Thursday, September 5, 2019

Avoncroft, Worcestershire

Plain, simple, and solid

Before I leave the subject of telephone boxes, a recent visit to the excellent Avoncroft outdoor museum in Worcestershire reminded me that I have never featured an example of the first standard telephone kiosk, the design that became known as the K1. This is in part because K1s are rare: the survivors are mostly in museums – and they are baffling because there are variations in the design from one box to another.

Before the 1920s, telephone boxes were not standardised at all. Telephone services were provided by various local companies, who adopted their own designs for kiosks. But in 1912 the General Post Office took over most of these companies (Hull in Yorkshire was a notable exception*) and soon looked for a standard design. Kiosk No 1 (later known simply as the K1), a plain, simple, solid box on a square plan with a pyramidal roof, was the result, and was introduced in 1923. Some K1s were made of wood and some had concrete walls, metal glazing bars, and a wooden door. Some of the variations in appearance were linked with this difference in materials – the concrete boxes, for example, have a different pattern of glazing. Some were also given a roof sign saying ‘Public telephone’, which concealed the top of the pyramid roof and its finial.

This example at Avoncroft, part of the National Telephone Kiosk Collection,† which is housed there, is a concrete K1, painted in the combination of grey and red that was usual at the time. The design was simple, but not much liked visually. At Eastbourne, the local authority even insisted that the boxes on the sea front should have thatched roofs! K1s were therefore superseded when a design competition of 1924 produced Sir Giles Gilbert Scott’s popular K2 design, which is most people’s favourite telephone box. We have to be grateful to Avoncroft for giving less illustrious but historically important kiosks a home.§

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* My mother, who was born in Hull, told me with a certain puzzled pride that the telephone system in her home town was run by an independent company, and that the telephone boxes on Hull’s streets were painted cream, to mark this difference. They still are. Yorkshire: another country, it sometimes feels like, and in one corner of it they do things differently there.

† K1s, ‘Vermillion giants’, AA boxes, even a lovely Morris Minor telephone engineer’s van – they have it all in the National Telephone Kiosk Collection.

§ I am indebted to Gavin Stamp, Telephone Boxes (Chatto & Windus, 1989) for information about the history of these useful, interesting, and tiny buildings.

Saturday, August 31, 2019

Bath, Somerset

The red box ten years on

I can hardly believe that it was ten years ago that I blogged about the Gallery on the Green in Settle, Yorkshire, an admirable example of finding a new use for one of the redundant red telephone boxes that used to abound in Britain and are no longer as common as they were. The gallery, which launched itself as ‘probably the smallest art gallery in the world’ is just one example of this creative repurposing, and there are now many more.*

And just as well for people like me, who admire these fine bits of British design, because the numbers of red boxes have continued to go down. There were once 70,000 red boxes on Britain’s streets. There are now only 10,000 of the famous classic boxes, designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott,† left, plus a further 20,000 public phone boxes of other designs. Only about 30,000 calls are made per year from all of these 30,000 boxes, so more will vanish. But a scheme allows local councils to ‘adopt’ a redundant box if they can find a new use for it. A number of the boxes in my local area (the Cotswolds) now house defibrillators. Others are miniature galleries, book-swapping facilities, or even small businesses (there’s one in London where smartphone screens are repaired which I pass from time to time). In Cheltenham the local museum took over a couple of adjacent boxes for a while, although these now seem to be empty again. My photograph shows one of several boxes used as planters that I recently saw in Bath, another clever reuse in which, back in July, red geraniums were blending pleasingly with the paintwork of the box itself.

Most of these conversions are of the familiar K6 design of telephone kiosk. The earlier and slightly larger K2 boxes, which are scarcer, represent the original successful version of Scott’s design so are doubly precious; these are all listed and so will survive. Many of the K6s are likely to be removed in this age of mobile telephones, unless more new uses are found. I think their total removal would be a shame as Scott's is a beautiful design and such a recognisable part of the British scene, in both town and country. So I hope that as many red boxes as possible will be repurposed, and that those who adopt them continue to look after them, keeping their shiny red paintwork both shiny and red.

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* There is a good article about reusing red boxes in The Guardian, here. I suppose purists might object to the reuse as planters, given that it involves alterations such as removing the glass. But better this than the scrapyard.

† Sir Giles Gilbert Scott is also famous for his work on the Anglican cathedral in Liverpool (still happily with us), Bankside Power Station (in large part preserved thanks to its conversion to Tate Modern), and Battersea Power Station (which has fared less well, but is currently being redeveloped).

Monday, August 26, 2019

Chard, Somerset

Statement in stone

Chard’s impressive Guildhall was opened in 1835. The building was designed by Taunton architect Richard Carver to combine the roles of town hall and market, and was a replacement for an old building on another site. Its grand double order of classical columns – Tuscan below, Doric above – dominates this stretch of the street and the very plain classical design of Ham stone columns and pediment could perhaps look a trifle sombre. But it’s topped by a little clock tower and cupola that set a different mood – still classical in design but slightly less straight-laced – and useful, originally, as few passers-by would have worn a watch.

One can imagine this building as the heart of the town, when the market was the focus of everyone’s shopping. I can also imagine the platform on the upper floor being a perfect stage for proclamations and election speeches. Something akin to the mixture of farce and seriousness that attends the election at the memorably named Eatanswill in Dickens’s Pickwick Papers comes to mind – though perhaps in real life there would have been less of the farce… Elections or no, this facade certainly makes a statement. Few towns the size of Chard can boast such a memorable building as their town hall, set among the shops of its main street.

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Shepperdine, Gloucestershire

Ready for service

Perhaps if the vegetation had been a bit less lush and a bit more wintry, and the road had been somewhat less bendy, I’d have seen the corner of the tiny corrugated iron church at Shepperdine behind its hedge, but as it was, I completely the missed the track that leads to to it. So I had to stop, check the map, and retrace my steps. Having found the right place, I followed the track and turned left through what was little more than a hole in the hedge, there it was – and, to make things better still, the sun came out, throwing the corrugations of its dark walls into shadow and highlighting the green paint on the bargeboards, down pipes, and window frames.

I have a liking for ‘tin tabernacles’, those little churches made of corrugated iron that were put up, mostly before World War I, usually from flat packs. A parish on a tight budget would get hold of a catalogue from a company such as Boulton & Paul of Norwich, find the design they wanted, and check the dimensions and the number of seats it would accommodate. Then they’d order it up, carriage paid to the nearest railway station, and organise a local carrier to bring the components to the site. Once they had prepared a suitable solid base, the framework could be erected and the walls and roof fitted in short order.

This kind of building was ideal for urban communities that were expanding fast. This was not the case here. Shepperdine is quite remote, near the River Severn in the region of Oldbury, and the community is one of farms and scattered houses, and before 1914 was well away from the nearest church. So in that year, an agreement was made to buy an existing church, which was moved here by a group of local men. The little building is said to have come from somewhere in Wales, and the locals transported it to Shepperdine, presumably in sections, and reassembled it here.

Only a small church was needed, and this one has a plain design design (some others have pointed, Gothic style windows and even small bellcotes or spires). Here the main decorative elements are the curvy bargeboards and the trio of roof finials.† There’s a single tiny bell, hanging free above the small upper window, a light above the door, and that’s about all. But it was enough, and it looks as if it still is. The church remains in use, and a hand-painted name board on the side of the porch announces its dedication and the name of the vicar. It’s one of the few tin churches still regularly used for services.

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* I’ve posted about another plain but colourful corrugated iron church here, and a more ornate one here, and one with a tower here.

† These and the tiled roof may be later additions. Most tin churches had iron roofs.

