Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Tenbury Wells, Worcestershire

Five early pieces: 1

To celebrate the fifth birthday of the English Buildings blog, here’s a reprise of the very first post I did in July 2007, with a short postscript and an extra picture.

You’d have to go a long way to find anything like this, the Spa Buildings in the middle of the small Worcestershire town of Tenbury Wells, which became a spa when saline springs were discovered in 1839. The 1862 design, by James Cranston of Birmingham, isn’t much like any other building – it’s a mixture of false-half-timber and greenhouse, with a bit of Victorian brickwork thrown in, all making a bizarre cocktail that contemporaries called "Chinese Gothic".

The big clue is in the word "greenhouse". Cranston had been working on some glasshouses and got the idea of adapting greenhouse structure to a building for people. Out went the glass panes and in came steel roofing sheets and wall panels, to make one of the world’s first prefabricated buildings. The system was flexible enough to produce a pair of halls, a bath complex, and an octagonal tower to house the well with its pumps, which dispensed 20 gallons of mineral water per hour.

Roof detail, showing ornate edges of prefabricated panels

Like later prefabs, the Tenbury Spa Buildings were probably not intended to last that long. And they certainly never caught the admiration of the architectural powers-that-be. Nikolaus Pevsner, in the Worcestershire volume of his Buildings of England series, described them as "much like Gothicky or Chinesey fair stuff, i.e. without seriousness or taste". The people of Tenbury thought better of their unusual spa, though, and restored it at the end of the 20th century. With galvanized roof panels and a strengthened structure, the building is now better than ever.

Postscript 2012 I might have noted that James Lees-Milne, in his 1964 Shell Guide to Worcestershire, was more appreciative of these buildings than Pevsner, although he got the date wrong. He wrote: “The baths no longer function, but there are some engaging remains (c. 1911) in a rusty tin pagoda tower and adjacent structures of tin with multicoloured brick entrance, a sort of expensive prototype of the Nissen hut.” Also, soon after I wrote the original piece I got hold of Alan Brooks’s excellent 2007 revised edition of Pevsner’s Worcestershire.  In it, Brooks quotes the original “Chinesey” description, but gives a fuller and more generous account of the restored buildings, no longer rusty. He also notes that the spa was aimed at “the middling and working classes, [providing] every convenience at the lowest possible price”. Like Alan Brooks, I commend the building to you all, of whatever class – working, middling, and the rest.


Peter Ashley said...

Happy Birthday! Yours is the blog that got me going, thankyou. I think you should make a cake like the building, with piped icing and all.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Peter: Thank you. Cake is definitely called for, though I don't think I could manage the intricate icing required. (Funny that the architect's name, Cranston, is also that of the famous Glasgow tea-shop owner and patroness of Charles Rennie Mackintosh.)