Monday, December 30, 2013


New lease of life

Often in this blog I write about what many would call the incidentals of buildings – odd bits of ornament, signage, details, and so on – and about buildings that are so low in status that they are little regarded by most passers-by. A lot of what I notice is hardly architecture at all – which is one reason why this blog is called English Buildings and not English Architecture. But I'm ending the year with a no-nonsense bit of high-status architecture, a beautifully proportioned and recently restored Georgian house, in fact one of the best provincial Georgian houses you could come across. It's St Helen's House in the centre of Derby and it was built in 1766 by local architect Joseph Pickford for one John Gisborne. In 1801 William Strutt (son of Jedediah Strutt the industrialist, textile manufacturer, and associate of Richard Arkwright who was one of the key figures in the industrial revolution) bought the house and after several generations of Strutts had lived there, the building was used as a school. The recent restoration involved a conversion to office use.

The entrance front is an impressive piece of Classical design, with a triangular pediment and columns giving weight to the central portion and interest to the whole facade. There is also a satisfying balance between the ground floor, its windows set in semicircular arches, and the floor above, which has windows with more elaborate surrounds (the central ones having small pediments of their own), to emphasize the importance of the rooms they light. What one might call framing devices – the pilasters at either end and the cornice at the top of the facade – give the design further coherence, as do details such as the rustication, used in restrained fashion on the ground floor. The skyline is set off by a quintet of carved bulbous urns. This show front is, of course, faced in stone. The sides are of much plainer brick, as one can see, just, in the picture. But it's a restrained kind of showiness, and the house would have been at home in its original setting (80 acres of grounds, apparently), as it is in its urban surroundings now the city has spread around it. Derby can be proud, and pleased, that the building has found a new use, and its restoration has made St Helen's House a worthy winner of a Georgian Group award for a reused building. It deserves its recognition.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Somers Town, London


Thereby hang tales...

Here, as hinted in the previous post, are a few examples of the decorative Doulton panels from the blocks of flats in the Sidney Street estate in Somers Town, north of St Pancras. The ceramic panels, made in about 1937 by the artist Gilbert Bayes, seem to depict scenes from fairy tales. There's a very obvious Little Mermaid rescuing her prince (above), a young woman with swans (is it The Swan Princess, or some other tale featuring swans?) and another young woman, this time with an elaborate headdress, about to kiss a young man, this time with pigs on either side (The Princess and the Swineherd, presumably). The stylised medieval dress, flat colours, and faces in profile give quite a 1930s feel to the panels, and the decorations are in keeping with the spacious courtyard and careful architectural details, all of which help to raise these blocks above the norm for social housing. It feels right, somehow, that these buildings should have decoration that's diverting and engaging and that adds a splash of colour to an area that would have been grey, sooty, and smoky in the 1930s when the flats were built.

The Swan Princess
The Princess and the Swineherd

Monday, December 23, 2013

Somers Town, London

Season's Greetings

Part of the Somers Town area to the north of St Pancras Station, the Sidney Street estate was built in the 1930s by the St Pancras House Improvement Society, which was founded by Father Basil Jellicoe and Irene Barclay, the first British woman to qualify as a quantity surveyor. The flats of the estate were part of a campaign of slum clearance in this part of London in the first part of the 20th century and these grand blocks enclosing a spacious courtyard must have been a big improvement on what was here before. Visually the most remarkable thing about the blocks of flats on the estate is their decorative Doultonware panels, created by Doulton artist Gilbert Bayes. I hope to return to these panels, but meanwhile here is a taster, the Doultonware Christmas tree, which stands in the small side courtyard that was set aside for the washing lines. It reminds residents and passers-by, all the year round, of the sentiments of the Christmas season. Peace on Earth indeed, and Goodwill to Men. And to women and, particularly, to readers of this blog.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Aldeburgh, Suffolk, and Oxford

A memory

On December 4, 1976, as the nights drew in after that memorable summer, E, a much-loved mentor, came to visit me in the room I was occupying in my last undergraduate year at university. She wanted to make sure I was settled, I think, in this important final year. Once we'd drunk the ritual tea and exchanged the expected gossip, the conversation turned to music, which had been at the centre of much of E's life. I wanted to play her a few tracks from a recording I'd just bought, of Britten's Les illuminations, and once E had got over the shock that the singer was a soprano and not the expected Peter Pears, we sat back and enjoyed the whole disc. It felt like a true connection between listeners, performers, and composer. As E pointed out, the work had been premiered by a female singer, after all, even if Pears had made the work his own in the subsequent decades. Further reflections followed. We recalled a performance of Les illuminations that we'd both attended in which the singer's pronunciation of Rimbaud's French text undermined the final bars – his parting 'Assez eu' sounded impure and guttural, more like 'assez eugh'. If we laughed about that, over our second cup of tea, I was also told that Britten was very ill now and it was likely that the stream of music that had been steadily flowing for so long would be stayed. Then E went home, and I turned back to whatever it was I was supposed to be reading.

And we would no doubt have forgotten our quiet listening to Britten's song cycle had it not been for the fact that a few days later we opened our respective newspapers and learned that Britten had died that very day. A coincidence of course, but coincidences are patterns, and they stick in the memory, and haunt us, rather like the patterns of music. The patterns mean that I remember that afternoon, that I have a clearer image in my mind than I would otherwise have of the rather dingy North Oxford room I was living in then, and that I recall a shared experience with someone who meant lot to me.

As far as the steady flow of music went, we learned that the tide was not quite out. The composer's third string quartet was premiered at Aldeburgh about two weeks after Britten's death. Its distinctive musical textures – often described as 'spare' because frequently only one or two instruments are playing at once – may in part be due to the composer's partly paralysed right hand. But however they got there, the sounds he produces are a distillation of his late style, deeply absorbing, and a profound example of creativity triumphant in the face of illness and death. The long last movement, entitled 'La serenissima', has been seen as death-defying. Taking a cue from its title I also see in its glittering sounds a reflection of Turner's late Venetian paintings, as if the composer, his inspiration illuminated one final time, is looking towards the light.

* * *

'Assez vu….assez eu….assez connu….' Estonian soprano Aile Asszonyi in 'Départ', the final movement of Britten's Les illuminations.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire

Turning again

In 1853, when in France Baron Haussmann was becoming Prefect of the Seine and beginning to plan his transformation of Paris, countless smaller transformation were underway in towns and cities all over the place, not a few of them to do with providing more spacious and up to date premises for businesses and offices. This bank in Aylesbury is a case in point. Long established as the Bucks & Oxon Union Bank it got a smart classical building in 1853 with rusticated ground floor with arches window recesses and bigger, pediment-topped windows upstairs.

And that's all very impressive, but what made me pause was the way the architect treated the corner, especially as I've been thinking about corners after posting the unusual house in Bishop's Stortford the other day. Whereas the Bishop's Stortford building turns the corner with a tight curve of brickwork, this bank takes the junction at an angle, and with extraordinary banded rustication – masonry laid with exaggerated horizontal joints – all the way up the wall to the cornice. Those upper bands of stone seem to break the conventions that the rest of the building adheres to, not least of which is that you rusticate the lower floor and leave the upper levels plain.