Friday, August 16, 2019

Chedworth, Gloucestershire

Nissen and his huts

The other day I was driving to Cirencester and the route was blocked by roadworks in a village. I took the prescribed diversion, but turned off the signed route after a short distance, to take a back road that I didn’t know, but which the Resident Wise Woman and I both thought would take us closer to our destination. As we rounded a bend, a shout of delight rang out from the passenger seat: we had spotted the building in my photograph, probably the longest Nissen hut I’ve ever seen. A convenient gate provided a temporary parking space and I was soon out of the car and zooming in to this amazing enfilade of corrugated iron and developing rust. It was going to be a good day.

There was no one around to ask, but we guessed that the hut was a building associated with a former airfield nearby, itself not far from the current RFC Rendcomb Airfield. RFC.* That's RFC as in Royal Flying Corps, which is to say before the RAF. Suggesting that the area was home to a World War I airfield. If that’s the case, I thought we could be looking at quite an early Nissen hut. but it turns out to be a World War II hut, part of Chedworth airfield.¶

It was in 1916, that Lt Col Peter Nissen had the idea of combining a metal frame and sheets of corrugated iron to produce cheap, easily assembled huts for the Allied armed forces.† The army acted quite quickly on Nissen's idea because, they needed huts: like many a good inventor, Nissen had seen a need – for cheap huts that could be made quickly to house an expanding army – and set out to solve it. Although the idea of the hut is very simple, the finished design was not done in a day, because Nissen had to refine it, thinking of everything from an easy, watertight way to joined the iron sheets to a set of simple illustrated assembly instructions that could be followed by unskilled men working at speed.

And so it was that these strange rounded structures began to appear. The Daily Mail, being cheerful in terrible times, described what it must have been like they they emerged on to the field of conflict, without any apparent preparation and in magically short order:

‘At about the same time as the tanks made their memorable debut on the battlefield, another creature, almost equally primaeval of aspect, began to appear in conquered areas. No one ever saw it on the move, or met it on the roads. It just appeared! Overnight you would see a blank space of ground. In the morning it would be occupied by an immense creature of the tortoise species, settled down solidly and permanently on the earth, and emitting green smoke from a right-angled system at one end, where its mouth might be, as though it were smoking a pipe.’

The huts caught on, at first to house troops, kit, and even field hospital beds, after the war for all sorts of civilian uses. They're not uncommon on airfields§ and many have also ended up on farms, or used as factory extensions. But I have not seen one as long as this  – even the lon huts I saw on TV making up a former prisoner of war camp were not, I think, as big as this one. It must need its many windows, as the standard layout for the shortest huts, with just a pair of windows in each end, simply would not work in a structure as long as this. But work this one must have done, for years, for whatever purpose it is now used, and although somewhat rusty, it shows signs of care and recent repair. Long live Nissen’s huts!

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* Wingwalking is one of the activities pursued here. For a fee, you too can get strapped on to a framework on the upper wing of a lovely Boeing Stearsman biplane and zoom and bank above the Cotswolds. I find it a frightening idea, but many love it, and someone was enjoying the experience as we drove past.

¶ Thanks to readers who supplied information via the Comments section.

† For much of my information on the origin of these ingenious huts, and the Daily Mail quotation, I am indebted to Fred McCosh, Nissen of the Huts, BD Publishing, 1997.

§ Back home, I checked the OS map and saw that the airfield indeed extended in this direction – and that maybe even the road I was driving along was originally part of it.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Wick, Worcestershire

Other times, other walls

One evening earlier this year, I came across this cottage on my way to give a talk. I was early, having as usual given myself more than enough time for my journey, so pulled in and took a look. I was attracted initially by the cruck frame – the pair of big diagonal timbers, making a large upturned V-shape, in the end wall. Worcestershire, along with other western counties, is a good place for spotting crucks: they were always more common here than in the south and east, where rectilinear box frames were preferred. A structure of this size would have several crucks, one at each end and others, concealed at stages between to make up a number of structural ‘bays’. Vertical walls would then be erected on either side, to accommodate windows, support the eaves of the roof, and provide enough height inside at the edges of the building.

At first glance, the white infill between the dark timbers is the wattle and daub (a plaster made of mud, straw and other ingredients) that was traditionally used. That is true of the end with the cruck. But the side wall is different. If one looks closely, it's possible to see that the infill here is actually made of brick painted white. This use of brick between timbers is not uncommon in Worcestershire, and the look was so popular that there was a Victorian fashion for imitating timber-framed construction by painting a brick wall black and white. That is not the case here: it’s the real thing.

Those brick side walls may have started out infilled with wattle and daub, like the end. The plaster may have failed at some point and the repairers substituted brick – this certainly happened on occasion. So although crick frames themselves had to be very carefully planned, with timbers of the right size sourced and prepared, the actual structure may be an accident of history. Another thing that will be the result of change is the upper floor – this building would have started life as a house on one level, probably with a central hearth and a hole in the roof for the smoke to exit. The big brick chimney is likely to be a later addition, as are the upstairs rooms and windows. Houses like this are the result of years of changing priorities, their early owners as keen to adapt to the times as people of today who put in central heating or the latest thermal insulation. Houses like this might seem timeless, but they are as subject as any to changes in fashion, expectation, and need.

Saturday, August 3, 2019

Torbryan, Devon

Community of saints

There may be a few loyal readers of this blog who remember a post I did back in 2013 about the beautiful Devon church of Torbryan. On that occasion I reported the recent theft of two panels from the church’s late-15th century painted screen. This was a damaging crime in several ways. The screen is precious because few medieval screens have survived with their painted images intact, and even fewer have paintings of the quality of those at Torbryan. In addition, the thieves vandalised the screen not only by removing two of the panels but also by badly damaging another panel in the process of the removal. It was a cause for celebration, therefore, when the police recovered the stolen panels in 2015, enabling the Churches Conservation Trust, who care for the building, to have them reinstalled, and to restore the damaged panel too.

All this was very much in our minds when the Resident Wise Woman and I visited Torbryan a couple of weeks ago, so that I could introduce her to this wonderful church and have a close look at the restored paintings. The visit was one of the highlights of our recent short trip to Devon, given us the time and opportunity to marvel at each image. They’re an impressive collection. Not all the saints can be identified, but a number have attributes that help put names to the images. St Peter has his keys, St Luke his ox, St Matthew his angel, St Andrew his saltire cross. St James the Great, apostle and pilgrim, holds a staff; St Catherine of Siena, who bore the stigmata, wears a crown of thorns; St Dorothy carries the roses and apples that figure in the story of her execution; St Apollonia, the patron saint of dentists, has pincers and a tooth. And so on. The stolen and retrieved panels, which are in the northernmost section of the screen, have images of St Margaret holding a cross and an unusual saint, Victor of Marseilles. Victor was an officer in the Roman army* and holds a windmill, which is both charming and nice reference for anyone who wants to know what a late-medieval post mill looks like.
It’s good to see them back in place, and they remind us of the may ways in which such paintings have value above their monetary worth. They're historical evidence (of how the saints were seen and what they symbolised and for such details as that windmill). They depict saints who were revered – and who should command at least respect for what they endured for their sake of their beliefs. They are vigorously drawn, appealing, and cherishable works of art.

And above all, they’re part of a whole. Painted panels of saints might be nice things to have on one's wall at home, but they work best when they are where they were meant to be. Here, they form part of a screen of which the design (beautiful tracery, elegant proportions) and carving is transparently effective and right. They are members of a whole community of saints, of which the thirty-odd in the screen are representative and shining examples. And they are part of a wider context, that of the whole church, which in the Middle Ages would have been further adorned with wall paintings and stained glass (gone now), to make a complete and glowing world – a cosmos even – in which the flesh and blood worshippers, the people of Torbryan, once formed the vital, animated part.

Of course, much of that decorative community – the frescoes, the stained glass, other three-dimensional images – was taken away after the Reformation. Even the screen has lost its upper part and its crowning Rood. The painted saints are yet more precious because they are still right there, still in their original setting. They are windows into this lost world.

