Sunday, November 29, 2015

Kettering, Northamptonshire

Local hero

Regular readers will known that I sometimes amuse friends and acquaintances by announcing that I have visited, for pleasure, places they’d not normally associate with tourism. St Austell before the Eden Project, say, or Kidderminster more recently.* Why go there when you can visit the oodles of beautiful towns and villages, stuffed with listed buildings and interpreted for our delight by dedicated heritage-wallahs? Well, I visit my share of such places too, but there are many towns, off the tourist map or lacking the stereotypical array of picturesque streets or quaint shops and houses, that offer rewards to the curious. It was with such thoughts in my mind that I ignored the snorts of laughter and made my way to Kettering.

I recently posted about a lovely cooperative building in the town, which grew in the Victorian period as a result of the Northamptonshire shoe industry. Very close to the centre one finds streets of 19th-century brick-built terraced houses next door to factories of the same period. None of these factories are huge, so there’s no sense of conflicting scales. Some of them still make shoes – the celebrated Loake’s shoes are still produced in Kettering, for example. The town also has some wonderful schools. One of the best is Stamford Street School (actually in Montagu Street), which is in a red brick Tudor-revivalish style with this stand-out tower.

The relief carving and openwork on this tower is truly jaw-dropping, a cut or two or three above what’s usual for  board-school architecture, which is generally purposeful and functional, with sometimes to odd bit of carving or terracotta decoration here and there, depending on the local budget and the commitment (or not) to produce a building that reflects civic pride and gives the inmates something to inspire them. The huge roundel on this tower is extraordinary: was it meant to be a clock face? Was it ever used as such? There seem to be no vestiges of painted numerals or holes for the hands. As for the elaborate openwork, I’d taken it to be intended to allow the sound of a bell to be audible. But the recent revised Pevsner Northamptonshire volume describes this as a chimney tower, so presumably it’s to do with heating and ventilation. It’s functional, then, but you’d rarely see anything so ornate adorning a locally funded school – even considering that the date is 1892, taking us back to a period in which architectural ornament was enjoying a burgeoning heyday.

The firm of architects responsible for this wonder was local practice Gotch and Saunders.† I’ve known of John Alfred Gotch for years because he wrote books¶ about historic architecture, especially Elizabeth and Jacobean architecture, so it was a pleasure to find his work dotted all over this town. He was prominent in his profession, serving as President of the Architectural Association and of the RIBA, the first provincial architecture to be honoured by the latter post. A local hero, then, who did well by his town, helping an outwardly unassuming place to shine.

* Kidderminster still has several striking former carpet factories, about one of which I posted here.
† The practice continues locally as Gotch, Saunders and Surridge (GSS Architecture)
¶ Gotch’s books include Early Renaissance Architecture in England (1914), The Architecture of the Renaissance in England (1894), and The Growth of the English House (1909).


Peter Ashley said...

You're quite right, with perseverance one can always find something of interest everywhere. Although I must admit I struggled a bit with Leysdown-on-Sea on the Isle of Sheppey in Kent. I've still not cracked it yet, but I expect if I'd waited until around 11.30pm I might have witnessed a scrap outside a pub. New Year resolution: I promise to try harder.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Hm, yes. The Isle of Sheppey. I must say I've not connected with it either. The most memorable of the few outside-pub scraps I've witnessed was in London's Walworth Road, where the sound of two heads cracking together in combat was chilling. Hope I never hear it again.