Sunday, December 24, 2017

South Newington, Oxfordshire

Christmas already

So it’s Christmas already. Since the last one I’ve written a book, Phantom Architecture (see right-hand column), done various editorial odd jobs, grubbed around several bits of England, visited the Czech Republic again, and posted about one hundred times on this blog. That’s (nearly!) enough from me for this year, then. So here’s an almost seasonal Madonna and Child, one of the wall paintings in the church of St Peter ad Vincula, South Newington, Oxfordshire.

Beneath an ornate cusped and crocketed 14th-century painted ogee arch, the Christ-Child reaches towards his mother with one hand while the other holds an apple. There’s just enough left of the painting to give one a sense of the artist’s strong line, his expressive but bony way with hands and fingers, his careful approach to drapery, his love of curvaceous ornament (both architectural and foliate), and what were probably his strong colours. The fragmentary nature of what’s left makes it, as so often with medieval English wall paintings, more moving not less.

I offer the image to my readers, with very best wishes for Christmas and the New Year.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Shaftesbury Avenue, London

Hats off, here they come…

London’s Shaftesbury Avenue is one of the best known streets in the capital – the part between Piccadilly Circus and Cambridge Circus, which is full of theatres, is in the heart of tourist London. But the northern part, north of Cambridge Circus and bordering the Covent Garden area is less well known. If you’re around there, I’d suggest wandering towards the northern end, and having a look at the Covent Garden Odeon, a large Art Deco building that started life as the Saville Theatre in 1931.  

The reason I think this building is particularly worth a look is the long frieze that stretches across the facade. It’s the work of the sculptor Gilbert Bayes* and depicts theatre through the ages, with the ancient Greeks and Romans at one end and the twentieth century at the other. ‘Theatre’ is interpreted loosely (spectacle might be a better term), with Roman gladiators and Greek Bacchantes included and the very English sight of Punch and Judy also putting in an appearance.

I’ve chosen two sections of the panel.§ The first shows some wonderful horses from the Roman section and a group of fetching Bacchantes (plus, presumably, one of Bacchus’ pards) on the right. The naked Bacchantes have a period, Art Deco look, with their short hair and slim bodies. One can feel Bayes having fun with all these subjects, relishing the chance to depict the naked female form and the opportunity to include animals.
The second panel includes another group of women: the Bacchantes have become tamed, as it were, as 1920s dancers, with clingy dresses and feathered headdresses – one can imagine them coming down the staircase behind Imelda Staunton in the wonderful current National Theatre production of Stephen Sondheim’s Follies. To their left are a bunch of ‘Romantics’ from the 19th century including a variety of actors in period costumes. Further left still is a Punch and Judy booth in which Punch looks down at a lifeless puppet – presumably the unfortunate Judy – while the dog Toby sits on the ground beneath; Punch and Judy were famously ‘born’ a few hundred yards southwest of here, in the heart of Covent Garden.†

There’s much to admire in these fine panels, and in some roundels by Bayes set further up on the building. I’d encourage anyone walking along the northern part of Shaftesbury Avenue to look up at the relief and take it in. Although the frieze is very large, many passers-by miss it when looking to see what films are playing, rather as people quite understandably miss the details above shop fronts when looking in shop windows. It’s another example of the use of sculpture to give interest to an otherwise rather large and lumpish 1930s theatre facade – something I’ve noticed on early Odeons and other cinemas several times before. More modern corporations should consider giving space to the visual arts in this way. ¶

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* Bayes also did the panels showing ‘merfiremen’ adorning the London Fire Brigade Building on Albert Embankment. 

§ More detail in each photograph will be revealed if you click on the image.

† The first written account of a Punch and Judy show was a record of a performance in Covent Garden. Punch’s ‘birthday’ is regularly celebrated in May in St Paul’s churchyard, when the massed ranked of the ‘professors’’ booths fill the greensward and the walls echo to the sound of beswazzled voices.

¶ There are more pictures of the frieze on the Ornamental Passions blog, here.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Hoxton, London

Out of dust…

Drifting around the area north of Old Street the other day I was impressed by how spruced up the area was: quite different from the interesting but run-down district I remembered from when I occasionally crossed it in – when could it have been – ah, yes, the 1980s. Of course, I knew how it had changed, how the old Hoxtonites and young artists of the 1980s had in part given way to an influx of entertainment venues and hi-tech industries, and how some buildings had been converted to upmarket flats. In the process quite a bit of the architecture has been spruced up, but the arts have not gone away: witness this building, the home of the National Centre of Circus Arts.

That’s not all it is. This appealing bit of reed brick and terracotta started life in 1896 as the Shoreditch Electric Light Station and Refuse Destructor. Its job was to burn rubbish to produce steam that was used to drive turbines and generate electricity. The terracotta panels above the entrance tell this story – the name under the shallow arch reminds us that the building was erected by the Vestry of St Leonard, Shoreditch, the forerunner of the local council; above that is the date, 1896, in large ornate numerals; higher still is the motto: ‘E Pulvere, Lux et Vis’: from dust, light and life.
This was early in the history of electric lighting, but not the very beginning. London’s Electric Avenue, Brixton, was the first street in the country to be lit electrically, in 1880. Deptford Power Station, the heart of the UK’s first AC power system, opened in 1891. But the Shoreditch building was the first to combine the functions of refuse disposal and power generation in this way made the Shoreditch Vestry a pioneer; in the next 8 years another 15 (out of 28) Metropolitan local authorities were supplying electricity – mainly for street lighting intitially. Shoreditch also led the way in other fields, opening a workers’ institute across the square from this building and putting up much social housing.

The generating station was due to be phased out in 1940, but was retained as a back-up during the Blitz and immediately post-war. The building became a circus centre in the 1990s and its combination of large internal spaces (the former combustion chamber and generating chamber) together with smaller rooms that can be used as studios, makes it a successful venue, both for circus training and for special events. Light and life continue to illuminate the streets of revamped and scrubbed-up Shoreditch.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Combrook, Warwickshire

A well for all seasons?

Before leaving Combrook, the parish church of which featured in my previous post, I want to share this less obvious feature of the village. It’s one of two well heads, built around the same time as the church and I’d guess designed by the same architect, John Gibson. It has an ogee arch, the double-curved design that is characteristic of the 14th-century Gothic that inspired the church’s west front, and if you look very closely at this opening you can see that it’s decorated with ballflowers, another 14th-century motif.