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* St Victor, who served in the Roman army in Marseilles in the 3rd century, denounced the worship of idols, and was tortured and martyred for his beliefs. After Victor refused to make an offering to Jupiter, kicking over the god's statue, the emperor sentenced him to be put to death by being ground beneath a millstone, hence the windmill.

Top picture St Luke, St Matthew, St Andrew, possibly St Philip

Second picture St Victor of Marseilles

Bottom picture St James the Less, possibly St Thomas, St Simon the Zealot, possibly St Matthias  

Monday, July 29, 2019

Chew Magna, Somerset

Stop and look

Sometimes I want to share something on the blog, even though I have little to say about it. Instagram can be the place for this, but because not everyone looks there, here’s one of the monuments in the church at Chew Magna that caught my eye. It’s to Sir John and Lady St Loe and dates to the mid-15th century. They’re members of the family that built the church house in my previous post, and their monument, a tomb chest topped by these recumbent figures, is one of several outstanding monuments in this church. It’s a reminder, if we needed one, that even in a parish church in a relatively out of the way place, there’s terrific sculpture waiting to be discovered. I’d encourage anyone with even a passing interest in these things to get out there and look for themselves

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Chew Magna, Somerset

For ales

On my way to visit the parish church of Chew Magna, I couldn't help but notice this building, right next to the churchyard gate. It was signposted as the Old Schoolroom, but I wondered, looking at it, if it was actually a medieval church house, and so it proved to be. A church house was roughly the medieval equivalent of the village or church hall. It was used for certain secular activities held on behalf of the church, especially fundraising events called church ales. As their name suggests, church ales involved a lot of drinking, together with entertainments such as dancing, plays, or sports. As many people in the Middle Ages seem to have had few inhibitions about using the church building for a range of secular activities, church ales and similar events were sometimes (perhaps often) held in the church itself. However, in some parts of the country, for example the southwestern countries of Devon and Somerset, parishes often built church houses for the purpose.

Most church houses are late medieval. This one once bore a date, 1510. This had led some people to believe that church houses became widespread when parish churches were fitted out with permanent pews in the later Middle Ages, rendering the buildings useless for activities like dancing, eating, or drinking. In any case, many clergy objected to these secular uses of church buildings, and no doubt ushered them out of the church into a more suitable building if they could. But not every church had a church house, and the cost of building one but have been considerable – the basic requirements were for a large room (often upstairs) for the festivities plus additional space for the storage and preparation of food and the brewing of beer.

The building at Chew Magna looks well built and impressive. There are plenty of windows, and a doorway with a pleasant, but not overstated, ogee head. There's a small sculpture in a niche high up, with Pevsner believes to have been St Michael killing the dragon, although this is hard to make out, plus a shield bearing the arms of the prominent local St Loe family.* The building must have been a valued social centre, although when the Puritans banned such enjoyable events as church ales, it, like others, was put to new uses – a lock-up, poorhouse, and, if the sign is to be believed, a school. Anyone wanting ale would have had to repair to one of Chew's pubs, which are still mercifully in evidence. 

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* A 15th-century St Loe has an impressive monument in the church.

Monday, July 15, 2019

Bovey Tracey, Devon

Something for the weakened

I do like bits of traditional signage. Today's high streets are too full of ephemeral plastic signs, designed by computers with the help of committees, plonked on facades with one thought only: to shout loudest at passers-by. Many high street businesses have either given up or seem to be trying too hard, buses drive around swamped in graceless advertisements like walking billboards, and round my way the Co-op screams at me in a sign of bilious green.*

There are, though, quite a few places where an effort has been made to stop this rot. Bath is a haven of decent, discreet signage; so is Chipping Campden; towns like Ludlow have some terrific examples of traditional shop signs; in Upton on Severn they have even revealed a number of beautiful old ghost signs and have found ways to keep these visible while creating new signs that work among and around them. More often, it's a mixed picture, with lacklustre stuff interspersed with signs in which someone has been allowed to get out his brush and mahl stick and do his best.

My eyes having been rendered bloodshot by poor signage recently, and my spirits weakened by the sheer oafishness of some of it, it was good to come across one or two modest gems. Like this barber's in Bovey Tracey. It could hardly be simpler. Just a small square window, without anything much to display in it. And a sign which, though simple, shows that someone has paused, and thought, and cared. Plain, sans serif capitals, hand painted; a colour scheme that reflects the traditional barber's pole†, and a frame for the sign in the same red as the window frame.

Screw the sign firmly to the wall and you're done. Locals are reminded where a chap can get a haircut and visitors are shown the way too. The simple purposefulness of the sign suggests a good old-fashioned barber's shop, where a man will ply his scissors with skill and a cut-throat razor will be on hand to smarten you up around the edges. Will there by Brylcreem? Maybe.§ Vitalis? Possibly.¶ Will the barber ask quietly under his breath if the customer would like 'Something for the weekend'? Perhaps. But whatever the answers to these nostalgic questions, the appreciative passer-by will be pleased with the look of the shop and its sign, and will proceed with his jaded spirits uplifted. For surely such things are indeed something for the weakened.

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* That's enough bile from me for now. I do try to restrain myself when writing my posts, and I steer clear of commenting about some of the bad architecture around us. Others do that better than I could, and I'm happy that they do. My role in general is to share what I appreciate and like.

† The traditional sign, the red of which is sometimes said represent the blood let during the barber-surgeon's work. Curiously from a modern perspective, the two 'trades' of barbering and surgery were combined in the Middle Ages and early modern period.

§ Brylcreem, fashionable in during World War II and the post-war period, certainly still exists as a range that includes the 'traditional' hair cream. As can be seen from my photograph, the barber's wasn't open on the day I was there, so I was unable to investigate the interior, its contents, or what might be offered to customers.

¶ Vitalis, something on my barber's shelf when I was a boy, is marketed as a 'hair tonic' that makes your hair more 'manageable'.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Sticklepath, Devon

The Quaker graveyard in Sticklepath

I came to Sticklepath by accident, stopping there because the village shop advertised coffee, which I needed. I didn’t have time to visit the place’s most obvious attraction, the Finch Foundry (a working forge, not a foundry) other than pausing to admire its water wheel from beneath the head race, dodging drips as I watched the ironwork turn. But I did stop for a moment in the Quaker graveyard behind the forge, for a short contemplative break, and to wait for the clouds to part and the sun to shine on the tiny structure in my photograph.

It’s a shelter in one corner of the graveyard. I’ve no idea how old it is – the very solid looking walls seem to have some age, but the lovely thatched roof is recent, though no doubt a replacement of earlier thatch, perhaps of many generations of earlier thatch. It’s tiny, just big enough to contain a bench seat with room for two, looking out over the graves. It seemed to me to be an excellent example of the value of taking pains over a modest structure: how much pleasure it must have given, over the years, to people who need a rest, and to those who just like to see something well made.

I don’t usually feel morbid in graveyards and, in spite of the proximity of the tables where visitors to the forge could take refreshments, the place was quiet and peaceful. Could I hear the occasional drip and splash from the water wheel? Maybe. I’m not sure. I don’t recall noticing it, but if I had it would have seemed a sound fit as much for calm as anything. The mood was enhanced by a poem by the hymn-writer and humanitarian James Montgomery (1771–1854) about just such a place.* The words are hand painted on a noticeboard attached to the back of the shelter. The poem seemed apposite: it ends:

Green myrtles fenced it, and beyond their bound
Ran the clear rill with ever-murmuring sound.
Twas not a scene for grief to nourish care,
It breathed of hope & moved the heart to prayer.

They’re lines very much of their time, and somewhat conventional, but well made and right – like the little shelter that contains them, and no doubt the products of the forge nearby. Fortified by such thoughts – or maybe by the coffee – I went on my way.

