Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Bath, Somerset

In a Bath tea-shop

I have a certain fondness for old enamel advertising signs – their strong colours and period letterforms are hard to resist. I find it rather exciting to find them in situ, out of doors, still advertising long-forgotten brands of sausages or cigarettes. But almost as good is coming across an example that someone has saved and put up, just for the fun of it. Here's one the Resident Wise Woman and I came across when having afternoon tea on the day I discovered such things as the abandoned public lavatory and the hill-top villa that I've previously posted on this blog.

Lyons' made quite a few signs for their brand of tea. This is one of the simpler ones. Larger versions had added slogans, such as 'Always the best' and 'A packet for every pocket'. On this occasion, they just let the brand do the talking, aided by the distinctive orange and blue colouring. Many people knew Lyons' because of their chain of tea shops (and their larger and grander Corner Houses), which served tea, cakes, and inexpensive meals and were beloved of shoppers on many a High Street.

The company sold foods over the counter too. Lyons' restaurants usually had a bakery counter at the front and there were also larger Maison Lyons stores that sold a range of goods. This being Britain, tea was a big seller, along with ice cream and biscuits, and these remained important lines for Lyons' until the company went into decline and was broken up in the 1980s. Now the vibrant signs remain, on restored heritage railway platforms and in the occasional tea shop, to remind us of a once-great brand.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Church Stretton, Shropshire

Corrugated irony

Regular readers will not be surprised to see me posting a brightly coloured corrugated iron garage. I have a weakness for corrugated iron buildings, and as I drove along the A49 at Church Stretton, this one, big, blue and busy, could not fail to catch my eye. I don’t know anything about its history, though, so if any reader knows how old it is, I’d be interested to know.

As I looked at it – blue painted walls, full-height sliding doors, big windows, plentiful signage, and all – it struck me that, while I admire its purposefulness, this is just the kind of building that used to annoy writers about the countryside 50 or 80 years ago. As car use began to spread and garages and filling stations were on the increase, many were erected on highways, and they were often rather makeshift-looking structures of corrugated iron. When fitted up with big enamel signs for Castrol oil or Ferodo brake pads, they often looked untidy, unplanned, and unkempt. Writers and architects like Clough Williams-Ellis inveighed against them and I noticed a while back an example that provoked the scorn of one of the writers of the famed Shell Guides. The Reading branch of the CPRE even encouraged motorists to boycott garages with features such as ‘garish multi-coloured petrol pumps, corrugated iron and asbestos construction or the advertisements with which they were regularly covered’.

Most of these corrugated constructions have long gone. But a few hang on, like this one at Church Stretton, which is clearly very well used, a car servicing and repair business at the front end, a motorcycle company at the rear. Its paintwork is spruce, the inspection hoists are busy, and the whole structure is a delightfully different from the corporate sheds and plastic filling stations that we’re mostly used to today. A refreshing difference too, I’d say.
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In addition: Jane Brocket's Yarnstorm blog has a lovely post about corrugated iron roofs on Skye, here.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Melverley, Shropshire

Well glazed

Bumbling around Shropshire in search of timber-framed buildings, I came across this small gem: a Primitive Methodist chapel dated 1865. It’s a tiny building, sited near a corner junction next to farms in low lying land not so far from the River Vyrwny. The red brickwork, with paler bricks defining the pointed doorway and windows is attractive, and was the thing that caught my eye first.

But what really stands out is the intricate pattern made by the glazing bars in the windows. The network of hexagons, rectangles and diamonds is the kind of thing I associate with big houses and cottages on large country estates, but it works just as well on this chapel. The tall windows – there are two others around the back as well, so that it’s possible to look right through the building – also let in plenty of light. And they have pivoting opening panels (look at the slightly open one in the right-hand window) which are made in an intricate shape to fit the overall pattern – a neat and painstaking touch.

The congregation in this compact chapel can only be small, but the building seems to be well cared-for and regularly used. Hats off!

