where they had factories at various locations including Sutton and Nunhead, in the 19th century. They supplied fireworks to the relocated Crystal Palace as well as producing more serious explosives (they sold cartridges to the French army during the Franco-Prussian War). The company seems to have left London in 1910, but lasted until 1988, when it was bought up by Standard Fireworks.

This pub name seems to be the only visible link between this little known part of London and its former industry. I like the group of plotters on the sign – especially the way the artist went to town on their outrageous headgear and the fact that they’ve placed their risky candle on top of the barrel of gunpowder. It’s a reminder that many pub names and signs have links to bits of local history. But few as incendiary, or as unusual, as this one.

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My overseas readers may find it helpful to be told that Guy Fawkes’ Night, otherwise known as Bonfire Night or simply November 5th, commemorates the foiling of a plot hatched by a group of Catholics who planned to blow up Parliament on November 5th 1605, when the Protestant monarch James I was in attendance, before installing the king’s nine-year-old daughter as a Catholic head of state. Celebrations involve fireworks and bonfires.

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Compton Verney, the Warwickshire country house and art gallery about which I've blogged before, is holding an exhibition of fireworks until 11 December.

Friday, October 28, 2011


…and Lincolnshire, and Oxford, and…

I don’t remember much about my first experience of the seaside (the Lincolnshire coast, c 1959), except that I played a lot in the sand making sandcastles using a spade that was much too small (in my opinion my parents should have bought me the next size up). And one other thing. The gallopers. The carousel with horses and roosters that I was, to my great pleasure, allowed to ride.

I already knew about roundabouts – from books I suppose. They were meant to have mirrors and fairground organ music and flashing coloured lights and garish paintwork and brightly caparisoned horses to ride on and roosters to ride on too and the horses and roosters went up and down as well as round and round and they had these twisted columns like pieces of barley sugar and every one had a name. Even then, having perhaps sensed that the Lincolnshire coast wasn’t exactly the last word in sophisticated holiday destinations, I thought the reality might be a let-down. The horses’ ears might be broken or the lights might not flash or it might be closed or there might not be roosters. Well, it wasn’t a let down. The lights flashed, the gallopers really galloped and, yes, there were even roosters.

So these days, when I see a carousel, or even a picture of one like Clarke Hutton’s 1945 cover illustration for Popular English Art in the King Penguin series, I do experience a certain nostalgia and I’m thankful that the showmen of England still give me the chance for such feelings. People such as the Noyce family, owners of the wonderful carousel in the photograph below. Dating from about 1895 and made by Savage’s of Kings Lynn, it was refitted in around 1900 with 30 horses and 6 roosters carved by Anderson of Bristol. In those days it was owned by one John Cole, from Yate, not far from the Bristol home of the horses, but it has been in the Noyce family since 1950. The photograph shows it at Nottingham’s renowned Goose Fair in the 1980s, but I think I remember it at St Giles’ Fair in Oxford a few years earlier too.

Though this ride has no doubt been repainted a few times since its first outing, its ornate lettering, bands of golden decoration and scrollwork, dazzlingly carved and mirrored centre drum, and of course magnificent horses certainly speak of the turn of the century period. It’s heartening to think it has been giving pleasure for well over a century. I hope it’s still doing so.

Noyce’s Gallopers at the Nottingham Goose Fair
Photograph courtesy of Simon Garbutt, used under Creative Commons license

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Wingrave, Buckinghamshire

On the hoof

The previous post about Spiegeltents set me thinking about the other kinds of “portable architecture”, from caravans to yurts and gers, that one sometimes sees in the English countryside. I found this example among some pictures I took a while ago in Buckinghamshire. It’s apparently a version of the classic shepherd’s hut,* the movable shelter traditionally used by shepherds on the downs and wolds when they needed to be near far-flung flocks. These wheeled huts, then, are the opposite of the wonderful lookers’ huts of Romney Marsh, about which I’ve posted in the past.