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*James Montgomery was just a name to me, someone whose work was praised by Lord Byron. He seems to have been a good egg, supporting abolitionism, upholding the right of protestors to make their case, and writing a poem against the practice of employing small boys to climb up chimneys to sweep them. He wrote the carol ‘Angels from the Realms of Glory’ and adapted Psalm 23 to create the hymn ‘The Lord is my Shepherd’.

Sunday, July 7, 2019

Ashburton, Devon

Hung well

When I was staring at the medieval arch in my previous post and checking my camera, a woman came up to me and said that if I liked old buildings, I should look at one a couple of doors along the street. This was a slate-hung building with a very unusual set of shapes cut into the slates. I told her I’d already spotted it and she said that the shapes cut into the slates – hearts, diamonds, clubs, and spades – were there because the building was once ‘a gaming house’. I've not been able to find any reference to this history in books or online – I have few books on Devon apart from the usual Pevsner and Shell Guides. It’s possible, but it’s equally likely that someone just liked the shapes and had a bright idea about how to use them them.
As with the arch in the previous post, it’s interesting to think about this history, but my appreciation of buildings relates at least as much to aesthetics as to their usefulness or the ways they may have been used in the past. I like the way this building looks, with its slate-hung  walls, its twin gables over an overhanging, dentil cornice, and its sash windows with their small panes in the Georgian style. I hope the current occupiers (the Co-op) are proud of it.

Thursday, July 4, 2019

Ashburton, Devon

The sweep of history

Places like Ashburton warm the cockles of my heart. Any small town with an ironmonger and a bookshop is bound to please me. Anywhere with a good selection of charming houses, dating from the medieval period to the 19th century, is likely to please me too. Put the two together, with some decent coffee shops and a smattering of other eateries and pubs eateries, and you have a winner.

I was, of course, immediately attracted to this medieval arch, around which later buildings have grown up and multiplied with a casualness which, combined with slate-hung walls, or timber framing, or decent brickwork, makes satisfying townscape. That sort of satisfying milieu is just the context here, and the arch, charmingly encumbered with washing-up bowls, dog baskets, and other impedimenta of ironmongery, plays its part. It’s thought to be late-medieval, and looks it, and there have been remodellings in various periods, from the 16th century onwards

The building must have changed use a few times. It is said to have once been the Mermaid Inn. It’s easy to start fantasizing about the life this building has seen – everything from drunken brawls to debates about the merits of plastic and galvanized metal buckets – and this modest building played a part in at least one of the pivotal phases of the great sweep of English history. It’s reported that General Fairfax, Parliamentary General of Horse and supreme commander (before he was replaced with Cromwell when he refused to march against the Scots, who supported Charles II), stayed here after he drove the Royalists out of the town on 10 January 1646.

Fairfax is certainly a figure worth remembering, but this small medieval building, with its arch made of huge chunks of granite, is worth looking at for itself. Not least because medieval town houses are unusual. In Devon they’re almost as scarce as hens’ teeth.

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* During their advance into the West Country, the Parliamentary army were active in Tiverton, Bovey Tracey, Torrington, Launceston, and Truro. There is more information here.

Monday, July 1, 2019

Varieties of architectural experience

Susannah Charlton, Elain Harwood, and Clare Price (eds), 100 Churches 100 Years
Published by Batsford

Lots of people like visiting churches, but the image of the traditional ‘church crawler’ is of someone who likes old buildings – and often old buildings in the countryside. That range of interests excludes most 20th-century churches, which are widely seen as assertively modernist and are most frequently in towns. So 20th-century churches tend to be neglected by visitors, except for experts and the growing number of enthusiasts for the art and design of the last 100 years. This new book, published under the auspices of the Twentieth Century Society, presents a fresh look at British church architecture between 1914 and 2015, revealing the field to be rich and full of surprises.

The range is enormous. The period is not all about rebarbative modernism. It embraces such fine buildings as St Alphege, Bath (designed in the style of an early Roman basilica by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott) and St Mary the Virgin, Wellingborough (Ninian Comper’s masterpiece, in a style that blends Gothic and Renaissance); or St Saviour, Eltham, London (by Cachemaille-Day, Welch & Lander, under the influence of German expressionism) and neo-Byzantine St John the Baptist, Rochdale (by Hill, Sandy & Norris, with glittering mosaics by Eric Newton). There’s modernism aplenty too, like St John the Baptist, Lincoln, where architect Sam Scorer and engineer Kálmán Hajnal-Kónyi contrived a hyperbolic paraboloid roof of breathtaking sweep, or, yes Brutalist-fanciers, the sad, decaying corpse of St Peter’s Seminary, Cardross, a concrete masterpiece (‘already British modernism’s most spectacular and erudite ruin’) that’s quietly rotting away.

One hundred of these diverse examples, each glowingly photographed and briefly described, make up the body of the book. There’s also a series of short chapters on notable architects and practices – including Edward Maufe, H. S. Goodhart-Rendell, George Pace, and Gillespie, Kidd & Coia (the latter the progenitors of the ruin of Cardross). And in addition the editors have called into being specialist chapters including revealing surveys by Jane Brocket on stained glass and by Alan Powers on the art and artefacts, from fonts to altars, murals to lettering, that enhance many of these buildings.

It’s often the art that lingers longest in my mind when I visit these 20th-century churches, but the book is more than a series of portraits of single buildings and fine artworks. It also gives a sense of how changing ideas about religious practice, different artistic influences from Europe, and varying social and economic conditions have influenced the architecture.  So we get a sense of the variety of architectural choices – but also the monetary constraints – at play in the 1930s, of the moves towards liturgical reform in the late-1950s and 1960s, of the influence today of the changing landscape of faiths (the subject of another specialist chapter, by Kate Jordan). And so the change and variety continue, and along with them the plenitude of artistic and architectural interest. 100 Churches 100 Years will inspire many to seek these qualities out.

Thursday, June 27, 2019

From Berlin to Britain

Alan Powers, Bauhaus Goes West: Modern Art and Design in Britain and America
Published by Thames & Hudson

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the foundation of the Bauhaus, the influential German school of design that began in Weimar before moving to Dessau and finally to Berlin. The school nurtured so many artists, designers, and architects who were pivotal to the modern movement during the 20th century. Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer, and László Moholy-Nagy were all at the Bauhaus: Gropius was its founder; Breuer was a student and then a teacher there; Moholy taught the famous foundation course, as well as heading the metal workshop. All three spent time in Britain after the institution closed under pressure from the Nazis in 1933. Other less well known Bauhäusler came to Britain too, a small host of people such as teacher and textile artist Margaret Leischner and Otto Neurath, an associate of many Bauhaus people, who created the important ‘picture-language’ system called Isotype. All these, and many more, appear in Alan Powers’ Bauhaus Goes West, a highly informative and readable study of the school’s influence on British art and design.

The British work of each of the ‘greats’ (Gropius, Breuer, Moholy-Nagy) merits its own chapter, and these chapters throw up fascinating insights. We see Gropius building in timber and brick, in contrast to his more famous works in concrete; we learn of Breuer’s insistence that modernism need not be ‘cold’ or ‘mechanistic’, we find Moholy at work on a model of a future city for the film Things to Come. And we learn about the networks sustaining the modernists. An example is the various ventures of Jack Pritchard who was behind a company manufacturing plywood furniture and the now-famous Isokon flats in Lawn Road, North London, designed by Wells Coates but also involving Breuer. Indded Pritchard was pivotal in the British careers of Gropius, Breuer, and Moholy.

All this is fascinating, but perhaps still more so are Powers’ general chapters. One of these, ‘Elective Affinities: England and Germany’ outlines the relationship between the two countries in terms of design. It shows how British interest in modernism and modernist ideas predates the Bauhaus émigrés, tracing links between Britain and such architects as Erich Mendelsohn and Bruno Taut, and noticing items with modernist elements being exhibited– carved reliefs by Eric Gill, textiles by Phyllis Baron, Dorothy Larcher, and Enid Marx, to name but a few. As businessman and social reformer Harry Peach (who himself visited the Bauhaus at Dessau) said of Britain in 1927, ‘we had a modern movement’.