I take this well head to be more evidence of the care that the landlord was bestowing on this village in the 19th century. The church, two well heads, the former village school (it’s now the village hall) and several of the houses were built or rebuilt in this period. Along with the houses, the water supply was the most important facility of all, and giving the well this kind of ornate gable in white lias and limestone (complete with coat of arms, now worn away) is an indication of that care. One hopes that there was also originally some sort of cover, to keep out inquisitive infants and falling leaves so that it could indeed be a well for all seasons.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Combrook, Warwickshire


Thoughts of St Augustine, Kilburn, were still in my mind recently when I visited Combrook, a village in Warwickshire, not far from the Fosse Way. Combrook was an estate village of Compton Verney and seems to have had a lot of attention paid to it in the mid-19th century, when a number of cottages were built or rebuilt, a school was erected, and the church given a new nave. The architect of the church was John Gibson, who was also at work making alterations to the great house of Compton Verney in the early 1860s. Gibson gave the church a striking west front, a visual highlight in the centre of the village.

The style of this front is Gibson’s very ornate version of what the Victorians often called ‘Middle Pointed’, that’s to say the phase of Gothic fashionable in the first half of the 14th century. Elaborate window tracery, naturalistic carving, and ogee arches are typical features. However, this frontage is hardly typical. It’s a Victorian throwing everything at a small church – very fancy tracery (‘overcusped’, says Pevsner), unusual shapes in the form of a rose window and a pair of ‘circular triangles’, a very ornately carved ogee doorway, the small overhanging turret with its spirelet, and outward-leaning angels flanking both the turret and the doorway.
This is all very impressive in a slightly gawky way, and the oddity continues with the treatment of the aisle roofs, which consist of multiple gables rather than a single lean-to, a design that produces an odd junction between the downward-sweeping angle of the west front and the gables that stick out behind it. Gibson’s work here is a little like that of the Victorian ‘rogue architects’ such as S S Teulon – inventive, ornamental, unafraid to be different from the accepted Gothic models – but without Teulon’s polychrome dazzle or his skill in handling three-dimensional forms.† For all this, the overall effect is pleasant, rather like a large garden ornament, and an admirable focal point for this attractive village. 

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* This is the phrase used by the architect and writer Harry Goodhart-Rendel to describe an adventurous and sometimes outré group of Victorian church architects. For my post on a church by Teulon, look here.

† Gibson’s best known church, the ‘marble church’ at Bodelwyddan, in the lower Vale of Clwyd, also has very elaborate tracery and carving, but is more conventionally roofed and massed. Gibson is most famous for designing banks, but was clearly much more versatile than this suggests.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Kilburn, London

Pearson’s triumph

I was reminded the other day by an article by Gavin Stamp in Apollo that this year marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of the Victorian architect John Loughborough Pearson.* I’ve been a fan of Pearson since the 1990s, when I got to know his lovely early church of St Peter, Vauxhall. Gavin Stamp rates the architect highly too, although he rightly insists that Pearson was sometimes too eager to rebuild to his own design when restoring ancient buildings.†

Pearson’s masterpiece is the church of St Augustine, Kilburn, known to some by the nickname ‘the Cathedral of North London’. From the outside it has a fine soaring spire, but it’s the interior that really sets this building apart. I’d single out three aspects of it that work especially well.

The first is the handling of space. It’s tall, and the large windows at gallery level make it also very light. It’s also broad, because there are double aisles, meaning that there is plenty of room for a large congregation and also, no doubt, for elaborate processions. The depth of those aisles and of the gallery above them is due to the way they contain concealed internal buttresses, a feature that Pearson adapted from the great southern French cathedral of Albi.

Those buttresses are the key to the second outstanding feature of this church, the stone vaulting that they support. Pearson was very good at vaulting and the vaults dominate the interior of St Augustine’s. The shafts from which the vaults spring begin at floor level, leading the eye up from the rather low arcades, past the much taller galleries, to the ceiling itself. This consists of a simple quadripartite vault with slender ribs, whose pale stone contrasts with the darker brick of the infilling. The vault is continuous, covering both nave and chancel, which gives the space unity and also leads the eye eastwards, towards the altar, as well as upwards.
St Augustine, Kilburn, chancel

But if our gaze is led east and up, it also pauses along the way because of the third remarkable thing about this interior: the decoration. There is a lot of it, too much even to list here, from the paintings depicting miracles along the gallery fronts (done by Clayton and Bell, who were also responsible for the stained glass) to the collection of sculpture (the Crucifixion, Resurrection, apostles, saints, angels) in the chancel.¶ Everything exemplifies the Victorian view of church building outlined in William Whyte’s book reviewed in my previous post: that a church should contain a collection of symbols that can be read and that it should move the visitor and worshipper. It certainly moves me.

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* I was pleased that Stamp also singles out one of Pearson’s smaller churches, the one at Daylesford, Gloucestershire, another favourite of mine.

† Pearson was by no means unique in this, of course, but his treatment of the north transept of Westminster Abbey is a particularly glaring example of a Victorian redesign where replacement would have been both possible and appropriate. See Stamp’s piece for more detail.

¶ All this is a far cry from the temporary corrugated iron church that was built for the congregation to use while St Augustine’s was being built, the subject of an earlier post here.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Churches unlocked

William Whyte, Unlocking the Church: The lost secrets of Victorian sacred space
Published by Oxford University Press

Here’s the last of my Christmas book reviews: an illuminating study of 19th-century church buildings that’s also a good read…

William Whyte’s new book offers a revealing way of looking at Victorian churches, one that highlights neither the battle between architectural styles nor the distinction between ‘high’ and ‘low’ church. Whyte instead concentrates on the ways the Victorians understood and experienced church buildings, stressing in particular two key ideas – the church as a symbolic building that can be ‘read’ and the idea that church architecture can shape people’s emotions. Both of these themes are given a new emphasis in the 19th century and they cross theological boundaries: they are expressed by High churchmen and Evangelicals, by Catholics, and even by nonconformists.

These ideas are in sharp contrast to those of the Georgian period, in which churches lacked rich symbolic content. But, as Whyte shows, they predate the influence of the Cambridge Ecclesiologists and the Oxford Movement, which were in other ways so influential on the Victorian church. They go a long way to explain Victorian architectural preferences, and underpin changes in the way churches were lit, their seating arrangements, and such things as the use of flowers to decorate churches. And they influenced the way churches were used, not just in the increased number of church services, but also the way in which churchyards were reclaimed as sacred spaces, the development of church parades and processions, the movement to keep churches unlocked during the week, and even the design of buildings such as parsonages and schools.

The people behind all this are central to the story. Whyte dwells not only on clergymen and architects, but also on lay patrons and, importantly, antiquaries. These were the people who wrote about church architecture, who interpreted it for the public, and who regularly insisted on its symbolic content – not least in the thousands of church guidebooks that were written in the 19th century. We are the heirs of these people, not just because we still use and visit Victorian churches (and, of course, churches restored by the Victorians) but also because we inherit these notions of symbolism and of architecture that moves us. If we want to preserve Victorian churches or their fittings, it is often because they move us, or because they are powerfully symbolic.*

Unlocking the Church is a necessary corrective to the tendency to look at Victorian churches in purely architectural terms. If we cannot quite see Victorian buildings as the Victorians saw them, the book helps get much nearer that elusive ideal.

