Friday, August 29, 2014


A ‘sort of Jacobethan’

This doorway in the middle of Northampton, sandwiched between two shops, is easy to miss. Easy to miss, that is, until you look up, when you realise that it’s part of quite a large corner building full (above the modern shopfronts) of big windows, banded masonry, and curvy gables. But what kept my eye engaged, and my mind boggling, was the busy collection of carved stone motifs above the doorway. Pevsner describes this 1902 structure as being ‘in a sort of Jacobethan manner’ and notes that the architect was J P Sharp of Birmingham.

The architect certainly threw the kitchen sink at this entrance. The carved crosses, roundels, and nail-heads certainly seem to be straight out of the pattern-book of standard Tudor-Jacobean patterns – but perhaps you’d be as likely to see them around a 17th-century fireplace as framing a doorway. There are classical motifs too and some of these, like the little Ionic capitals, are highly ornate, again in the manner of Jacobethan builders, who got their classicism as much from Renaissance buildings in France as from Greece or Rome. Put all these elements together and you have a very ornate, turn-of-the-century sort of Jacobethan.

This is confirmed by the lettering, which has eccentric touches (the bulbous lower portion of the B, the rather oddly proportioned M) that don’t look Jacobean at all. These forms are very much of their time: not quite Art Nouveau, but very nearly. This, and the curious cornice above, which comes to a sharp point but does not quite turn into a pediment, are the crowning touches – eccentric, to be sure, but offering a welcome bit of visual incident amidst the more commonplace shop fronts on either side.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Newnham on Severn, Gloucestershire

‘Do not forget me quite, O Severn Meadows’

Newnham on Severn is a small town overlooking the west bank of the Severn, once a port on the river, now a pleasant and in my experience rather quiet place – as quiet, that is, as is compatible with being on the main road between Gloucester and Chepstow. There’s a curving High Street, a long green, and a variety of brick houses, some dating from the 18th century. 

And then this. A 19th-century-looking shopfront, unremarkable in itself, but displaying a marvellous collection of signs, stickers, and printed material. I particularly like the old ‘Blackbird’ and ‘Swan’ pen signs with their bird symbols and distinctive name. Not ‘fountain pens’, but ‘Fountpens’, to make it that bit more memorable, I suppose, unless a ‘Fountpen’ is a specific species of pen of which I’m not aware.

The window also contains a collection of printed material from the archive of the Severnside Press, whose shop this is. It’s full of gems. British readers will recognise the style of several election posters, which are of various dates from the 1920s onwards. The real star is the large poster headed ‘PARLIAMENTARY ELECTION’, a list of polling stations and their locations in this part of the county. This extraordinary poster is a litany of names (Awre, Corse, English Bicknor, Joy’s Green, Pillowell, Plumphill, Ruardean…) as evocative as the place names in an Ivor Gurney poem. More than this, it’s an impressive print job: a complex multi-column layout in a variety of typefaces handled with a mixture of flair and expediency. The flair is in the balance and the fit of the text, the expediency in the occasional resort to the ‘wrong’ typeface when reasons of space (or perhaps a shortage of type) meant that an alternative sort had to be chosen for a word here and there. The poster is dated 1951, but it’s done in a traditional style that goes back much further – the heading type could be from a Victorian playbill, the more complex layout lower down from a Methodist lay preaching plan, blown up to size.

So, in a small shop window, there’s a reminder that Newnham is a town (albeit a small one) where once many people worked at making things – in the glass industry, at tanneries, even, once upon a time, building ships. Where there were businesses, there needed to be a printer, turning out letterheads, business cards, notices, and the like, using metal type and inky presses, in the days before ‘publishing’ was something people could do on their ‘desktop’. And amongst these printed products were election posters to remind us that towns like Newnham and Newent and Lydney were (and still are, up to a point) centres for a whole network of rural communities, some nucleated villages, some more scattered Forest or Severnside settlements. Do not forget me quite…

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Elkstone, Gloucestershire

Home thoughts, and abroad

Turning on the radio this morning I heard an announcement – between music by Stravinsky and Rossini and against a background of the various violent ways in which the world is tearing itself to pieces – that today marks the seventieth anniversary of the founding of the United Nations. It seemed to me that, although I don’t have anything new to say about that, it might be an appropriate time to recycle some text I wrote a few years ago for a website (now defunct, I think) called What England Means to Me, on which various people (writers, politicians, bigwigs, and smallwigs) were invited to set down their thoughts about that subject. Wanting to get away from the usual stuff about cricket on the village green, I wrote something about how English culture has been affected, beneficially and over long periods of time, by influences from outside these islands. It seemed to me that this theme is particularly apposite when it comes to English architecture, which wonderfully blends outside influences with local distinctiveness. To illustrate this post I could easily have used the image of Hoarwithy from my previous post, with its overtones of Italy in England. But instead I’ve used a photograph I took when showing some friends Elkstone church a few weeks ago. The picture reminds me of a very enjoyable afternoon and sums up, I think, this combination of cultures with its Norman carving and national (albeit British, not specifically English) flag.

