Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Stewkley, Buckinghamshire


When looking at a building form the outside, we often think in terms of its façade, ‘The face or front of a building towards a street or other open place, esp. the principal front,’ as the OED has it. Lots of buildings – Palladian houses, Victorian town halls, Gothic cathedrals – have very beautiful façades, formal, symmetrical, and attention-grabbing.

Medieval English parish churches, though, often don’t have formal façades in this way. They have their entrances on the side, usually the south side, and churches aren’t usually symmetrical from the side. The porch might have a grand frontage, but there’s nothing you could call a façade. Cathedrals traditionally have their main entrance at the west end, so buildings like Peterborough and Wells cathedral have beautiful west fronts. But parish churches rarely have west fronts because they have western towers: the view from the west is usually of a tower and the ends of two aisles sticking out at either side.

Here’s an exception, though. The church at Stewkley, built by the Normans, has a central tower, leaving room for a grand entrance façade facing the street, at the west end (photograph above). And very odd it is too. There’s a central doorway, decorated with chevron ornament and flanks by two blind arches, also with chevron. This is a pleasantly balanced group of features, although the bifurcated or double arch above the door is rather odd. Above the door it gets odder, with a single, rather meanly small window crashing into the top of the doorway arch and a tiny round window high above. The window above the door owes its size and position to the fact that it matches windows on the flanking walls, by the way.

I find all this rather eccentric in its mixture of balance below and gaucheness above. Not that I mind eccentricity – this blog has been thriving on architectural eccentricity for years. I think what we’re looking at here is a builder working things out as he goes along, and making a stab at doing something that he didn’t often get the chance to do: building a symmetrical façade for a substantial church.
Stewkley church, from the south

Saturday, January 27, 2018


Squared up

To complete my trio of posts from Lincoln, here’s a couple of street name signs that caught my eye. I can’t say I like them quite as much as the strong and characterful Egyptian letters that I’ve always admired in Louth, my favourite Lincolnshire market town, northeast of Lincoln itself on the way to the coast. The Louth signs have everything going for them, it seems to me – clarity, distinctiveness, a style that works well across the varied town centre, a coherent overall shape.

These Lincoln signs, by contrast, have letters which seem rather constricted. This is particularly true of some of the rounded letters, the S especially, which looks as if it has been squashed so that it has flattened at the top and bottom. The same effect appears on the O, although the curve of the U has a more rounded form. However, the signs are clear, and the even effect when the letters are set quite close together. as in ’St Swithins Square’ is elegant. The border, formed like a picture frame, is effective too, and unusual in my experience.*

The more I look at these signs, the more I like them. And they are wearing well, although the left-hand one could perhaps do with a bit of rubbing down and painting up. I’d much rather have these than the flat, plastic signboards that are now so common in many places. I hope Lincoln hangs on to them.

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* I’m having fun, by the way, trying to guess what was painted on the wall before the signs were fitted. The ghostly letter that’s just visible does not seem to be of the current street name.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018


Heavy plant

I first came across really tall factory windows when I had to write about the Nairn’s linoleum works in Kirkcaldy for my first BBC Restoration book back in 2003. Here are some to rival them, at the Robey iron works not far from the centre of Lincoln. Robey’s was one of several successful Lincoln engineering companies that were born in the 19th century. They were famous for making steam engines – stationary engines to power factory machinery, the first iron-framed threshing machines, railway engines, and big traction engines. This was the sort of heavy plant that needed big spaces, and this part of the works – just a tiny section of what was a seven-acre site, fitted the bill. These enormous windows must make for an interior that's very light. From the outside they make a statement: it doesn’t matter how big it is, we can make it.

The huge complex was at first known as the Perseverance Works, but in 1885 it was extended and renamed the Globe Ironworks, presumably in honour of the company’s worldwide reach. The late-19th century entrance, on a lower wing that adjoins the wall with the high windows, has a carved globe above along with the company name.
When World War I arrived, Robey’s were again in the technological vanguard – like several other Lincoln engineering firms they took to manufacturing aeroplanes. As well as aircraft bearing their own name, they produced Sopwith Gunbuses and Short seaplanes under contract. Later still they developed their electrical engineering work (they’d already built electrical plant to light Lincoln cathedral in the Victorian period) and moved into diesel engineering. The company survived until 1988, their closure part of the general decline in British manufacturing industry that took place at that time. A lot of their robust and versatile buildings remain on Lincoln’s Canwick Road.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018


Men’s room

Looking back over the photographs I took on my visit to Lincoln a few months ago, I found a couple more I wanted to share with you. One small group pays homage to a building type I’ve noticed before: the Victorian cast-iron lavatory or urinal. This one is in the Museum of Lincolnshire Life and is a rather more ornate version of a similar one I found some years ago in a park in Bath. This Lincolnshire example was originally installed at Woodhall Junction station, which closed in 1970. It was made at the Elmbank Foundry in Glasgow, the premises of James Allan Senior and Son. The great Scottish city was a major source of iron goods, and in the architectural sphere one comes across everything from barns to pissoirs made in Glasgow and exported in pieces down south.