So Britain was fertile soil for the Bauhaus designers when they arrived, a point shown in another general chapter, ‘The People With No Taste: English Modernism in the 1930s’. This chapter title is of course ironic. Powers shows that there was plenty of taste around, and much of it involved appreciating modern design. It was possible, as Paul Nash famously said, both to ‘Go modern’ and to ‘Be British’. A host of examples – some starting before the Bauhäusler arrived, some under the émigrés’ influence – shows British modernism alive and kicking. Powers covers both the endeavours that showed people ready to appreciate modernism – the efforts of Nikolaus Pevsner, the Council for Art and Industry, the magazine Circle – and the actual products of the designers – from innovative light fittings to revolutionary school buildings.

For anyone looking for an introduction to this aspect of British modernist architecture and design, this book is an excellent place to start. For someone keen to refresh and sharpen their knowledge of the Bauhaus and its influence in Britain, Bauhaus Goes West is likewise truly enlightening.

Monday, June 24, 2019

Carving out a life

Alex Woodcock, King of Dust: Adventures in Forgotten Sculpture
Published by Little Toller Books

When I’m wandering about looking at old buildings, I often get into conversations with people. One of the most frequent comments I hear when standing in front of a beautifully crafted bit of masonry or carving is: ‘Of course you couldn't find anyone with the skill to do that now.’ I usually respond by pointing out that, although skilled stone masons and carvers are hardly thick on the ground, they do exist, in the workshops attached to our great cathedrals, for example. A few cathedrals, like my local one, Gloucester, retain a full-time group of masons who work away at the conservation of their cathedral’s ancient and fragile fabric – replacing worn stones, carving new corbels or gargoyles, and so on.

Alex Woodcock – an archaeologist, expert on medieval sculpture, and poet, among other things – knows all about this. He took a mid-life career turn, perceiving that he might learn more about stone carving by actually doing it, and training to become a mason and carver. Coincidentally, he cites the writing of Richard Sennnett (whose recent book on cities I reviewed in my previous post), who said that when ‘the head and the hand are separate…it is the head that suffers’. By learning how to make the sort of sculpture produced by the builders of medieval churches one should come to a deeper understanding of the ancient work.  

This book is Woodcock’s account of the route he took from fascinated student of medieval carving to fully trained carver working on the repair of the sculptures of Exeter cathedral. His narrative is absorbing, even moving, and full of insights into the way such a carver has to work. It is nourishingly rich with descriptions of different kinds of stone (Woodcock loves stone), knowingly alert to the qualities of tools such as mallets and chisels, and atmospherically thick with the dust and stone fragments of the mason’s yard. It is also full of descriptions and appreciations of the Romanesque carvings in parish churches in the English West Country. It’s hard to describe the appearance of these carvings briefly – Woodcock evokes it in a series of accounts of different churches, building to a picture of a style that, broadly, combines figures carved with a simple and powerful directness and ornamental patterns of sometimes great complexity but similar boldness. Anyone who doesn’t know these wonderful carvings – on doorways, crosses, baptismal fonts – will find the book an eye-opener.

Woodcock describes these carvings, which date from the 11th or 12th centuries, in a way that brings them alive in the imagination. He has a go at the scholars and writers who pigeonhole this sort of work as ‘crude’ or ‘primitive’ with the implication that it’s far inferior to the more ‘finished’ and ‘naturalistic’ Gothic sculpture that came after it. By contrast, he sees in the simplicity and clarity of the Romanesque carver’s lines and forms something of the power of modernist sculpture, comparing it to Brancusi. I agree. Woodcock is with the artists in this – John Piper loved this sort of thing, for example, as did Henry Moore – and the descriptions in this book are persuasive and are worthy to stand beside Piper's photographs.*

There’s a clue in those references to past artists and fellow-appreciators of the Romanesque, a clue to what makes this book stand out. It’s raised above the level of another ‘mid-life journey from crisis to fulfilment’ narrative by its deep appreciation of the ancient sculptures and by its admiration for past advocates of these neglected works. Among the book’s heroes, along with Piper, are people like the historian Kate Marie Clarke, who learned to understand and appreciate Norman fonts by making line drawings of them, and architect Philip Mainwaring Johnston, who restored churches and whose talent for drawing informed his sensitive work on medieval churches. These are all people for whom hand and head worked effectively together.

By the end of this book I was ready to give a triumphant cheer for Woodcock when he found employment as a stone mason, and was ready to believe I understood the carvings a lot better for reading his informed accounts of them. I now have another list of churches to visit and sculptures to look at. I was also ready to applaud Little Toller Books for publishing the book and for commissioning the excellent artist Ed Kluz to do the jacket. I hope that face smiles out across Britain's bookshops and that it attracts many buyers. I don't think they'll be disappointed.

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* If you can get hold of the Shell Guide to Dorset, look at Piper’s photograph of the font at Toller Fratrum to see what I mean.

Friday, June 21, 2019


For a week or so, English Buildings turns into a book blog as I review some recent publications that have struck me. To begin with, a book about cities and the life lived in them...
Richard Sennett, Building and Dwelling
Published by Allen Lane

There are lots of books about cities and how they should be shaped to meet our needs today. They range from academic studies and guides for planners to more general works, all of which can be peppered with obfuscating jargon (that can be variously weighted with politically biassed meaning, or vapid, or both). Richard Sennett is part academic sociologist, part city planner, and part generalist. His recent books have included studies of craftsmanship and cooperation. Building and Dwelling is the third in a trilogy that includes those two predecessors. Like them, it’s direct and clear in its language, rich with telling examples and engaging anecdotes, and full of good sense.

Sennett begins with a useful distinction between what he calls, borrowing the French distinction, ville (the architectural, physical reality of the city) and cité (the human life lived in it). His particular interest is in how these two interact – how people live in cities and alter them physically, and how the built environment influences the dwellers within it. A key point of the book is that city planners – like Cerda in Barcelona or Hausmann in Paris – can have a huge influence on the way cities look and develop, but that those living there after the planners are gone alter the buildings and neighbourhoods in all kinds of unpredictable ways. Cerda’s wonderful plan for Barcelona with its distinctive grid of octagons still gives the city its character – but not quite in the way the planner intended; we still walk along Hausmann’s boulevards in Paris, but in 1968 we were reminded that no plan could stop protests and riots as the baron of the boulevards had intended.

In the course of the book, which is dense with examples, Sennett covers as many kinds of diverse territories as a wide-awake urbanist or an exhausted traveller could imagine. At one end of the historical spectrum is classical Athens, with its agora (part marketplace, part law court, part eatery, part temple precinct) and pnyx (home of popular assemblies and political discussions). At the other end is the New York Googleplex, a ‘shell renovation’ of an old building, in which everything is available to Google’s employees – they don't have to step outside to get their clothes laundered, visit the gym, consult a doctor, eat, or even sleep.

If there’s a lesson in all this, it’s that it is best to plan for cities to be adaptable or ‘open’. Sennett finds this admirable quality in unlikely places – in Nehru Place in Delhi, where there are businesses that form a kind of downmarket Silicon Valley, and a market where Sennett buys a dodgy smartphone. Or in parts of Shanghai, where people are faced with garish new capitalist office blocks, but react against their stridency by looking to the past.

But Sennett is not after some nostalgic hankering for an ideal past. At the end, after a traversal of many cities and accounts of many reactions to them (including outright escape from the city altogether), he comes down in favour of adaptability, of reconfiguring or repurposing parts of the city rather than either restoration on the one hand or sweeping everything away on the other. It's a humane kind of conclusion, based on the recognition that grand plans never turn out as they were intended and that modern pieties like ‘public consultation’ are often ineffective. And it's based on an obvious love of the world’s cities. Any other lover of cities with an interest in their history and their future should read this book. 

