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.