Such pieces of fine Scottish ironwork are often highly ornate, as we can see here. Every sort of floral ornament that was popular in the the 19th and early-20th centuries, from acanthus to sunflower, was used, and buildings often exhibited more than one, as in my example. There’s also a rich array of abstract patterns – the wavy lines are especially striking (click on the image above to reveal more detail). Impressive too is the way in which the walls are pierced around the ornament near the top. The pattern made by the piercing can be seen clearly in my imperfect photograph below, which shows that even the tops of the screens between the stalls are ornamented. Victorian men were well provided for: it is a shame that less regard was given to the needs of women.

Saturday, January 13, 2018



There’s not much left these days of the Venetian Gothic architecture of Myer’s hop warehouses in Worcester’s Sansome Street, but the sculpted pediment survives. It shows a group of women hop-picking, with, in the background, ‘luxuriant clusters of the bine’†. Those are the words of the Worcester Journal, commenting on the building when it was new in 1875. The newspaper attributes the design to an architect called Haddon, of Malvern and Hereford, while the sculptor William Forsyth of Worcester did the carving.  

Forsyth was born in Scotland, but by the 1850s was working at Eastnor Castle with his brother, James, also a sculptor. Whereas a commission took James to Somerset, where he settled, William set up in Worcester, and the city has quite a bit of his carving, from work on the restoration of the cathedral to decorations for business fronts. He must have done a lot of work in the area for by the 1870s his yard employed twelve men and three boys. Clearly he could carve vigorously, and the deeply cut hop-pickers and hops, even chipped and blackened as they are now, are very effective.

In the Victorian period, of course, a yard of skilled carvers like Forsyth’s would have had a lot of work doing church restorations. But Forsyth’s success was also due to a culture in which shopkeepers and businessmen like Myer the hop-merchant wanted good looking decoration for their premises – decoration that acted as a recognisable sign in an age when signs were built to last . How lucky we are that this one did. 

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* When I lived in southeast London I remember stories, remembering the time not so many decades before, of poor people from London who took working ‘holidays’ picking hops in Kent. This phenomenon was known as ‘hopping’, or, more colloquially, ‘oppin’. 

† Bine: a twining or flexible shoot; cf woodbine.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Loxley, Warwickshire


Last night I gave a talk about parish churches to an appreciative local audience. January is usually a quiet month for talks – people tend not to book me to travel far in the unpredictable winter weather, but this talk was in a venue so close by I could easily have walked there, had it not been for the impedimenta (laptop, projector, extension lead, notes, wires, and other odds and ends) that I take with me on such occasions.

One picture that got a strong reaction was a wall made of rubble in a Cotswold churchyard, a place I’ve already featured on this blog. It reminded me that a few weeks ago I came across another example of a wall partly made of recycled bits and pieces at Loxley in Warwickshire. The winter afternoon was already coming to an end by the time I got there and found somewhere to park, and in the low light I thought I’d got the measure of the building as I looked at it from the road: medieval beginnings with lots of changes in the Georgian period including the nave windows and the upper stage of the oddly placed southwest tower.
A closer look revealed a lot of Saxon-looking herringbone masonry in the chancel and a vestry partly built of 17th- or 18th-century gravestones and parts of chest tombs. Winged putti, skulls, crossed bones, extinguished torches and a cornucopia, together with plentiful cartouches and scrolls, some of them quite vigorously carved, feature in these stones, along with some baluster shafts that are now doing duty as window jambs. They’re all arranged quite artfully, almost as if the size of this small extension has been dictated in part by the proportions of the recycled slabs.

Most of the inscriptions on these slabs have worn away completely or in part – those still legible seem to be to members of the Southam family. Their decay is sad in one way. But I for one would not mind if, a century for three after my demise, my memorial was repurposed in this way. Preferable at least to having my stone heaped in some corner to gather dust and moss. On the tower is a sundial with a motto: ‘I DIE TODAY & LIVE TOMORROW’. Indeed.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Cheltenham, Gloucestershire

The photographer and the sweep

One person I remember from my childhood in Cheltenham (a time that came back to me forcefully when I recently visited The Wilson in the town and came face to face with the figure in my previous post) was a photographer called Eric Franks. Eric, who was a neighbour of a relative of mine, worked for a publisher of guidebooks, Burrow, who were based in Cheltenham; they presumably sent him round to the various places they were covering in their books to photograph old buildings, picturesque high streets, and atmospheric views. Although colour photography was well established by the time I knew him, colour printing was still costly, and most of his work was in black and white.