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Winchcombe, Gloucestershire

In the sun

My visit to Hook Norton reminded me that it was almost exactly seven years since I went there to look at the brewery. And, since my post about the brewery was my third-ever blog post, it’s almost exactly the seventh birthday of the English Buildings blog too. It’s hard to believe I’ve been maintaining this blog for so long, and that it has remained constant (though constant in its variety, I hope) through a period that has seen so much change: a global recession, the substantial reconfiguring of the industry (publishing) in which I work, the advance* of social media in such varied directions that mere blogging seems old-fashioned at best.

I’m not one for navel-gazing§ but it does seem to me that blogging still has something to offer me and my readers. Although my posts are rarely long, a blog does give one the space to say more than the usual Flickr caption, more than one expects to read on Facebook, more, of course, than a tweet.† And so for seven years and through nearly 700 posts I’ve set down my thoughts about many an English building, including a large number that have not otherwise been much noticed.

Amongst these unregarded pieces of architecture‡ have been, this year, a number of outstanding public lavatories, a few prefabs, some corrugated iron, a gasworks, and several odd things in churches. Among other things, I’ve weighed up the quality of lettering on buildings, gazed at gazebos, and pondered what we think about when we think about ruins. I’ve tried, then, to concentrate on the architecture that most books (and most people come to that) don’t notice or have time for and to show that even close to home there are things worth looking out for, and looking at.

John Russell,¶ who wrote so much and so well about art, and occasionally about places, in the 20th century, said that in wartime, the short journeys that were permitted by the restrictions of time, movement, and petrol rationing, could, in their way, carry just as much significance as the grander tours that were undertaken in more favourable circumstances. This blog, too, is in its way a testimony to the satisfactions of small journeys, the joys of the passing glance, and the glory of the ordinary. Thanks to those of you who've stayed with me on these wanderings, and also to readers who have joined me occasionally, for the interest of the ride. I've enjoyed, and benefitted from, your comments and nuggets of further information about the places I've visited. In the process, I hope I’ve given a lot of little known buildings some time in the sun.

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Photograph: Door knocker, former Sun Inn, Winchcombe, Gloucestershire

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*If you can call it that
§Not if the navel is my own, anyway
†I have a Twitter account, but cannot bring myself to do anything so avian as to Tweet.
‡ Pieces of architecture: I use this phrase in allusion and tribute to the great Nikolaus Pevsner, cataloguer and analyst of the buildings of England, who said, ‘A bicycle shed is a building, Lincoln Cathedral is a piece of architecture’. It’s because I talk so often about mere buildings that this blog has the title that it does, but readers will know that I often find the quality Pevsner attributed to architecture in ‘low-status’ structures such as public lavatories, sheds, and workshops.
¶ Not the most famous of art critics (too gentle and forgiving for many), but one whose work opened my eyes to the visual arts when I was young; I think his book on Bacon is still well worth reading, his Matisse Father and Son is fascinating, and Reading Russell, a selection of short pieces, gives an idea of how his writing enlivened the (London) Sunday Times and the New York Times for years.  

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Hook Norton, Oxfordshire

High windows

Finding myself near Hook Norton the other day, and recalling that my most memorable trip there involved a visit to the brewery, I decided to stop in the village and see what I’d missed the first time round. A pair of tall windows, partly hidden by trees, caught my eye. Looking closer, I found that the windows belonged to a Baptist chapel with a long history.

Beware of date stones. The one on the front of the Hook Norton chapel bears the date 1718. But the history of Baptist worship in Hook Norton goes back to the 1640s when, according to the chapel’s own website, the first pastor, James Wilmot, was imprisoned for preaching. The significance of the 1718 date is that this was when the Baptists acquired this plot of land, with room for both chapel and graveyard. However they rebuilt the chapel in 1787, which is the date of the present structure with its walls of local toffee-coloured stone and its high windows with beautiful curving glazing bars. There were further alterations in the Victorian period, when a gallery supported on cast-iron columns, still visible through the windows, was installed, to increase the seating capacity.

