Monday, December 28, 2020

Brampton Bryan, Herefordshire

Patterned brick, farm style

I don’t often post farm buildings on this blog, but I do often peer through farm gates, across yards, and along drives that were once used by tractors or herds of cows and now lead to clusters of ‘desirable homes’ in converted barns. Visiting Aardvark Books (a different kind of agricultural conversion, a book farm) I’ve sometimes had a short walk to see what else there is in the village, and have glanced at this near neighbour. What I see is, on the right, a timber framed building with the spaces between the bays partly infilled with weatherboarding, and on the left a lower brick barn.

The pattern of holes in the brickwork in the left-hand barn, used for ventilation, is something I’ve noticed several times in Herefordshire and elsewhere. The widespread use of brick came late to the West Midlands and border counties, getting established in the 17th century, in contrast to the East of England, where brick buildings survive from the late Middle Ages. I’d guess this barn is probably 19th century, and it may well have started life with a slate roof like the one it has today. The diamond of ventilation holes is typical, and must have been relatively easy to do for a bricklayer used to laying bricks with precision. I have the impression that it is, though, a slightly larger diamond than many I’ve seen. With a small array of holes, or two or three smaller arrays, the builder would have room for stretches of solid brickwork in between, to keep the structure sound. But this large diamond-shaped area of perforation seems to work, and to help a building in the once alien material of brick fit into the varied pattern of Herefordshire vernacular architecture, with its sandstone and timber-framed structures set against a background of rolling hills.

Tuesday, December 22, 2020


‘Not in stone temples made with hands’  

At this time of year, as we approach Christmas and wonder this of all years how we cope with it, there’s usually the chance to listen to a variety of Christmas music, not just the endless advertising sound track of tunes such as ‘White Christmas’ (it first caught my ears on television in October this year, just after mince pies were spotted in a prominent place in the cake aisle of a local supermarket) but also the abundance of special music in English churches. This is the time of year when the organist makes sure the pedal light and foot heater are working, brushes the hoar frost off the altos and gets out music that’s been at the bottom of the heap for almost a year. Britain has a strong choral tradition, and some of the cathedral and large church choirs are amazingly good. And then there are the professional groups who make recordings, tour the world (when they can), and elicit enthusiastic and sometimes awed responses wherever people sing. There’s a choral sound – born of musicianship, pin-sharp precision, and clarity of pronunciation – that’s summed up in words like ‘purity’ or simply ‘Englishness’. Perhaps it’s the sound we think of when we think of the English (or indeed Scottish) choral masters like Tallis, Byrd or Gibbons.

A favourite of mine is Orlando Gibbons, who in a short life produced some of the masterpieces of English music for keyboard, as well as a lot of superlative vocal music. Much of his music was small-scale – wonderful short keyboard pieces and madrigals (including one of my favourites, ‘The Silver Swan’), but he also wrote some terrific church music, much of it no doubt sung in the Chapel Royal in London, where the composer worked. He was born in Oxford, and was baptized on Christmas Day 1585 at St Martin’s church, Oxford. Only the tower of St Martin’s now stands, at Carfax, the crossroads right in the middle of the city, where the clock in the photograph tells the hours. This is a modern clock in a surround designed by Victorian architect Thomas Jackson. But Gibbons might well have seen some figures, the two ‘quarter boys’ who banged the bells that mark the hours. Even today’s quarter boys are not the originals, which are now safely preserved in the city museum, but accurate replicas.

Such is the march of time, of which Gibbons, as a musician, was no doubt well aware. I want to link to a YouTube video of one of his anthems, a piece I know in this recording by the wonderfully named English group Red Byrd, who combine musical precision and verve with their best shot at ‘historically informed’ pronunciation of English. I find this anthem, ‘Glorious and powerful God’, a joy – spirited, uplifting, and (in this performance anyway) slightly earthy and not quite up there in the remote heavens, as some religious music can be. Not typical either, then, of that ultra-pure ‘English’ choral sound, but the reprise of the words ‘Arise O Lord’, especially, makes me want to stand up and cheer.

As if all that weren’t enough, the words (Who wrote them? Gibbons himself? I wish I knew.) use an architectural metaphor. The text expresses that difficult concept, the presence of Jesus on earth, in this way. Christ does not does not dwell ‘in stone temples made with hands’ but ‘in the flesh hearts of the sons of men’, a vivid way of getting at the idea of God made flesh, and of expressing his continued presence in our hearts. Whatever your belief system, however you react to this, may your heart be light this season, and may it be warmed by Gibbons’s music.

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Photograph shared under Creative Commons licence.   

