Sunday, March 30, 2014

Boscobel, Shropshire

What we think about when we think about ruins

The other week I found myself not far from the ruins of White Ladies Priory, a medieval house of Augustinian canonesses in quiet, remote country in Shropshire. You walk up a muddy tree-lined track to the ruins and as you reach the site the trees part and the vista opens up so you take in not just the fragmentary walls of the monastery but also swathes of woods, fields, and rolling hills beyond. There’s not a lot here, but the place is so quiet that in the shadow of these few 12th-century walls you can get a sense of the peaceful life that the five canonesses, their prioress, and their few lay servants perhaps lived until Henry VIII closed the monasteries and forced the White Ladies (so called because of their pale linen habits) to leave.

Ruins, I find, encourage such thoughts about the past, and much else. They seem to bring us close to figures of the past – knights, it may be, or nuns, or canonesses, while at the same time, by their very ruination making the past seem remote. They evoke sympathy with their builders and opprobrium for the vandals, enemies, and demolition men who came after them. They warn us of our own mortality, and point to the disappointments with which our endeavours might end, giving us an image of our own melancholy in the process. They embody the confrontation of art and nature, but also remind us of the softening of the edges that time brings to buildings, the softening that Ruskin, for example, preferred to the hard lines of the new. They open up, in short, space for all kinds of Romantic contemplation of the past and present.

Not all of this is pleasurable, but there is a long tradition of the aesthetic and emotional enjoyment of ruins, an attitude that the Germans call Ruinenlust, a term turned into the English Ruin Lust in the title of an exhibition currently showing at Tate Britain in London. The Tate exhibition traces this back to the Romantics with magnificent pictures of Tintern Abbey (by Turner amongst others), and with Constable’s sketch of Hadleigh Castle. Other highlights include works by Piper, Sutherland, and Paul Nash, Jon Savage’s haunting images of Uninhabited London, and Jane and Louise Wilson’s photographs of Nazi fortifications on the Atlantic Wall. From John Martin’s vast canvas of the destruction of Pompeii to Tacita Dean’s Kodak, an elegy for 16 mm film, it’s thought-provoking stuff, of great visual richness.

And yet I longed for more – on the historical background of ruin-watching, for example. This goes back much further than the Romantic period, especially in literature. A scene in John Webster’s play The Duchess of Malfi (c 1614), for example, has Antonio, the husband of the Duchess, meditating on ruins:

I do love these ancient ruins:
We never tread upon them but we set
Our foot upon some reverend history.
And questionless, here in this open court,
Which now lies naked to the injuries
Of stormy weather, some men lied interr’d
Lov’d the church so well, and gave so largely to’t,
They thought it should have canopy’d their bones
Till doomsday; but all things have their end…

In the first three lines of this speech, Antonio is alluding to John Florio’s English translation of Montaigne’s essays, in which Montaigne himself is quoting Cicero, which shows how far back such thoughts can be traced. Countless Renaissance painters, 18th-century poets, and their successors who are chronicled in the Tate exhibition have had similar thoughts and transmuted them into art. At the ruined priory in Shropshire I was not, I thought, too far from them in spirit as I scraped the mud from my shoes and thought of Charles I, who hid here when he escaped after the Battle of Worcester during the English Civil War and, before him, of the White Ladies walking in the lanes around their isolated church and monastery, 500 and more years ago.
Doorway, White Ladies Priory, Shropshire
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Among the books on responses to ruins are: Brian Dillon, Ruin Lust (Tate Publishing, 2014), produced for the exhibition; Christopher Woodward, In Ruins (Chatto & Windus, 2001); and, best of all, Rose Macaulay’s classic, Pleasure of Ruins (Thames and Hudson, 1966).

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Brockworth, Gloucestershire

The future, once

Here’s another prefab, a different design from the ones in my previous post. It’s one of a kind that I remember seeing when I was a child, and which recalls a particularly distinctive vision of times to come.