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Bishop’s Castle, Shropshire

A strong support

The House on Crutches is next to the Town Hall in Bishop’s Castle. It’s a 16th-century house with stout oak frame filled in between with wattle and daub and covered by a 19th-century slate roof. The upper floor is a few feet larger than the ground flood and projects beyond it, supported over the pavement beneath with two very solid-looking posts. Many timber-framed houses have a projecting upper floor, its timbered cantilevered out a bit in a feature called a jetty. Among other advantages, the jetty arrangement provides a little more room upstairs. But this house is different: the overhang is enormous and in an altogether different league: no wonder it has been noticed in the building’s name.

Like many an old building, the House on Crutches has seen various uses. Originally presumably a house, it shows signs of commercial use, and is now a museum, so people can learn not only about the town’s history but also marvel at the crooked stairs, fine oak beams, and the rest, within. It surveys the history of Bishop’s Castle – it has been in its time a border settlement with a castle, market town, ‘rotten borough’ with two MPs representing a place with just a few hundred people, and staging post on the route between England and Wales. Now it is supporting the variety of activities (cattle market, two micro breweries, shops, coffee shops) that a town, even a tiny town, needs in order to thrive. The House on Crutches seems to be playing a vital part.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Eardisland, Herefordshire

Fit for new purposes

Looking for something to post at a time when I'd not seen anything new recently, I made a virtual visit to Eardisland by browsing through my photo library. I was reminded that, have diverted to this Herefordshire place when en route to somewhere else, I'd found not only the preserved AA telephone box that I posted some years ago, but also a wonderful brick-built dovecote. They say it's 18th century, although at least one source dates the building to the 17th. The most recent edition of the Pevsner Buildings of England Herefordshire volume sums it up: c. 1700.

Whatever its exact age, it's impressive, even though it shows signs of repair and alteration in the 20th century. The louvre at the top where the doves came in and out, at the junction of the four-gabled roof, is still there, and there are still large stretches of original brickwork, albeit punctuated by a large section of presumably later bricks in a different colour on the flank wall. The square, four-gable shape is not an unusual one for a dovecote. I suppose it has the twin benefits of allowing the birds to fly up into the louvre exit from whichever side they're nesting on, while also producing a pleasing shape that can often act as a focal point in a yard, garden, or, as here, a village street. This dovecote is quite tall, and unusually has ground and upper floors: the ground floor was originally a garden room while the doves occupied the upper space.

The dovecote looks well as you approach it over the bridge, and it's good to see it has found new uses – changes of use are often vital if ancient buildings are to be preserved, and can enable a building to become not just a heritage asset but also useful, and so more likely to last. The dovecote now houses a museum on the upper floor and a small shop downstairs. As I was passing quickly through when I took this photograph, I didn't call in at the the shop, but I see online that it's run by volunteers for the benefit of the community. Such an enterprise can be an asset to a village, especially if it has has lost an earlier village store or Post Office. Small shops become community hubs, centres where people not only buy provisions but also exchange news and information, and pass the time of day. Next time I'm passing, I'll make a point of stopping, saying 'hello', and, I hope, making a purchase or two.

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* There is a reference to a dovecote here in 1469, but that would have been a different structure.

Saturday, June 8, 2019

Redcross Way, London

Five per cent philanthropy

The second half of the 19th century saw those in power taking belated but welcome interest in the health and wellbeing of the English working classes, and a major issue was providing poor people with adequate housing. This was a particularly pressing issue in big cities, where slums abounded, rents were often high, and tenancies were precarious. The need was publicised not only by works of the likes of Friedrich Engels, but also by the efforts of various high-ranking advocates and philanthropists, not least Prince Albert himself, who was president of the Society for Improving the Condition of the Labouring Classes. An example of a ‘model cottage’ (actually four flats on two floors) was built in Hyde Park for the 1851 Great Exhibition – it was rebuilt in Kennington Park the following year.

Soon, other campaigners took up the challenge of building better homes for the poor, and a number of organisations were set up. The usual idea was to attract investment in companies that would provide decent homes for poor people. The investors would get a reasonable, but not excessive, return on their investment, foregoing big profits for the satisfaction of helping those in need – hence such schemes were sometimes referred to as ‘five per cent philanthropy’. A number of housing organisations started in this way. Perhaps the most famous was the Peabody Trust, founded with a large donation from the banker George Peabody. The flats in my picture were built by the Improved Industrial Dwellings Company, started by Sir Sydney Waterlow, printer, banker, and Liberal politician. Waterlow set the company up in 1863 with capital of £50,000 and by 1900 it was said to be housing some 30,000 people in London.
Cromwell Buildings, in Southwark, a stone’s throw from the one of the railway lines that snake their way above this part of South London, was one block of flats built by the Improved Industrial Dwellings Company. This five-storey block now has ten flats. Originally the block housed 24 units: 10 flats with four rooms, 12 with 3 rooms, and 2 shops. The flats were said to be modelled along the lines of the prince’s model cottage, and each had its own proper cooking facilities and WC. The balconies are a common feature of this type of workers’ housing, intended to provide fresh air. Good ventilation and adequate space were priorities in communities in which people had been forced to live in cramped accommodation with few windows. So was adequate sanitation – apparently the rooms containing the lavatories jut out at the back, promoting good air flow.

Housing like this benefitted the working classes hugely in late-Victorian and Edwardian London. However, even the flats were out of reach of the very poor. Most of the tenants of the Improved Industrial Dwellings Company seem to have been skilled artisans, together with people who worked in services such as the police, plus a handful of labourers. Even so, their impact was huge. It has been estimated that in Southwark alone, about ten per cent of the population lived in blocks built and run by companies and trusts like the IIDC and Peabody. Most of the dwellings are still dong good service today.

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For earlier pieces on model dwellings, see my post on the ornate examples in Pimlico here and the plainer but admirable Peabody flats here.

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Clink Street, London

In the Clink: bishops, actors, geese

Medieval architecture is not thick on the ground in central London, and it’s a rare pleasure to come across this fragment in a back street not far from Borough Market. When I first saw it, in the 1980s, this area was usually deserted and run down. I only knew about it because I worked nearby for a couple of years, and because, before that, studying English literature, I’d come across references to the area when reading about Shakespeare and Dickens. This is the part of London that housed the original Globe Theatre, where many of Shakespeare’s plays were put on, and is now home to the reconstructed Globe – as well as to Borough Market, with its cornucopia of food stalls. So this part of Southwark is a magnet for anyone who likes good food and good drama. But many of those people probably miss this building.

It’s a wall of the great hall of Winchester Palace, the town house of the bishops of Winchester in the Middle Ages. The palace was built mostly by Henry of Blois, who was bishop in the 12th century, although the beautiful tracery of the rose window at the top of the wall is a later addition – possibly in the time of William of Wykeham, bishop in the late-14th century. Why did these men have a palace in London? Because in the Middle Ages, bishops were powerful men with strong connections to the capital: most had a residence in London. After Canterbury, Winchester was one of the most powerful bishoprics of all. The diocese had a lot of property in this part of London, and Winchester was a town with strong royal connections – it was once the capital. Its bishops were usually well connected men from the upper aristocracy: Henry of Blois was a brother of King Stephen; William of Wykeham was not born into the nobility, but rose to a high level in the administration of England under Edward III; he was, famously, the founder of Winchester College and of New College, Oxford.

These important people had a big London home, a palace built around two courtyards, of which this hall would have been the heart. The land controlled by the bishops, outside the jurisdiction of the City of London or the adjoining Southwark parishes, even contained its own prison, known as the the Clink, to which the bishop’s courts could send wrongdoers. The area became known as the Liberty of the Clink.† By Shakespeare’s time, because the Liberty of the Clink lay outside of London’s legal sway, it attracted all kinds of activities frowned upon in the City. One of these was the theatre, hence the presence of the Globe (and the Rose) nearby. Prostitution was also tolerated more here than in the City, and the local members of the oldest profession were known, bizarrely, as ‘Winchester geese’.