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*Ironically, the fact that buildings have this power is even behind reorderings that attempt to do away with Victorian church fittings (if buildings did not have such a powerful effect, ‘modernizers’ would not take so much trouble to try to reorder them), as Whyte points out.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Plans and people

Richard Rogers with Richard Brown, A Place for All People
Published by Canongate Books

My next pre-Christmas review is an account of life, works, and beliefs by one of our foremost architects...

We tend to think of famous architects in terms of their most high-profile projects. Richard Rogers, one of the pre-eminent architects of his generation, brings to mind instantly major buildings like the Pompidou Centre in Paris and the Lloyd’s Building in London. But there is much more to him than that, and this book – part memoir, part architectural inside story, part manifesto – tells the stories not just of these but also of many less well known designs, from his early houses to more recent social housing projects. All these have fascinating aspects, and it’s one of the pleasures of reading this book to discover more about familiar and unfamiliar buildings alike – what drove the designs, the thinking behind them, how they got built.

The book is revealing, as one would expect, on the architect’s formative experiences.His closeness to Italy is key – his Italian parents and cousin, the architect Ernesto Rogers, his admiration of Italian piazzas, his love of Florence, his work with Renzo Piano. There is also the formative influence of innovative architects in Britain, such as Peter Cook and Cedric Price, and in America, where his first experience of New York and his time at Yale are described. But history and historic architecture are important too, whether it’s the achingly beautiful piazza in Siena or the work of great Victorian engineers like Brunel or Paxton.

Then there’s the work. Rogers’ account of the various crises involved in getting the Pompidou Centre designed and built, and the controversies that surrounded Lloyd’s, are vividly told: it’s worth reading the book for these alone. A major theme is the development of adaptable buildings, and of lightweight structures, from the early Reliance Controls building near Swindon to the Millennium Dome, aka O2.

Another important leitmotif is public space. Rogers loves lively public spaces, especially those Italian squares. He not only promotes public space when he can, but actively encourages it and builds it into his plans – the piazza next to the Pompidou Centre is a key part of the design and Rogers and Piano’s was the only scheme for the site that provided this facility. He is exercised, quite rightly I think, by the poor provision of public space in some British cities and the erosion of this space as it gets sold off to private owners who let the public in on their own conditions. And he is particularly engaged by the spaces in capital cities. He believes that every Parliament should have a public space next to it for people to demonstrate ion, and finds it an embarrassment that Britain’s government sought to banish demonstrators from London’s Parliament Square.

A Place for All People, this book is called, and people are at its heart. Star that he is, Rogers is constantly at pains to credit his partners, co-designers, and engineers (he’s worked with some of the best of those), and to build up a picture of some of the ways in which a large architectural practice works. People’s importance to him is not just about socialising in the River Café or enjoying big family get-togethers in his enviable London house. People are at the core of what he does and understanding that offers a way of understanding Rogers and his remarkable buildings.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Buildings of nonconformity

Christopher Wakeling, Chapels of England: Buildings of Protestant nonconformity
Published by Historic England

The next of my short series of pre-Christmas reviews is of a book that plugs a major gap in English architectural history: a general account of Protestant chapels and meeting houses...

The architecture of England’s Protestant churches (from Methodists to Unitarians, Baptists to Quakers) has been a difficult subject to get to grips with. There has been plenty of research (the old Royal Commission on Historic Monuments saw to that) but there is such diversity of denominations and architectural approaches that it is hard to see patterns or get a sense of overall development. In addition, nonconformist churches, unlike so many Anglican churches, are not often open, so casual visitors rarely get inside them.

Christopher Wakeling’s new book does much to remedy this situation, giving a clear, wide-ranging, and nuanced account of dissenting architecture in England, from the beginnings to today. The book’s approach is chronological, and it shows that, from the very beginnings it was hard to generalise. The diversity is there from nonconformity’s roots in the 17th century, when one found some groups worshipping in former Catholic churches (dissolved monasteries and priories, for example; even Exeter Cathedral was divided in two and shared between Presbyterians and Independents) and others building simple, often domestic-looking places of worship for themselves.

In the period from the passing of the Toleration Act in 1689 to the mid-18th century, chapels start to become more architecturally assured, impressive, and distinctive. Given the general importance of the Bible and the sermon in nonconformity, it’s not surprising that Wakeling finds buildings influenced by the Georgian ‘preaching boxes’ of the Church of England. But his book also shows that the dissenters were much more adventurous with plan forms, especially towards the mid-18th century as the influence of preachers like John Wesley took hold – Chapels of England singles out some impressive octagonal and oval buildings.

Methodism’s great age of the late-18th and early-19th century has its own chapter, chronicling a time when rising populations and vigorous preaching led to many new chapels, including some outstanding large ones. Growth was especially strong in the Regency and early Victorian periods, by which time the first specialist architects of chapels, men like William Jenkins, James Fenton, and James Simpson, had emerged. Wakeling notes a variety of designs, with a trend towards Greek revival yielding in part to the rise of Gothic designs (the great classifier of Gothic styles, Thomas Rickman, was a Quaker). But the author is at pains to stress that it was not simply a question of the Gothic fashion taking over in the Victorian period: the picture was always one of stylistic diversity, within denominations and across the whole field. 

And so the story continues through the period of continued renewal in the later 19th century, when one could find monster Classical town chapels, tiny Gothic wayside chapels, and Gothic town chapels that looked like Medieval churches being erected at the same time. By the end of the century an Arts and Crafts influenced style had been added to the mix, especially in suburbs and Garden Cities. By the time of World War I, it was evident that many of these structures were major buildings, and nonconformist architecture was being taken seriously in books like Joseph Crouch’s Puritanism and Art

Christopher Wakeling’s fine book, lavishly illustrated, clearly written, and underpinned by deep research, brings the story up to date, with a good selection of 20th-century chapels in styles from expressionistic Gothic to modernist. It does an excellent job of bringing all these buildings and the religious motivation for constructing them to life, illustrating their best points, and delineating some sort of pattern to the complex story of nonconformist architecture, a story that is also one of heterodoxy and variety.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Use and ornament

Roger White, Cottages Ornés: The charms of the simple life
Published by Yale University Press

As the Christmas period approaches, I’m reviewing a small clutch of recent books that I’ve enjoyed and that might give pleasure to readers interested in architecture. First, a book on a kind of house that stands out in landscape and villagescape: the cottage orné

The ornamental cottage – a small rural dwelling made more visually pleasing than the standard worker’s dwelling by means of various decorative embellishments – is one of the most charming phenomena of the 18th and 19th centuries. It has found an enthusiastic and well informed chronicler in Roger White, who begins his survey investigating the roots of the genre in mid-18th century rustic estate buildings before exploring the fashion at the beginning of the 19th century for housing rural workers in picturesque cottages with thatched roofs partly held up with rustic poles, verandahs, bits of timber-framing, fancy bargeboards, and other ornamental features.