The Welsh politician Neil Kinnock spent his childhood living in a prefab in South Wales, and is on record as saying of the experience that it was like living in the future, and that his home produced an abiding impression of cleanliness and newness. Many residents who moved into prefabs in the years after World War II felt something similar. ‘We felt that we were part of something new and exciting,’ said one, quoted in Greg Stevenson’s Palaces for the People. A colleague of mine who as a child had a prefab-dwelling friend said something similar: travelling from his home to the friend’s prefab was like entering the space age. 

The prefab in my picture is one of those on the Gloucestershire estate that my colleague was referring to. It’s one of a kind known as the BL8 Aluminium Bungalow, a design produced by the Hawksley Company, which was set up by Gloster Aircraft Company and based in nearby Hucclecote. These BL8s had wall and roof panels made of Duralamin, an aluminium alloy used in aircraft production. The windows have steel frames and inside the buildings had, I think, fitted kitchens and bathrooms that were similar to those in the other prefab types and that so impressed people with their modernity. Modern, that is, for the time – BL8 were made in the late 1940s and early 1950s, so were not part of the Temporary Housing Programme that brought the other prefabs into being immediately after the war. Indeed, they were seen as a higher-spec design and were intended to be longer-lasting.

These aluminium prefabs survive in a few places (there are apparently some in Letchworth, which I’ve not seen), but here in Brockworth nearly all of them have in recent years been clad in more conventional materials, so that brick walls and tiled roofs make them look less industrial and more like conventional bungalows. The example in my picture is one of a very few that retain their original outside walls, roofs, and window frames, although there’s a new door. I remember similar prefabs from my own childhood, which was long enough ago for the painted metal walls to look shiny and for the neat rows of little bungalows to give just that sense of difference and modernity that others noticed.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Catford, London

Far from ordinary

‘The glory of the ordinary’ was one reader’s comment on this blog and its subject matter, especially the parts of it that concern themselves with shacks, corrugated iron barns, battered factories, and other unregarded delights. But I didn’t always pay attention to this kind of architectural ordinariness – extraordinary buildings, from English cathedrals to Italian palazzi, once seemed more worthwhile, and years ago, when I lived not far from southeast London’s Excalibur prefab estate, I didn’t look at the place very closely, pausing only to be amused by the Arthurian street names (Ector Road, Pelinore Road) and to notice the similarities between the prefabs that lined these streets and the ones I remembered not far from where I lived as a child. There had always been prefabs around, ‘war prefabs’ as my parents and their friends called them, built en masse to relieve the housing shortage (and to give the suddenly underemployed aircraft industry something to do) after World War II.

Back in the 1960s, when I was a boy, the thing that my parents said about these prefabs were that they were meant to be temporary dwellings, with a life of ten years or so, and that the little houses had done well to last twice that time already. Now, 60 or more years after their construction, there are very few of these prefabs left: most have been demolished to make way for more modern housing, often at a higher density to take advantage of today’s high city land values.

So prefabs are no longer ordinary. The Excalibur Estate is now the only surviving prefab estate left, and is itself threatened with demolition. English Heritage have listed a handful of the prefabs (and the estate’s curious prefabricated church), but the council want to pull down the other 180 prefabs and replace them with a larger number of more modern dwellings. My feelings about this are mixed. On the one hand, London needs more good social housing and the prefabs would prove costly to preserve. On the other, the prefabs are a unique bit of social and architectural history. The residents, when polled, voted for demolition and redevelopment, by a narrow margin of 56 to 44 per cent.

The estate was built in 1945–6, and consists of prefabricated Uni-Seco bungalows, which have a timber frame supporting panels of asbestos cement. There are metal-framed windows and roofs with a very gentle pitch that look flat. The Uni-Seco was one of 13 different types of prefab built in Britain in the 1940s under the government’s Temporary Housing Programme, which eventually saw some 150,000 prefabs built to help relieve the housing shortage. More would have been built, but the prefabs (whether in wood, aluminium, concrete, or asbestos cement – there were examples of all these forms of construction) were actually quite costly to produce, so traditional, permanent, brick-built houses eventually prevailed.

