Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Coombe Green, Worcestershire

On the edge

Last weekend I pulled up and photographed a building I’d been meaning to post for a while, the Mission Room on the edge of the common at Coombe Green in Worcestershire. It seemed to me as I looked at it that I’d better share it with you soon. Many of these “tin churches” are disappearing, and when I see one that’s not in pristine condition, I wonder whether it, too, will be pulled down to make way for something else.

According to a notice in the window, this corrugated-iron church was licensed for worship in 1904. As I looked at it, I wondered whether the original builders thought that it would last more than a hundred years. It’s actually quite a complex building for a tin church – many consist simply of four sides and a roof, perhaps with the addition of a small porch. This one has what looks like a separate chancel, just visible to the left, plus a transept-like extension also on the left, the little store room on the right, and the long porch, its roof held up with a row of rugged tree trunks, that runs along the front. There’s a even a bell turret with a tiny spire-like roof.

These churches were often bought as prefabricated buildings from big suppliers, but this one, with its tree-trunk supports, might be custom-made. That porch gives the building an individual, frontier-town character, something that’s in keeping with this part of Worcestershire – not far away is a house made partly from an old railway carriage and a common with a number of scattered houses, probably put up by their original owners to take advantage of the old law that said that if you could build a house in a single night on a piece of unoccupied land, you gained the right to stay there. Rugged individualism indeed.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Newell Street, London

The wisdom of Solomon

In the dappled green shade of the churchyard of St Anne’s, Limehouse (see previous post) is a 9-foot-high stone pyramid. It seems to mark no grave, has no obvious purpose, and stands there, looking mysterious. In 19th-century engravings it is shown mounted on a square plinth but now stands on the ground. On one face is the inscription, ‘The wisdom of Solomon’. The pyramid is part of a group of arcane symbols that seem to cluster around Hawksmoor’s churches – pyramids, obelisks, and other borrowings from ancient civilizations – that set them apart and contribute to the alien character of these massive buildings. The best guess about the surprising presence of this particular pyramid is that it was intended to top one of the corners of the church. No one knows for sure.

Such things arouse the interest of psychogeographers, those writers who have examined the lives of places and their effects on people’s psyches. Mappers of hidden cultural contours; those who exhume forgotten histories or find alignments between the past and the present; soakers in atmosphere; reclaimers of evocative desolation and pleasing decay.

Iain Sinclair, for example. A whole section of Sinclair’s book Lud Heat (part poetry, part prose, ‘a writing’ as that other great London visionary, David Jones, would have called it) concerns Hawksmoor’s churches. It includes a map with lines that join their sites, creating triangles and pentagrams and alignments with other highly significant sites and buildings such as William Blake’s house in Lambeth and Cleopatra’s Needle. Sinclair mines all kinds of allusions, myths, and significances from these alignments, connections that enable him to incorporate into his text references to such writers as Blake, Pepys, and Sir Thomas Browne, parallels with myths from ancient Egypt and ancient Britain, and sinister histories ranging from the plague to the murders committed by Jack the Ripper.

Who knows how significant all this is? It’s possible to make all sorts of sites connect on a map, especially if the scale of the map is small and the lines joining the points are thick, as critics of ley-line hunters have pointed out. But I’m not looking for literal truth or Ordnance Survey precision in the alignments between pyramids, obelisks, and plague pits. What is more important is that Sinclair has built absorbing and sometimes brilliant writing out of this hoard of images and myths.

And Sinclair nails Hawksmoor’s style. He says of the churches: ‘Certain features are in common: extravagant design, massive, almost slave-built, strength – not democratic. A strength that is not connected to notions of “craftsmanship” or “elegance”. They are not easy on the eye, and do not enforce images of grace. Metaphors inflate at their own risk. The mind is not led upwards to any starry nest.’ Sometimes Sinclair could almost be describing his own writing here, prose that has a strangeness and a solidity that is true to Hawksmoor’s buildings, large, ponderous, and weird as they are. Words that are arranged in a modern, collage-like fashion, and yet draw on ideas that have been around for as long as the pyramids of Egypt.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Newell Street, London

Landmark and sea mark

St Anne’s Limehouse, built between 1714 and 1727, is among the remarkable London churches designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor. It is one of 12 churches built at this period and funded by a tax on coal coming up the Thames and these buildings are now known as Queen Anne churches, in honour of the reigning monarch of the time.

