Friday, March 30, 2018

Mordiford, Herefordshire

Off the radar

I’m always on the look-out for interesting corrugated iron buildings. They’re mostly off the radar, not the sort of thing that appears in guidebooks – you just have to keep your eyes open, and not ignore lanes, backstreets, alleys, yards, and neglected bits of the railway network. Sometimes the job is made easier because the material can be painted in bright colours, making it stick out helpfully. This example I spotted as I was driving past. Even on a dull day it wasn’t hard to see it among the brick, stone, and timber-framed houses and bungalows of this Herefordshire village – its bright colour, and setting behind a small stretch of greenery, made it easy to spot.

I don’t know anything about this bit of iron architecture that looks as if it’s about to disapear into the greenery. Corrugated iron buildings, often built on fairly lightweight frames, are most often single-storey structures, whether they’re lowly sheds or cavernous barns. This one seems to be on two floors, and has a chimney and quite domestic-looking windows. Perhaps it began life as a house, before being repurposed. Maybe the big black door is a later addition, allowing a car to be stored inside, or for access to a workshop. Does anyone know?

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Rousham, Oxfordshire

The foolish and the wise

The use of the word ‘folly’ in my previous post set some readers scratching their heads. What is a folly, exactly? That’s a good question, and one that has had many people stumped. A folly is a building without a practical purpose, some say. But what do we call a practical purpose? A house has a practical purpose, so does a mill, so does a garden shelter that protects people from a sudden shower of rain. But can an ornamental arch have a practical purpose – if it can also be a shelter, for example? And is a purely ornamental role enough for us to pigeonhole it as a folly? If the word ‘folly’ implies foolishness of some sort, we’re on difficult ground straight away: ‘where is the line drawn between foolishness and good sense?’ asks Stuart Barton.* Where indeed?

In what is perhaps the best book on follies, Gwyn Headley and Wim Meulenkamp look at it another way. ‘A folly is a misunderstood building,’ they say.† Why would anyone build a tower on a hill, or construct a concrete zoo in their garden, or spend a lifetime tunnelling under Liverpool? The people who did these things had their reasons, but we may very well not know what those reasons were. We have lost touch with the purpose of the building, which may have been practical, or may have seemed so to its creator. So we simplify matters by calling the results ‘follies’.

The writer and illustrator Barbara Jones, in another very good book on the subject, admits that defining a folly is tricky, and offers instead a list of qualities that such buildings often share.§ Follies are produced by people who have money, security and peace; they are most often Gothic (or Gothick) in style; they have much to do with their creator’s mood and emotions; they are fragile; they are very personal; they rely a lot on their setting; the relate to the Romantic movement in literature and painting; their great age was the 18th and 19th centuries. In bringing together these various qualities, Barbara Jones doesn’t get us any closer to a definition, but she at least evokes the mood of many of these structures – and that is a step towards understanding them, at least.

Some 18th-century gardens, like the one at Rousham in Oxfordshire, are full of what people have called follies. A number of these are actually very useful buildings that have a bit of extra adornment added on to them. In my photograph above, the building in the middle distance falls into this category.¶ It is known as the Temple of the Mill, and it is a mill with a fancy ornamental Gothic bit (quatrefoil window, pinnacles, flying buttresses) built on one end. Nowadays it seems to be used as a house. But it also serves as a picturesque feature in the landscape. It’s both useful and amusing.

In the far distance, on the hillside in front of the trees, is the Rousham Eye-catcher. It simply consists of a wall with three arches in it. It is designed to look like part of a ruined building of some kind, and acts as a focus for the viewer’s gaze when admiring the scenery from Rousham’s enchanting garden. It might also offer a little shelter from a stiff breeze, but its principal function is to enhance the view, to give people something to look at, just like Scheemakers’ striking, indeed somewhat disturbing, sculpture in the foreground, which shows a lion attacking a horse.

That’s purpose enough for me, and enough to make me doubt that the term ‘folly’ is really very helpful at all.**

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* Stuart Barton, Monumental Follies, Lyle Publications, 1972

† Gwyn Headley and Wim Meulenkamp, Follies, Grottoes and Garden Buildings, Aurum Press, 1986, reprinted1999

§ Barbara Jones, Follies and Grottoes, Constable & Co, 1953, reprinted with revisions 1973

¶ It may be clearer if you click on the photograph to enlarge it.

** Thanks however, to those who raised the question and sent me off to do some interesting reading and rereading.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Stow-on-the-Wold, Gloucestershire

Tall tales

There is a tendency to label buildings like this ‘follies’. It’s a Gothic tower, but it’s pretty clear that it’s not part of a medieval castle – those pointed windows are not the kind of openings you’d see on a castle, nor are the little trefoil decorations, nor the very neat quoins. The Y-tracery of the windows is a typical device of Georgian or Regency Gothic-on-the-cheap – you get a ‘Gothic’ effect without spending too much time or money on elaborate carved tracery. So, we conclude, it’s the work of a Regency gentleman having a bit of fun.

