Friday, December 28, 2018


An old favourite

I’m sometimes asked which is my favourite among England’s fine group of cathedrals. I start by giving an evasive answer that goes a bit like this: I like Durham for the majestic Norman architecture of its interior, York for its stained glass, Southwell for the dazzling carving in the chapter house, Ely for the unprecedented ‘lantern’ crossing, Gloucester for the vaulting, Wells for the west front, Salisbury for the spire. But I also add that more than any of these* my favourite is Lincoln cathedral. It has so much: a hilltop setting that makes is visible for miles,† three towers of surpassing elegance, a masterful interior in which different stones are combined effectively, good misericords, and excellent carving in the Angel Choir and elsewhere. And, well, I was born in Lincolnshire, and I just like it.

It’s one of those cathedrals that’s also linked in my mind to music, partly because I’ve had some cherished visits when the choir has been singing. The accidental experience of a musical performance can be one of the best kinds of musical experience there can be and I’ve been bowled over by impromptu organ recitals and orchestral rehearsals in Gloucester cathedral and a mesmerising piano trio in Oxford’s small secretive cathedral tucked away within the vast college of Christchurch. Lincoln is also linked in my mind with William Byrd, one of England’s greatest composers, who was organist and master of the choristers in the 1650s and 70s.

So I’m not going to go on about the magnificent architecture of Lincoln cathedral, which deserves a whole book to itself, never mind a blog post. I’ll limit my comments to saying simply, if you’ve not been: go; if you’ve been: go again. Without further ado, I’ll offer below some music by the great William Byrd, with my very best wishes to all my readers.

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*And more indeed that the sometimes surprising architecture of Canterbury, than Lichfield with its three graceful spires, than Peterborough with its dramatic front, than Norwich, than Winchester, than domed St Paul’s, all wonderful, but…

† Almost as good as the setting of Durham.

William Byrd, Ave Verum Corpus, sung by the Tallis Scholars 

Sunday, December 23, 2018

National Gallery, London

 Season’s Greetings  

It is time once more for me to say ‘Happy Christmas’ to my readers. I know no better architectural way of doing this than with the floor mosaic of a Christmas pudding, by Boris Anrep, from London’s National Gallery. Regular readers may feel that the Christmas pudding mosaic is an old friend, and I’ve written about these mosaics in an earlier post. So for now I’ll add one further panel from Anrep’s National Gallery mosaics, one that I’ve not posted before, to express the hope that your lives be filled with wonder this Christmas.

Friday, December 21, 2018


An Englishman, a Scotsman, and…

Having started a short series on clocks, I couldn’t end before sharing this one, the veritable grandfather of all shop clocks, on Baker’s Jeweller’s in Gloucester. It’s as if the ‘Practical Watchmaker’ of the shop sign had had enough of making miniature timepieces and decided to take his one chance to make something really big. As well as an ornate round clock face (above the figures and not included in my picture), he created a series of five figures, representing each of the four countries of the United Kingdom plus Old Father Time himself, who stands in the centre. These figures strike their bells at each quarter. They are usually known in the trade as ‘jacks’, although this masculine term seems inappropriate for the Welshwoman and the Irishwoman. Are the women ‘jills’? Whatever we call them, I call them impressive.

The person who carved them – someone who specialised in those highlanders outside tobacconists,* perhaps – went to town on this set. The details of the dress, the musical instruments (that harp, especially), and the characterful faces are all done with verve. Father Time has a magnificent Shavian beard and what look like well carved wings (though it’s hard to see them in the gloom); his scythe is at the ready behind his right shoulder, and he also has a symbolic hourglass. The hourglass, of course, is not strictly necessary with all the hard work that’s being done by Edwardian clockwork.

These figures have stood in their niche at the front of Baker’s shop, right in the middle of the city, since 1904. Their position in the niche means that as one approaches, they’re not all immediately visible, and discovering them up there is a process of steady revelation as one walks along the street. The arch also means that quite often the figures are in shadow, but the bright colours help them to stand out and their bell-ringing display still inspires amazement from tourists as it joins Gloucester’s other bells, ringing out from the cathedral and some of the city’s other medieval churches, across the shops and offices of the modern city.

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* I did a post about a fine tobacconist's highlander here.

