Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Ramsbury, Wiltshire

Pattern language

People who follow me on Instagram (where I am @philipbuildings ) may have noticed a while back that I posted one of those old black and yellow AA signs on a brick wall in Ramsbury. It occurred to me then that I should post a brick building from this Wiltshire town, and the blog seems the place for it because most of my readers look at the blog on a bigger screen than those of the mobile devices most often used with Instagram. Blowing up the picture by clicking on it will reveal the bricks more clearly.

Brickwork makes up a rich architectural language of patterns and this house is no exception. Many will recognise straight away the pattern of alternate stretchers and headers (the long sides and short ends of the brick) that makes up Flemish bond. That’s not unusual – Flemish bond is often seen on old brick buildings in England, though it’s not that common in Flanders, as Alec Clifton-Taylor and others have pointed out.* What’s different here is the use of darker bricks for those facing header-outwards. These are probably red bricks with ‘vitrified headers’, in other words headers that have been given a dark glaze at one end, either because those ends were facing a very hot part of the kiln, or the brick-maker added salt during the firing process, or a particular type of wood was used for firing.

This is an effect quite often seen in South Oxfordshire, Berkshire, and Wiltshire, where according to Clifton-Taylor the presence of lime in the clay fosters the darkening process. These grey vitrified bricks were fashionable from the 18th century, and sometimes you see a house with a front wall in grey bricks with the more common red bricks reserved for the sides and back. More frequent still are walls where the two colours alternate, as here, to give a variegated effect that I find delightful. It’s sometimes said that creating these patterns was a way of using up bricks that had partly darkened, and that may sometimes have been the case. But I’m more convinced that people made these choices because of their visual effect, which adds colour and interest to many a building in this part of Central Southern England. Long live vitrification!

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* See Alec Clifton-Taylor, The Pattern of English Building (Faber & Faber) for a feast of information on English traditional building and building materials.


Joseph Biddulph (Publisher) said...

I have noticed a great number of brick buildings like this in Wiltshire. Your text suggests that the vitrified bricks are added according to some regular principle, but the effect seems more subtle than that. After a conversation with a "brickie" given the reluctant job of replacing a decorous stone wall with breeze blocks (now a few months later already covered in unpleasant graffiti), I would tend to the view that a bit of creativity in choosing the next brick might help preserve the sanity of the guy sent to lay them. And I pity the lot of somebody who has to build a very large brick wall without any variation or decoration permitted, as is all too often the case, it seems. I remember in Inner City Birmingham (and in some streets in Belfast) a frieze in brick below the roof-line, and in some cases terracotta ornaments (mass-produced of course). There seems to be no justification for the formula bricks=perfectly plain. I don't suppose there's a great difference in cost either. (Making a brickie happy is surely a case of money well spent!) Coincidentally, I was noticing some 13th century stonework in Caerphilly Castle this very day: every so often somebody has slipped in a cheeky little sliver of recycled Roman brick/tile where the grey stone should be. The big boss castle builder is busy making some precise engineering structures for portcullis, etc., while the "stonie" is having his bit of fun. (I think I've made a comment very like this before!)

Chris Partridge said...

I’ve always loved this effect, which is common in Sussex and Hampshire too.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Joseph: On this house, it's regular in places, more random than elsewhere. Either way, it makes the effect more interesting. I agree about the added interest for the bricklayer. When we had some tiling done in our kitchen, also in an irregular mix of shades, the tiler became quite engaged with making sure that too many of the same type did not appear too close together!

Philip Wilkinson said...

Chis: Yes, I've often seen it in those counties. I do like Sussex brickwork.