From here he moves on to the larger, still more ornate and more varied middle-class cottages that were built in the Regency and Victorian periods, and the cottages enjoyed by the aristocracy and even the royal family. The range covered here is immense, from buildings based on designs in pattern books to glorious one-offs. Among the latter, the expected examples are here – the wonderful A La Ronde in Devon, Plas Newydd at Llangollen, the Queen’s Cottage at Kew, the Royal Lodge at Windsor. But it’s the sheer scope and variety of the lesser known examples that impresses, and the account takes in a broad geographical sweep too, with chapters on cottages ornés on Britain’s ‘Celtic fringes’, in mainland Europe, and further further afield.

We get glimpses of the owners of these places – a smattering of vicars and retired sea captains, unconventional bankers, pairs of spinster ladies like the creators of A La Ronde and several other cottages ornés. We discover the specific areas of Britain especially rich in this widespread architectural type – the Isle of Wight, Sidmouth, the Lake District. We take in a specific, Picturesque, view of the pattern book tradition, in which bargeboards and Tudoresque chimneys are more important than the Classical orders. And we luxuriate in a variety of images (both photographs and prints) of such things as shell rooms, stump houses, rustic masonry, and walls lined with quatrefoil windows.

People are apt to think that there’s something rather frivolous about cottages ornés.  But Regency landowners were quite serious about housing their workers in attractive houses so that they would be happy and more inclined to work hard, and theorists of the Picturesque were serious about the life-enhancing importance of a good view. In any case, one little regarded purpose of architecture is to entertain: Cottages Ornés shows that this is not an ignoble aim, and both the aim and book are worth celebrating.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Uffington, Lincolnshire

Tame and wild

I’d probably not normally have given the two lodges outside the village of Uffington, near Stamford, a very long glance. As we passed, we wondered what house might lay behind them and I thought they might be early-19th century. Then suddenly, simultaneously, two pairs of eyes met two pairs of eyes.’Look! Wild men!’ we cried, seeing the carvings on top of the rusticated gate piers. Wild men, men of the woods, wodewose – grisly of hair and beard, they have various names and many incarnations, but are unusual adornments for a pair of gates at the entrance to a country house.§ They seemed worth another look, so I began to search for somewhere to pull in.

The parking place turned out to be next to a pub, the Bertie Arms, and I realised the significance of the carvings on the gate piers. ‘Of course,’ I said. ‘Bertie wild men.’ The remark brought an interrogative stare from the Resident Wise Woman. ‘The Bertie family,’ I said. ‘They have a wild man on their coat of arms.’* I knew about Bertie wild men because there is one on one of their family tombs in the church in Spilsby, also in Lincolnshire, near where I was born – although what we were actually looking at were Saracens – see the note* below.
Looking the place up afterwards, I learned that Uffington House had been built for Charles Bertie, 2nd Earl of Lindsey in the 1680s and was destroyed in a fire in 1904. It was one of those late-17th century houses with rows of sash windows, a hipped roof, dormers and a central pediment.† Now this gateway and some other gate piers remind passers-by of the house’s presence and these very Classical, civilised-looking lodges make a memorable contrast with the splendid, vigorously carved heads atop the piers who, making a welcome change from the usual urns, stare wide-eyed across the fields towards Bourne, Spalding, and the endless fens.

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§ Wild men are everywhere in myth, literature, and heraldry. Perhaps Enkidu in the Epic of Gilgamesh, the most ancient of all surviving epics, is the first wild man; they are still around in the works of Tolkien and Ted Hughes. They occur on coats of arms from the low countries to Central Europe, and Antwerp has a wild man and a wild woman as supporters of their arms. The Danish royal arms has wild men supporters and when the Danes began to rule Greece, the wild men became figures representing their Classical cousin Herakles.

* There were no wild men on the pub sign, though, presumably because the wild man on the coat of arms is one of the supporters, and the pub sign did not show these. A reader has pointed out that a wild man does indeed appear as a supporter on the Bertie coat of arms; what is on the gate piers is actually their crest (the symbol on the top of the arms), which is a crowned saracen's head.

† Uffington was one of the hundreds of houses included in the famous 1974 V&A exhibition The Destruction of the Country House.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Stanway, Gloucestershire

In I go? 

In spite of the fact that it has a handful of houses and a charming but over-restored church, the Cotswold village of Stanway is one of the richest sources of architectural enjoyment for miles around. Glorious Stanway House, J M Barrie’s wooden cricket pavilion, my favourite war memorial, and a length of churchyard wall of more than usual antiquarian interest are just a few of the highlights.* Here’s another, and one of the best: the gatehouse to Stanway House.

This 17th-century stunner, probably dating to the 1630s, is built in the rich ashlar, golden verging on orange, of the rest of the village. It displays that blend of old and new styles that appears so often in the early-17th century – Tudorish bay windows, ornate shaped gables, and a more Stuart-looking Classical door surround; the door opening itself has another Tudorish feature, the flattened four-centred arch, and above it are Tudor-looking roses in the frieze.

The finials to the gables are scallop shells, which also appear elsewhere on the building – on the wall above the twin columns that flank the doorway, for example. These shells are the badge of the Tracy family, who were leasing the big house from Tewkesbury Abbey at the time of the dissolution of the monasteries and bought it when the abbey closed.

This gatehouse has enough of the Classical about it to have been attributed to the architect Inigo Jones in the past. However these days historians, aware of the very severe and correct Classicism of Jones’s designs for the Banqueting House in Whitehall and the Queen’s House in Greenwich, are apt to reject this attribution.† A more likely designer, says Pevsner, is Timothy Strong, who worked on the Canterbury Quad at St John’s College, Oxford. Whoever did the design, the gatehouse beautifully enhances the corner where it stands, its stone glowing in the winter sun.

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* I am fortunate to live only a few miles from Stanway. This, as well as the sheer interest of the place, accounts for its appearance on this blog five or six times. No apology, I think, is necessary.

† Fifty years ago, there was a tendency to attribute every other 17th-century building to Jones. Now scholars are much more circumspect.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Farmington, Gloucestershire

England and New England

Farmington’s lovely octagonal stone bus shelter, featured in my previous post, has a still more elaborate counterpart on the village green: the pump house. This is another eight-sided structure with a complex tiled roof topped with a little lantern feature with an ogee cupola. This architectural jeu d’esprit was built as a memorial to Edmund Waller, the lord of the manor, who died in 1898. The roof was originally thatched, but the thatch – presumably in need of replacement by the mid-1930s – was replaced with Cotswold stone tiles in 1935. This work was paid for by the people of Farmington Connecticut, to commemorate their state’s 300th birthday.