The heyday of the shepherd’s hut was probably the 19th century – one thinks of films of Hardy novels. But their history goes back much further. One website on the huts traces it back at least to the late-16th century, when an agricultural writer described how in some places the shepherd “hath his cabin going upon a wheele for to remove here and there at his pleasure”.

The huts were originally made mainly of timber, with a wooden body, wooden wheels, and a curved canvas roof, waterproofed with tar, on a wooden frame. Later, corrugated iron was often used for the roof, and now versatile corrugated iron sheeting is generally used to clad the walls too, which may be finished with timber tongue-and-grooved panelling inside. Spoked metal wheels on wide axles are common. This variation seems to have a wooden body on some modern wheels. The stable door, curved roof, and chimney are all features that hark back to the traditional hut.

People are still making shepherds’ huts, and finding uses for them as home offices, summerhouses, even shops at visitor attractions. They’re an inspiring example of how a traditional structure can find new roles, its wheels helping it to migrate from the downs to the backyard.

* Or perhaps a road-menders' hut: see the comments on this post

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Cheltenham, Gloucestershire

Loitering in tents

The Cheltenham Festival of Literature has just been on. A large tented village appeared – or rather two tented villages, filling two of the gardens lined with terraces of Regency houses that are among the highlights of Cheltenham’s town centre. As the canvas was alternately heated by the sun and buffeted by the wind, thousands of us sat around while hundreds of authors got on their hind legs to entertain and instruct us on every subject from the Spanish Civil War to the history of the bathroom, from Charles Dickens to Eric Gill. Most of the tents used at the festival are standard-issue white canvas jobs of various sizes but, as I discovered when I went in search of a coffee between events, one of them is nothing less than a Spiegeltent, one of those early-20th-century rococo confections imported from the Low Countries as palaces of entertainment or boudoirs of burlesque.

Spiegeltents originated in Belgium and now a number of these antique structures have been restored and are on hire to those who want a venue a cut above the usual marquee. As I went for my coffee I understood the attraction. Gilded fronds and curlicues run up and down the walls, putti and scrolls hang from columns, surfaces are covered with bits of mirror or painted in a fairground palette. Carefully positioned light fittings accentuate the glitter. The richly coloured canvas roof completes the exotic ensemble. Now, I was here in the morning, so did not experience the joys of Kiki de Montparnasse or the provocatively named Ophelia Bitz, two entertainers I believe were billed to appear later in these seductive surroundings. But the rococo environment still delighted my eye as I sipped my coffee and waited to return to the more elevated matters on offer in the rather puritanical white marquees.

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Apologies for my quick-fire iPhone photo, taken on the hoof and somewhat blurred, but atmospheric nonetheless, I hope.

You can find more about Spiegeltents and see more images of them here.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Brixworth, Northamptonshire

Not dark yet

I have never forgotten an early school history lesson during which we moved from the Romans to the period after they left the shores of Britain: the Dark Ages. Except, as our history teacher insisted, they weren’t really dark. Illuminated manuscripts, Anglo-Saxon sculpture and jewellery, the vigorous beginnings of English literature, and the very origins of England as a united kingdom – all of these belonged to the post-Roman period and told us that there was really quite a lot going on, some of it wonderfully illuminating.

Forty years on, I can’t count the number of times I’ve been told that Dark Ages weren’t really dark. TV historians and archaeologists seem unable to abandon the term, or the notion that, in telling us that the Dark Ages weren’t really dark, they are letting us in on some newly discovered secret about this remote and mysterious period.

And yet, reading of the hail-battered and rain-sodden landscape portrayed in Anglo-Saxon poems like The Seafarer, or grubbing about in dark little Saxon churches, some of them almost windowless, the Dark Ages in England do seem somewhat crepuscular. Where are the polychromatic churches of Ravenna, glittering with mosaics? Where are the marble-clad walls of Byzantium? Where the great spaces of early Christian basilicas of the kind we find in Rome?

