Saturday, July 29, 2017

Martock, Somerset

Well provided for

I always think of the Tudor and Stuart periods as the great age of English market houses, which are so often built in a kind of rustic classicism that suggests local pride and modest prosperity. The one at Chipping Campden is a favourite, Abingdon another, on a far grander scale and far from rustic. The stone town of Martock, however, has a mid-18th century one.

It’s quietly classical, with elliptical arches and piers that don’t have capitals but just a continuation of the stringcourse that runs around the building to show where the arch begins. Up above there are sash windows and, at the end, a Venetian window above a row of scroll brackets, and above that a blind niche in the form of a semicircle that, when you look at it closely, turns out to be a vent.  It’s very simple, a local builder’s assemblage of basic ingredients, but a satisfying enough recipe for a small country town.

Next to it is a structure known as the Market Cross or the Pinnacle. It’s a tall Tuscan column (about 6 m in total) that bears the date 1741. It is allegedly a copy of one once at Wilton, but wherever the idea came from, it’s effective enough as a corner feature on this junction. Not that it needs a landmark, with the Market House there too. In this, as in its profusion of stones buildings generally, Martock is well provided for.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Swerford, Oxfordshire

Lumps and bumps

It was only by chance that I came across this place. I was on the lookout for the church, but what I’d taken to be the main village of Swerford, a cluster of houses at Chapel End, is not where the church is – it’s next to another cluster a few hundred yards away. And then, when I did find the church what caught my eye first were various lumps and bumps in the adjacent field. They are all that’s left of a castle: two main raised grassy partly tree-covered areas – the motte or mound and the bailey or courtyard – plus another smaller one that looks like a lesser bailey or outwork. The churchyard cuts into the nearest bump, which you can see in my photograph just beyond the churchyard wall, telling us that the graveyard, and no doubt the church, are later than the castle.

This small fortification was built during the 12th-century civil war between rival claimants to the English throne: Matilda, daughter of Henry I, and Stephen, his nephew. The local lords, the D’Oyleys, were related to Matilda and so on her side; their neighbours, the de Chesneys of Deddington, backed Stephen and threatened to take the D’Oyley lands. This small castle was built by the D’Oyleys to defend the ford over the Swere Brook, a key point on a local route.

The castle would have been built of wood and put up quickly some time after the death of Henry I in 1135, so that a small garrison and their horses could be based here. Twenty years later it was not needed, as the war had ended with Stephen on the throne but an agreement that Matilda’s son would succeed him when he died. That son, Henry II, had the unauthorised castles of the civil war dismantled when he came to the throne in 1154, and this one was probably taken down then. Some of the rubble from the mound may even have been used to build the church, which dates from some time after 1300. Archaeologists say that whether or not this was the case, the site was cleared fairly comprehensively and there have been few finds.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Shorncote, Gloucestershire

Viva Maria!

A few weeks ago I injured a leg and for a while could hardly move and was unable to bend sufficiently to get in and out of the car – let alone drive it – without pain. By last weekend things had improved sufficiently for me to take my leg for a test drive, as it were, and, as things went well, I ended up a few miles beyond Cirencester and found myself in a tiny place called Shorncote, where I’d not been before.

The church at Shorncote is very small – just a nave, chancel, small side chapel and porch – but is full of the sort of things that I like: fragments of wall painting, an old timber roof, a tiny Easter sepulchre, a reading desk knocked together out of medieval panelling, and so on. As I was looking round, the sun came out and threw light on all this, and also on something I had not noticed until that point, a carved graffito on a window ledge, made up of a capital W or what this symbol is usually taken to be, a pair of overlapping Vs.
Matthew Champion’s excellent book Medieval Graffiti* is enlightening on this mark, which he and fellow graffiti-researchers have found in many medieval churches. He says that it is widely believed to symbolise the Virgin Mary, and written as two overlapping Vs is said to stand for ‘Virgo Virginum’ (Virgin of virgins), though it is also sometimes written upside-down, when it appears as a capital M, so it works that way too. Champion cites at least one place – a church at Fakenham, Norfolk – where the symbol is reproduced formally (i.e. not as graffiti), in the flint patterns on a late-medieval church wall, in association with the word ‘Maria’.