Most residents liked their prefabs, not least because they came with modern features such as fully equipped bathrooms,  indoor lavatories, and fitted kitchens with hot and cold water and something that most British houses lacked in 1948: a refrigerator. This was the kind of specification that many Brits could only dream of in the post-war period and the buildings, with their almost-flat roofs, white walls, and large windows, looked modern too. If they cared about such things, the original tenants might have reflected that at last their were getting a bit of the modern design that had been such a hit in Europe. But the generous gardens were probably just as important to them.

And there, for now, they stand, their chivalric street names (actually a continuation of a theme used to name streets in a neighbouring estate) evoking both post-war patriotism and 21st-century defiance. In this age of austerity, these far-from ordinary little buildings are worth a thought and, it seems to me, some admiration too.

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With thanks to Caroline, of the excellent blog Caroline’s Miscellany, for the pictures. Her own piece on the Excalibur Estate is well worth reading.

There is an ongoing project to record the history of prefabs here.

The best books on prefabs are Greg Stevenson, Palaces for the People (Batsford, 2003) and Brenda Vale, Prefabs: A History of the UK Temporary Housing Programme (E & F N Spon, 1995)

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Great Wishford, Wiltshire

Hands to the pump, or, Odd things in churches (3)

One of the oldest fire engines in Britain is kept in St Giles Church Great Wishford. The churchwardens bought the fire engine from engineer Richard Newsham in 1728. It was a horse-drawn appliance and the pumps inside were hand operated and could shift about 65 gallons of water per minute – you needed a team of ten or so people working the pump handles to achieve this. The machine was quite costly – the churchwardens paid £33 and 3 shillings for it, a considerable sum in the 1720s – but it must have been worth it at a time when there was no organized fire service, timber buildings made fires a frequent hazard, and the system of fire insurance that evolved in the 18th century only covered those who paid the premium. Even in the Victorian period, and well into the 20th century, the fire engine was still apparently used in the village.

I don't think the fire engine was originally kept in the church, although in a way it would have made sense to keep it there  – everyone would have known where it was and access would have been easy. And in the 18th century people were a lot less precious about using a church in this way than they were in later periods. Nowadays, we half expect to find relics and curiosities of former ages in our churches, but even bearing this in mind, coming across this shining red monster is quite a surprise.

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The photograph is © Copyright Miss Steel and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons License.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Much Wenlock, Shropshire


Almshouses. There are little rows of them all over England, the result mostly of acts of local charity that have helped house the poor, the needy, and the old for hundreds of years. Their architecture ranges from the simple to the ornate and often has a touch of the Gothic about it, with pointed, ecclesiological arches over windows and doorways reminding one perhaps of the houses’ origins in Christian charity, and sometimes alluding to their antiquity – some almshouse charities go back hundreds of years, to the medieval period. Sometimes, these Gothic touches are probably just there to make the buildings stand out, to indicate that these little buildings are different from the run of the mill of houses built by local landlords or developers.

These almshouses in Much Wenlock probably date from around 1800 and their touch of Gothic is provided by the distinctive double-curved ogee arches above the windows and doors. Ogees first became fashionable in the 14th century, as part of the ornate kind of Gothic architecture that the Victorians called Decorated Gothic. But there’s nothing else Decorated Gothic about these houses. They’re rather plain brick buildings and the simple wooden doors and white-framed windows don’t make any concessions to the curved arches above them – the doors and windows are resolutely rectangular and the gaps between them and the arches are filled with plain white plastered panels. Oddly enough, the white panels catch the eye and make the arches more obvious. They’re like signs or reminders that tell us that these are almshouses, and they’re that little bit different, and proud of it too.

Thursday, March 13, 2014



Although I must have walked past this building hundreds of times when I lived in Oxford, I never paid it much attention. In those days my mind was on other things and the building didn’t have the blue plaque that it has today, pointing out to passers by that the ‘Oxford Playhouse began here 1923–1938 in the former Big Game Museum built in 1906’.

Big Game Museum?