Well, there’s one English church that still gets near to this kind of light, spacious, early Christian architecture: All Saints’, Brixworth, Northamptonshire, though not a glittering jewel box like the churches of Ravenna, is large, light, airy – and Saxon. With its large nave and rows of imposing arches, it has been described as the most impressive 7th-century structure north of the Alps. And it’s an indication as clear as any in England, that the Saxons, builders of small churches like Odda’s Chapel in Gloucestershire or the one at Bradford-on-Avon, could also build big.

Churches like Brixworth were regional religious centres, and on another level from small, privately endowed chapels like Odda’s. They were monastic foundations – Brixworth was apparently built for monks from Peterborough – and also no doubt places of pilgrimage. They are testimony to the wealth and faith of Mercia, the Anglo-Saxon Midland kingdom, in around 675.

The other remarkable thing about this church is the arches. They originally opened on to aisles or side rooms known as porticus, the use of which is unknown (side chapels? homes for holy relics? ossuaries? the jury it out). The porticus have gone, and the arches are now filled in, but their striking construction is still clear. They are made from bricks, and those are Roman bricks, reused from some earlier structure. It’s an inspired bit of recycling, the bricks fulfilling their role both structurally and visually. And it’s a reminder that these Dark Age buildings, which look forward to later churches and cathedrals, are also close to the preceding Roman era. It’s good that these Roman bricks are still enjoying their time in the sun.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Round-up 1918–1955

The latest, and, for now, final, installment in my very brief and partial history of English architecture can now be found here, or accessed from the link in the PAGES menu on the right. As with previous installments, this round-up uses examples from this blog with links in the text to the original posts. The cut-off point is 1955, the approximate date of the most recent building I've written about in the English Buildings blog. It covers briefly the various styles of the first half of the century, both the backward-looking (for example neo-Georgian) and the various forms of interwar "modern" architecture, from Bauhaus-influenced functionalism to jazzy Art Deco. It concludes, appropriately in this anniversary year, with buildings designed under the influence of the 1951 Festival of Britain.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Winchester, Hampshire

A chronicle of years gone by

Admiring the front of the picturesque and presumably 18th-century offices of the Hampshire Chronicle in Winchester – dappled brickwork, bow windows, dentil course, tiled roof – I was irritated at not being able to photograph it without also including road signs, railings, and other irrelevant street furniture. So I decided to walk away. As I did so, I passed the end wall and was delighted to find this remarkable selection of bits and pieces amongst its collage of stone and flint.

A small iron plaque records that these stones were uncovered in 1959 when the building was being restored, but I expect a lot of people miss them even though the plaque is there to tell them that the stones probably come from the church of St Ruel, which once stood nearby. The selection includes a bit of Norman moulding and chevron, another piece of carving that resembles part of a classical acanthus leaf but may also be Norman, and the piece on the right. Is this a very eroded small figure, or am I imagining things?. There are also some fragments of brick that look Roman, and the larger block below, which bears interlaced Saxon carving. A wonderful group, making one wonder what the church was like, though the collection is not quite as richly eccentric as another wall full of fragments that I posted long ago. Here’s to recycling!

Monday, October 3, 2011

Stanway, Gloucestershire

Green thoughts in a green shade

The other night I and a small group of neighbours went to visit a local water mill that has been beautifully restored. While I was walking around the outside as the evening light faded, I noticed this shed, and especially its roof, which is covered with corrugated iron – regular readers will know this is one of my favourite materials. Whether by accident or design, the corrugated covering of this roof has become home to a green carpet of moss, grass, and other plants. An informal green roof is the result.

Green roofs are quite fashionable these days. Their construction usually involves several layers of different materials to protect the roof structure from vapour, water, and roots, as well as a substrate in which to grow the plants. This one, as far as I can see, is just a sheet of corrugated metal with plants growing on it – hence my use of the word ‘informal’. It’s not going to last for ever, but this roof with its covering of greenery is a happy addition to this workshop down a secluded lane surrounded and shaded by trees.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Commercial Road, London

Hybrid eyecatcher

Walking around East London in search of buildings taking part in London Open House Weekend, my eye was caught by this vast structure on Commercial Road. Now known simply as The Mission, it began as the Empire Memorial Sailors’ Hostel and was originally built in 1923–4 to designs by Thomas Brammall Daniel and Horace W Parnacott, with 1930s additions by George Baines and Son.