Hook Norton is a fair-sized village, but no doubt people also came to the chapel from surrounding villages in the area between Banbury and Chipping Norton. They found a simple, solid building, in a setting that feels peaceful because the chapel is sited well back from the road. It’s an atmosphere of quiet and seclusion that people must still appreciate today.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Shipston-on-Stour, Warwickshire

A world of wood

Perhaps it should be one of the rules for the architectural traveller. As well as ‘Look up’, ‘Walk along alleys’, and ‘Go around the back’, the axiom ‘Look over walls’ has a place in the inquisitive traveller’s rule book. I am often to be seen looking over walls, in search of unusual outbuildings, garden structures, and other buildings likewise hidden from immediate view. Here’s an example from Shipston-on-Stour, the upper half of which, at least, is freely visible above a brick garden wall. It seems to be an octagonal wooden gazebo or summer house, with Gothic style pointed windows and walls made up of short logs arranged in geometric patterns. There’s a lovely fish-scale roof, too.

I don’t know how old this building is. Self-consciously rustic garden buildings go back at least to the 18th century, and they owe their form to various sources, from writers’ ideas about the earliest building of all (the ‘primal hut’) to hermitages, or people’s ideas about what a hermitage should be like. In a setting of trees, a brick wall and passing pedestrians, inquisitive or not, this wooden wonder enlivens the streetscape – and brightened up a dull day as I passed.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Farthingstone, Northamptonshire

How Tudor is it?

Admiring the King’s Arms in the middle of the Northamptonshire village of Farthingstone (my photograph is taken from the churchyard across the road) I naturally wondered how old it is. The gables, dripstones, and flattened entrance arch all give it a Tudor or Jacobean appearance. Those distinctive lattice windows, though, look like a later addition, from the first half of the 19th century, perhaps. There’s a window at the side, shown in my second photograph that also has an early-19th century look, with Gothic Y-tracery glazing bars.

The facts are rather different. The building is actually a 19th-century neo-Tudor design, albeit done by masons working in a tradition that could still turn out Tudor-looking buildings in the vernacular without necessarily reviving the earlier style in a self-conscious way. They were conscious enough of their worth, though, to leave an initial H, for their surname, Hurley, on the middle gable. The carving protruding form the right-hand gable may be something reused from an earlier building.

The windows, by the way, are neither sash nor casement. They have clever pivoting sections, as you can see on the ‘Gothic’ example in my second photograph. The windows with diamond-shaped panes have diamond-shaped pivoting sections. It is as if the industrial age, in the shape of metal-frames and ingenious hinges (and indeed the rather hard-looking pale bricks that surround the ‘Gothic’ window) has added its contribution to this amalgam of Tudor and Victorian design. An interesting mix.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire

Fancy work

I’m always on the look-out for interesting shop fronts, not least because everyone else seems to ignore them. This lettering is found on the lovely late-19th century frontage of a jeweller’s on Tewkesbury High Street. Pevsner (excellent on the timber-framed buildings and much else on this street) does not include it. But it caught my eye for the signs alone, and I was still more impressed when I realised that this front retains the grooves to take its old wooden shutters, which are still put up at night to cover the windows.

With an eye on history and style, the shop, now Buttwell and Jones, has kept the old ‘Buttwell & Sons’ signage. The gilded lettering on its green glass background (more beautiful if anything for being worn) has satisfying, full-looped letters with lots of character. Plenty of variation between the width of the strokes, neat loops on the w and o, and a distinctive small s at the end all contribute to the effect. Only the ampersand seems a bit squashed and mean.

Up above, against a gold background glinting like an engine-turned cigarette case, are the ornate capital letters of the word ‘JEWELLER’. These letters are a feast of knobbly serifs, curving strokes, and dots. You’d not want too much of this, but, placed where it is, it gives just the right impression of fancy work that the original proprietor no doubt wanted to convey, back at the turn of the 20th century. How pleasing that the sign, and the business it advertises, is still there.