However, the symbol outlasted the Reformation, turning up in all sorts of places, including 18th and 19th-century secular buildings, suggesting that it might have acquired a significance beyond the church, as a kind of sign of good luck. In 20th-century Italy, incidentally, the symbol had an afterlife as an abbreviation for the word ‘Viva’ (long live).† There can be a lot to tease out of a small scratched mark on a church wall.

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* Matthew Champion, Medieval Graffiti: The Lost Voices of England’s Churches, (Ebury Press, 2013). I reviewed this book here. I’d recommend it to anyone with an interest in these things.

† To go off piste for a moment: The American poet E. E. Cummings gave one of his collections the title VV [ViVa], with the Vs printed to overlap (and often, given the limitations of typography, as a W), in the ancient manner. Cummings liked titles that were unusual or difficult to pronounce. Another of his was XAIPE, which is Greek, and I’m told sounds roughly like ‘chiry’, with the ‘ch’ as in the Scottish ‘loch’ and the word rhyming with ‘wiry’; the meaning is ‘Be happy!’, as witness Lawrence Durrell in Reflections on a Marine Venus: ‘When you see the gravestones from the little necropolis of Cameirus . . . it is the so-often repeated single word – the anonymous Xaipe – which attracts you . . . . It is not the names of the rich or the worthy . . . but this single word, “Be Happy,” serving both as a farewell and admonition, that goes to your heart with the whole impact of the Greek style of mind.’

Monday, July 17, 2017

Bristol and beyond

Small but perfectly formed

Before I return to regular posting, I would like to offer my readers one more selection of past posts, to celebrate this blog's tenth anniversary. This, time, I've chosen a handful of very small buildings. This is in part a reminder that, over the past decade, the English Buildings blog has taken pride in noticing very small structures that many people pass by without a thought. It's also, in a way, a tribute to the great architectural writer Nikolaus Pevsner and the colleagues with whom he worked. A very long time ago I bought my first volume in his Buildings of England series: it was Gloucestershire: The Cotswolds, and I added it to my shelves shortly after it came out, in the 1970s. In fact, it was one of the volumes not actually written by Pevsner – the great man was getting old and realised that the only way to complete the series was to enlist some help. So the Gloucestershire volumes were written by local expert David Verey. Be that as it may, they followed Pevsner's lead in including many small buildings among the more obvious churches and big houses.* I was made aware of this when I looked up the entry on a place I knew to find that the most unassuming building of all – a privy – had been singled out for notice. I learned something that day, that even the most modest structure could be worth looking at. I have tried to keep that in mind ever since. So here are five of my posts on small buildings, easy to miss but very memorable...

A public lavatory in Bristol

A Turkish bath in London

A fountain in Warwickshire

A lock-up near Oxford

A churchyard seat in Herefordshire.

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* Now that revised editions of the Pevsner volumes are appearing, with more and larger pages allocated to each county, more and more of these small buildings are included, and a good thing too.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Shugborough, Staffordshire, and more

Retrospective (3): Feline tales

It has been said à propos of social media that, having invented the most sophisticated form of communication yet devised by humankind, we use it for sharing pictures of cats. I offer no apologies, though, for this short selection of cat posts, offered as my third retrospective to celebrate a decade of this blog. These, after all, are architectural cats, and the image of the feline form, used as an embellishment on or near buildings, says something about our fascination with these intriguing, beautiful, and sometimes infuriating creatures.* My handful of posts contains cats from the mid-18th to the late-20th century, but which show artistic influences stretching back thousands of years. And that is proof enough that not just our relationship with cats but also our artistic engagement with them is far, far older than the internet.

A sea-going cat in Staffordshire

A church cat in the Cotswolds

A museum mouser in Hereford

A landmark cat in...Catford

The Egyptian-style cats of Mornington Crescent

A ginger tom in Thaxted.

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* The novelist Raymond Chandler referred to his cat Taki as his 'secretary' because whenever Chandler tried to write anything, the creature would drape itself over his notepad or sit on the copy he wanted to revise. I have had this experience with a cat myself and have found it beguiling and maddening by turns.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Burford, Oxfordshire, and beyond

Retrospective (2): A handful of fragments

As my next short sequence of backward-glancing links to celebrate ten years of blogging, I'm concentrating on fragments – those broken bits and pieces that can tell us so much about history – or occasionally fox us – while also being so evocative. Whether it's bits of medieval stained glass or chunks of old masonry, such unregarded scraps have often surfaced on the English Buildings blog over the last ten years. Here are a few you may have missed...