Pevsner’s London 5: East volume, my source for the architects’ names, describes the building as having ‘A stripped Perp exterior on a cathedral-like scale’. In other words the tall windows, long upright mullions, and those stone turrets at the end all show the influence of ‘Perp’ – the English Perpendicular Gothic style of the 15th century. This is very true, but there’s more to the building than that. The very plain rectangular windows on either side of the turrets owe something of their proportions to the neo-Georgian architecture that was much used for office blocks and town halls in the early-20th century. And those low, segmental arches – four along the side and one on the end, forming the entrance – have nothing to do with ‘Perp’ or Georgian. They have a hint of the Art Nouveau architecture of c 1910 about them, the sort of thing that the architects of London’s Mary Ward Settlement might have specified.

This hybrid design concealed simple rooms for sailors, men who’d arrived in the nearby docks and needed a bed (Limehouse Basin is just across the road). A big bold building for such a basic purpose, it caught the eye of the Situationists, who held their conference there in 1960. In 1989 the building’s owners, like many others at the time, were prepared to turn their backs on this proletarian and revolutionary history: they converted the place to flats. Its cathedral-like exterior is still as eye-catching as ever.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Pevsner and Oxford: Part Two

This is the second of two guest posts by Susie Harries, author of the acclaimed new biography, Nikolaus Pevsner: The Life. Having introduced Pevsner’s attitudes to Oxford in her first post, Susie now shows how his appreciation of Oxford developed in the 1940s, and how this appreciation was bound up with the idea of the ‘picturesque’, which became a key concept in planning as architects turned their thoughts to reconstruction after World War II.

Pevsner’s ideas on Oxford were set out long before the publication of the Buildings of England volume, most conspicuously in an article published in the Architectural Review in August 1949 entitled ‘Three Oxford Colleges’. The article appeared as the fourth in a series of ‘reassessments’ in which the Review attempted to persuade readers to look differently at familiar buildings. In Pevsner’s case, the aim was to look not at individual buildings but at the layout of colleges as a whole, and of the university as a whole. What would later delight him in St Catherine’s – a uniformity of mood and style, the sense of an engineered unity embracing every detail – was quite absent from the three colleges he had chosen, and yet there was no lack of plan. ‘It can safely be assumed that those who added new to old buildings, and new to old quad were fully aware, as a rule, of what they were doing, and delighted in the same surprises, contrasts and incongruities as we do.’

Corpus Christi College, Oxford, front quad

Each of the three colleges – Christ Church, Corpus Christi, St Edmund Hall – is a man-made landscape, wrote Pevsner, of a quintessentially English kind, deriving its harmoniousness from the English virtues of tolerance, humour and flexibility rather than from any superimposed order – displaying the instinctive manners by which Oxford, it seemed, set such store. There is little that is symmetrical about Christ Church: it was Wren’s enjoyment of the ‘free mixing of contrasts’ that prompted him to create Tom Tower. The ‘dramatic rough mass’ of the Library contrasts sharply with the smooth Palladian finish of Peckwater Quad. Again, at Corpus a ‘comfortable, businesslike’ quad leads into one that is compressed and intricate, classical leads into Tudor and the cosy into the forbidding. St Edmund Hall, ‘the epitome of collegiate picturesqueness’, is a jumble of different colours, textures and heights. ‘One’s curiosity never flags as one walks from one court to another, coming suddenly, for instance, from a dark passage into an open square,’ and, concluded Pevsner, ‘the same experience can be had in most of the other colleges, unless they are as exceptionally unlucky as Balliol’.