So this quaint looking wall harks back to a time when high churchmen played a very different role in society from the one they adopt now. A time when they wielded considerable worldly power, and tolerated activities that would earn them condemnation today.§ They also played host to Britain’s greatest dramatist and were patrons of great artists and craftsmen. We’re most used to seeing the results of that patronage in the great cathedrals. This tantalizing wall is a reminder that they could extend their patronage into the worldly sphere too.

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† A ‘liberty’ was a manorial jurisdiction; nobody knows where the name ‘Clink’ came from, but its similarity to the metallic sound of chains or barred doors is suggestive.

§ As indeed many of us do condemn church authorities for tolerating moral misdemeanours today, when such things come to light.

Thursday, May 30, 2019

Norham Castle, Northumberland

Mapping and drawing

As the previous post makes clear, I’ve always liked maps, and find them fascinating. Their variety, and the sheer skill of the people who make them, is admirable, as is the ingenuity with which so much information gets included on the best maps. The task of collecting the information needed to make a map, and to transfer it to paper, is a formidable one, even today, when satellites and computers make it easier, and when we are apt to look at maps not on paper at all, but on some kind of screen. I quickly learned that there were many ways of doing this, and that the surface of the earth can be represented in a host of different ways. As well as the one or two OS maps covering the local area, there were also other kinds of maps at home. Apart from a World Atlas (I remember being told it was out of date, but then they nearly always are), there were some guide books with maps in them, ones like the example above, showing the part of Gloucestershire where I now live, from one of the series of Shell Guides to the English counties. This uses colour to show relief – high land in increasingly deeper orange – and different colours to indicate different grades of road. Railway lines are in black, with stations marked; churches are another kind of building indicated, with a tiny cross; one or two landmark buildings (especially castles) are also marked. There’s not much more fine detail, but what’s there gives a good picture of the land, towns and villages, and major landmarks: it’s a serviceable map, produced in a pleasing style.

But there’s more to it than this. Maps are indeed immensely useful, to help us find out way around, and to tell us what’s on the ground, but they’re also pleasing in themselves – I’d say that maps, at their best, are art. Maps made before the last 30 years of the 20th century have a ‘drawn’ quality to them – after all, someone did draw them originally – and when the drawing has been done well, the result looks attractive, as well as being clear to read. To make the map above, which shows the edge of the Cotswold Hills near Cheltenham, someone working for Bartholomew & Co, who provided the maps for the Shell Guides, actually formed each letter with a pen; they would also have drawn in pen the other black lines on the map – the key lines running along the outer edges of all the red and orange roads, for example, and the flowing black lines that mark the railway lines. Probably on a separate layer, all the colour – such as those shades of orange for the uplands and green for the lowlands – would be added. This was all an enormous amount of hand-work by skilled people, unsung and dedicated, for the benefit of users who appreciated clarity, richness of information, and, I’d say, a result that’s visually very satisfying.
Perhaps I can further demonstrate what I mean by this ‘drawn’ quality by showing a plan of a castle from a 1960s guide book to Norham Castle.* This is one of a series produced by the British Department of the Environment (and their predecessors the Ministry of Public Building and Works) of ancient monuments. The plan was pasted into the back of the guide book, and when you unfolded it you could see at a glance the buildings, earthworks, and other features on the site. The lettering is done in strong calligraphic capitals, the buildings are shaded in different ways to indicate dates of construction,¶ and there’s a clear scale.† Best of all, eloquent strokes of the pen called hachures indicate the ups and downs of the terrain – the thicker end of each hachure is where the higher ground is, the lower ground is indicated by the narrow end.§

I’ve had hours of pleasure walking around castles, hill forts, monasteries and so on, holding a map like this, working out the history of the structure as I go. On a breezy day, the map would flap around, and if one didn’t hold it carefully, it might tear, or even slip out of the fingers and take a short flight like a rather ineffective kite, leaving one, coat similarly flapping, in pathetic pursuit. But I soon learned to hang on, and received both instruction and entertainment as I did so. Nowadays English Heritage produce much glossier guides, with full colour maps and illustrations, as well as putting up interpretation boards here and there to tell visitors about history and architecture. All very good. But there’s nothing to beat the clarity and artistic integrity of these old plans – or of the more conventional maps, sometimes also with hachures, with which we once guided ourselves around the country.

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* Norham Castle is by the River Tweed, one of the medieval defences of the border between England and Scotland. It’s also the subject of a glorious late painting by Turner.

¶ No colour printing was used – these guides were inexpensive and colour was costly in 1966. The guide to Norham Castle cost just 2 shillings and six old pence (a mere 12.5 pence in today’s money), map and all.

† The metres have got cropped off my photograph.

§ Another nuance of meaning is that the closer together and thicker the hachures are, the steeper the gradient being represented. Many modern maps that use hachures represent them as elongated triangles: these tend to have a more stylised look, without the hand-drawn quality of the earlier ones.

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Mapping, walking, looking

The Map that Came to Life

I took to maps instinctively as a child, needing little encouragement apart from there actually being a few decent maps in the house to get me going, as I recalled in my previous post. Some children (the Resident Wise Woman included) found another introduction to maps in a wonderful book, H. J. Deverson and Ronald Lampitt’s The Map That Came to Life. As a further commemoration of National Map-Reading Week, here’s what I wrote about this book back in 2008, when this blog itself was in its infancy:
On one of our recent visits to a local secondhand bookshop, my wife came across a copy of The Map That Came to Life, a book she had read avidly when she was a child. Written by H. J. Deverson and illustrated by Ronald Lampitt, The Map That Came to Life was first published in 1948, and was much reprinted. It describes how two children (and a dog) go on a walk across the English countryside with an Ordnance Survey map to guide them. Much of what they find on the way is marked on the map, whose symbols for roads, railways, telephone boxes, tumuli, and so on and on, turn to reality along the way. The reader, meanwhile, learns how to read a map, and how maps have much to teach us about the world around us.

In some ways the world of The Map That Came to Life does not exist today. These two children set off on a walk across unfamiliar country with only their map for guidance. They talk to strangers – who give them fascinating nuggets of local information rather than luring them into dark corners. Their dog spends most of its time off its lead, rivers and lakes hold no terrors for them, and, of course, this being 1948, they are not much troubled by traffic.

It’s different in other ways too. The villages through which they pass are well provided with the kind of facilities – shops, pubs, Post Offices, a forge – that we mourn the passing of today. Interesting antiquities, such as a ruined abbey and a castle, abound, giving me an excuse for including the book in a blog about English Buildings. If truth be told, all these ancient and modern details are probably rather thick on the ground even for 1948, because their purpose after all is to show us as many map symbols coming to life as can be reasonably encompassed in 32 pages.
And not just the symbols, but what’s behind them. Joanna and John learn about ruined buildings, tumuli, tithe barns, and ancient churches. They listen to bird song and discover what kinds of trees grow beside rivers. They find out the relationship between contours and man-made features like railway lines and viaducts. And by helping to alert some farm workers to a fire in a wood, they learn about one potential danger in the countryside.

Sadly, this book would not be published today. For one thing, it’s very specifically British in its content, and publishers nowadays cry out for books that will work in an international market. For another, it’s not an outwardly exciting book – its information about the past contains no pillaging Vikings, no bombs, none of the opportunistic stink and goo of ‘Horrible History’. Yet in its quiet way it conveys a different kind of excitement – the excitement of finding things out, of being inquisitive about the environment, of thinking about what you see. And that is one of the best kinds of excitement there is.