There are plenty of examples of rustication on upper floors – especially running up pilasters or filling the space above a central portico. But this narrow strip above the doorway does seem rather in your face, perhaps because there's nothing on the wall except the banded masonry – no windows, no columns or pilasters, just these lines of stone, ruled out like a ledger, on which various inscriptions have been cut: a sort of vertical timeline that mercifully leaves rather little space for the sign of the current proprietors. A corner that is ruled off, as it were.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Bishop's Stortford, Hertfordshire

Round we go  

Sometimes the way a building turns a corner can be the best thing about it. I remember in a past post describing a particularly noticeable corner tower on a building in London – a 1930s version of many such markings of the junction between one street and another. This house in Bishop's Stortford is almost the opposite, small where the other building was grand and statement-making. Presumably there was a triangular site, where two roads, Basbow Lane and King Street, met at an acute angle. The builder (probably in the early-19th century) made full use of the plot, creating a triangular building with this beautiful curve at the junction. The bricklayer obliged with some careful brickwork.

Even if the house is only about six feet wide at the apex, it does the two things it should – makes full use of the available land and turns the corner gracefully. Steps, bricks, and trees make an interesting bit of urban scenery too, rendering a small building dramatic and turning a change of level into an architectural surprise. Modest? Yes. Unregarded? Probably. But sometimes, in townscape as in life, it's the small things that matter.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Charterhouse Street, London

Stones of Smithfield

After Smithfield Market was redeveloped in the Victorian period, Charterhouse Street, which runs to the north of the market, partly on the path of an earlier thoroughfare called Charterhouse Lane, was redeveloped too. Since then it has seen many changes, but this building of the 1870s is a survivor of the Victorian period, originally a warehouse, now, on the ground floor at least, a restaurant. The mixture of polychrome brick and stone suggests a Venetian influence, and the building is in a kind of Venetian-Renaissance style, with round arches, classical mouldings, and carved decoration.

Pevsner describes this facade as 'naive but vigorous'. There's certainly a lot going on – roundels with carved stone heads leaning out of them; more roundels, with foliage, at the top of the window arches; foliate capitals atop the slender stone shafts; a row of stone 'nailheads' beneath the moulded cornice; a repeat of the nailheads further down. And that's before we get to the polychrome brick, which is quite restrained, but brings each window arch to a slight point at the very top, beneath the cornice, adding a Gothic element to the mix.

John Ruskin's The Stones of Venice had been published for over 20 years when this facade was built. Its builder had certainly drunk at the Ruskinian spring, even though Venice's great appreciator would probably have preferred a more refined version of  the city's style than the one on display here. But a bit of polychrome brightness has its place in the commercial heart of the capital. Naive? Maybe. Decorative? Certainly. Uplifting? Absolutely. An asset, I'd say, to this absorbing and varied bit of London's townscape.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Barbican, London

Turned on
The other week I walked up London's Farringdon Street, hoping to find and photograph a series of tile murals made by Dorothy Annan for the Central Telegraph Office, a building housing a large telephone exchange that was built in about 1960. When I got there I found nine boarded-up spaces along the ground floor of the building: the murals had gone and the building, empty, dusty, and forlorn, looked ripe for demolition. I soon discovered that the tile panels, thanks no doubt to the recent campaigning on behalf of such architectural art by the Twentieth Century Society, had been saved. They have been installed on one of the High Walks in the Barbican complex and I quickly found them, not far from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, which was emitting seductive high-pitched flute and violin sounds as I settled down to have a good look.

Overseas Communication Showing Cable Buoys
Annan's tile panels have names like Cross Connection Frame and Lines Over the Countryside. They make evocative compositions out of arrangements of aerials, cable buoys, switches, wires, and bits of circuit diagrams, all of which Annan researched carefully before turning them into semi-abstract compositions which – as the accompanying caption remarks – are part Ben Nicholson, part Joan Miró. Looking at the panels (the two most clearly visible in the photograph at the top of this post are Radio Communication and Television and Cables and Communications in Buildings) it would be easy to make remarks about the optimism of the 1960s and the then Prime Minister Harold Wilson's famous enthusiasm for 'the white heat of technology'. But in the restrained palette and artful rhythms of these panels (the Ben Nicholson aspect of them, as it were), there is something less insistent, less frenetic. Their lovely handmade textures are beautifully crafted, too. There is tension in the spiralling wires and chunky aerials in these panels, it's true. But there is also landscape in them, hints in the colour and texture of the tiles of grass and sea and sky; cables that flow like rivers or rise and dip like hills and valleys. I think they're turned on to nature as well as to technology. And for that reason they seem to me to sit rather well in the Barbican, where water and planting complement the chunky hammered concrete, where your feet are always on tiles, and where intriguing sonic signals emerge from student musicians in their practice rooms to captivate the ear.

 Cable Chamber With Cables Entering From Street, detail

* * *
Thanks to one of my readers for pointing out that the blog Spitalfields Life has also covered these panels. I was pleased to see that the Gentle Author, proprietor of the Spitalfields Life blog, also appreciates the combination of technology and organic forms that's evident in these works. The Gentle Author illustrates all the panels here.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Worth the wait

My next review: long-awaited is putting it mildly...

Patrick Leigh Fermor, The Broken Road
Published by John Murray

In the 1970s and 1980s, Patrick Leigh Fermor published A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water, the first two volumes of a projected trilogy, describing the walk he made in 1934 from the Hook of Holland to the city of Istanbul (or, as he insisted on calling it, Constantinople). Between the Woods and the Water took the young Paddy Leigh Fermor to the Iron Gates (on the Danube at the frontier of Romania and what is now Serbia). And there everything stopped. The promised third volume never appeared, and in 2011 Paddy died.

The Broken Road is the nearest we will get to the missing last volume. Its editors, Artemis Cooper and Colin Thubron, explain in their introduction that Paddy had actually begun this third volume before he started the two that were published. In 1962, as the result of a commission from an American magazine to write about 'The Pleasures of Walking' he began to write up his great walk. Around about the Iron Gates, he realised that he was compressing his memories uncomfortably, so began to be more expansive, producing an extended, book-length account of most of the last third of his walk. He eventually had, therefore, a short account of the first two-thirds, a longer, more reflective and allusive record of the Bulgarian portion – and nothing that would do as an article for his American magazine.

In the mid-1960s he put the project to one side, and when he returned to it in the 1970s, he realised that he had to start over, writing a new account of the first portion, the account that became A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water. Then nothing. Paddy, it seems, despaired of turning part three into anything as good as the first two books (which had, of course, received adulation from reviewers and readers alike). He just couldn't see how he could do it – and things were made worse with the death of his two greatest supporters, his publisher Jock Murray and his wife, Joan. Even in his last years, though, fighting tunnel vision, Paddy returned to the old manuscript, working in pen on a large-size print out.

Artemis Cooper and Colin Thubron have prepared this version for publication as The Broken Road – it's their title (though nearly all the words in the book itself are Paddy's) and it acknowledges that the manuscript was never finished: it breaks off by the Black Sea, a few days' walk from Constantinople. A very brief diary Paddy wrote in the city on the Bosphorus, together with a more extended diary covering his subsequent trip to Mount Athos, complete the book.