St Anne’s is probably less well known than Hawksmoor’s central London churches, such as St Mary Woolnoth or Christ Church Spitalfields (also a Queen Anne church), buildings that loom out of the city in a way that it’s impossible to ignore. St Anne’s, by contrast, is slightly less monumental, and is quite easy to miss in its leafy churchyard on Commercial Road. But the tower is a stunner, and Hawksmoor obviously designed it to be seen not from the main road but at the end of this little side street.

The way the very angular tower relates to the small half-domed vestibule and then steps back as it rises, is striking. The semi-circular arch beneath the clock, and the tiny semi-circular opening lower down, harmonize with the curving half-dome. But the rest of the tower is much more straight-edged, with its bold corner pilasters and unusual octagonal lantern at the top above the clock. This lantern has a set of pinnacles, just visible in my photograph, that are topped with tiny pyramids and look like miniature Hawksmoor towers.

This artful tower had a purpose beyond the usual one of housing bells. The church is not far from the river, and at the very top, higher even than the pinnacles, is a flagpole supporting a golden ball. This acted as a sea mark for shipping, and seamen were also aided by the clock (said to be the highest church clock in London), which originally struck every quarter. Even such off-the-wall structures as Hawksmoor towers had their practical uses.

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More soon on St Anne’s churchyard, with its rather spooky pyramid. Watch this space…

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Winchester, Hampshire

A coat of arms

On several occasions on this blog I’ve noticed premises belonging to W H Smith, and looked at the various telling ways at which this company, one of the first multiple retailers, has decorated its shops over the years. I’ve looked at tiles, hanging signs, and even drainpipes. This time, it’s heraldry, and my post is as much a query as an observation.

A while back I passed the branch of Smith’s in the centre of Winchester and admired this coat of arms adorning the corner of the shop. I’m often struck by the ways in which buildings turn corners, and this bit of corner colour naturally caught my eye. But no one could tell me whose coat of arms this is, or was, and why it’s here. I’d love to know the meaning of the three roses, why the supporting lions are standing on the sterns of sailing ships, and why the female figure, presumably Justice with her sword and scales, is included at the top. There was no one around to ask about this on the quiet evening when I passed last year, and I can find no similar arms online. If anyone has the answer, I’d be fascinated to know.

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The answer has come. These appear to be the arms of Southampton. Many thanks to the anonymous commenter who provided the information and link.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Solihull, Warwickshire

Greece in the Midlands

This is the most unexpected sight to see on a suburban street in Solihull. Its architect, the young John Soane, soon to design the most elaborate country houses, such as Wimpole Hall in Cambridgeshire and Tyringham Hall in Buckinghamshire, described it as a barn à la Paestum. While Soane’s houses are elegant Georgian or Regency buildings with complex interiors often displaying a sense of space that’s both intricate and dazzlingly sophisticated, this barn is designed in the simplest, plainest red-brick classicism.

The building dates to the early phase of the architect’s career. He had studied at the Royal Academy and in 1777 won the Academy’s most glittering prize: its Travelling Scholarship. This enabled him to go to Italy to study the buildings of Rome. While there he also traveled south to visit Caserta, Baia, and Pompeii. One of the highlights of this trip was Paestum, the Greco-Roman city some 50 miles southeast of Naples, where the ruins of three ancient Doric temples, built by Greek colonists, survive. These temples, dating from the 5th and 6th centuries BC, are among some of the best preserved of all ancient Greek buildings. Their antiquity and their proportions inspired Soane.