In 2008 that post garnered quite a few comments and emails: maybe 11 years on it will still strike a few more chords. I might have added that OS maps are still going strong, and still present (on paper and on screen) a superior form of mapping that, in my opinion, conveys more information than any other. For the architectural enthusiast and historian, they include such a lot, from churches (their symbols indicating whether they have a tower or spire or neither) to Roman villas, from tumuli to manor houses. Much of this information just isn’t on other maps. True, it’s all there on satellite view or Google Earth, but often not identified, so it can be hard to know what you’re looking at. And today, more than 70 years after The Map That Came to Life was published, there are new layers of more recent history – things identified as ‘Airfield (disused)’ and ‘dismtd rly’, for the curious to investigate. Such a map is a world.
If you click on this photograph of two pages from the book, it should be visible at a larger size.

Sunday, May 26, 2019

Somewhere in Gloucestershire

On the paper, on the ground

So it’s National Map-Reading Week. I’m not a great one for all the commemorative ‘weeks’ and ‘days’ that social media seem so keen on, but they allow people to promote good causes, so they can’t be all bad. I think map-reading is, if not a good cause exactly, certainly a good thing. I’m as likely as anyone to get out my phone and open the Map App when I’m in a hurry and trying to get somewhere in an unfamiliar city. But I believe that ability to plot one’s progress, step by step, on a proper map, taking in not just the thin line of the planned route but also the context – what lies on either side, in terms of landscape, settlements, and (you saw it coming) buildings – is an essential skill that should be nurtured.

One day when I was a teenager, I realised another unexpected benefit of being able to read a map. I had to sit an O Level exam* in Geography and for some reason I found the main part of this ordeal difficult – I’d not been bad at the subject at school and everyone else seemed to think the paper wasn’t hard, but somehow I didn’t connect with it. I thought I was staring failure in the face. I tried not to panic, and got down on paper everything I knew that seemed connected in some way with the questions, and hoped for the best. But there was another part to the exam, and this involved being given a section of an Ordnance Survey map of an unfamiliar bit of Britain and answering questions about it.§ Luckily, maps had always fascinated me. I was able to answer all the questions, and I was confident that my answers were right. No doubt my high marks in that part compensated for my abysmal showing in the first bit, and so I scraped through with a low grade. I’ve been thankful to map reading ever since.

I’d already discovered that maps helped me navigate effectively. I learned to recognise landmarks on paper, and use them to work out where I was, and where I was going. I saw that OS maps pointed out things like churches, telephone boxes, and industrial buildings often identified with the word ‘Works’†, and I was soon using these to tell my father, at the wheel of the car, where he should be heading: ‘Just past the factory, turn left by a telephone box’: that sort of thing. It made me more observant, and more appreciative of my surroundings. I like to think these qualities have stood me in good stead.

Having introduced myself to maps by looking at the one or two Ordnance Survey maps that we had at home, I realised that they opened my eyes, and my imagination. I could sometimes see places in my mind’s eye from just looking at the map. And when I came to be interested in architecture, I could see the buildings too – abbeys, churches, town halls, railway stations, ‘works’: there they all were. You don’t get this driving along using a satnav – though, heaven knows, satnavs have their uses when you need to get somewhere quickly – and I for one am sad that the rise of this powerful technology has meant that fewer of us get the thrill of map reading and the revelation it can bring.

Of course, there are Google Satellite View and Street View – hugely useful tools. They’ve helped me locate a building precisely on many occasions, and have led me to remote rural locations when the paper map in my car was not detailed enough and when the postcode information I’d put into the satnav sent me to a geographical area so huge it seemed to encompass half of Oxfordshire. But if we can’t read this information on paper, something has been lost: the thrill of seeing a place or a landscape came alive through the symbols on a map.

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* Subject-based examinations set in British secondary schools between 1951 and 1988 for students aged around 16. The O stood for ‘ordinary’. Students who stayed on at school after O Levels sat A (advanced) Level exams two years later.

§ My illustration shows a section of an early – 1907 – OS map for Dursley and Cam in Gloucestershire; clicking on the map will make it larger. I show this because it gives an idea of the ‘drawn’ quality of the early, pre-computer, maps, which I find pleasing. It features a fair share of landmarks: mills, churches, inns, farms, a Roman camp, etc, etc. Woods are green, and height above sea level is indicated by thin brown contour lines (and numerical heights for hill tops), just as on current OS maps. Although old, this map may be © Crown copyright.

† Often abbreviated to ‘Wks’. Ordnance Survey abbreviations (Fm, Wks, Tk of old rly) have a poetry of their own.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Quenington, Gloucestershire

Harrowing of Hell

Here’s the tympanum from the south doorway at Quenington, the north doorway of which was the subject of my previous post. This time, the subject is the Harrowing of Hell. Christ is seen piercing the body of Satan with a cross – or a spear with a cross at its upper end. To the right are three figures is positions of supplication – they’re said to have emerged from the mouth of the serpent at the bottom right of the carving, which symbolizes the mouth of Hell.  The whole scene is framed within a round-headed Norman arch, set on round shafts. A charming (and unusual) detail is the sun that shines above the figures, as if suggesting that they have come out and up into the light, which is symbolic of the Lord’s presence.

The framing arch is unusual and is smaller than the overall arch of the doorway, the zigzag carving of which is visible around the edge of the photograph. It’s as is the carving was originally intended for a smaller doorway. Or as if it was done by a different carver from the doorway and someone got the measurements wrong. The rather gawky result in a way adds to the charm.

In our postmodern, 21st-century way, we are apt to be affected by such naïve carvings, and even to be condescending about their simplicity. But to medieval Christians this was serious stuff: the descent of Christ into Hell, in order to bring about the salvation of those who were righteous but had had the misfortune to die between the beginning of time and the coming of Christ and had therefore ended up for a few centuries or more in the bad place.* It was a very real and dramatic image of Christ’s power and his ability to save souls.  However we think about that now, the carvings that such stories inspired still have the power to draw us in.

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* These souls were also said to be in Limbo, a region of Hell that was separate from the Hell of the damned.

Monday, May 20, 2019

Quenington, Gloucestershire

Coronation of the Virgin

While I’m in Gloucestershire, two more posts about a building in my home county that I’ve revisited recently. It’s St Swithun’s church, Quenington, one of the smaller and less assuming of the Cotswolds’ remarkable collection of parish churches. It’s a medieval building, but one much restored in the 1880s by F. S.Waller, a Gloucestershire architect who worked on quite a few local churches, but not always with the best of results. Waller rebuilt most of the western end of the church, added a vestry that was no doubt practically very useful but aesthetically far from ideal, and replaced an early-19th century tower with a picturesque bellcote.

Waller also built porches for the north and south doorways, and this is cause for celebration because these are the features of the building that really stand out and deserve protection from the elements. The doorways are Norman, of the mid-12th century, and remarkable. Here’s the tympanum over the south doorway. The carving depicts the Coronation of the Virgin and this in itself is interesting, as there are very few representations of this subject in England before the 13th century, when it – and the wider cult of the Blessed Virgin Mary – became very popular. She sits together with Christ, holding (it is said) a dove, while he crowns her. Round about are the symbols of the four Evangelists, two angels, and on the far left, an elaborate domed Romanesque building – either a church or, as Pevsner speculates, the Heavenly Mansions.
Detail of the Coronation tympanum, Quenington

I’m a fan of Norman tympana – see past posts about Elkstone and Great Rollright, for example – but I get particularly excited about this one for various reasons including its unusual subject and the depiction of an elaborate building. It’s a nice illustration of the way in which even an isolated village church can reflect notions, from the design of domed churches to the evolving reverence for the Virgin Mary, that were probably more current in far-away cities than in remote villages, but which had travelled there, via writings or word of mouth, carried by priests, monks, and stonemasons, among whom were the best travelled and most knowledgeable people of the Middle Ages.