The Big Game Museum was the brainchild of one Charles Victor Alexander Peel, an old Etonian for whom reducing the wildlife population of Africa seems to have been something of an obsession. Peel was convinced that big game hunting was an excellent activity for a young man, combining adventure with science (the opportunity to discover, record, and collect species) and ‘sport’. He promoted his enthusiasm in several books that chronicled his expeditions in Africa and beyond. Titles such as Somaliland and The Length of Africa: Being an Account of a Journey from Cape Town to Alexandria and Sport in Kenya Colony and On a Collection of Insects and Arachnids Made in 1895 and 1897 in Somaliland and The Polar Bear Hunt give a flavour of what drove him. By the early 1900s he had amassed so many pelts and mounted skeletons that he conceived the idea of housing them in a museum. This building on Oxford’s Woodstock Road was the result.

The big upper windows must have provided a light space in which to display the specimens. Their white frames and scrolling brackets at either end of each large window, together with the scroll patterns in the walls below them, give the building a restrained Arts and Crafts flavour, as do the brick buttresses and the porch. The strip windows lower down are also very much of their time, although presumably the window frames are replacements. From roof finials to brickwork, the building gives the impression of fitness for purpose.

But the purpose was to change. In the early 1920s, Peel moved to Devon. He offered his collection to Oxford City, but they declined. The animals ended up in Exeter, where they still form the core of the natural history collection of Exeter Museum. In 1923 the Oxford building became a theatre, where J B Fagan directed the Oxford Players. Fagan’s productions were admired, and he brought notable actors, including the young John Gielgud, to his theatre, but found it difficult to make the venture pay. In the end he left Oxford for Hollywood. Fagan’s successors were no more successful financially, but the building on Woodstock Road remained a theatre until 1938, when the Playhouse moved to its current site in Beaumont Street.

In addition to being a museum and a theatre, the building has had several other uses, probably the oddest being a miniature golf course. Today it houses the Oxford University Language Centre, which offers courses and resources to those learning languages in Oxford. The Centre has been here since 1992, so its occupation represents one of the longest chapters in the history of this building. How adaptable this robust structure has proved.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Cheltenham, Gloucestershire

On their heads be it

I did a post long ago about Cheltenham’s caryatids, describing how their elegant presence on the town’s most striking row of shops was due to the inspiration of a pair of architects, one of whom was highly inventive, and a pair of sculptors, one of whom was very successful but also impecunious. I was reminded of these 1840s figures again the other day, in part by my encounter with some very different carved figures on a London building, and in part by my rereading of an old book, Osbert Lancaster’s Classical Landscape With Figures. Osbert Lancaster was best known as a cartoonist, the man who quietly changed the face of English political humour with his long daily succession of ‘Pocket Cartoons’ in the Daily Express. But his greatest passions were for architecture and travel, and he turned out a series of books on these subjects. All his books were illustrated with his own witty drawings, and some, such as Pillar To Post, named and defined entire architectural styles (Stockbroker Tudor, Bypass Variegated) that hadn’t been recognised before.

In Classical Landscape With Figures, Lancaster presents ‘Greece as it appears to-day’, in other words in 1947, an account enlivened by a picturesque mix of figures in the foreground and ruins, both Classical and Byzantine, in the middle distance. There are a number of passages in the book that make me laugh, and one contains the author’s thoughts on the caryatid, a Greek invention that he pokes some fun at. I must warn my readers that he does so in language that is hardly politically correct – but this is 1947, and his tongue is in his cheek:

To [the Greeks], more than to any other people, it would, one would have thought, have been obvious that to employ a naturalistic three-dimensional rendering of the human form as an architectural unit was to invite disaster. When the Baroque architect of the seventeenth century, whose aims were anyhow completely different, flanked a doorway with a pair of groaning Atlases he had expressionist justification; the over-life-size figures with exaggeratedly bulging muscles do at least emphasise, as they were intended to do, the weight and mass of the architrave or balcony which they supposedly support. But here these elegant flower-maidens simper as unconcernedly as if they had never been called upon to balance two and a half tons of Pentelic marble on their pretty little heads.