I live in north Gloucestershire, so my home territory is bounded by the limestone villages of the Cotswolds, the market gardens of the Vale of Evesham, Herefordshire’s apple orchards, and the ‘black and white’ villages of the southern part of Warwickshire. It’s the kind of place – tranquil, rural, steeped in history – that many people think of when they think of England, and the villages of Warwickshire, with their timber-framed, thatched houses were described as ‘Unmitigated England’ by Henry James in a phrase that has been much recycled since he coined it.

The first book I read about the area, John Russell’s Shakespeare’s Country, was also alert to this quintessential Englishness. Writing during World War II, Russell knew that this was a place where one could savour England’s history and tranquillity. He also knew that the war placed these very qualities under threat, and the region associated with Shakespeare stood for the whole country that soldiers, sailors, and airmen were fighting for. Yet Russell, with the sharp eye that would make him a penetrating art critic, was also aware of the rich array of outside influences that helped shape this very English region. In Shakespeare’s area he could cite almshouses built by a Westphalian, a wool-weaving industry founded by Flemish artisans, Dutch armourers, Hungarian workers who created a glass industry, French craftsmen. Even the market gardens of Evesham were apparently started by an ambassador from Genoa.

All these contributions were part of networks of interaction stretching over hundreds of years. Slowly – these things do not happen overnight – Middle England’s industry, commerce, and society absorbed these influences, just as England’s art has benefited from all kinds of ideas from overseas. Shakespeare himself absorbed and transformed writers such as Plutarch, the Romantics devoured German philosophy and poetry, writers from Rosetti to T S Eliot were inspired by the poetry of Italy. In architecture, too, English builders have been transforming foreign styles of centuries, creating out of Norman models our own massive version of the Romanesque, out of French ideas the uniquely English Perpendicular Gothic of King’s College Chapel, out of the designs of Greeks, Romans, and Italians, new kinds of classicism. The most English of composers, Vaughan Williams, took lessons in France (he went to Ravel, he said, to acquire some ‘French polish’); our most popular drink, tea, comes via the empire from India; and if our stereotypical meal, roast beef, is local enough, it can be accompanied by red wine – and if our purse doesn’t stretch to St Emilion, we can resort to something like the curious hybrid tipple of Rumpole, Château Thames Embankment.

This island nation, in one way so isolated by the sea, has been hospitable to those who have made it across the waves and receptive to the cultures they brought with them. Norman masons, Huguenot cloth workers, those seeking asylum from Vietnam or Uganda, artists from Paris or Prague, have gained from living here, but those here already have gained from their presence too. So when I look at the typically English scene around me, I feel thankful for the diversity of culture and heritage that underlies it. The range is formidable: great Gothic ‘wool churches’, paid for by merchants whose trade made links with France or Flanders (one, Fairford, even contains stained glass made by Flemish glaziers); ruined monasteries inspired, and sometimes led, by monks from Rome or Burgundy; palatial country houses furnished with the aid of Italian tutors and guides; factories started by immigrant Jews from central Europe or British citizens from the Indian subcontinent. Quintessential England, but with links all over the world.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Hoarwithy, Herefordshire

Oasis, or Odd things in churches (9)

There are certain churches that I like to return to every now and then. They are mostly small and often remote or in villages that are off the beaten track in places like Herefordshire or Gloucestershire. They are usually old and quiet and though (as with Abbey Dore or Kilpeck) they may be architectural treasures, it is often atmosphere and peace as much as architecture that occupy me – these qualities take me back, for example, to Dunitsbourne Rouse or Inglesham, places where the combination of isolation and layers of history suggest that they have been oases of calm for hundreds of years.

Hoarwithy, J P Seddon’s great Byzantine-revival church in Herefordshire, is starting to become another of these places. There is not much to beat the way its square sandstone pyramid-topped tower rises out of the landscape, so that, if you look the right way, you can imagine yourself in Tuscany or the Veneto talking not of a bell-tower but of a campanile. Mosaics, tessellated flooring, carved capitals, and hanging lamps fulfil the promise inside.