Although the author would no doubt have changed much more if he could, and rewritten whole chunks, the book is still a marvel. It's full of the evocative descriptions of places – from the Bulgarian town of Tirnovo, its 'sharp flight of houses hovering in ascending waves along the lip of a precipice', to Messembria with its ancient churches 'embedded by heaps of rubble and choked with weeds and brambles'. People too: itinerant bee-keepers, cobblers, a wheelwright, a man unsuccessfully shooting at wildfowl from a small boat. And animals and flocks of birds: cormorants with necks like submarine periscopes, an airborne horde of storks portrayed in a great set-piece. Other perennial Paddy preoccupations – language, costumes and hats, architecture, the tectonic movements of Central European history – are all here.

There's also a certain amount of comment about the perilous process of writing about things that happened decades before. He says quite a lot about piecing together the memories, about the unreliability of the marks he made on his map (surely he stayed in more places than he marked), about the places he had revisited in the interim, so that memories are overlaid and difficult to disentangle. Paddy is also honest about his periods of depression – something little touched on (as far as I can recall) in the first two books. This makes his hesitations, prevarications, and delays in producing book three all the more easy to understand – but also helps us to understand the corollary of all this – Paddy's relentless enthusiasm for so much of what he saw, his wonder, his delight, and his determination to capture this in his jewelled, sometimes Baroque, prose.

Perhaps at the end of the day what matters most is that the three books chronicle, with such faithfulness and beauty, that process of youthful acquisition of experience that means so much and stays with us so long:

One is only sometimes warned, when these processes begin, of their crucial importance:  that certain poems, paintings, kinds of music, books, or ideas are going to change everything, or that one is going to fall in love or become friends for life; the many lengthening strands, in fact, which, plaited together, compose a lifetime. One should be able to detect the muffled bang of the starter's gun. This journey was punctuated with these inaudible reports: daysprings veiled and epiphanies in plain clothes.

The book may be unfinished, but these cultural encounters – with books, buildings, places, and people too – pull us up short time after time, giving form and meaning to the author's life, and bringing illumination to our own.

* * *
My post about Patrick Leigh Fermor's gravestone is here.

My review of Artemis Cooper's biography of Paddy is here.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Home patch

For the next of my pre-Christmas reviews, here's a master naturalist's take on a bit of England where city and country meet...

Richard Mabey, A Good Parcel of English Soil
Published by Penguin

Richard Mabey is our best natural history writer and will need no introduction to most of my readers in Britain. He has been enlightening us about woods and weeds, flowers and nightingales since he burst into the consciousness of British readers in 1972 with Food For Free, which taught us to forage – and, just as importantly, taught us the alert, inquisitive attitude that is the prerequisite of both the forager and the naturalist.

A Good Parcel of English Soil is a short book in a series Penguin commissioned, each of which is by a different author, each based in some way on one of the lines of the London Underground system. Mabey's line is the Metropolitan, the line that snakes its way out of the capital, starting near the centre at Faringdon and heading west and north, through the circling suburbs and out into the countryside towards distant Buckinghamshire places like Chalfont and Amersham. Its heartland is made up of those suburbs that the railway company cannily built to provide passengers for its trains, with their streets of Tudoresque semi-detached houses spreading through places from Wembley Park to Chesham. It's the place they called Metroland.

Mabey summarizes the story of Metroland's opportunistic development, and conjures up the neighbourly and oddball combination that characterizes the area. But the more interesting part of his book is what follows this summary, the author's account of his own explorations in the hinterland of the line – from his experiences around his childhood (and adult) home in Berkhamsted, where he learned to observe and to forage, to his explorations of line-side territory closer to London when he worked as an editor helping Penguin reinvent the school textbook in the 1960s.

These explorations cover a lot of ground. There are ancient woodlands and narrow lanes and bits of the Chiltern hills. But, perhaps more tellingly, there is the experience of finding nature where most people do not bother to look. There are martins nesting in an artificial sandbank, burgeoning Asian and Mediterranean shrubs colonizing derelict Victorian rubbish tips, grebes nesting in floating car tyres, swallows looping beneath gigantic sewage pipes, the remains of wartime vegetable gardens running beside the railway, red-crested pochard ('the oddest, most plastic-looking wild duck I had ever seen') at home on a man-made lake. What emerges from these observations is a sense that Metroland is a borderland between neat development and the countryside and the idea that the disintegration that occurs near development – the yards, vacant lots, rubbish tips, gravel pits, and so on – are sources of wonder and growth. This is the subject of another of Mabey's books, the marvellous The Unofficial Countryside, but it is a subject that is rich enough to warrant further exploration – further exploration is the whole point, after all –  in the light of the closeness of country and city that Metroland embodies. This closeness is wonderfully symbolized at the end of the book by the Red Kite, the bird that, reintroduced to the Chilterns, is now confirming its ability to be at home in urban and rural habitats alike. It's an inspiring source of optimism, this majestic bird, and in that, too, it is like the work of the master naturalist surveying the mix of town, country, and unpromising edgeland that he has described as his home patch.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Roman journeys

For my third pre-Christmas book review: Roman Britain revisited...

Charlotte Higgins, Under Another Sky
Published by Jonathan Cape

In some ways, the Romans made Britain. Cities, roads, classical architecture, a Latinate hoard of words – it sometimes seems as if the Romans built the foundations of the country and framed the way in which we talk about it. And yet the evidence on the ground is fragmentary – no standing Roman buildings remain intact in Britain. We have to make do with the occasional bit of wall, the odd arch, coins and mosaics in museums. So what would happen if one travelled the country in search of the Romans? Charlotte Higgins's book Under Another Sky is one answer.

Travelling, often puttering along in an old Volkswagen camper van, from Kent to Scotland and back again, Higgins surveys Roman Britain. In doing so she describes the Roman set-pieces – Hadrian's Wall, Bath – and little known sites like Lydney Park with its Roman temple or Scotland's Kinneil House, where there is a Roman fortlet. Her descriptions are evocative, whether she is surveying Silchester with its air 'sickly-sharp with the scent of elderflower' or contemplating the modern creations one must encounter when searching for Roman Scotland, such as the oil refinery at Grangemouth, where 'Monstrous pipes vermiculated their way around structures made on no human scale'. On the way the author describes not just the remains but the people associated with them, and an incendiary lot they are, from queen Boudica to Britain's breakaway Roman emperor, Carausius.

Good as it is to read about these journeys through Roman Britain, the book comes yet more alive with the author's meditations on others' encounters with the country's Roman past. In its pages we meet the 18th-century antiquarian William Stukeley, who advocated a study of Roman Britain as a kind of antidote to the grand tour, and his contemporary William Roy, who made meticulous plans of Scotland's Roman forts and the Antonine Wall. We read about the response to Rome of the members of the Scottish enlightenment and of the historian R G Collingwood. The excitement of discovery is brought to life in Higgins's meeting with the translators of the Vindolanda tablets. And then there are the literary responses to Roman Britain, from Joseph Conrad in The Heart of Darkness and Rosemary Sutcliff (in The Eagle of the Ninth and all) with her sharp eye and retentive visual memory, to W H Auden and his radio play Hadrian's Wall. The treasure trove here is Benjamin Britten's song 'Roman Wall Blues', written for the play but thought lost until 2005, when a copy of the vocal line turned up. Colin Matthews has now written a piano part, and the song has been recorded.

