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.

* * *

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.