Tuesday, December 18, 2018


An exercise in style

As a pendant to my previous post on a clock in Bridgwater, here’s another outstanding Art Deco clock. It’s in the centre of Gloucester and it’s something I’ve meant to post for ages. If you look at this next to the Bridgwater clock, a few similarities of design are obvious – the stepped shape of the case and the cross-braces on the bracket in particular. But whereas the Bridgwater clock has just the one step at each corner, this one has five. It also has some seriously twentieth century lettering: all sans serif, but with the shop name, Avant Garde, treated to striking graphic variations – a sloping vertical arrangement on the edge of the clock case, and a shrinking/expanding visual effect on the front. I remember that dual shrinking/expanding effect used quite widely when I was a boy – which was in the early 1960s, though I suspect that the examples I was looking at, on signs and bus destination blinds among other places, were survivors from the 1950s or even 1940s. All this tricksy lettering certainly gets our attention, and it’s complemented by a very clear clock dial. It’s altogether an effective advertisement for the no doubt stylish stylists who plied their scissors beneath.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

Bridgwater, Somerset

Still pressed for time…

So how about a couple of posts about clocks on buildings? Like my previous couple of posts at this time of frantic activity, this one is a kind of reprise. I’ve used the picture before, but I’ve written a bit more about it this time…

The gift of time is one that has been made architecturally for centuries. Church clocks and sundials were the first widely available public timepieces. They were a guide to the canonical hours at a time when clocks were a scarce luxury and most people did their basic timekeeping by looking at the sun. In the 19th and 20th centuries, commercial companies continued the tradition started by church and civic clocks. So a clock on a shop could be both a public service and an advertisement, something more compelling and commanding of attention than a mere owner’s name sign.

Jewellers and clockmakers were of course well placed to put clocks on their shops. Many of these clocks survive on shop fronts, even when the original jewellers who placed them there have gone. This example is from a multiple jeweller, H. Samuel. It’s very much an Art Deco design: the square clock face, the stepped form of the case, the style of the lettering, and the cross-bracing on the bracket all have the look of that decorative style that was prevalent in the 1930s and that lasted in places into the post-war period. The Roman numerals are more old-fashioned, but it wasn’t unusual for otherwise rather modern-looking Art Deco clocks to have such figures on the dial – and here they are given a modern twist by being distorted so that they follow the line of the pointing hands.

My British readers will be familiar with the company name on the clock. H. Samuel is a ubiquitous high-street multiple jeweller: hundreds of towns have a branch of Samuel’s. If many people know the name, though, few will know what the ‘H’ stood for. Not Henry or Herbert or Hugh – but Harriet. Harriet Samuel took over the business of her father-in-law Moses Samuel in 1862. Perhaps she used the initial in those time of prejudice to disguise the fact that her business was run by a woman. Whether or not that’s the case (and apparently she was sometimes referred as ‘Mr H. Samuel’ in Victorian newspapers), the business throve and countless people who have not been in a jewellers for years have cause to be grateful for a free time check courtesy of H. Samuel.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Farmcote, Gloucestershire

History in the hills

For my third reprise in this busy month, I offer a place I’ve actually already posted about twice. This multiplicity is an indication not that it’s somewhere of great architectural richness, because the building I’m focusing on is modest to say the least. It’s because the place means a lot to me: for the atmosphere (especially for the quietude that surrounds it), for the layers of history visible in and around and beneath it, and for memories associated with it. So here’s Farmcote once more, ten years on from when I first wrote about it. I called that original post The End of the Road...

Take the steepest and narrowest of the roads leading out of the town where I live, a route that rises rapidly up the Cotswold escarpment. Turn left along a narrower lane that leads up again through remote country dotted with the odd farm and racehorse stable and bounded with fields where the brown ploughed soil reveals thousands of fragments of Cotswold limestone. Turn off once more up an even smaller lane that passes sheep pastures and offers glimpses from the high hills northwards and westwards towards Worcestershire and Wales. And at the end of the track you reach Farmcote, a tiny, isolated hamlet consisting of a few stone houses and a church.

From this angle, St Faith’s, Farmcote, could almost be a Tudor building – the windows and doorway are probably early-16th century and the furnishing inside is a satisfying mixture of Tudor and Jacobean. But in the end wall is a blocked archway indicating that this building was once bigger. Small as it is, the arch would have led to a demolished chancel, and the stonework of the arch is unmistakably Saxon. People have worshipped here for over a thousand years.