The Cotswold stone tiles look just as good as thatch on the roof, and are perfectly in keeping with the architecture of the village, making the pump house a double memorial, to Waller and to the links between England and North America. The reroofing was a generous gesture by the people of the American Farmington, and as the leaves turn yellow and orange, this English scene might well remind us of the autumnal colours of New England. Local distinctiveness can also have a global dimension.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Farmington, Gloucestershire


I think I have mentioned before in a blog post that I once went to a talk by Sue Clifford, one of the authors of the excellent book England in Particular. She illustrated the concept of local distinctiveness with a series of photographs of bus shelters built of different, local materials – it might have been cob and thatch in Dorset, brick and tile in Sussex, limestone in the Cotswolds, that sort of thing. It was a good way of making the point because it showed how even the most modest building could be distinctive and could exemplify local geology and local cultural traditions.

There are, indeed, plenty of limestone bus shelters in Gloucestershire, with walls and roofs of Cotswold stone. But there are few as memorable as this one, a perfect octagon with a neat gable over the entrance in Farmington, a village just off the A40 between Cheltenham and Oxford. Making a building octagonal requires special effort, of course, in both walls and roof. The builders who took this challenge on did so in 1951, to create a small building to mark the Festival of Britain.

This bus shelter must have been very well used in the 1950s and 1960s, when rates of car ownership were still quite low. Today, most households here probably have at least one car and there are few local buses – all I could find after a quick look online were buses serving local schools during term time. But there’s still shelter here for anyone who needs it, and an attractive bit of Cotswold architecture for anyone passing, in car, by bus, or on foot, to admire.

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Stand by for another post on a nearby octagonal building.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Tenbury Wells, Worcestershire

The Tenbury oval

When I began this blog some ten years ago, the very first building I featured was the extraordinary spa at Tenbury Wells in Worcestershire. When I chose it to start me off, I had some inkling that it provided the kind of qualities – architectural originality and quirkiness, strong colour, striking form, unusual materials, and the fact of being little known – that might be ones I’d be celebrating often in the posts to come, and so it has proved. I had another inkling, that at some point I should return to Tenbury Wells and share another of the town’s remarkable buildings, the Market House, also known as the Round Market, which shares several of these qualities.

So here it is. As with the spa building, it’s quite unlike what we’d expect. Victorian market halls, it’s true, do sometimes use striking brickwork to help them stand out. But you’d have to go a long way to find another quite like this, a ‘round market’ that’s actually oval in shape, with walls of a mix of red and blue brickwork, and a roof, set on brackets, that slopes up to a ventilation feature at the top. It’s a building, what’s more, that uses a delicate form of Decorated Gothic in its window tracery, which combines trefoils, quatrefoils, cusps and arches within a series of rectangular frames.

This original design of 1858 was the work of James Cranston, who was also (surprise, surprise) the architect of the spa building. He seems to have been a Birmingham man who did a lot of work in Worcestershire and Herefordshire (including the usual Victorian architect’s staple diet of schools and church restorations).* In Tenbury, he was given a chance to shine, and took that chance with considerable flair. The town got a building that still, nearly 160 years after it was built, is being used for buying and selling: a good record in these times of out-of-town and online retailing and a tribute to those who have kept it going and to its original architect, unsung but well worth celebrating. 

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*If he’s the architect I think he is, he had a son of the same name who played cricket for Gloucestershire under W G Grace and once made it into the England team to play against Australia.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Tixover, Rutland

A church, a meal, a view   

Shared experiences, and the common frames of reference that they create, are among the boons of friendship. Sharing particular memories – of an event that happened long ago, a book, a piece of music, a place – with someone else strengthens social bonds and makes vivid recollections brighter still. There are times when the merest allusion can click the connection firmly in place. Mentioning to the right person one surname from childhood, a single line from a book, a specific image from a description, can do it.

Something like this happened chez my friend Mr A the other day. ‘Where haven’t you been, round here?’ he asked, wondering what architectural delights, in his neck of the woods, he could introduce me to. I replied: ‘You know that bit in The Shell Guide of Rutland where the author, W G Hoskins, says that the churchyard at Tixover is a good place for a doze? Well, I’ve not been there.’* Mr A is the only person I know who would respond to this allusion with instant recognition and approval, so off we went to Uppingham, to buy food, including an excellent pork pie from Culpin and Son,† and made our way through the October sunshine to Tixover.

It is obviously one of those villages that relocated centuries ago, leaving the church isolated and the few houses along a lane a few fields away. So when you arrive in the village you pick up the key to the church from a farmhouse and drive on, through a farmyard, along a track, and across a field. You come to a halt in front of a small church with a squat Norman tower and a nave and aisles with rectangular, Tudor-looking windows.‡ There’s no noise apart from a distant mechanical whine¶ that could be an aeroplane but may also be some sort of farm machinery; other than that nothing, apart from an intermittent, faint tapping coming from one of the trees, as if of a woodpecker who couldn’t be bothered to peck really hard. The ideal setting for an alfresco meal of pork pie, samosas, and ginger beer in the churchyard.

Inside the church we enjoy medieval carved capitals of various dates, a Jacobean monument, and the pattern of quatrefoil windows projected by sunlight on to the walls. And some interesting 17th-century stained glass panels, which we admire and scratch our heads over – they look imported from elsewhere.§ Then the bonus – a view of the church from the other side of the River Welland. This view involves another trip across a field, this time on foot – to appreciate its setting among farmland, trees, tussocky grass, and water. It was all even better than I’d imagined from Hoskins’ description in the old Shell Guide that had set us on our way.

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*If it seems to you eccentric of two grown men to be reading an old guidebook to England’s smallest county, think again. The Shell Guide to Rutland, being by the great landscape historian W G Hoskins is very well informed and well written. Rutland has changed less than most English counties in the last 50 years too, so the traveller can still learn much from this guidebook’s account of the place and its descriptions of its towns and villages.

†This butcher does produce seriously good pork pies. As someone born in Lincolnshire, a county that prides itself on its pork products (especially its outstanding sausages), I know what I am talking about.

‡ There’s a debate about these domestic-looking windows. They could be Tudor or Jacobean; they’re unlikely to be 13th-century, which was the date proposed by the antiquary Thomas Rickman.

¶ It’s rarely perfectly quiet in the English countryside. There’s usually someone not far away driving a tractor, using a chainsaw, or shooting pheasants: people at work, and a good thing too.

§ Pevsner says nothing about them.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Hastings, East Sussex


I was delighted to learn last night* that the Royal Institute of British Architects has awarded its annual Stirling Prize for Britain’s best new bulding to Hastings Pier. Going back to 1872, the pier was a popular entertainment venue, but closed in 2008 after storm damage. In 2010 there was a fire, which nearly finished the pier off for good.† But the people of Hastings and its council rose to the considerable challenge of restoring and rebuilding the structure, raising money locally, enlisting the help of the Heritage Lottery Fund, and finding 3,000 shareholders to buy a stake in the project at £100 a share.