Higgins also helps to make some of the complexity of Roman Britain clear. She devotes several pages to the ethnic diversity of Roman Britain, patiently explaining the clear evidence that people from Africa and Syria, for example, lived in Britain in the Roman period. She also describes the torrents of abuse unleashed when a tabloid newspaper referred to this diversity as 'Roman multiculturalism' and its readers lambasted the careful work of the archaeologists as 'neo-Marxist, multicultist [sic] propaganda'.

This book, of course, is always on the side of the evidence and its thoughtful interpretation. It contains vivid, sometimes haunting, descriptions of Roman remains and places, while never losing sight of the fact that archaeological evidence is sometimes ambiguous and difficult to make sense of. There is a wonderful story from 1904 about the scholar Edward Nicholson translating a faint inscription on a small lead tablet, but getting it completely wrong because he was holding the tablet upside-down. Amusing as this is, for Higgins it's a salutary tale about the whole business of interpreting Roman Britain. Look at the evidence one way and it seems to say one thing; turn it around and the message is utterly different. This is the story of all interpretation, and also its fascination.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

On the town

Next in my series of book reviews, Ian Nairn (and Owen Hatherley) on Britain's towns...

Ian Nairn, Nairn's Towns, introduced by Owen Hatherley
Published by Notting Hill Editions

Even I, a teenager in the late 1960s and early 1970s, find it hard to believe now what a service the magazine The Listener did in bringing fresh and thoughtful analysis of current affairs and culture to the attention of so many in Britain. The magazine's brief was to put into print the best of the words broadcast by the BBC, but it cast its net wider than this, commissioning new pieces as well. It was a kind of Third Programme in print that I, for one, was fortunate to find in the school library every week. One thing it commissioned was a series of articles by Ian Nairn on British towns, from Canterbury to Newcastle, Cardiff to Cumbernauld. They were printed in The Listener in 1961 and 1964, and revised and reprinted in book form, as Britain's Changing Towns, in 1967. Here they are again, introduced by Owen Hatherley, who also provides brief updates to each essay, outlining what has happened to each town in the intervening years. They make fascinating and invigorating reading and, given that there is little else of Nairn in print (except for his contributions to the Pevsner volumes on Sussex and the outstanding Surrey), this beautifully produced volume from Notting Hill Editions is a good place to start.

No one before or since saw places quite the way Nairn did, no one has quite his combination of clear eye, willingness to look at the unregarded, and his particular prismatic quality of mind, an unusual blend of melancholy and enthusiasm. Time and time again he singles out the unexpected architectural highlights – a gents in a Birmingham pub and another in Liverpool, the Jarrold's printing works in Norwich, oddities like the Egyptian-style Oddfellows' Hall in Devonport. He comes out with judgements that make you think again, or look anew – English Perpendicular churches have a hysterical quality, he says; the Georgian churches of Marylebone are too 'polite'; soot-blackened or dirty buildings, from Birmingham to Sheffield, have a grandeur of their own.

It's not all oddity and perversity, though. When he gets stuck in, Nairn describes buildings and places beautifully, and gives one a sense of what makes them tick. He is particularly good on the way buildings, roads, and terrain interact – on townscape, in other words. Describing the slightly off-kilter central crossroads in Llanidloes, or the dramatic changes of level in Newcastle, or the American-style grid plan of Glasgow, or the varied grain of Brighton, he is at his best.

Good too, are the turns – and turns again – of phrase. He responds to buildings viscerally, and this often comes across in the physicality of his language. A flight of steps in Newcastle 'sucks you in like a vortex'; the meat and fish markets in Sheffield offer 'a staggering perspective of hooks and flesh'; St Bartholomew's in Brighton is 'more like a volcanic convulsion than a building'; the low ceiling height of the open ground floor of the Market Hall in Llanidloes means that when you step into it you put it on 'like a hat'. There are often comparisons with the other arts – a group of buildings can be like a fugue and the architecture of Nash is like Offenbach, an inspired comparison, that, with its overtones of the elegant, the cheeky, the sophisticated, the classical, the continental, and the not-quite-proper.

Nairn is discerning about architecture. He can see that some old buildings are dull, and that many modern buildings are bad, but finds room to praise the good ones and to appreciate the best of modern planning, while pouring scorn on the worst. His appreciation of townscapes and buildings comes from the heart, as his warmed-up turns of phrase reveal, but his mind is at work too, analysing and making suggestions for the future.

Did the planners take any notice? Owen Hatherley's postscripts to each essay tell us how things have gone in the half century since the accounts were first written. The reports vary a lot, of course. Canterbury and Chester have managed to conserve a lot, without putting up many very distinguished new buildings. Glasgow and Manchester have found new vigour, and some good new buildings, but at the expense of much sub-standard development. And so on. Hatherley mostly responds positively to the older writer's judgements, but rightly notes that Nairn's apolitical standpoint could land him in trouble – Nairn was optimistic about Derry in 1967, but it saw the beginning of the Troubles in 1968.

Hatherley is one of those, though, who have learned much from Nairn, and know it. In the postscripts he notices quite a few buildings and bits of planning that Nairn would have seized on. In one of the Fife towns he notices a 'staggeringly good' secondhand bookshop. I do not think Nairn's Towns will be ending up in that shop any time soon. People will want to hang on to this book. And rightly so.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Love and outrage

For ten days or so, English Buildings turns into a book blog as I review some of the new publications that have struck me this year. To begin with, a book about a presiding spirit of this blog, the writer and broadcaster, Ian Nairn...

Gillian Darley and David McKie, Ian Nairn: Words in Place
Published by Five Leaves Publications

There's a YouTube video in which Iain Sinclair and Jonathan Meades discuss their work. Before long, the name of Ian Nairn comes up, an inspiration for both writers for his fresh reactions to places, his combative stance towards architects, and his bracing prose style. His guidebook to London (Nairn's London, 1966) is singled out for particular praise. In the comments accompanying the video, some young, interested watchers exchange views: 'Who is that bloke they talked about? Ian Nunn? Ian Nenn?' Ian Nairn: Words in Place tells them what they need to know, combining a study of his work with such biographical facts as are useful for an understanding of the man and his writing.

Briefly, born in Bedford in 1930 and raised in Surrey, Nairn read mathematics at Birmingham University before going into the Royal Air Force. As he flew, he looked down towards England's towns and villages and landscapes: the first of the series of views from odd angles that drove his career. He realised that his aerial views of England gave him unique insights into the buildings on the ground – that he could often see what earthbound architectural historians could not. Oddly, he could do the same thing when standing on terra firma too. By the early 1950s he was sending articles to the Architectural Review.