And so it was. This is Enoch’s Tower, built by a Mr Enoch in 1828, as a carved date stone on the front tells us. But it’s a bit more than this, and labelling it as a folly is only part of the story. Richard Enoch (1771–1856) was said to have been in royal service and moved to Stow in the early-19th century. He was a collector, especially of Egyptological items, and had a house nearby. He built the tower to house his collection of antiquities – it was, in fact, a museum. The collection, alas, has vanished, and no one seems to know what was in it. There was a story that a cedar of Lebanon  nearby was grown from a seed found in an Egyptian sarcophagus, but that may be a legend – as, almost certainly, is the story that there was an underground passage linking the tower with Enoch’s house. Another story relates that Enoch planned to build a matching tower on the other side of the road and link the two by building a triumphal arch across the highway. That too sounds like a tall story – and conjures up in the mind’s eye an interesting clash of architectural styles. But as I read these stories I am starting to like Mr Enoch, and I imagine that he was not above spinning some of the yarns himself. Battlements, Y-tracery, little trefoils, interesting tall tales. Perhaps folly is not too far off the mark after all.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Llandinabo, Herefordshire

Church woodwork, or, Odd things in churches (10)

I have made it part of the business of this blog to bring you the odd, the unusual, and the unexpected, and I’ve found that English churches sometimes contain the most unexpected things of all. Over the years we have had a fire engine, a ducking stool, and, particularly dear to me, Milner’s Patent Fire-resistant Safe. I didn’t expect to find anything odd at Llandinabo, a church I’d passed quite a few times before I got round to stopping there. I’d read that there was some interesting woodwork – a fine screen – in the church, but, just for fun, here’s a very different kind of woodwork that I also found.

There seemed to be nothing to tell me who’d made this matchstick model of the church, which stands on a window ledge inside the building it reproduces. It’s painstaking, reasonably accurate, and a joyous bit of English, or Welsh, eccentricity. (Llandinabo is in England, but, as the name signals, it’s not too far from the Welsh border.) The modeller has caught the pierced roof ridge tiles, the timber-framing of the bellcote, and the openwork wooden porch, although he (I feel sure it was a he) had trouble with reproducing the exact pointed shape of the Gothic windows. But never mind. Anyone who can get this far deserves an alpha for effort as far as I’m concerned. I was reminded of the Eccentric Corner at the South Bank exhibition of the Festival of Britain where, apparently, there was a violin made of matchsticks, which Laurie Lee (exhibition caption writer) picked up and played quite successfully.

Of course, in the world of matchstick modelling, this is very modest stuff. A quick online search reveals people who have spent years making models of complex buildings like Notre Dame in Paris. There’s a particularly good one of Llandaff Cathedral, made by one Bill Tucker. Hats off to people with patience!

Friday, March 16, 2018

Surbiton, Surrey

Southern Electric

A while back I renewed my acquaintance with Surbiton station, and was struck again by its white walls and its design that seems to exemplify what was seen as modern in the 1930s. What does it remind you of? An Odeon? A 1930s radio set? At any rate it’s a symbol of how the Southern Railway saw themselves in 1938: as sleek, forward-looking ’Southern Electric’, keen to tell you that the railways were the modern, convenient way to travel.

The station is the outstanding work of J R Scott and he threw the modernist works at it – flat roofs, white walls, tall window openings, fins, the very simple clock dial, the sans serif lettering – everything, as railway historian Gordon Biddle points out, except for concrete platform awnings.* If this white, flat-roofed building is an interloper in the middle of Surbiton (cliché adjectives: leafy, quiet, prosperous…) it stands back from the road and holds its own without intruding. As I hastened to the platform to catch the 0911 to Waterloo, I appreciated its light interior and generous circulation space too. And today’s equivalent of Southern Electric† got me to my appointment with time to spare.

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* Gordon Biddle, Britain’s Historic Railway Buildings (OUP, 2003)

† A good train but not in the smart green livery of 1938. For railway colours, see my post of long ago here.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Soho Square, London


Last weekend I was due to drive down to Somerset to teach a course on Tudor and Stuart architecture. Somerset was one of the parts of Britain to receive the rare ‘red weather warning’, so the course was cancelled and none of us got stuck in the snow. One of the things I was going to talk about was the impact of the Great Fire of London and the fact that very few timber-framed buildings have been constructed in the capital since 1666.

Here is one exception, the hut in the middle of Soho Square. It might look like a survivor from the pre-fire era, but in fact it was built in 1925. Its original purpose was to disguise the entrance of an underground electricity substation, built for the Charing Cross Electricity Company. The substation is no longer active and the subterranean space was used as an air-raid shelter during World War II. Now the building is a gardeners’ hut, full of spades and the like. I’m not sure how the upper floor is used.