While in Italy Soane met a number of British aristocrats and gentry whom he saw as prospective clients. Among them were several young men who hired Soane as a draughtsman to travel with them from Italy to Sicily and Malta. One member of this group was Henry Greswold Lewis, a landowner from Solihull, and it was for Lewis in 1798 that Soane designed this unlikely structure as a kind of homage to the ruins he had seen at Peastum.

The building is severe, and rather shocking. It’s not exactly like a Greek temple, which would have evenly spaced columns, a deeper entablature above the columns, and no round arch in the centre. But its carefully laid soft red bricks and imperfect white entablature do the job of suggesting ancient Greece and translating some of its architectural hallmarks into the very English medium of brick. For all its severity, it must have made Lewis think of his youthful travels, and smile.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Fulham High Street, London

Still there – just

It must have been in the 1970s, when Philip Larkin’s Oxford Book of Twentieth Century English Verse came out, that I first read and was moved by a poem by P J Kavanagh called ‘The Temperance Billiards Rooms’. In it, the poet remembers how he used to walk past the Temperance Billiards Rooms with his wife, who died tragically young. Aged just 33, the poet salutes the Billiards Rooms alone. He makes the building stand for continuity, in this moving poem about carrying on after a disaster: ‘it just goes on, as I do too I notice’. But it’s also fragile (‘something so uneconomical’s sure to come down’) and so is the grieving poet. It’s a touching poem, and Kavanagh’s description of the place, ‘in red and green and brown, with porridge-coloured stucco in between and half a child’s top for a dome…it’s like a Protestant mosque!’ has a melancholy humour.

I wonder if this is Kavanagh’s building. It’s now a pub (The Temperance), is repainted a rather sorry dark grey and is offering special deals on cocktails. There’s still a dome, still bits of stucco decoration, still stained glass in red and green, still the hall to the right which must have contained the billiard tables. If it’s not the building in the poem, it’s one very like it. Designed in 1910 by Norman Evans, it was one of several such buildings, built for Temperance Billiard Halls Ltd in northern England and the suburbs of London. Their art nouveau glass and decoration, and the chance of a game of billiards, were meant to attract punters away from the temptations of the demon drink, part of a movement that began in the middle decades of the 19th century and saw a late resurgence in 1900–1910. As late as 1908 there was a bill in Parliament to reduce the number of licenses to sell alcohol and ban the employment of women in pubs, a bill that was vigorously supported by temperance campaigners, and equally loudly decried by others, especially those, such as the Barmaids’ Political Defence League, who stood up for the barmaids who were to lose their jobs. The bill was defeated in the end, and the temperance movement declined.

This billiards hall, at any rate, is still there, although the dark paint spoils what looks it had. It’s also fiendishly difficult to photograph, hemmed in by road signs, wires, aerials, railings, and continuous traffic along the Fulham High Street. The best I could do was to include one of the most interesting vehicles that went past as I stood outside, a Mercedes Benz 280SL that takes us just about back to the 1960s, when Kavanagh wrote his poem. Like him, I’m glad the building is still there, although I cannot, like the poet, say that there are, ‘for all I know men playing billiards temperately in there’.

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For more about architecture and temperance, see Andrew Davison’s essay ‘”Worthy of the Cause”: The Buildings of the Temperance Movement’ in Geoff Brandwood (ed), Living, Leisure and Law (Spire Books, 2010).

For P J Kavanagh’s account of his loss, see P J Kavanagh, The Perfect Stranger (1966)

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Birtsmorton, Worcestershire

History and harmony

If you said the words “romantic moated manor house” a building like Birtsmorton Court might well come to mind. A structure that has evolved over seven or eight centuries, this beautiful house is made up of a mixture of timber-framed, stone, and brick wings, all different but wonderfully harmonious, set in quiet countryside, and partly shaded by trees. Birtsmorton may have been begun in 13th century, but in the 15th it was bought by one John Nanfan, who rebuilt most of it. In subsequent centuries, the house was home to various landed families (including relatives of Richard Hakluyt, the writer on exploration, and the family of William Huskisson, the statesman who was the first person to be killed by a railway train) and several of these later occupants made substantial alterations to the building, producing the delightful hotchpotch that remains today.

