Saturday, April 28, 2012

Mountsorrel, Leicestershire

A place in the sun

Long ago when I was a teenager, I occasionally accompanied a relative of mine on journeys to do with his business, taking the opportunity to discover bits of the country I’d not normally have known about in the process. One regular trip was to Loughborough, and the last leg was up the A6 from Leicester. We didn’t have much time for places like Mountsorrel, a small town on the A6 that I remember as being full of grime, noise, and fumes from the cars and lorries on the main road, which carved its way straight through the centre. ‘A decayed market town,’ Pevsner called it, and no wonder. And as for the church. Well, who would bother to pay attention to a building so pulled about, patched up with brick, apparently unloved, its walls of local granite graying over with dust? Added to which, it always seemed to be raining.

When I revisited Mountsorrel a couple of weeks ago I was amazed how different my impressions were. The main road now skirts the town, the place has been cleaned up, and, wonder of wonders, the sun was shining. The granite buildings were glowing with a pinkish hue and even the brick patching on St Peter’s church had a warmth to it that made me want to look, not turn away. The building is still a strange mixture – the gable, aspiring to be a classical pediment but not quite making it, sits oddly with the Gothic windows (in the Decorated style of the 14th century) – a state of affairs that is the result of successive remodellings (in 1794 and the 1880s) of an originally medieval building. But I like the way that its chequered history is visible in the morning light, the lines of brickwork embodying in a ghostly fashion the shapes of past windows and doorways, and I was pleased that when I passed by, the building had found its place in the sun.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Kibworth Harcourt, Leicestershire

Tradition and change

During my recent stay in Leicestershire a friend I’d visited gave me directions from his house back towards the county town. “And keep an eye on your mirror as you go through Kibworth Harcourt. There’s a house there that you'll like,” he instructed me, tantalizingly. What I saw when I got there had me stopping and reaching for the camera.

The Old House, it’s called, and it’s a lovely house of 1678. Its form – hipped roof and dormer windows, symmetrical front, central doorway with classical porch, quoins, pediment, double-pile layout (two rooms deep) – is one of the quintessential English building types, a kind of house that proved enduring, from its beginnings in the mid-17th century well into the Georgian era. In the world of grand country houses, this kind of design stretches back to buildings like Coleshill House, Berkshire, built in around 1650 to designs by Sir Roger Pratt for the architect’s cousin, Sir George Pratt. Coleshill (which was destroyed in a fire in 1952) was seriously large, with 17 windows on its entrance front. It was much admired and by the end of the century, lesser gentry, especially in southern England and the counties around London, were building smaller versions for themselves.

The Old House was probably built for a local gentleman, William Parker, who died in 1699 – a Parker coat of arms forms part of the decoration. Whoever designed it lavished much care on it – details such as the curvy little pediment and the carefully formed window surrounds show a painstaking hand. And the fact that the house was built in 1678 is interesting too – as the listing text for the building points out, this is quite early for this kind of classical house in the Midlands – most such houses in Leicestershire date from the 18th century. The designer must have had an eye on more advanced architectural fashions in southeast England, where houses like this were more common.

So although this house looks typically English, a representative of the order and elegance of its period, it would not have seemed that way to contemporaries. As course upon course of bricks was laid (and bricks themselves were unusual in this area in 1678), the neighbours would have been shocked at the difference from the traditional stone or timber-framed houses – asymmetrical, low-slung, with small windows and often thatched roofs – of the area. Architecture was changing, before their eyes.