Eric Franks didn’t put away his camera when he left work. He was always taking photographs, and built up a large archive of images of Cheltenham between the late 1930s and the 1950s. He was still at it when I came across him in the 1960s and 1970s, but those earlier images especially constitute a unique pictorial record of a very special provincial town before it changed radically with 1960s redevelopment and ‘improvement’. Eric Franks’ book, Images of Cheltenham, shows how good he was. It’s full of evocative scenes – not just architecture, but people, caught going about their everyday lives – children hurrying to school, codgers gossiping on street corners, shoppers, the Spa Harp Trio playing by the roadside. The handling of light in all the images is outstanding.*
One of the photographs shows the most extraordinary trade sign I’ve ever seen: the sooty black figure of a chimney sweep mounted high up on a wall, casting a cold and somewhat sinister eye on the passers-by below.  This figure had vanished from its original home in Cheltenham’s Sherborne Street by the time I was growing up, but what I’d not realised was that it found a home in The Wilson, again mounted high up so that visitors can see it as they would have done when it was above the sweep’s door. 

Its metal construction is clear from the jagged edge of the sweep’s coat and the way the material – zinc – has been rather crudely worked to represent the way the material of the coat bunches above the waist. If the jagged edge of the garment is worn with age, that’s understandable. The museum believes the sign to date to about 1830 and it was only removed from its original perch in 1950,§ when the last chimney sweep of Sherborne Street hung up his brushes and rods and retired. The last sweep was called Frederick Field, and when he retired he was 79 years old and was said to be the oldest working chimney sweep in Britain. He was apparently often seen around the town transporting bags of soot on the handlebars of his bicycle. Previous Sherborne Street sweeps used a small cart, drawn by a succession of beasts including at various times a donkey and a Shetland pony.

Looking down on us like this, the figure has a rather spooky gaze.† How unlike the appreciative and perceptive eye of Eric Franks, whose photographs shed a benevolent light on the streets and the people of the town he loved.

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* Eric Franks is remembered in the name of one of the prizes given at the Cheltenham Camera Club; his book, Images of Cheltenham, is well worth seeking out. The photograph of the book’s cover I have used is taken from the internet, as I seem to have mislaid my own copy: I hope it turns up and if it does I intend to replace the photograph with one more worthy of its creator.

§ I'm told the figure was displayed on a house on the other side of street for some years after this.

† As the figure in the museum was well lit, but not ideally so for photography, the face in my picture is rather dark, but not inappropriately so, I think. ‘What we need is some snooted light on the face,’ as a photographer colleague of mine used to say.

Monday, January 1, 2018

Cheltenham, Gloucestershire

Happy New Year!

This figure of a Scotsman in Highland dress taking snuff is a memory from my childhood. Growing up in Cheltenham, I regularly saw it outside Frederick Wright’s tobacconist’s shop in the town’s High Street. He is taking snuff – snuff from Scotland being famous – and guiding people towards his owner’s door. He’s now in the town’s museum (known as The Wilson these days), and is one of several extraordinary shop signs be seen there.

Highlander figures were well known as tobacconists’ shop signs by the time of the 1745 rebellion, as after this date highland dress was banned and tobacconists sought to confirm that they could continue to exhibit these figures outside their shops without being accused of breaking the law or of a lack of loyalty to the Hanoverian monarchy. The figures, usually made of wood, were still common the Victorian period, but relatively few survived into the 20th century.

This particular example was a well known landmark in the town and Wright’s address on the accompanying enamel advertising sign is given as ‘The Old Scotchman, 122 High Street, Cheltenham’, in the style of former years equating the building with its sign, to help those who could not read, and those others who could read but could not remember names and numbers. Find the Old Scotchman* and you can’t go wrong.

The Resident Wise Woman and I were pleased to have this reminder of times gone by when we made a post-Christmas visit to The Wilson. We were also pleased to be able to introduce our son to the figure. He too was charmed by it, no less so because of its unrealistic ultra-skinny proportions. More porridge required, clearly, in these chilly times.

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*We now regard ‘Scotchman’ as a solecism: ‘Scotch whisky’ is OK, unless you’re in Scotland itself, when it’s just whisky; but a man from Scotland is a Scotsman. But ‘Scotch’ to mean ‘Scottish’ when applied to people not whisky has a long history, as any reader of Lord Byron’s 1809 poem English Bards and Scotch Reviewers will know.