Ian Nairn: Words in Place describes this unusual career. It begins with the story of how Nairn exploded on to the scene of architectural writing in 1955 with his first masterpiece, Outrage. Outrage was Nairn's special edition of the Architectural Review chronicling the destructive effects on the environment of the tendency to reduce once-individual places to the same mediocre and uniform pattern. To make this point, Nairn drove from Southampton to Carlisle, taking photographs of everything grim and similar – lamp posts, semi-detached houses, telegraph poles, badly designed signs, misplaced factories, gauche roundabouts, wires, wires, wires. For the result he coined a new term, subtopia, a word that suggests suburbia and well as dystopia, and that was intended to embody the fact that soon 'the end of Southampton will look like the beginning of Carlisle' with everything in between looking the same too. Outrage, trenchantly argued, angry, emotional, laid out with the graphic flair that characterized the AR in the 1950s, caught the imagination and fired people up. It was soon republished as a book, and spawned a sequel, Counter-attack, which suggested what to do about the mess, with examples of good planning and design. Outrage and Counter-attack were Nairn's seminal early works.

Darley and McKie chronicle the creation and impact of these early triumphs (the formation of the Civic Trust was one result). They continue with the other landmarks of Nairn's career – his book on America, The American Landscape; his work with Pevsner on the Buildings of England volumes for Sussex and Surrey; his guidebooks to London and Paris; his relationship with the professions; his journalism; and his television work. Each chapter is accompanied by a short commentary in which another writer describes their response to a specific part of Nairn's oeuvre – Jonathan Meades on Nairn and the Buildings of England, Owen Hatherley on Nairn and the Professions, and David Thomson and Andrew Saint on Nairn's London, for example.

It's Nairn's London that stands out as the other masterpiece, a love-song to a great city in the form of a guidebook, as radically and whackily positive as Outrage was negative. As ever with Nairn, what stand out are the unusual choices of buildings (27 pubs, a timber merchant's, the Agapemonite Church in Clapton, gloomy alleys, a boat-builder's Swiss chalet, the odd council estate, Eros House in Catford), the striking and sometimes assertive prose, the insistence on the importance of being moved, emotionally, by what he sees. It's that emotion that's the key. When a building moves him, when he loves a place, his prose takes off and you want to dash out and look at the place yourself. How could one resist a church that resembles an orgasm, or a bank that looks like something left when the seas receded, or a bit of public art that is 'energy made visible'? The arresting prose can be mind-boggling, but it always conveys something about the place. Nairn's London can still tell you more about the capital than a dozen newly-minted, media-savvy, buzzword-saturated guidebooks. It is good to know that there are plans to reprint it.

Ian Nairn: Words in Place is a celebration of all this, but it's also an elegy to a man who died too soon. Alcoholism got him, and, with a sheaf of ideas in his trademark raincoat pocket for further, unwritten books (Nairn's Industrial North – if only), he died, at just 53. His books, very much of their time, have been little reprinted, but Nairn should remain important to all who think about Britain's places and buildings. Never a favourite with architects (though appreciative of many modern buildings, he wrote a famous Observer article headed 'Stop the architects now!') he has always been read by people who, like himself, care about architecture but have no architectural qualifications. He still deserves to be read, and so does this engaging account of his work.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Dumbleton, Gloucestershire


To Dumbleton, on the border of Gloucestershire and Worcestershire, to visit the grave of Patrick Leigh Fermor, now marked with a headstone, which was revealed on 8 November, the feast of the Archangel Michael. Michael was the writer's second name and one he often used – as an infant he was 'Paddy-Mike', later he sometimes used Michael, although he was, and is, universally known among friends (and fans) as Paddy. So the feast of St Michael was his name day in Greece.

The stone matches that of his wife, Joan, to the left in the picture. Both are of Portland stone, both beautifully lettered, and both bear carved olive branches, Paddy's curving the opposite way to Joan's, but pointing towards hers, as hers now points towards his. The back of Paddy's stone is carved with the four points of the compass, a touch that makes the grave easy to navigate towards as one crosses Dumbleton churchyard.

Naturally, there is a line of Greek. Tom Sawford's excellent blog on Patrick Leigh Fermor translates the line as 'He was of that excellence which is of Greece', adding that it is a line in a poem by the great Alexandrian poet C P Cavafy. Looking at the volume of translated Cavafy poems on my shelves, I take it to be an extract from 'Epitaph of Antiochus, King of Kommagini' (if I have got this wrong, I'd welcome correction from the Greek scholars out there). In Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard's looser translation, the relevant passage of the poem comes out like this:
He was just, wise, and courageous.
In addition he was that best of all things, Hellenic –
mankind has no quality more precious...
Various other translators try alternatives to 'Hellenic', including 'a Greek', 'a Hellene', 'Greek-souled', and 'Greek-cultured'. But perhaps the best bit is the following, and final, line: 'everything beyond that belongs to the gods'.


My review of Artemis Cooper's biography of Patrick Leigh Fermor is here. I will try to post a review of Paddy's The Broken Road soon.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

King's Cross, London


A friend recently lent me a bound volume of copies of the Illustrated London News from 1852. What had struck my friend about this volume was the extraordinary amount of space devoted to the Duke of Wellington, who died on 14 September 1852. This coverage is indeed remarkable, but amongst the various special supplements on Wellington's life, the pages of reminiscences, and the exhaustive illustrated account of the Duke's funeral, are scattered a few items of news about London's buildings.

One that I thought was particularly timely is headed 'Great Northern Railway' and records that 'The buildings for the passenger traffic of this railway at King's Cross are fast approaching completion.' The article dwells at some length on the station front, with its two imposing arches, each of a span of 'no less than 71 feet', marking the ends of the arrival and departure platforms, and its clock, brought here after being displayed at the Great Exhibition. The piece also quotes the analysis of the facade in The Builder, which notices how 'great plainness prevails; the architect depends wholly for effect on the largeness of some of the features, the fitness of the structure for its purpose, and a characteristic expression of the purpose.'

In 1852, as the image in the Illustrated London News shows, there was plenty of space in front of Lewis Cubitt's facade, affording room for all the Victorian bustle that surrounded such a place – carriages, wagons, omnibi, sandwichmen, and the pedestrian host.

By the last decades of the last century, however, our eyes were distracted from the size, plainness, and purposefulness of this frontage by the sorry accumulation of additional buildings that had been piled in front. Now, as part of the restoration of King's Cross station, these have been swept away and, although parts of the square in front of the building are still boarded up, people can bustle and the amazing facade may be seen again. True, the architects of the restoration and upgrade have provided a discreet canopy that cuts through the small lower entrance arches. But this seems a small price to pay for the clearing up of the frontage and the chance to see clearly the two magnificent arches once again.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Berwick Street, London

The red and the black

The multiple name sign in my previous post reminded me of this conjunction of old and newish in Soho. I mostly associate street names made of individual ceramic tile letters with Hampstead (London NW3), although they also appear in other places, including Ilfracombe, I believe. In NW3 they go back well into the Victorian period, and help create the pleasing coherence of the street design in that part of North London.