This little building feels visually generous – the arcades, pointed roof, bits of carving, and fancy bargeboards were hardly necessary, but provide just the right sort of fun for the centre of a busy square that’s now a popular place to relax. It’s here on the blog as a reminder – to me, to talk to the organisers about rescheduling my course, and to all of us, that after the snows, spring cannot be far away.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Wreay, Cumbria

Pinecones and ammonites

To mark International Women’s Day, I am posting today some pictures of what I think is one of the most outstanding and extraordinary buildings designed by a woman, the church of St Mary, Wreay. Here is what I wrote about the church in December 2012, when reviewing Jenny Uglow’s biography of Losh, The Pinecone:

St Mary’s Wreay looks more like a work of the Arts and Crafts period of the 1880s than a building of the 1840s. But not even the Arts and Crafts produced a structure quite like this, covered with carvings that are far outside the usual church orbit – a tortoise gargoyle, a crocodile, a dragon, lotus buds, gourds, and pinecones (the latter symbolic variously of creation, reproduction, enlightenment, the spirit of man, and the expansion of consciousness). There are carved angels, it is true, but otherwise you have to look hard to find much traditional Christian imagery. It is as if Sarah Losh, having daringly entered the male preserve of architecture, looked at the whole business from a different viewpoint, that of a kind of pan-religious perspective, where all faiths are as one.

By describing Sarah
’s church in such detail, Jenny Uglow also describes her somewhat elusive subject, Sarah herself and her concerns. The church is an act of making and also an act of mourning (for Sarah’s parents and sister and other family members); it is both a gathering together of diverse religious symbols and a very specific act of benevolence to the village of Wreay itself, to which Sarah also contributed a school and numerous hand-outs in times of need; it is both a display of traditional craftsmanship and an artistic bolt out of the blue. Uglow's book nails all this – but does not lose sight of the oddity of the place or the elusiveness of its creator.

The photographs (credits below) show the interior of the apse and one of the windows. The window surround is carved with ammonites and pinecones, two of the building’s presiding symbols.

Photographic credits: Apse photo by The Carlisle Kid; window photo by Rose and Trev Clough, both used under CC licence CC BY-SA 2.0

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Fairford, Gloucestershire

Fashion and craftsmanship

The snow has come down and put a halt, for now, to architectural exploration. Here’s a memory of another year’s snow, just visible lingering in Fairford, on Gloucestershire’s and the Cotswolds’ eastern edge. This house is just to the north of Fairford’s great church and was built as the lodge at the entrance of Fairford Park, a notable house that was demolished in 1957. Fairford Park was a 17th-century house but was modified later and had interiors of 1789 by Soane. It’s a sad loss, although one or two elements from the interiors were recycled elsewhere – the staircase, for example, ended up at Corsham Court, in Wiltshire.

This lodge is dated by Pevsner to c. 1800, just after the Soane alterations to the main house. It was the Gothic windows at the front that caught my eye – and that was the point of them. Back in the early 1800s builders were still putting up traditional Cotswold houses with rectangular, often stone-mullioned windows. But if you wanted something to stand out, pointed Gothic windows with intersecting tracery were just the thing. So this is a striking facade for a building that’s meant to be recognisable, to announce the entrance gate to the Park. There’s also a bay window at the side, with a different glazing pattern – this multi-aspect bay clearly helped the occupant keep an eye on the comings and goings through the gate.

So the pointed windows help to make the house a landmark, as does the lovely Cotswold-stone-tiled hipped roof, rising to a single chimney. These hipped roofs are not the most common type on the Cotswolds, where most houses have gabled roofs, but they’re delightful, with their great cascades of stone slates. These slates are large at the bottom, progressively smaller as you go up. Their production and fitting was one of the great accomplishments of the traditional Cotswold builders, and a reminder that, for all its fashionable ‘look at me’ character, this house is also a repository of craftsmanship and skill.

Friday, March 2, 2018

Seven Springs, Gloucestershire

Silent springs

There’s not a lot at Seven Springs, in the parish of Cobberley not far from Cheltenham: a largish mid-19th century house now a school, and the tiny parcel office in my previous post, and, well, seven springs. The springs are a contender for the ultimate source of the River Thames, although Thames Head, near, Kemble, is more usually cited as the source. Seven Springs is strictly the source of a small river, the Churn, which flows into the Thames at Cricklade.

As I was looking at the parcel office I decided to walk a few yards further along the road and visit the springs. They were bubbling away quietly, sending water from the subterranean rocks out through seven small holes. But it wasn’t really the right time of year for a photograph. The place was looking muddy and dark and, apart from a fetching clump of snowdrops, rather dingy. So I had a look at the stone tablet, which asserts the place’s claim in bold Latin – ‘Here, Father Thames, is your sevenfold spring’ – and resolved to return to Seven Springs when the weather is better and the ground less muddy.