But then, on my most recent visit, there was this small shock. A flower vase placed carefully on the floor of the nave, with yellow Post-It Notes nearby. ‘TO CATCH RAIN!’ say the notes. The building has already undergone some major repairs to the tower stonework recently, so one hopes, given the small size of the bowl full of water-absorbing material, that the roof has only a minor leak, and that the parish will soon be able to get the problem put right.

I nearly called this post ‘Sad things in churches’, because it is sad, when buckets and vases have to be pressed into service to catch rain. But as I sat in the nave and pondered this state of affairs and savoured the quiet, I remembered that the water-absorbing floral foam in the vase is also known by the name of Oasis. Reminded once more of those oases of calm, I hoped that dryness would be restored as soon as possible, stuck a donation in the alms box, and went, quietly, on my way.

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My earlier post about this church, here, provides some more architectural detail, and a couple of different photographs.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Ludlow, Shropshire

Local colour

On a somewhat unproductive day, I thought I'd go through my photographs of some of the places I've visited recently and was quickly reminded of Ludlow. The Feathers, a dazzling timber-framed house turned inn, is a building I've written about before and admired on many occasions. However often I go past, I always take a look at its carved timberwork, but what raised my spirits this time was the display of hanging baskets. I suppose if you'd asked me beforehand, I'd have said that the Feathers, in all its jazzy Jacobean glory, hardly needed baskets of flowers to add to its attractions. Isn't all that carved oak enough on its own? Well, at one level it is, but at another, a few splashes of colour do complement the monochrome patterns of the woodwork. The building's carvings (mustachioed faces, scrolls, leaves, miniature arches), patterned glazing bars, and lozenges of golden glass are set off wonderfully by this floral display.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Malmesbury, WIltshire


In the centre of Malmesbury, very near the medieval abbey, is a late-18th century stone house, a building of three storeys, with sash windows arranged symmetrically around a central front door. There's a very plain cornice and a pitched, stone slated roof. The windows have ashlar dressings but the rest of the masonry is rubble and was once limewashed. Apparently the building was originally a 'mill house', which I take to mean the house occupied by a miller; the building also incorporates workers' cottages at the rear.

The stand-out feature is above the door canopy: this carved stone panel, probably early-19th century, with a female mask flanked by festoons of leaves, fruit, and flowers, tied together with ribbon-like bands. I find some of the fruit and flowers difficult to identify, but there certainly seem to be oak leaves and acorns in the mix. I wonder how long this panel has been there. There seem to be iron clamps near the upper corners, securing it to the wall, so presumably it is not built into the masonry. Addition or no, it's still a pleasant, civilized decoration for an otherwise rather severe facade.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Mountsorrel, Leicestershire

Bricklayer’s classical

After my recent encounters with garagiste’s corrugated iron and chunky fragments of railwayana, perhaps this blog could do with a some more polite architecture. So here’s a lovely house from the 1780s on the main street in Mountsorrel, Leicestershire, a small town I have known for years and mused about before.

The winning combination of brick arches and the building’s classical proportions typify the late Georgian period. Those urns, swags, stucco stringcourses, and white balusters give the facade that bit of extra interest and, indeed, swagger. We can be a bit Adamish, the house seems to say, even if we are in a provincial town in the Midlands. The white stucco details stand out effectively against the background of red brick, a material that’s been common here for some 200 years. There was a local brickworks from the early-19th century, but when this house was built the prevailing materials in the town were probably Mountsorrel granite and Swithland slate. So from brickwork to stucco, from doorstep to rooftop urns, this is a building that stands out.

Saturday, August 2, 2014


At the buffers

In Derby and a little early for my train I walked along the road near the station and came across this, looming out of the dusk: the cab of a Class 37 locomotive sitting quietly in the car park of the Alexandra Hotel. It’s clearly just one example of an enthusiasm for railwayana hereabouts, as the Alexandra has various railway signs and other bits and pieces in the adjoining garden, none of them as eye-catching as this. When I got over the surprise I looked it up online and it seems that the cab is being restored and will eventually be repainted. 

Although the locomotive wasn’t, I think, actually built in Derby, it’s an interesting reminder of Derby’s railway heritage and in its stationary state is virtually a piece of architecture – a distant relative of those houses made from old railway carriages that I’ve noticed in the past. I look forward to returning and seeing the finished project, whether the restorers choose British Rail blue, EWS red and yellow, or some other colour scheme that might be appropriate. Whatever the colour, it will no doubt attract people in for a pint.