In my picture, however, similar letters were used in Berwick Street, Soho, and now they are a little the worse for wear. What to do, when two letters fall off and no replacements can be found? Resisting the idea of renaming the street Erwic Street and being done with it, the solution seems to have been to install one of the City of Westminster's more recent sign designs. These enamelled steel plates are now ubiquitous in Central London and so familiar that the overused word iconic might be applied to them by the unwary. The design was produced in around 1968 by Chris Tinings (and/or Misha Black: sources vary) of the consultancy Design Research Unit. The lettering is in Univers Bold Condensed with a careful use of red and black to make the information really clear.

So while the standard metal sign tells us where we are, the remains of the old tiled sign remind us how we might once have found our way around. Once more, graphic clutter reveals a bit of the past.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

St Giles High Street, London

In a name

Tucked between Charing Cross Road and Centre Point are a couple of rather dusty-looking blocks of presumably Victorian flats with shops below. They are called Clifton Mansions and York Mansions, and, although I must have passed them scores of times I'd not noticed much about them except to register a general impression of rows of windows and classical details. When we were passing by again the other day, the Resident Wise Woman looked up and pointed at this interesting bit of signage. 'Look at the two kinds of lettering,' she said, and I got out my camera and snapped, holding the thing as steadily as I could in the gloaming. We commented on changing fashions, how someone had felt the need to replace high Victorian curvaceous carved lettering with plainer, blockier, more grotesque capitals to satisfy some late-Victorian taste. And then we continued our journey in the direction of Covent Garden.

I thought nothing more of this until I picked out my picture to post on the blog, took a closer look, and realised that there are in fact three generations of lettering not two. One is, indeed, curvaceous and carved, and part of it, saying 'SIONS' (presumably part of the word 'Mansions') is clearly visible where the later plaster has peeled away. Another is, indeed, in bold capitals, painted on the plaster that has partly peeled, and enough of it survives that we can read 'CLIFTON MAN'. But look closely to the right of 'CLIFTON' and a ghostly 'Y' can be seen. Look closer still (you'll have to click on the image to make it display larger) and there is clearly another word in bold capitals beneath 'CLIFTON'. I think it's 'SALISBURY' but the first 'S' has vanished. And what is that under the bottom line? 'HO'? Could this building have begun as Clifton Mansions, changed its name to Salisbury House, then changed back to Clifton Mansions?

So what was going to be a post about two styles of lettering has developed into a puzzle about naming that has left me mystified. Does anyone know anything about these buildings and their names?

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In the comments section there is now an incredibly detailed and interesting note from Shui-Long (for which many thanks), the conclusion of which is that the building had three successive names:
'Some time between 1895 and 1899 flats were created on the upper floors as no.54 High St, with the name "Dover Mansions"; between 1899 and 1910 this was changed, with no.54 becoming "Salisbury House" and no.57 becoming "Winchester House"; and some time after 1915, the names were changed again to "Clifton Mansions" (54) and "York Mansions" (57).'
The part of the building in my photograph is No.54, so it was successively Dover Mansions, Salisbury House, and Clifton Mansions. Please see the Comments section for more detail.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Goltho, Lincolnshire

Lost village, lost church

Writing in the Observer in March 1967, Ian Nairn listed thirteen English churches that he recommended to readers as worth a visit over the coming Easter Holiday. This baker's dozen were, he said, untouched by restorers and included such wonders as the parish church at Whitby, Yorkshire, and that at Inglesham, Wiltshire, both among my personal favourites. One of the smallest and least known was the church of St George, Goltho, lost among fields and trees not far from Wragby in Lincolnshire, a church that belonged to a 'deserted' medieval village.

If you were after atmosphere, Goltho was the place: a brick church with a whitewashed interior, simple pews, a two-decker pulpit. It was a place of quiet and tranquility that transcended its basic, if interesting, architecture of perhaps around 1530. It was right, somehow, that the derivation of the village name is from Saxon words meaning 'the place where the marigolds grow', even if oilseed rape is the more likely source of local colour these days.

I'm sad to be writing about this building in the past tense. A few days ago the building caught fire. There is not much left now except the walls – roof and fittings have gone, the plaster has come off the interior walls. It's a sorry mess, due, it's thought, to a lightning strike. Nature, that provided the building with its perfect setting, can also take its toll.

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Photograph © Copyright J.Hannan-Briggs and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Friday, November 1, 2013

Dunstable, Bedfordshire

Sweet and simple

Trim 18th-century brickwork, perhaps of 1717, the date on the rainwater heads, marks out the Old Sugar Loaf as a building of some consequence, and a plaque says that there has been an inn on this site in the centre of Dunstable since 1660. It was a first-class posting and coaching inn by the time of its 18th and 19th-century heyday, a place where travellers liked to stop, especially if their coach arrived in time for dinner – the early menus were said to be lavish. But what caught my eye of course was the sign, a gigantic conical sugar loaf placed atop the rather stripped-down, Regency-looking Doric portico. Eyecatching, bold, and literal, it does the job, I suppose, though it's hardly the most artful of the unusual English inn signs I've spotted in my travels.

The thin bands running around the cone seem to be the wires of fairy lights, which presumably enliven the scene at night. The idea of sparkling lights reminds me that the sugar loaf also looks like one of those 'volcano' fireworks that spark and splutter on bonfire night. Here's to architectural (and semiological) fireworks.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Meysey Hampton, Gloucestershire

A practised classicism

According to the way the history of English church architecture is usually written, there were relatively few churches built between the point when Henry VIII dealt his knock-out blow to the old religion by breaking with Rome and the rise of Classical architecture, which, although it had a brief flowering under Inigo Jones in the Jacobean period, really only got going with Wren after the Great Fire of London in 1666. The churches that were built in the years in between these two watersheds are often in a kind of hybrid style that isn't always easy to classify – a mix of Gothic, Classical, and vernacular – that means they're not 'good examples' of any one style, and so they get overlooked or glossed over.

But if there's not much church building, there's certainly a lot of church architecture from this period. How can this be? Because the architecture is not for the living but for the dead: it is the architecture of church monuments. Here's a wonderful example, from the church at Meysey Hampton in Gloucestershire – it's worth clicking on the picture to reveal some of the detail. It's the monument of James Vaulx, a physician, and his two wives, Editha (on his right) and Philipe (a Jacobean Phillippa, presumably, on his left). The portraits of the three are charming – Vaulx in his doctor's gown and pointed beard, resting his arm on a skull and leaning towards his first wife, whose head is slightly inclined, in turn, towards him. Philipe stares ahead, by contrast, looking life in the face. She has no skull and carries a protective pomander: she survived her husband and lived to marry again. I find these figures rather moving and the nuances of pose that the sculptor allowed himself (or was allowed by eldest son Francis who commissioned the monument) very English in their restraint. Below them are tiny images of the children, Editha's twelve (how those women worked at childbirth) and Philipe's four; some, shown in bed, presumably died before their father. Above amongst the pediments at the top of the monument are figures of the virtues.

And then there is the architecture. Look at the way the sculptor has invoked the panoply of Jacobean classicism – pediments variously shaped, scrolls, composite columns, panels, keystones, cartouches, cherubim with winged heads, niches – to frame and display his subjects. He was able to add colour too, reminding us that even in the supposedly retrained phase of the English church, things were brighter and more vivid than we sometimes think. It all adds up to a grand monument but in a rough-hewn provincial manner. Perhaps this is right for its subject. Vaulx was eminent but didn't make it to the top job of royal physician. When King James asked him how he knew how to heal, the doctor replied that he had learned by practice. 'Then by my saule thou hast killed money a man,' responded James. 'Thou shalt na'practise on me.'