Tantalising bits of stained glass in Oxfordshire

Old bits of pottery put to architectural use in Northamptonshire

Traces of a mason's yard in Shrewsbury

A revealing broken pinnacle in Somerset

A whole wall of fragments in Gloucestershire.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Dungeness, Kent, and more

Retrospect (1): a poetic handful

To celebrate ten years of blogging, I am going to do a short series of retrospectives, each highlighting a small selection of posts on some of miscellaneous themes that have preoccupied the English Buildings blog over the past decade. These past posts are some of my personal favourites, and all but the most dedicated of regular readers will have missed quite a few of them, so I hope the following links will give them another place in the sun.

The sun is relevant to the first of these posts, but the overriding theme here is poetry, and the way my encounters with buildings have reminded me of some favourite poems...

John Donne and Derek Jarman in Dungeness

Philip Larkin and doors in St John's Wood

Thomas Hardy and wagonettes in Worcestershire

P J Kavanagh, mourning, and temperance in Fulham

C P Cavafy and Patrick Leigh Fermor in Gloucestershire

Friday, July 7, 2017

A decade of English Buildings

Oh, pioneers! or, Ten years a blog

At the Amara Awards ceremony* last year, one of the other bloggers I was talking to asked how long I’d been blogging. ‘Over nine years now,’ I replied. ‘Nine years?’ she said. ‘Then you’re a pioneer!’  And now, in July 2017, it’s ten years. Ten years, a thousand posts, hundreds of thousands of readers.

I didn’t feel quite like a pioneer when I started out. The Resident Wise Woman had just begun blogging about our parallel life in the Czech Republic. There were quite a few other blogs around too, focusing on everything from politics to recipes, but not too many design or architectural blogs, and nothing doing quite what I wanted to do. The architecture blogs, for example, were most often about new architecture, and many blogs were just unadulterated opinion, much of it highly critical of whatever the blogger was writing about. I wanted to do something different – to be more appreciative, to cover historic architecture, to highlight buildings that were worth preserving, and to point out things that other people might not have noticed.

So, in a way, yes, I was a pioneer. And in a particular sense, in that I deliberately didn’t model my blog on what other people were doing, just saw that a blog might be a way of writing short pieces about buildings that I liked and that struck me, short pieces that might entertain a few friends and help me to remember some of the things I’d seen.

I am exercised, then, by the desire to preserve, to notice things that are fragile, and make a record of them – not necessarily before they fall down but before my memory of them fades. The poet Philip Larkin wrote memorably about how his main motivation for writing poems was to preserve transient experiences. There is something of that behind what I do. I’m not claiming any other sort of literary comparison with Larkin (for all that a generous friend has called some of my better posts ‘prose poems’), far from it. But I do recognise Larkin’s urge to preserve experiences. My blog posts themselves are preserved, archived for as long as Google is prepared to store them on its servers, and they can all be searched using the search box at the top of the screen, or accessed using the ‘blog archive’ links in the right-hand column.§

And, of course, I want to preserve historic architecture too. At least two architectural features noticed on the English Buildings blog (a striking civic heraldic gate pier and a remarkable Victorian shop sign) have disappeared since I posted about them; another, a piece of relief sculpture, has been carefully moved to save it from destruction. I’m also happy to dwell on memorable examples of preservation, such as the tiny church at Inglesham in Wiltshire (hich only exists at all thanks to William Morris) or the extraordinary Oxfordshire village of Great Tew (much of which was falling to pieces when I first saw it in the 1970s, but which is now thriving and beautiful). 

I’ve written before how I began blogging exactly two years after the July 2005 London bombings, which punched holes in several of London’s underground stations, destroyed a London bus, and killed 52 people, including a valued colleague. July 2007, the month I began blogging, was the month of the great floods in my home county of Gloucestershire, which brought further danger and destruction. People often talk of society’s lucky ones ‘giving things back’ and in a way, this blog is like that, giving back appreciation in the wake of destruction. It’s also, I suppose, giving back in the sense that it’s writing for no payment by someone who makes his bread as an author.