My photograph shows the view from the south, where there are buildings of various periods in different materials. On the right, the house is stone below, timber-framed with brick infill between the timbers above; this timber-work is a replacement of 1929–30 of earlier work that had been destroyed by fire. On the left is a contrasting brick wing built in the 18th century, with sash windows. Between these two parts is a mixture of various dates, with a pair of timber-framed bays, some stone walls, and tall brick chimneys.

It would take a long time to unpick the complex architectural history that produced this rich and diverse collection of walls, gables, roofs, and chimneys. Even for someone with expertise in the archaeology of buildings it would be a challenge, and one would need to have the run of the place for some considerable time. As Birtsmorton is still a private house, archaeologists are not likely to be unpicking it any time soon. Even if its detailed history is hard to decipher, though, its visual harmony is intact, and a thing to marvel at.

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The house is available for events such as weddings, and there’s more information about it here.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Ludlow, Shropshire

The Buttercross, before...

Last time I was in Ludlow, which was last year, I noticed the way the stone of the Buttercross, a building I’d long admired, was glowing in the sun, and took the photograph above. This building, part market, part Town Hall, was built in 1743–4 to designs by William Baker (1705–71), an architect who was busy in Shropshire, Staffordshire, and neighbouring counties in the middle of the 18th century. Pevsner, describing the architecture of the building, says while it is “not polished, [it] has an attractive robustness”. The classical portico with its four Tuscan columns is offset by less formal details, such as the semicircular window and the clock turret, with its lovely cupola. The whole thing is a worthy centrepiece to this part of the town centre, and looks good from Broad Street, where I took the picture.

Since last year, the builders have been in, doing major works to the roof. Then, in November, disaster struck in the form of falling chunks of plaster from one of the ceilings. Further internal problems have since been discovered and Ludlow’s council have a much bigger and more complex restoration project on their hands. The plaster seems to have come down without much provocation. According to the Shropshire Star, Ludlow’s Mayor, Martin Taylor-Smith, said, “We think the initial fall was when the clock-winder went up, just from the vibration.”

Now the Town Council, which used the upper part of the building, has found alternative accommodation, work has begun on finding a new use for the Butter Cross. An application in underway to turn the building into an education and interpretation centre, where, for example, traditional building skills might be shown. Here’s hoping the extra funding can be found to make the repairs and preserve this landmark.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Much Marcle, Herefordshire

On the curve

I remember a few years ago a conversation with a friend about garages and what they look like, how most of them are either very boring or very unpleasant to look at, but now and then, one stands out from the crowd. Before long, one of us said, ‘Do you know the garage on the road between Ledbury and Ross on Wye, at Much Marcle?’ and the other one instantly said, ‘Yes! Isn’t it terrific!’ We’d both been admiring the building for years, and I can’t remember which of us mentioned it first. There are several things I like about it. The way it stands at a slight angle to the junction. The gentle curve of the roof, a curve followed by the attractive lettering on the front. The mixture of corrugated iron and wood. The building began life as a World War I aircraft hangar. It was bought by the Weston’s Cider Company, who are based nearby, in 1926, and they used it to maintain their vehicles as well as offering a general garage service. In the 1990s, Weston’s sold it, and it continues as a garage serving the general public.

Not everyone admires this kind of thing, of course. It doesn’t happen often that I find myself at odds with the Shell Guides, old books that I admire because they still have a lot to tell us about architecture and the sense of place. In the 1955 Herefordshire guide, author David Verey found much to like in Much Marcle, but his admiration was ‘in spite of its approach from the Ledbury road being marked by an ugly new garage’. Verey couldn’t wait to get on to the village’s old church and houses, the place’s polite architecture, as they say. I, on the other hand, wanted to linger here on the main road, taking in this small landmark as the motorcyclists whizzed by enjoying the challenging mix of bends and straights on the way to Ross and perhaps themselves registering, through an eye corner, a curving metal roof and a painted garage sign.

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Footnote: Garagistes may like another post that I did a while back, about two garages in Upton on Severn.