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

On the A44

Shires and stones

As I've said before on this blog, I have a mental map that charts my comings and goings, and this map is populated with landmarks – lone trees, filling stations, telephone boxes, barns, and so on. One of these landmarks is the Four Shire Stone, a boundary marker by the side of the A44 just east of Moreton-in-Marsh. It commemorates an unusual phenomenon, a point where the boundaries of four counties once met. It's inscribed with the names of these counties – Gloucestershire, Oxfordshire, Warwickshire, and Worcestershire – and for many travellers it means either' 'You've nearly reached Moreton-in-Marsh' or 'You have about 7 miles to go before you reach Chipping Norton', depending on their direction of travel.

If you look on a modern map that includes county boundaries you will see that nowadays only three counties meet here – Worcestershire is some way off, and was included on the stone because in years gone by there was an outlying parish, Evenlode, that formed part of Worcestershire but was as it were in a land-locked zone or exclave of Worcestershire that was surround mainly by territory that belonged to Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire. There were several of these curious exclaves and the Worcestershire antiquary Thomas Habington (1560–1647) deals with them rather poetically, declaring: 'Meethincketh I see our Shyre as mounted on a Pegasus flyinge over the neighbouring counties, and coming to the confines of Oxfordshire … he caryethe the authority of our county about and over Coteswould … as at Evenlode… which altho' seperated with parishes not attending our county yet is wholy ours. It joynethe on Morten Henmarsh heath on the stone which touches four sheeres.'

So four shires there were. I'm not sure exactly how old the stone is, though. Habington obviously knew of such a stone in the 17th century, and the beautiful Barcheston tapestry map of 1580 labels a 'Fowre Sheer Ston'. Samuel Rudder, the historian of Gloucestershire, also knew about the stone, describing it in 1779 as consisting of 'a handsome pedestal about 12 feet high with a dial on the top and an inscription to inform travellers that "This is the Four Shire Stone".' Oddly, however, some early maps depict four stones, one for each county, and the stone's listing text suggests that it is 18th century. These confusions suggest that it has probably been replaced, or altered, during its long history.

Looking at the stone recently it occurred to me that the lettering on it looks 19th century. Local historians seem to confirm the late date of the lettering, at least  – apparently the stone was damaged by vandalism in the late 19th century and the sundial at the top removed. When the stone was repaired, the present lettering and the ball finial were added.

In 1931 there was one of the periodic revisions of the county boundaries. The Worcestershire exclave that included the parish of Evenlode was incorporated into Gloucestershire, and only three counties have met at this point since then. But the stone keeps its place on the maps, both literal and mental, and marks the journeys of many as they whiz on their way along the A44.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Ilminster, Somerset

Retail therapy

The High Street, as every television pundit, every economics correspondent, every social commentator, will tell you, is not what it was. Old-fashioned small shops are closing, established chains disappearing, shop fronts being boarded up – and everyone complains about it, then goes home, fires up the laptop, and starts shopping online. Even in my own small Cotswold town ('vibrant' and 'buoyant' are the typical catch-all descriptions) another High Street business closed the other day. But it's not all gloom. I'm always visiting towns and finding old businesses surviving, against the odds, and showing us what shops used to be like and still can be. Rickard's, the ironmongers of Ludlow, are a case in point. Another is Dyer's in Ilminster.

This shop was founded in 1870 by R P Wheadon and, as Wheadon's, it expanded over a 60 year period from a small draper's into quite a large shop with several departments offering men's and women's clothing as well as the stock in trade of the draper and haberdasher. In around about 1910 there must have been a major refit – the lovely frontage with its curving centrepiece and carved swags probably dates to this time. So do many of the interior fittings – wooden counters, all sorts of shelves for bolts of cloth, drawers for buttons and bows, a curved cashier's desk with cash drawer and low glass screens. Some of the glass-fronted counters in the menswear department are perhaps a bit later, maybe after R A Dyer took over the business in 1937.

Like quite a lot of drapers in the early-20th century, Dyer's expansion from cloth to clothes turned it into a kind of ur-department store. The shop has shrunk again since then, but it's still a wonderful sight, a business from another era, still going in spite of everything the pundits say about the decline of the High Street. I hope it continues to do so.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Burford, Oxfordshire


Prevented as I am by back pain from sustained sitting at the computer, here's a fragmentary post about a fragment of medieval stained glass.

In quite a few of our medieval churches, the odd bit of medieval stained glass has survived time, iconoclasm, and breakages caused by such things as poorly maintained supporting ironwork. At first glance these patches of colour, broken and removed from their context, appear rather sad, but look closer and the light that shines through them illuminates hidden worlds. Here, at St John the Baptist, Burford, one of my favourite parish churches, are the head of lady, a patch of blue sky, some Gothic script, a few tantalizing scraps of pattern. The colour alone of that wedge of blue and the drawing of that face are enough to make one pause and marvel.

I wrote at more length, here, on some more preserved shards of glass, bearing images of the head of a saint and a fragment of architecture, from the same church.

Thursday, October 10, 2013


Back again

More than five and a half years ago (sometimes I find it hard to believe I have been blogging for so long) I wrote a post about this building in Oxford, and accompanied my thoughts with a rather lacklustre photograph, the best I could muster at the time. Aware that my photograph did not do the building justice, every time I've been in central Oxford since then I've had a look to see if the facade could be viewed with sunlight on its stone and without cars parked in front. As you can see, I have almost managed it – just the rear end of one car prevented me from getting the whole facade in the frame, and even with this intrusion, the result seemed closer to the mark.

So here it is: Vanbrugh House, a building of the early-18th century by an unknown designer that has more than a hint of the eponymous architect (or his brilliant assistant Hawksmoor) about it: those very plain window surrounds, with just the keystones emphasized on the upper floors and aprons in the middle floor; the exaggerated cornice and canopy; the pair of giant pilasters rising all the way up the building; the narrow space between the pilasters; the very plain doorway. The pilasters are especially odd: they seem to have been parked in front of the rest of the frontage, filling the gaps between the evenly spaced windows like an abandoned piece of stage scenery. The decoration towards the tops of the pilasters, beneath the protruding canopy, is also rather like scenery – a couple of those three-banded triglyphs to provide the idea of an entablature, but not the thing itself.

Like all scenery, it needs good lights. On a dark day, it can look brooding and oppressive. But with some sunshine it comes to life – although there's no getting away from the sheer weight of all that stone. Whoever designed it, he deserves Abel Evans's epitaph for Vanbrugh himself: 'Lie heavy on him, Earth! For he Laid many heavy loads on thee!'

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Bradford-on-Avon, Wiltshire

Between the fish and the water

Because I'm drawn to small buildings that take unconventional forms I've posted about lock-ups – round, square, pyramidal – on several occasions. This is one of my favourites, a small building on the town bridge in Bradford-on-Avon.  It has the typical lock-up features – small windows, strong stone roof, compact footprint. But its position on the bridge and over the river, and its structure – the base corbelled out from the bridge pier and its roof corbelled back in again and tapering to an elaborate finial – make it more striking than most.