A RIBA design competition was won by dRMM Architects, who have masterminded the restoration and creative reimagining of the pier. The 19th-century structural ironwork, hidden below deck, has been painstakingly restored and strengthened. The surviving Victorian pavilion, one of two buildings on the pier, has been transformed into an open plan, glazed café-bar.

The vast pier deck has been set aside as an uninterrupted flexible expanse for large-scale concerts, markets and public gatherings. The new timber-clad visitor centre building in the centre of the pier has a viewing deck on its roof providing a dramatic space for visitors to experience epic views along the coast and across the English Channel. The architects have used timber throughout the project, much of it reclaimed from the original pier. The reclaimed timber has also been used to create the pier’s striking new furniture, manufactured locally as part of a local employment initiative. It is a cause for celebration Hastings once more has the pier it deserves and that the project’s quality has been recognised by RIBA.
Hastings Pier: new building with reclaimed timber cladding

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* I share this information in part for British readers who may have been distracted from it last night by Hallowe’en or by television (apparently there was the final of some sort of cake-baking programme on).
† I posted about the fire damage here.
Photographs James Robertshaw (top) and Franceso Montaguti (bottom)

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

St John's Wood, London

Specific gravity

My photograph shows a representative selection of the architecture of St John’s Wood High Street. In the left background are classical blocks, probably of the 1830s or soon after, of white or yellow brick with stucco details. Then, a bit closer, a red brick and white ‘Queen Anne’ group with the fancy curvy gables and the characteristic square-pane glazing of the late-19th century. There’s a lot of  late-19th century stripy masonry round here, as witness the building in the right foreground, a bank, more classical but still in a contrasting mix of materials, here brick and Portland stone.

In the middle of it all is the pub, the Sir Isaac Newton, standing out like a flashing beacon. This is another late-19th century building (1892, says Pevsner), this time in red brick and orangey terracotta, a combination of colours that means that the bands are there but don’t provide much contrast. Instead, the whole building glows. Like its neighbour, it has ornate gables.
The other stand-out feature is the integral sign on the side wall. This is bordered by rich foliate architectural ornament and within this border is some outré Art Nouveau lettering of the kind that people rejoiced in during the period 1890–1910. It’s a confection of bifurcated strokes, over-the-top spiralling curves (especially the S and C), curious concavities (the N, E and A), and sheer eccentricity (the W). If we associate Sir Isaac Newton with gravity, this intoxicated lettering hardly embodies that characteristic. Perhaps another kind of gravity, specific gravity, comes to mind. Cheers!

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Salisbury, Wiltshire

On high

When in Salisbury I always look up at the sign of the White Hart Hotel, a particularly lovely three-dimensional inn sign that stands out against the sky. The building it crowns is a large inn of about 1820 with an enormous Doric portico, but there has actually been an inn here since at least 1635. The use of the white hart as a badge goes back further still – it was the device of King Richard II and that fact accounts for the crown around the creature’s neck.

On this sign the crown and chain look as they have been made of metal and attached to the figure of the hart. The fact that the antlers are a different colour makes them stand out too, as if the sculptor had used a real pair of antlers. although this is no doubt the effect of a paint job.*

From ground level, everything is less distinct than in my photograph, which was taken with a zoom lens at full extension. Most passers-by are therefore unaware of the details of the sign. More often than not in my experience, the creature appears in silhouette, in which form he is still an effective marker, enabling one to single out the building from some distance away and forming a bold effect for an imposing building.

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*I'm not sure of the material used for the hart itself. The rough surface looks stone-like, but this may be the effect of a coat or two of masonry paint, plus grime. Could it be Coade stone?

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire

Cornish in Oxon

I thought I knew the Oxfordshire market town of Chipping Norton well but, as so often with places we visit frequently, there’s always another side street or two to explore, and I was delighted to find these 17th-century almshouses in Church Street.* You can see that we’re in the Cotswolds here: those stone walls and the broad gables built as upward extensions of the front wall are very Cotswold, as are the dripstones above the upper windows.

There’s a datestone that tells us that the almshouses were ‘The work of Henry Cornish. Gent. 1640’. Cornish died in 1649 and left these eight houses as dwellings for eight poor widows, together with an endowment providing 20 shillings a year for the building’s maintenance and 2 shillings weekly for bread to be given to the widows. I don’t know much about Henry Cornish, but one source suggests that he was an opponent of the royal taxation that pushed England towards the Civil War and was imprisoned by the royalists for his views and bailed out by his nephew, William Diston, who’s remembered in the name of Diston Street, around the corner from the almshouses.

Of course what attracted me to this building was, as so often, the fact that it’s attractive. The stone walls set back from the street behind a lawn have an air of tranquility. I hope it’s as pleasant a place to live in as it looks from the outside, and that many have benefitted from Cornish’s bequest and the way he acted on the instruction inscribed above the gateway: ‘Remember the poor’.

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* Church Street: yes, I have visited Chipping Norton’s late-medieval church before, but managed to approach it from another angle, without going along Church Street.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Navenby, Lincolnshire

Top Dec.

Seen from across neighbouring gardens, the church almost disappears behind greenery. But the east window still stands out, and I think: ‘Yes! More glorious Lincolnshire tracery.’

Lincolnshire is a county full of churches with elaborate curvaceous 14th-century window tracery. At big parish churches like the ones at Sleaford, Grantham, and Heckington, the tracery curves this way and that in a series of patterns of sometimes dizzying complexity and variety – curvilinear tracery of the most inventive kind. This is a smaller church, but the east window is as wonderful as those of its larger cousins. The tracery pattern here is dominated by two mouchettes – the shapes that look like gigantic skewed commas, their tails pointing down and outwards, their heads nodding towards each other and touching at the centre. Within each mouchette are other shapes – large multi-cusped trefoils in the heads, elongated ‘daggers’ in the tails.
This is all very showy and was designed to hold stained glass which has not survived. The glass is clear now, so the sunlight pours into the chancel, as it was doing on the day I visited recently. And what the light falls on is equally remarkable: a series of niches, sedilia, and a piscina, all surrounded and topped with highly ornate 14th-century carving. Pinnacles, crockets, foliage, figures, human heads – this carving has the lot. A high-class carver has been here and has thrown the kitchen sink at this job. You can see why this style was labelled Decorated Gothic (often abbreviated to ‘Dec.’) in the 19th century.
The niche to the right of the door is what eccesiologists used to call an Easter Sepulchre, which was thought to be a niche used in an Easter ritual in which the Crucifixion and Resurrection were symbolically re-enacted by ‘entombing’ a cross in the niche and removing it on Easter Day. Historians now question this, suggesting that niches like this were more likely used all year round for reserving the consecrated bread and wine. The imagery is certainly linked to the Resurrection – three Maries at the top with an angel, the Roman soldiers at the base. Whichever it is, the the carving is outstanding – it’s suggested that it was done at the behest of William de Herleston, who was rector here in the 1320s and was closely connected to the royal court. I can well believe that this work had such a high-status patron.