‘Three Oxford Colleges’ was one of the few finished products of some thinking that Pevsner was doing for a book in these immediate post-war years. At the instigation of the Architectural Review’s proprietor, Hubert de Cronin Hastings, he was exploring ideas on the English tradition in planning with a view to advocating the principles of informal picturesque planning as a guide in post-war reconstruction. The book never appeared, but in 2010 Pevsner’s draft was edited and filled out from his notes by Mathew Aitchison and published as Pevsner’s Townscape: Visual Planning and the Picturesque.

Oxford features prominently, and to support the book Aitchison and the Getty Institute have wonderfully recreated online the Oxford perambulation which Pevsner recommends to anyone wanting to get the full effect of a very English form of planning. (An interview with Mathew Aitchison elaborates.) Using the photographs by Hans Gernsheim which were taken to illustrate the original ‘Three Oxford Colleges’ piece, a slide show helps us to replicate ‘the spatial experience, an experience undergone in time, as one walks along and looks this way and that’, an experience which, in Pevsner’s words, ‘reveals some of the qualities that the 20th century, with its deeper understanding of the English landscape tradition, is beginning to appreciate as the result of something more than happy accidents.’

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Pevsner in Oxford: Part One

This is the first of two guest posts by Susie Harries, author of the recently published Nikolaus Pevsner: The Life, that I’m honoured to publish. Pevsner’s work is indispensable to students of English art, architecture, and design. His An Outline of European Architecture has introduced countless students and amateurs to the subject; books such as Pioneers of the Modern Movement and A History of Building Types still engage specialists; above all, his monumental survey of The Buildings of England (over 40 volumes, county by county) is the guide and one of the most important art-historical projects ever. And yet Pevsner was an outsider to England, a German who showed the English what to look for in their architecture and helped shaped the culture he described. Susie Harries’s fascinating biography explores this remarkable character and his work. It’s one of the best biographies I’ve read in the last few years.

In this post, Susie Harries looks at Pevsner’s reaction to Oxford.

Nikolaus Pevsner was never at home in Oxford as he was in Cambridge, a more austere and Protestant place, although he learned to come to terms with what, on his first encounter, he called Oxford’s ‘ghastly miasma of humanism’. As a congenital outsider, in his own mind at least, he always had a deep-seated desire to belong, and Oxford is notoriously a hard place to infiltrate. ‘Every sentence, every lecture, every book, every conversation here means something quite different from what it would mean at home,’ he wrote to his wife. ‘The words mean something different, the brain itself is wound differently.’

On his first visit to England in 1930, three years before he was obliged to leave Germany for good, Pevsner had been a guest of the 2nd Viscount Harcourt at Nuneham House, a Palladian mansion in grounds landscaped by Capability Brown with views over the water meadows to the towers and spires of Oxford. Its park was the setting for several scenes in Through the Looking Glass, and Pevsner –who was spending the rest of his English stay in low-grade B&Bs – found himself frequently as bemused as Alice by the customs and conversation of the natives. ‘One Oxford college has a motto – Manners Makyth Man’, he told his wife, implying that this was a rule of life in the locality. Not only was his own appearance at lunch at Nuneham ceremoniously announced by the butler, so was the arrival of every course, and dessert was interrupted by a liveried servant to enquire whether the hostess would care to send a wreath for Lord Birkenhead, who had passed away. ‘Just like the films,’ Pevsner told his wife, ‘and I’m in the midst of it. I have to be very careful not to make any faux pas.’

Forty-four years later, when his Oxfordshire was published in 1974, he was, it seems, still afraid of the faux pas. ‘To an Oxford man no doubt gaffes of nomenclature and gaffes in the little snobbery concerns which one disregards at one’s peril have been left in my text, apart from more serious mistakes.’ His social unease may perhaps have jaundiced his overview of the city in his introduction, where he is very bracing indeed about the image of the ‘dreaming spires’: ‘Nonsense in every respect. Surely, in spite of St Mary, All Saints, and the cathedral, and now Nuffield, Oxford is remembered less for them than for Tom Tower, the Camera, and Magdalen tower. It is the variety of the shapes which makes the skyline. And as for “dreaming”? Stupor say the enemies, inertia say even some of the friends, serious search for truth among the undergraduates, search for knowledge among the dons, less serious search for publicity – single out what you will, dreaming is not a figurative Oxford quality, by criteria either of the mind or the eye.’