So I began – in Tenbury Wells in Worcestershire, as it happens – writing down impressions of what I’d seen and posting them, together with a photograph or two (rarely more than one or two) for each post. I found that what interested me especially were buildings that weren’t ‘great architecture’. Not the big cathedrals and country houses that we mostly read about in architecture books, but the smaller buildings, or the unfashionable ones. Not the ‘good examples’ of architectural styles but the oddities and unclassifiable structures – privies, prefabs, sheds, shacks, small churches, architectural weirdos like Tenbury’s peculiar spa buildings (nineteenth century, prefabricated, and also wonderfully conserved in recent years) shown in the photograph above.

One thing I realised pretty quickly was that I’m not interested in architecture alone. Actually the adjuncts to architecture – carvings, painted signs, terracotta ornament, the crafts (from sculpture to stained-glass making) allied to architecture – these interest me as much as the architect’s work of creating spaces, ‘volumes’, plans, and elevations. And the settings of buildings and how they contribute to the character of a place and are part its history – Pope’s famous lines about consulting the genius of the place are often in my mind. I’m interested in all this, then, but not to the exclusion of architecture. I can get excited about a perfect Palladian facade, a medieval cathedral, or a great Picturesque landscape garden too. But I often try to find an unusual angle, an unregarded detail, or a different approach to such subjects when they appear on this blog. So you will find among my posts not only the beautiful dying gladiator (or dying Gaul) statue in the famous landscape garden at Rousham, Oxfordshire, but also the sculpted sign of the Dying Gladiator pub in Brigg, Lincolnshire: high art and low, nurturing one another and offering food for appreciation, to be enjoyed equally, as I enjoy both claret and beer.

And so it has continued. Roughly two posts a week, on everything from palaces to plotlands, for ten years. As I have work and commitments outside this blog, my blogging has had to be concerned mostly with places that I visit as part of the rest of my life. That means mostly places south of a line from the Humber to the Mersey. I am sorry that the North has had short shrift, but that is how it has had to be if the blog is not to take over my life.

It’s my perspective, then, and the places about which I blog get seen through the sometimes distorting lens of my interests. In Bath I am as likely to admire an Italianate villa or a cast-iron pissoir as the Georgian terraces and crescents for which the place is famous; in Brighton I might seem to ignore the celebrated Pavilion while lavishing praise on, say, some post-war relief carvings. There is more to say about this individual perspective and the surprises it can produce (an effect that I call ‘the shock of the view’), but for now, I’ll add simply that the web is full of images of the Royal Crescent and the Royal Pavilion; I can add to what’s there by concentrating on my more out-of-the-way interests.

What I have done seems to interest many of my readers and give them pleasure. If you’re reading this, you’re part of a much larger bunch than the group of friends I wrote for at the beginning. I feel grateful, because it means a lot to me that people read what I write. I am nurtured by the connections I’ve made with readers and have been nourished beyond my dreams by the information I’ve received via the Comments button and through emails. Over the years I have been pleased to find out more from readers about fin de siècle sculptors, round Norfolk church towers, the locations used in the television series Foyle’s War, shifting county boundaries, and all kinds of buildings, from pubs to petrol stations. There is more to be said about this, too, but the main thing to say, for now, is ‘Thank you’ – to all my readers, whether you have left feedback or not.¶

When I began I had no idea how long I’d be able to carry on. Would I run out of steam after six months, a year, two years? Five years, at the most, seemed enough; I had no thought that the blog would continue as long as it has. For now, I resolve to persevere with it. I can’t promise I’ll continue at the rate I’ve done in the past.† But I hope, if there’s a running-down of energy, that I’ll slow down rather than stop. I’m not ready to toast the next ten years, but I’ll raise a glass (see my picture in the right-hand column) to, in the words of the great Alan Bennett, keeping on keeping on.

Reflecting: your author, reflected in one of the mirrors inside a showman’s living van at Avoncroft Museum

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* I won the Amara Award for the best architecture blog twice, in 2015 and 2016. ‘Do they have term limits?’ asked a friend, thinking of the rules that forbid, say, a US President from serving more than two consecutive terms. Not as such, but Amara have decided to concentrate on their core interests, especially blogs covering interior design, so are not having an architecture award this year. I continue to wish them well, and remain grateful to the readers who nominated me and the judges who gave me the awards.