Well, perhaps he had a point: maybe there is something slightly odd about the combination of these figures with the structural work they are called on to do. Here in Cheltenham, however, the work of the caryatids, each one separating a pair of shop fronts and each apparently supporting a highly decorative frieze above, is more decorative than structural. And visitors to Cheltenham need not fear. Their decorative presence is entirely appropriate in this street of elegant shops. These were once amongst the most exclusive outlets in town, in an area where early-closing day was Saturday – the point being, I suppose that the locals were so leisured that they could shop on any day they chose and didn’t have to wait to the weekend to dash around buying stuff. If things here aren’t quite as exclusive or leisured today, these delightful figures still do the business.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Mildenhall, Wiltshire

Two hundred years on

Dedicated church crawlers will have guessed when I did my previous post about the barn at Mildenhall that I was making for the parish church of St John the Baptist, a short distance along the same lane. This is a medieval building with a charming stone exterior that does nothing to prepare one for what is inside – a set of fittings of 1816 that is by any standards a remarkable survival.

The church boasts a full set of box pews, a tall pulpit and reading desk with backboards and canopies, and wooden panelling to dado level around the walls. Above the chancel arch are the painted royal arms of George III. That's appropriate as George was still nominally king when the church was refitted in 1816, although the Regency of his son, begun because of the king's illness, was underway by this time. The style of the fittings is Georgian, in that hybrid of classical and Gothic that is typical of this kind of work of the period, and if one didn't know the date, one might easily suppose that they were a couple of decades earlier.

In the chancel there are more fittings of 1816. As well as choir stalls and more panelling, there are boards inscribed with the Lord's Prayer and the Commandments, these boards rising to an ornate ogee-carved centrepiece behind the altar. At the west end of the church there is also a matching organ gallery. 

Fittings like these were not the kind of thing that the Victorians generally liked. Increasingly as the 19th century went on, the Anglican church focused on ritual in an appropriate setting – a setting that was more correctly Gothic than what we see at Mildenhall. As a result, items such as inscribed panels and Georgian box pews were frequently removed and replaced with fittings more obviously Gothic and more in accordance with Victorian views of beauty and holiness. Churches like Mildenhall, with their different, more Georgian (and more word-based) beauty, are therefore rare.

It's fair to say that something was lost when fittings like this were removed. There is something practical about the preaching facilities, the texts, the neat seating. It's also attractive, and winningly domestic – it's God's house, if not even God's drawing room. As the light poured through the largely clear glass windows on the morning I was there, it was easy to see how well it all works.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Mildenhall, Wiltshire

On high

Mildenhall (which I'm told is pronounced 'Minal') is roughly east of Marlborough in Wiltshire. The local stone is chalk, and in this area there's a variety of traditional building materials, including brick, flint, and wood, as well as chalk itself. There are quite a few large barns with wooden weatherboarded walls and thatched roofs, but this substantial barn (now clearly converted for some other use) has one of the biggest corrugated iron roofs I've seen recently dwarfing its boarded walls. The corduroy texture of the corrugated iron is if anything emphasized by the material's variegated colour, which seems to be a mixture of black paint and pale areas where the paint has flaked away.

This is such a big roof that the overused word 'awesome' came into my mind as I stared at it. It is clearly made up of three rows of sheets, but I'm not sure how long the sheets are – 8 or 10 feet each, perhaps. Whatever the precise size, it's a lot of corrugated iron to set beside the brick, white-walled, and thatched cottages that stand nearby. But I think it works.

I've been a fan of this kind of use of non-traditional materials in rural settings ever since moving to the Cotswolds. Here the traditional roofing material is honey-coloured Cotswold stone, but many farm buildings have grey slate roofs. I've grown used to listening to pundits bemoaning the fact that farmers dare to roof their buildings with slates, but I'm not convinced that every roof has to look the same or that everything has to be built in stone. I'm even happy to see a bit of rusty wriggly tin now and again on a Cotswold farm.

I feel the same about roofs like this one in Wiltshire. It's practical and effective and it sits rather well above the weatherboarding and behind the white-barked trees and green shrubs that surround it. It has terrific texture too. If corrugated iron is often thought of as a lowly material, a roof like this raises it to fresh heights.