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