§ Another way of using the blog is via the links headed ‘About English Architecture’ in the right-hand column. These links take you to very short introductions to the architecture of England in different periods, and from these short texts there are links to some of my posts that act as examples of the kind of architecture of each period.  

¶ A word too of appreciation and gratitude to the friends who have started their own blogs in my wake. I have been particularly inspired, stimulated, amused, and educated by the blogs of three of my friends: Neil Philip’s blog Adventures in the Print Trade (a treasure house of art appreciation and history); novelist Joe Treasure’s reflections on literature and current events (with a transatlantic perspective that’s especially valuable in these interesting times); and Peter Ashley’s blog Unmitigated England, his series of revealing sideways glances at ‘a country lost and a country found’. All these bloggers are published authors who also do other things (lots of other things in some cases), and this shows, in the quality of their writing and the richness of what they say.

† I plan some book reviews and some retrospective posts this anniversary month, then back to the usual stuff, but perhaps at a rate nearer to one post per week than the twice-weekly postings I’ve managed in the past.

Monday, July 3, 2017

From Blackpool to Cowes


I don’t know when I first became aware of the photographs produced by Aerofilms Limited. Looking back to the 1960s and 1970s, it just seemed that every aerial photograph of a British subject reproduced in a book – a book about architecture or archaeology or scenery or whatever – was credited to the company. Gradually I realised how many they must have taken, and that they stood in a proud tradition. It was a tradition founded by the pioneers of aerial archaeology, the men (they were usually men in those days) who realised that you could see so much from an aircraft (lumps, bumps, crop marks, scorch marks, visual patterns and clues) that could tell you about the archaeology of a place, even about what was underground and could hardly be guessed at from the surface. People like O. G. S. Crawford*, pioneer of field archaeology and aerial archaeology; and Major George Allen, pilot and aerial photographer who thought nothing of taking his hands of the controls of his aeroplane to lean out and take photographs – and then leaning back in and changing the plate in his camera, while still flying ‘hands free’. And later on, people like the writer Ian Nairn, whose experience as a pilot helped turn him into an architectural critic because he wanted to tell people what he could see of buildings when he looked down on them from the sky.

For almost 100 years, aerial photography has been showing us our buildings and landscapes from revealing angles, and Aerofilms played a major part in this work. Three men in the photograph above are Aerofilms pilots and photographers in a De Havilland D9.B in 1919, the year the company was founded: clearly they have enough manpower to leave the pilot in control of the plane while someone else does the camera work.†

The other day I was reminded of all this when looking at something on the BBC website: a fascinating video celebration of Aerofilms’ work. Their early photographers went up in open-topped biplanes and leaned over the side of the cockpit to take images of whatever they could see when the weather was clear – town and country, industry and pastoral, buildings and other aircraft, everything from a cathedral to washing blowing on the line (a good flying day was also a good drying day).

Places and buildings depicted in the video include Blackpool, Windsor Castle, Highclere Castle, Chatsworth, Glasgow, Doncaster, Stoke (with its bottle kilns), Swindon (the GWR works looming large), Bracknell (before it was a new town), Romford (when it was still a market town), Coventry (before the bombing, but with clearances for new development already taking place), and St Paul's Cathedral. There are glimpses of sporting events such as cricket matches, Ascot, Wimbledon, the FA Cup final, and Cowes Week. The Aerofilms aircraft flies over plywood battleships, housing developments, and prefabs. We can see the ghosts of old field boundaries caught between streets of new houses. And the history of aviation, so germane to this project, is there with shots of biplanes, an autogyro, and what was left after the Aerofilms plane crashed into a lake.

The Aerofilms archive, which is being conserved and digitised by English Heritage and the Royal Commissions on the Ancient and Historical Monuments for Scotland and Wales, is still a priceless resource. Here’s to those magnificent men.

Click the rectangle to play the video 

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*I often wondered what those initials stood for. Osbert Guy Stanhope, it turns out. His life (the life of his mind, especially) is carefully excavated and movingly evoked in Kitty Hauser’s outstanding book Bloody Old Britain: O. G. S. Crawford and the Archaeology of Modern Life (Granta, 2008).
†For more on Aerofilms, see James Crawford et al,  Aerofilms: A History of Britain from Above (English Heritage, 2014).
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The photograph at the top of this post is from the Aerofilms archive. The collection can be accessed via the Historic England website, here.