The bridge itself was originally medieval and was repaired in the 16th and 17th centuries, but the lock-up's history is slightly confusing. Many sources say that before it was used to lock-up petty thieves and other miscreants, the building was a chapel, or that the lock-up was built on the 'foundations' of a chapel that existed here before. The building's official listing actually describes it as a chapel, saying that it was later used as a lock-up and an ammunition store. But the Victoria County History is doubtful. The only evidence for its use as a chapel is a comment by John Aubrey, who described in about 1660, 'a strong and handsome bridge, in the middest of which is a little chapel, as at Bath, for Mass'. This is said to be the only evidence for the building's religious use.* Leland does not mention it. By 1757 it was certainly a lock-up. William Hitchens, an early Methodist from Cornwall, was locked up in it for a night during that year.

The weather vane on top of the lock-up is in the form of a fish, a gudgeon, and apparently gives rise to a local expression for temporary imprisonment, 'below the fish and above the water'. Although some sources say the vane is 16th century, again there seems to be little evidence for this. The VCH notes that it is recorded in 1858 but not shown in an engraving of about 1800. It now seems to be brilliantly gilded, an eye-catcher for passing photographers, whose efforts ensure that there will be plenty of evidence for the building's survival into the 21st century.
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*On the other hand, Aubrey was a Wiltshire man, so may have had local knowledge.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Potsgrove, Bedfordshire

Out of place?

It has recently been announced that the Royal Mail, the service that delivers letters in the UK, is about to become a private company. This state-owned letter-delivery service can trace its history back 497 years to the reign of Henry VIII, although in its present form it could be said to have had a new beginning in 1840. This was the year when, with the introduction of the penny post and the first pre-paid postage stamps, the service guaranteed to deliver any letter posted to an address in Great Britain for a uniform rate, paid by the sender.

An essential element in the postal system is the mail box, and I've blogged before about some of the various kinds of box found in England, including pillar boxes and wall boxes of various types. Here's another kind, the compact metal container known as a lamp box because it is designed not to be inserted into brickwork, as in my photograph, but attached to a lamp post or telegraph pole by means of  pair of metal loops fixed to the side of the box. Lamp boxes originally had steeply curving metal tops, but this design, with a shallower curve, came in the time of George V and lasted into George VI's reign (1936–52) – the later king's monogram is cast into the front of this example. The gently curving top reminds me slightly of the roof of a telephone box and harks back to the time when telephone and postal services were both run by the same body.

If this lamp box is rather out of place with its side loops removed and set into a brick pillar, it's clearly still doing its job. And how often have I seen the happy blend of a red rural post box and a growth of green ivy working its way around the metal, to be cleared away occasionally but never obliterated? Will the postal service be out of place in the public sector or manage to accommodate itself to the demands of shareholders, pressing around its edges like the invasive ivy around this box? Time will tell.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Broughton, Buckinghamshire

St George: martyr, knight, protector

In about 1410 the walls of St Lawrence's church, Broughton were decorated with a very striking series of wall paintings. Rather less that 140 years later these paintings were whitewashed over as part of the iconoclasm associated with the English Reformation. They lay beneath the whitewash until the building was restored in 1849, when they were rediscovered, the whitewash was removed, and some of the images were retouched. What was revealed, and what is there now includes: a painting of the Doom showing St Michael weighing souls, the walls of the Heavenly City and the mouth of Hell; a Pietà surrounded by figures thought to represent a warning to swearers; portraits of Saints Helena and a Bishop-Saint, probably Eligius; and this painting of St George slaying the dragon.

The upper part of St George's body has not survived (this was a casualty of a roof replacement), but the remaining part of the painting, above the South door of the church, is still remarkable. The horse, especially its head, and the saint's plate armour are carefully drawn, with a strong line. The dragon is even more amazing, with its ribbed wing, curling tail ending in a small head, and its main head, striped, toothed, and with pointed ears. Behind this exotic beast, the small figure of the princess (in late-medieval costume, with lamb) is rather insignificant, but no doubt she had more presence when he original detail was visible.
Broughton, dragon, detail

Although, as is well known, St George did not come from England, he has long been associated with the country, as well as with knightly virtues and a propensity to protect those in need. He was a popular saint, and a prayer by the poet Lydgate (who was alive when this painting was done) puts him in a list of ten martyr-saints, also including Christopher and Catherine, who had the power to assist devotees in the attainment of their everyday wants and needs. Perhaps it's appropriate that the worshipper in this church saw, on entering, the rather frightening Doom painting, with its fearsome hell-mouth, but, on leaving, saw above the door the protective figure of St George, who would stand by them as they went out again into the world.
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St Lawrence, Broughton, is one the churches in the care of the Churches Conservation Trust. I have blogged before about the Trust's work. They deserve our support.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Preston, Lancashire

Listed and classified

It was announced this week that the bus station at Preston, built in 1969 to designs by Keith Ingham and Charles Wilson of Building Design Partnership, has been listed, making demolition or major alteration much less likely.

This has been a controversial building. It has been called an 'eyesore' and the local council have pressed for its demolition (that pressure was all the stronger when there were plans to build a large shopping mall on the site, plans that fell through when the recession hit). But in a survey, eighty per cent of local residents said that they felt attached to it and organizations such as English Heritage have campaigned for its preservation. I am on the side of the preservers here. I like the way the building combines the double-eight space for buses and passengers on the ground floor with the floors for parking above. The curving balconies of the parking floors are stunning, making a kind of sculptural impact that is head and shoulders above most multi-storey car parks, or most modern buildings for that matter. Inside the bus station, the public areas are well designed and retain many of their original features – white tiled walls, dark hardwood fittings, modernist clocks.

One of the interesting things, architecturally, about the bus station is that it's usually referred to as a Brutalist building. But Brutalism, the bête noire of haters of modern architecture, is actually rather hard to define. Penguin's Dictionary of Architecture and Landscape Architecture, for example, defines it primarily in relation to the architects that influenced it and pioneered it – late Le Corbusier, the Smithsons, Stirling and Gowan. It goes on to say, 'Brutalism nearly always uses concrete exposed at its roughest (béton brut) and handled with overemphasis on big chunky members which collide ruthlessly.' Preston Bus Station hardly matches this description. The concrete's curves are the opposite of rough and the elements don't collide, they are combined with care and flair. The building seems to me to embody a kind of softened modernism that is very British. But Preston Bus Station is very big, and built from concrete: it gets tarred with Brutalism's broad brush.* 

Like it or not, then, it's listed, but that's just the beginning of the story. A building like this comes with huge challenges. Maintaining it, adapting it so that it's properly integrated with the city centre, even keeping those uriniferous stairwells clean – all this costs money and requires determination. I hope English Heritage will support the council in finding ways to meet these challenges.

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* Gothic, the name of a barbarian tribe; Baroque, an imperfect pearl; Brutalism; we do beat ourselves up, rather, with our designations for architectural styles.

Thanks to Jack Meacher for permission to use his photographs.