Pevsner’s opprobrium was, of course, directed more against the people than the place. Oxfordshire does contain some of his most scathing epithets – ‘elephantine’ (Sir Thomas Jackson at the Examination Schools), ‘retardataire’ (Sir Edward Maufe with his Dolphin Quadrangle at St John’s), ‘totally unrousing’ (G.G. Scott in his additions to Magdalen) but equally it is full of loving descriptions of buildings – not least, his favourite of all contemporary university buildings, Arne Jacobsen’s St Catherine’s College. ‘Self-discipline is its message, expressed in terms of a geometry pervading the whole and its parts and felt wherever one moves or stops... It has a clarity of structure and at the same time a serenity such as no other new college building has.’

What appealed perhaps most to Pevsner about Oxford, however, was less the individual college buildings, ‘incomparably beautiful’ as they were, than their relationship to one another. Again and again he would take Oxford as a prime example of the Picturesque planning he so much admired – a place that had evolved organically, but not without design.

The university as it had developed over the centuries now possessed all the key qualities of the Picturesque – surprise, variety, intricacy, irregularity, with formal quadrangles set next to narrow, twisting lanes, Baroque college buildings next to workmen’s cottages and Victorian chapels. Set pieces like the Sheldonian Theatre and the Radcliffe Camera were not designed to dominate, as they might have done in a more rigid, classicising layout, but were placed as accents in an informal composition. The High (above) achieved its effect not as a single triumphal statement but as a series of small disclosures, making it ‘one of the world’s great streets. It has everything. It is on a slight curve so the vistas always change.’

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Romney Marsh, Kent

Another look at the lookers' huts

Just over a year ago I posted about the lookers' huts of Romney Marsh in Kent, those small and simple buildings used for shelter by the shepherds of the marsh. Mark Duncan, the photographer who over the last few years has been making memorable images of these modest buildings, has a new exhibition of the results. The show marks the construction of a new looker's hut – the first to be built in many decades.

I was attracted to Mark Duncan's photographs because of their concentration on these unregarded buildings – plain, brick-built structures, just big enough for the looker and his tools and belongings and for a stove to keep him warm in the chill of the lambing season. But I also admire these pictures because they capture the special atmosphere of the place. Romney Marsh, flat, remote, dotted with churches, weather-boarded houses, and poplars, has caught the eye of many artists, from John Piper to Derek Jarman. Mark Duncan's photographs, with their big skies and their variety of weather conditions and light, capture the place as well as any.

* * *

Mark's exhibition is at the Romney Marsh Visitor Centre, New Romney, from 15 September to 9 October.

There is more about the exhibition here.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

South Parade, London

Turnham white

It’s a surprise to come across this tall pale house of 1891 amongst the deep red brickwork of Bedford Park, not far from Turnham Green underground station in west London. Architecture buffs will recognise it as the work of Arts and Crafts architect C F A Voysey, a rare town house from this master of country houses (another of his London buildings is here). Reacting against the ornate brick gables, red tiles, and wooden window frames of the surrounding houses, Voysey covered the walls of this house, which he built for the artist J W Foster, in pale render, adding stone-framed windows that are arranged in horizontal bands to counterpart the vertical emphasis of the building as a whole. A few other touches – the roof of the bay, the little round window, and the brackets at the eaves – add some curves to relieve the straight lines that prevail.