Sunday, October 15, 2017


Pride of lions…and gryphons

It was with difficulty that I restrained myself from lying on my back and purring when I found this beautiful shop front in Lincoln’s Corporation Street. Restraint was a little easier than it might have been because of the number of other people present on the street and because of the poor 20th-century shopfronts on the building’s ground floor – I have spared you, gentle reader, from witnessing more than the merest sliver of these.

The upper part of this building is a gem. It’s a lovely example of the hybrid style of about 1900 – a bit Tudoresque, a bit Queen Anne. In the middle, just above the shop signs and at the bottom of my picture is a carved plaque bearing the building’s name: ‘St Hugh’s Chambers’ and the date 1899. Corporation Street was new in the 1890s, St Hugh’s Chambers must have been built soon after the street was laid out, probably for the two solicitors who are recorded as occupying the building in 1901.*

There is much, decoratively speaking, to like about the facade. The fenestration, with the circular window and the curving glazing of the bays, is good, and some of the leaded lights remain to show how it would have looked back in 1899. The wall decoration with its gryphons, carefully positioned to frame the round window, is a joy. The gryphons are in plaster,† in very low relief, and have been emphasized by the pale blue paintwork of the background; I presume this would have been left white originally.

There’s a niche in the middle of the wall, which would have housed a statue of one of the St Hughs associated with Lincoln.¶ Beneath this bit of Gothic finery is the carving around the name plaque, featuring scrolls, shields, and rampant lions. In spite of being knocked about, this frontage is still of enough interest to be protected by listing. The listing text mentions it as a good example of a Victorian commercial building with decorations that suggest qualities such as respectability and dependability. To which perhaps I would add tradition (the use of heraldic beasts) and also a touch of daring (the sheer size of those gryphons). The Edwardian lawyers who worked there must have been proud of it.

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* ‘Chambers’ is the usual name for barristers’ offices, but solicitors are sometimes based in ‘chambers’ too. The word was also used for apartments, especially ones occupied by single people.

† I have posted another example of this technique, called pargetting, here.

¶ Probably St Hugh of Avalon, the French-born monk who came to England to be prior of the first Carthusian house in England, and was subsequently Bishop of Lincoln. As an upholder of the rights of the Jews, a rebuilder of Lincoln cathedral, and a man who had the strength of character to stand up to that dynamic but difficult English king, Henry II, St Hugh gets my vote.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017


Untroubled waters

This is one of those architectural miniatures I particularly like. It’s St Mary’s conduit house, built in the 16th century to provide a source of clean water for the people of Lincoln. It’s said to have been built partly out of fragments of from a chantry in an old friary that was dissolved, during the depredations imposed by Henry VIII on the country religious houses, in 1530. By incorporating them into the walls of the conduit house (connected to a network of supply pipes begun by the friars) a few years after the dissolution, the builders gave a new life to bits of tracery and blind arcading, plus some corbels, niches, arch heads, and other bits and pieces.

They also provided an invaluable service to local people. The conduit and others in the city carried on supplying water until 1906, although not the conduit house did not remain in exactly the same positron – it was moved away from the street into St Mary’s churchyard in 1864. When mains water was laid on at the beginning of the 20th century, the supply from the conduits was trusted more than the piped water. I seem to remember that there was widespread suspicion of piped water in the Victorian period, with London water sellers hawking water from bowsers with the cry ‘Pure water! None of your pipe sludge!’ And no wonder, given the disease carried by infected water supplies in the early days. In Lincoln, confidence in the old conduits continued during the  1904–5 typhoid epidemic, so perhaps this attractive facility saved some lives too.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Potterhanworth, Lincolnshire

Bits of history

To Lincolnshire, in search of the Resident Wise Woman’s ancestors. Our journey took us to Potterhanworth, southeast of Lincoln, where her grandmother Betsy was brought up and went to the village school. We took with us the Betsy’s typescript memoirs of her early life in this Lincolnshire village with her grandparents* – her grandfather (the RWW’s great great grandfather), the wonderfully named John George Pepperdine Salter¶ was the first stationmaster at Potterhanworth station. We found the old station house, where they lived, and visited the village school, whose head was very happy with the gift of a copy of the memoirs and rewarded us, quite unexpectedly, with the sight of their author’s name in the school register, inscribed in a copperplate hand in 1901.

The most remarkable building in Potterhanworth is this water tower (now converted to a house). I can’t remember when I last saw such an impressive one in a village. It was built in 1903 with funds provided by Christ’s Hospital (a Lincoln charity with a lasting link to the village); the coat of arms of Richard Smith, founder of Christ’s Hospital in Lincoln are on the side of the turret. As well as supplying water (which it did until the 1970s), the building was a useful public meeting place – the Parish Council and Men’s Institute met in the rooms in the brick tower that supports the enormous tank. Now it’s a substantial house with an unusual history in a place that means a lot to those close to me, and now to me too. 

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* So we are talking about a person born in the Victorian period brought up by her grandparents, who were old enough to remember the early years of Victoria’s reign – a long historical vista.

¶ I have a great fondness for names like this, in which it’s unclear where the forename ends and the surname beings; compare the writer Patrick Leigh Fermor and the photographic pioneer William Henry Fox Talbot. 

Tuesday, October 3, 2017


First post

Just inside the entrance to the Museum of Lincolnshire Life in Lincoln is this post box. It was made in 1856 at the Handyside foundry in Derby and installed the following year at Gosberton Bank near Spalding. In 1969 is was moved to the museum, as an example of a very early type of post box – from the time before there was an accepted standard design. A number of the early post box designs were octagonal like this one and like the Penfold, of which a number survive. The Lincoln example, ten years earlier than the Penfold, is rarer still and almost as striking.

With its vertical slot and octagonal shape, it looks quite unlike modern cylindrical boxes and as the red finish wash’t standardised until later, it might originally have been a different colour too. But many features – the royal monogram, the panel showing collection times, and the words ‘Post Office’ are all similar to those on the boxes we use today.

I don’t often feature here items from museums, but there are so few opportunities to see these early boxes on the street that I didn’t want to let this one slip by. And there’s a twist. Although it’s in a museum, this post box is still in use, and visitors are encouraged to post their letters in it – this is Lincolnshire’s oldest working post box. As the first post box appeared on the British mainland in 1853,* it is also one of the oldest in the country. Mr Handyside did the Post Office proud.

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*The Channel Islands got them the year before.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Farmington, Gloucestershire

Well shod

When it comes to exploring churches, sometimes the fun starts before you even get to the building.