Friday, April 20, 2012


Built to last

Just along Granby Street from the Turkey Café described in the previous post is this large Victorian bank. It’s such a show stopper of a building that I couldn’t photograph it all (there are more pictures of it here). The Victorians liked to build big, imposing banks, and employed all sorts of styles for them from solid classical, through ornate Italian Renaissance revival, to the Gothic employed here. Now empty, formerly a branch of the Midland Bank and HSBC, this 1870s building was originally the head office of the Leicestershire Banking Company. Its designer was Joseph Goddard, who, like Wakerley of the Turkey Café, was a prominent Leicester architect. In fact several generations of the Goddard family have practiced architecture in Leicester. Goddard originally intended to design the bank in the classical style, but his clients wanted something different from the classical National Provincial Bank up the street, so he went for this red-brick Gothic, with trimmings of stone and terracotta.

The part of the building shown in my photograph is the banking hall. Its dominating features are the tall Gothic windows – I left a passing pedestrian in the picture so that you can see just how tall they are. I especially like the way Goddard used pale Portland stone to contrast with the brick – the stripy arches are an effective touch, as is the mix of stone and terracotta at cornice level above them. Slender shafts flanking the windows, decorative terracotta panels, and little bands and rosettes of carved stone provide plenty to entertain the passer-by. It’s a building full of Victorian confidence, soaring above the modern shops that surround it on this street in the centre of Leicester and speaking of the city’s prosperity when the hosiery, textile, and engineering industries were at their height – a time when bankers and their architects built to last.

Monday, April 16, 2012



The histories of architecture are full of the big names, the people who changed the course of the art and transformed our towns and countryside: the Wrens, Vanbrughs, and Gilbert Scotts. Less well known are the local practitioners, architects who did important work in a particular town or area but are generally unsung outside their local patch: men like Watson Fothergill of Nottingham, the Jearrads of Cheltenham, and Arthur Wakerley of Leicester. Wakerley was a prominent figure in his city – a Liberal, councilor, and mayor. He served as president of Leicester’s Society of Architects and as president of the Temperance Union. His many buildings in the city range from a synagogue to a number of factories, from a hotel to streets of affordable housing.

The Turkey Café in Granby Street is one of his smaller buildings, but its central position, unusual style, and rich decoration make it one of his most noticeable. Wakerley designed it in Art Nouveau style in 1900, with the odd-shaped arches and colour scheme indicating a certain Oriental influence. The decoration was done by Doulton’s W J Neatby, the ceramic artist who worked on the Royal Arcade in Norwich and the Everard Printing Works in Bristol, both previously noticed on this blog. Wakerley devised a complex façade enlivened with multifoil arches, big windows, and a bowed central section. Neatby covered the walls in green and white tiles, adding a dazzling multicoloured turkey at the very top and two three-dimensional ceramic turkeys at entrance level. He picked the café’s name out in curvaceous Art Nouveau style lettering.

When the building opened in 1901 cafés were enjoying a heyday. Leicester boasted several cafés, establishments that were celebrated by the temperance movement that Arthur Wakerley embraced. Cafés were also favoured by women. At a time when pubs were rowdy, male preserves, women lacked places that they could go safely on their own or with women friends. Cafés and tea shops (the famous ABCs run by the Aerated Bread Company, for example, and the Lyon’s Corner Houses that came slightly later) filled this gap. Many Edwardian cafés were richly decorated buildings, marketed as modern, hygienic, and chic. Leicester’s Turkey Café, with its dazzling façade, fitted this bill, and did so with considerable style.

For more about W J Neatby, see my post here.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

A few old favourites

It is well over a year since I last did a “round-up” of favourite posts from this blog, with the aim of interesting readers who are new here and would like to explore further. A comment on my previous post, about military airfields and the hangars at Hullavington in Wiltshire, reminded me of a particular aspect of my posts that has pleased some readers: the way in which they are as much about atmosphere and sense of place as they are about architecture.

How buildings define or enhance or affect the character of a place is a huge subject, and one that can only be touched on in a short blog post. But it’s one I’m often aware of as I encounter buildings, and there are some posts where I think I’ve managed to evoke the relationship between place and building in ways that seem to strike chords with readers. These are very personal posts that chronicle my reactions and memories of a some very diverse buildings and places. They range from thoughts about how nature and architecture interact on the site of a ruined castle to a brief account of the relationship between buildings, lives, and businesses in one tiny, and formerly seedy, London block. Links to these and a few other posts follow.