Some early observers were nonplussed. They found the leaded-light windows and pale walls old-fashioned – perhaps they expected an architect who flourished in the 1890s and the early years of the 20th century to be flirting with the French curves of Art Nouveau. What they got was Voysey reworking the Arts and Crafts style that had been developed by William Morris and his colleagues a generation earlier. With hindsight it also looks rather modern – the minimal ornament, white walls, and strip windows would become familiar in a different form a few decades later. Not that Voysey would have seen it that way. Living on into the 1940s, Voysey disliked modernist architecture and remained committed to organizations, such as the Art Workers’ Guild, that supported the Arts and Crafts. His work showed that it is possible to be traditional and striking at the same time. And that white walls can look good next to red brick and green grass.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Compton Wynyates, Warwickshire

Compton in the Hole

At last, from the hill that’s home to the windmill in the previous post, I got my glimpse of Compton Wynyates. This north front is not, I have to say, the most spectacular side of the house, but still gives a good impression of the character of the place – the mostly Tudor brick walls, the tall chimneys, the dormers in the roofs, the purely ornamental crenellations, the different levels. Above all, this cluster of brick wings and pitched roofs gives an impression of the way the house must have grown over the years with bits added here and there before a major revamp of the eastern part of the building – the part of the left of the picture is an addition of 1867 by Sir Matthew Digby Wyatt in a style in harmony with rest of the house.

Looking at the house in its tree-lined valley one can understand what has usually made people enthusiastic about it. John Russell, in Shakespeare’s Country, noticed how the surrounding hills and trees rise up around so that ‘the house is seen as if in the bowl of an enormous spoon’. W H Hutton, in Highways and Byways in Shakespeare’s Country, called it ‘a wonderful picture of rose-tinted restfulness’. Pevsner, with his eye more focused on the ball, found in it the picturesque mode that so attracted him: ‘the perfect picture-book house of the Early Tudor decades, the most perfect in England of the specific picturesque, completely irregular mode’.

Writers are apt to get lyrical about this place, but Hutton reminds us that Camden, referring to its setting, called it ‘Compton in the Hole’ and records a local ‘rustic’ showing a visitor around, remarking, ‘Did ye ever see sich a hole?’ Some hole.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Compton Wynyates, Warwickshire

Hill and mill

Having looked at Compton Pike, I decided to follow a footpath up the nearby hill towards another local landmark. I was heading towards the windmill that I’d seen on top of the rising ground behind Compton Wynyates, the country house that seemed to be hidden from onlookers – hidden, that is, apart form a tantalizing glimpse of Tudor brickwork through the gate and through the trees.

When I got to the top of the hill and recovered my breath, the mill was a surprise. It’s a stone tower mill, but, unlike the imposing stone- or brick-built tower mills one is used to seeing, it is not a very tall structure – clearly the hill gave it most of the height it needed to catch the wind in its working days. The mill is said to date from the 18th century and to have been restored twice in the 20th, but has no proper sails, only the stocks. But apparently there is machinery inside, and with sails installed maybe it would turn again. For now, though, this picturesque little mill seems destined to remain a hilltop landmark, admired by travellers along the lanes between south Warwickshire villages such as Tysoe and Brailes, most of whom probably buy their flour from Sainsbury's in Banbury or the Co-op in Shipston on Stour.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Compton Wynyates, Warwickshire

A Spaniard in the works

I recently spent a day bumbling around Warwickshire wondering if I could see the wonderful country house at Compton Wynyates from the public roads or public footpaths that surround it. Years ago this house was open to the public and I remember being enchanted by its forest of raspberry brick Tudor chimneys, Gothic windows, and gables. I seem to remember that the house could be seen from the nearby road, but its owners, who no longer open their home, now guard their privacy with trees, putting a spanner in my works.

So I had to be content, for now at least, with some interesting neighbouring structures, such as Compton Pike. My first sight of this curious landscape feature was a glimpse of the very top just beyond the crest of a hill. Walking along the edge of the field reveals an elongated pyramid of local ironstone, topped with a ball finial.

Compton Pike was probably put up in the 16th century as a signalling beacon – an iron hook protruded from the finial, and this supported a flaming lantern. It may have been used in 1588 as part of the chain of beacons that warned of the arrival of the Spanish Armada. It has remained ever since as a landmark and an obstacle to farm workers with combine harvesters, one of whom was about to negotiate it when I took this picture before bumbling on with my search.