Pausing by the churchyard wall in the Cotswold village of Farmington, you see this: a gate made up of 90-odd horseshoes, artfully arranged. Horseshoe gates are not unusual. I suppose they’re a pragmatic example of recycling – with the added attraction, for the superstitious user, that horseshoes are supposed to bring good luck. But what struck me with this example was that the horsehoes had been arranged architecturally. What I mean is that the central motif, a quatrefoil made up of four horseshoes, is a  piece of architectural ornament, and one often used in medieval churches. I have noticed quatrefoils before, on church fonts, church walls, church windows. The quatrefoil, you might say, is a way of making a horseshoe gate into a fitting entrance to a churchyard.

Or you might just say that it’s a winning bit of fun.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Great Bourton, Oxfordshire


Here’s an unusual and striking combination of functions. At Great Bourton in Oxfordshire the architect William White (great nephew of the naturalist Gilbert White of Selborne) was called in to do an almost complete rebuild of the parish church. Instead of making the tower part of the church building, he built a detached bell tower – and combined it with the lychgate that forms the entrance to the churchyard.

It’s a stand-out feature and really makes a mark in the village street, forming a landmark next to the pub, and making a very dramatic entrance point to the churchyard. The stonework is very plain (look at those austere lancet windows), but it doesn’t need to be fancy: the rich orangey colour of the local stone is attractive in itself. And up above at the top of the tower comes the unusual feature: the bell chamber is an open framework structure of oak, dominated by sweeping arches and a very steeply pitched roof.

The bells must sound out loud and clear from this tower calling people away from their pints in the traditional way. Even if they don’t heed the call and return to their drinks, they have something special to look at. Your good health!

Friday, September 15, 2017



I was saddened to read about the demolition of a Jacobean plaster ceiling in a building in Bristol the other day. This beautiful piece of craftsmanship, which was neatly 400 years old, was in a building in Small Street which had been a bar and which a developer is converting into student flats. The removal of the ceiling was quite legal, but an application had been made to protect the building by listing it and the destruction of the plasterwork was carried out before the listings officers from Historic England had been able to inspect the building and carry out their assessment.

This sort of thing is not unusual. My mind went back to one of the most famous cases, the Firestone factory in West London, which was bulldozered over a Bank Holiday weekend in 1980, hours before a listing was due to come into force. The Bristol case is different – even if they’d had the chance to look at it, the inspectors may have decided not to list the building – but just as deplorable: 400 years of history gone with a few strokes of the sledgehammer.

There is a way of making pre-emptive demolition more difficult: introducing interim protection of buildings while the listings assessment takes place. Such a system already operates in Wales and in the opinion of many it’s time it did in England too. A petition, supported by groups such as the C20 Society, has been started to urge the government to bring in such a measure. I’d encourage readers who can do so to sign the petition here.

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The picture above comes from the SAVE Britain's Heritage website, where there is more about the ceiling here

Monday, September 11, 2017

Walpole St Peter, Norfolk

It does something to me

A regular reader of the English Buildings blog, or someone glancing at the tag cloud in the right-hand column, would realise quickly that churches are a major interest of mine. I visit churches a lot, and I seem to blog about a church at least once a month. Many things draw me to churches – sometimes it’s their long history, sometimes their architecture, sometimes specific objects or works of art they contain, sometimes what I can only call their atmosphere.

The atmosphere I most eagerly savour is the kind that is summoned up by centuries of accumulated history. It’s what I find, typically, in small isolated country churches that have not been over-restored – churches like Inglesham in Wiltshire, to give just one favourite example. There’s something else I get from churches like that, and it’s signalled perhaps by the world ‘isolated’. In a world that contains, in my opinion, far too much noise, a church can be an almost silent place. I find quietude helpful, even restorative, and value the combination of quiet and atmosphere* found in some old churches enough make a special journey to find it.

But there’s another thing that sometimes happens in churches that is the opposite of silence, and can be equally nourishing: the sudden unexpected performance of music. I have been surprised by music in churches quite a few times, and it has always made my visit memorable. This is not, or not usually, run of the mill organ practice – though I have been captivated by that too (one organ piece I heard, in Gloucester cathedral, stayed in my head for years before I discovered what it was). What I mean is rehearsals for special musical events. From time to time I have come across a trio playing Mendelssohn, a choir singing Handel, a bizarre duet for organ and violin, a Schubert impromptu on the piano, and an unidentified baroque cantata – all of these in old churches. All have given me pleasure, in part because these ad hoc performances have been a total surprise.

It’s not just about church acoustics, which can vary quite a bit. In one of our more beautiful cathedrals I can remember a choral rehearsal in which it took me a few minutes to grasp the fact that the words the choir were singing were English ones – the reverberation was playing havoc with the singers’ diction. After a while the conductor dropped her arms in despair, bringing everyone to a halt, and wailed desperately,’I need to hear the altos!’ Often, though, church acoustics are crystal clear. The setting, conducive to worship, is also likely to be apt for the kind of attention that good, unamplified music demands. And in a small church one can get very close to the performers, lending great immediacy to the proceedings.

At Walpole St Peter in Norfolk, the church offers many of the things I most enjoy – airy, late-medieval architecture with repeating patterns of window tracery, impressive woodwork including screens and pews with carved poppyheads and other details, clear glass that lets the sun bathe the interior with light and warmth. But it was music that was in my mind even before I walked past the notice reminding me to remove the pattens from my feet¶ and pushed open the door. I have a recording of a fine Bach concert by the English Baroque Soloists and Monteverdi Choir under John Eliot Gardiner that was made in this glorious 15th-century church. How wonderful it would be, I thought, if someone’s playing Bach in here. Imagine my surprise as I opened the door to hear not ‘Wachet auf’ or ‘Jesu, meine Freude’ but a woman singing Cole Porter. There followed a long selection from the American songbook, most of it beautifully sung, a rehearsal for a concert later the same day. The person minding the singers was quite happy for me to wander around, so I tiptoed quietly, admiring the window tracery and the woodwork, and savouring the way the sunlight coming through the clear glass windows illuminated pews and carvings, to the accompaniment of ‘Night and Day’, ‘You’re the Top’, and ‘You Do Something to Me’.

And the whole experience did do something to me, and I was very grateful. I did not resent losing a few minutes’ silence for some good music-making. Music and silence, apparent opposites, are not so far apart after all. There have been whole books written about silence, but perhaps the best thing I’ve read about the subject is the shortest and most laconic, the exhortation of Alfred Brendel, master interpreter of the Viennese piano classics† and revelatory writer about music. He told us simply to remember the anagram: LISTEN = SILENT.§

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* Compare Philip Larkin, ‘Church Going’: ‘It pleases me to stand in silence here’.

¶ A notice left over from the 19th century, at least: ‘It is requested that all persons will take off their Pattens at the Church Door’.

† Now retired from the concert platform, but his recordings remain.

§ Alfred Brendel, A Pianist’s A – Z (Faber & Faber, 2013)