Restored by silence and fading light: visiting an isolated Saxon church at Farmcote on top of the Cotswolds.

The greening of a ruin: picking a way through the stones and vegetation at Wigmore Castle.

It’s brains you want: ghost signs and why they matter. Looking at a crumbling piece of the sign-writer’s art in Gloucester.

Strangers on the shore: evocative hulks shoring up the bank of the River Severn at Purton.

Coming home: thoughts on buildings as landmarks, in particular a ruined barn at Burford.

Soho revived: uncovering pythons, lap-dancers, and secret passages in Moor Street, London.

An image of the country village: constructing perfection at Great Tew, and a brief addendum on the one-time decay of the village, from which it has recovered.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Hullavington, Wiltshire

Hardly there

As a small boy I was fascinated by airfields. Airfields (not airports, which in the 1950s and 1960s were for the rich to travel from, and therefore out of bounds) were quiet, empty places, mostly, and oddly spacious in a countryside that, even then, was quite intensively farmed. I longed to see aeroplanes taking off and landing, but hardly ever seemed to be there at the right moment. So I had to be content with the purposeful impedimenta of the airfield, most of it unfamiliar to me but not too difficult to understand from its names alone. There was a perimeter fence (chain-link), a control tower (concrete), runways (ditto), grey parked vehicles (various), and a windsock (brightly coloured). For much of the time the windsock seemed to be the most animated thing around. Also occasionally on the move was a long grey low-slung truck, a low-loader in fact, sometimes spotted on neighbouring roads, apparently for moving bits of aircraft around.

And then there were hangars,† long and low, hugging the ground. Some even tried to blend into the ground with their grass-covered roofs. They had broad, sliding doors but these were usually closed and anyway were too distant for me to have seen what was inside. Still, when I see hangars, I’m fascinated by their tantalizing doors and their functional, often ground-hugging form. I’m still very ignorant of their history and complex typology – I see from a Ministry of Defence website that there are at least 56 different types in use in Britain alone, ranging from temporary portable structures to vast warehouse-like sheds that can take airliners or transport aircraft.

This one is a Type E hangar at RAF Hullavington in Wiltshire. Its design was introduced in 1937 – no doubt lots of hangars were being built around this time – and has a curving steel frame supporting a concrete shell roof, covered by the all-important camouflaging grass. It’s huge, and very functional, but also rather elegant, and from a distance it blends into its surroundings so that it seems hardly there at all. Whenever I pass by the door still seems to be closed.

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Hangar: not a self-explanatory word. Were there lightweight, World War I biplanes hanging up in there? I wondered. No, hangar’s etymology is far from certain, according to the OED, but comes from French (and probably also Germanic) words meaning shelter. Our hamlet has the same roots. The dictionary’s first example comes from Thackeray’s Henry Esmond and has nothing to do with aircraft at all: ‘Mademoiselle, may we take your coach to town? I saw it in the hangar.’

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Fairford, Gloucestershire

Focal point

This stained glass window comes from Fairford church in Gloucestershire, a building that was rebuilt between about 1490 and 1510. The set of windows here is the most complete ensemble of late-medieval windows in any English parish church and is probably from the workshop of Barnard Flower, who worked on such high-profile projects as Henry VII’s Chapel in Westminster Abbey and the chapel of King’s College, Cambridge. These windows are among the glories of English art.

Jesus is shown in the central panel. The Roman centurion (called Longinus in some traditions) pierces his side with his spear, an incident described in the Gospel of John, who records that both blood and water flowed from Christ’s side. There is no trace now of blood and water (symbolic among other things of Jesus’ humanity and deity, and of his sacrifice and baptism) in the image in the window – the point of the spear seems to be entering the flesh, though, and perhaps the blood and the water have been lost to time.