The evening light is often beautiful on this west-facing slope. When I first came here is was dusk, and I felt I needed a candle to see the medieval roof timbers and Jacobean furniture. Today there was more light, but it was fading as the sun began to drop behind the next hill. The farm dogs were quiet. The only thing moving was some smoke from a nearby chimney. Restored by the silence I crept back to the car, and drove off, making as little noise as I could.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Stow-on-the-Wold, Gloucestershire

Stone from the wold

Here’s another repost from ten years ago to entertain my readers during my stretch of pre-Christmas work hyperactivity. It’s a house in the Cotswold town of Stow-on-the-Wold, and a place I always glance at when I pass. Its architecture gives me pleasure – although I do worry that some of the unusual bits of carving on the front are eroding away. The old-fashioned tea shop that used to occupy the ground floor has now closed (there’s a lot of competition in Stow, some of it very impressive), and last time I went by the building looked empty. But the architecture, albeit crumbling at the edges, is still there to enjoy.

Here’s what I wrote about it back in December 2008.

There are some buildings that just make me smile, no matter how often I see them. This is one: a house of about 1730 (now a café) on the market place in Stow-on-the-Wold. What I love about this house is the decoration. It’s Classical, up to a point – look at the fluted pilasters with their Corinthian capitals. But whoever built this place was determined not to stick to the rule book. Those pilasters begin, not with a base, anchoring them to the ground, but with a peculiar block of stone sticking out from the wall, a couple of feet above pavement level. The strips that run up from either side of the central niche, dotted with carvings of flowers, are another odd, but charming, touch.

Pevsner (who describes this façade as ‘rather gauche’) tells us that there’s a local tradition that the building was the work of a pargetter named Shepherd. That’s odd, as pargetting (the art of decorative exterior plasterwork) is native to eastern England. It’s not something you see much round here, where the decorative medium is stone. And yet the exuberance and richness of the carving, especially the flowers, is not unlike the sort of thing you might see on a pargetted house in Essex or Suffolk. It certainly sticks out here, not in the manner of a sore thumb, but like an elegantly manicured digit raised in defiance of convention. Stow off the wall.

As an extra, I add a photograph taken earlier this year showing a detail of one of the stone benches positioned in front of this building. As you can see, they are supported by rather fine lions. A few months ago some protective tape had been put around them – I’m not sure if it’s visitors or the stonework that was being protected, though. 

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Winchcombe, Gloucestershire

Sounds familiar

Christmas is approaching and, as has happened before, I find myself with various uncomfortable work deadlines. Why does the publishing industry organise things in this way? It would take too long to explain and my time is limited at the moment. So I thought I’d look back, see what was happening ten years ago, and repost some of my thoughts back then. Turning to December 2008, what did I find? On 3 December 2008 I was sitting looking at the view of the church tower and thinking virtually the same thoughts. Plus ça change, as they say.

Here’s my post from 3 December 2008:

It’s customary, even in these difficult times, to count the number of shopping days to Christmas. But this year I’m counting the number of writing days left before the publishing business shuts down the corporate computers for the festive season, because I have a Christmas deadline. Travelling to look at old buildings has taken a backseat, and my blog posts may shrink in length and number. I’m fortunate, though, to live in Gloucestershire, a county rich in interesting buildings, so I’ll be putting up some posts about local buildings in the next week or two.

And for me, this is as local as it gets. If I crane my neck a bit, this is the view from my desk. It’s the tower of St Peter’s church, Winchcombe, its Cotswold stone walls glowing in the golden light of a winter’s afternoon a couple of days ago. The church was built in the 1460s, during a building boom in the area that saw many churches acquire new windows, extra aisles, taller towers, or complete makeovers. Winchcombe got its new church through the generosity in part of the abbot of Winchcombe Abbey, whose own church, long gone, was a close neighbour, and of Ralph Boteler, a local grandee – well, not that grand: his name suggests that he came from a rather distinguished family of butlers. The tower is not that grand, either. No elegant spire, as it might have in Northamptonshire; no elaborate carving as there might be in Somerset. Just good honest building in beautiful stone.

The fine weathercock was regilded recently and looked about 5 feet five tall when, swathed in bubblewrap, it was hoisted back up the tower. It came here in 1874 from the much larger church of St Mary Redcliffe, Bristol. According to which version of the story you believe it was either too small or too big for the spire of St Mary Redcliffe. A stonemason who worked on the Bristol spire claimed he’d climbed on to, or into, the cockerel, ‘which was the size of a donkey’. Having seen the bird close-up, I can tell you that’s not such a cock and bull story as it sounds.