In the panel to the left of the centre is the first thief, who is repentant, and on whom an angel looks down. At the base of his cross is the Virgin Mary, supported by Mary the wife of Clopas. Mary Magdalen, with her long hair and pot of ointment, is with them, and gazes at the figure of Jesus. In the panel to the right of the centre is the second, unrepentant, thief, who is accompanied by a devil, a figure with red skin (the devils in the Last Judgement window at Fairford are also red) and grayish, bat-like wings, hovering above the thief’s head. More Roman soldiers occupy the outer panels, and the bearded gesticulating figure on horseback in the left-hand panel is Pontius Pilate (another lower panel, not shown in my photograph, depicts him washing his hands).

There is one other important figure in this window, the foot soldier with the red hose on the bottom left, who is made to stand out with his patterned and brightly coloured clothes. Like many other figures in the window, his gaze is directed straight at Christ. Unlike the others, his collar bears an inscription: ‘IO SAVELE’, which is likely to be a shortened form of Sir John Savile, an associate of King Henry VII. His naming and his position suggest that he was the donor of the windows. His was a noble gift.

This beautiful window is a lovely example of the stained-glass-maker’s art at the point in history where, in England, the Middle Ages are waning and the Renaissance is arriving at last. It combines the traditional rich colours of medieval glass (the blues of Mary’s dress, the deep reds of the some of the solders’ garments, and so on) with sensitive drawing of the faces and lively poses. From the pointing Pilate to the hovering devil, from the observant soldiers to the caring Maries, there is a lot of life in this scene of execution. There is also a careful focus on the main figure, with the pointing hands, the spear, Savile’s gaze, and even the tilt of the flanking crosses, leading our eye towards Jesus. This is also, of course, the church’s east window, in the prime position above the altar, so the architecture and layout of the church draws us to this focal point in the building and the Christian story.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Royal Opera Arcade, London

Shopping opportunity

The Royal Opera Arcade, tucked away next to what is now Her Majesty’s Theatre, between Pall Mall and Charles II Street in central London, is Britain’s oldest shopping arcade. It was designed in 1815, as a passage roofed with a vault and lit by circular skylights, by John Nash and George Repton. Along one side run 18 shops, each with a neat, projecting quadrant-cornered window – very fashionable in this period. Each shop has a basement and a mezzanine floor inside but these are small shops and the whole development is compact – the walkway is less than 4 metres wide. This was England’s first arcade of this type and the design is influenced more by the Parisian arcades than by English precedents such as the long-vanished ‘Exchanges’ of the 17th century. Although few later architects copied Nash and Repton’s lovely vaults and domes, the overall layout set the style for this kind of exclusive, covered shopping development, and others, such as the famous Burlington Arcade off Piccadilly, soon followed.

Arcades along these lines evolved as developers saw the opportunity to woo shoppers off city streets – which were muddy, noisy, crowded, and often dangerous – into a drier, cleaner, more protected environment. In an arcade, well-to-do Regency and Victorian shoppers did not get their clothes* spattered with mud and stood less chance of losing their money or portable possessions to Oliver Twist and his predecessors. In the little shops in an arcade they could expect to find small, luxury items – jewellery perhaps, exquisite glassware, pens and equipment for the gentleman’s study, upmarket gifts and costly knickknacks. From the 18th century onwards shopping was for the middle and upper classes increasingly a form of recreation, and places like Nash’s Royal Opera Arcade provided a comfortable setting in which this leisure activity could take place. Fifty years on, though, the arcade was less successful, perhaps because shoppers were more attracted to the area around Piccadilly. Henry Mayhew, in his The Shops and Companies of London (1865), described it as “the Arcade of the Melancholy-Mad Bootmakers”. Nowadays it has rediscovered some of its early glamour, and details of the current shops can be found here.

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* For women's fashions in 1821, just a few years after the arcade opened, look here.