Saturday, December 19, 2020

Overbury, Worcestershire

Acts of remembrance 

Listening to an excellent talk on Arts and Crafts war memorials given by Kirsty Hartsiotis last month, I was reminded of a very special war memorial at Overbury in Worcestershire. This is not only a war memorial but also a building – the lych-gate through which one enters the churchyard of St Faith’s church. Like so much of the architecture of this village it came about through the care and generosity of the Martin and Holland-Martin familes, once the owners of one of Britain’s largest banks. The Martins live in the large house just visible from the churchyard and employed architects and craftsmen working in the vernacular and Arts and Crafts traditions to construct a school, a village hall, even a bus shelter. It was natural, then, when 19-year-old Geoffrey Holland-Martin was killed in action in France in 1918, that his parents should think not just in terms of a personal memorial to his son but also of something more widely relevant to the village. Hence this lych-gate, which combines a memorial to those in the village who fell in the Great War with a monumental entrance to the churchyard.

The architect was no less than Sir Herbert Baker, who had imbibed vernacular and Arts and Crafts ways of building when as a young man he was assistant to the prominent practice of Ernest George and Peto. He subsequently had a busy life, packing in what almost amounted to three consecutive architectural careers. After a promising start in London, he followed his brother (a fruit farmer) to southern Africa, met Cecil Rhodes, and designed a string of buildings for private clients, the church, and the colonial government. Next he went to India and worked with Lutyens on New Delhi. By the time World War I ended, Baker was in his fifties and might have rested on his laurels. But this was not Baker’s way. Instead, he became architect to the then Imperial War Grave Commission, designing 113 cemeteries on the western front.

Baker’s building at Overbury is on a tiny scale compared to these grand projects, but it’s designed with plenty of care. It wonderfully combines a monumental quality with the use of oak and limestone, materials that feel completely at home in this stone village where, on some days, the most obvious sound is the wind stirring the leaves of great trees. The wooden superstructure that rests on the limestone plinth is certainly imposing, with its large arches, but it’s also inviting, an irrestistable draw both to the eye and to the feet. ‘Come to church, good people,’ it seems to say, to those who have arrived through countryside in which Bredon Hill rises in the middle distance.

In the centre of the interior is a large coffin rest, a reminder of the time when the bearers paused in the lych-gate while the priest said the first part of the burial service. This is designed in the shape of a chest tomb, and this has reminded more than one person of a cenotaph, an empty tomb like the one in Whitehall that acts as a focus for national remembrance ceremonies. From thoughts of those laid in earth to thoughts of the celestial: the other special thing about this structure is the carvings of angels resting in those massive wooden beams. They are by Alec Miller, who was head of wood-carving and modelling in the Campden Guild of Handicraft when the lych-gate was built. My photograph shows the angel on the side of the lych-gate pointing towards the church, its wings outstretched. 

The northern face of the coffin rest is carved with the lines from Blake’s poem Jerusalem that speak of building Jerusalem ‘in England’s green and pleasant land’. For many rural people in the interwar period, England was far from green and pleasant, but thanks to the Holland-Martins, Overbury seems to have made at least the aspiration credible.

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Eckington, Worcestershire

Crossing place 

Bredon Hill, made famous by a poem in A. E. Housman’s collection A Shropshire Lad, is actually in the poet’s native Worcestershire and is an outlier of the Cotswolds. The country round about is flat, and through it snakes the River Avon, the Worcestershire Avon that is (for there are several Avons), which flows to join the Severn at Tewkesbury. The Avon is bridged at numerous points, here between Eckington and Birlingham, where Eckington Bridge looks the epitome of the medieval packhorse bridge – narrow, stone-built, weathered. Actually it’s not quite as old as it looks. There was a bridge here by at least the 14th century, but by the early 1700s it was so damaged and decayed that it needed to be replaced. What we see now is the replacement, built in 1728 by a pair of Worcester masons, Robert Taylor and Thomas Wilkinson.

The 18th-century masons are said to have reused the foundations of the earlier bridge, and the paler stone of the lower parts of the pointed cutwaters that protrude into the water may be part of this original structure. It is hard to get an impression of the stone of the lower sections of the arches because this has been patched up over the years with both stone and brick. The parapet is yet another colour, a grey as opposed to red coloured sandstone. The bulk of the bridge is built from stone quarried in the Ombersley area, where both red and grey stone are found.

The kind of traffic the bridge was taking in the 18th century was not so different from that of the medieval period: horses, carts, cattle, pedestrians. Even in the 18th century when there would have been more carts than packhorses, it must have been easy for the slow-moving traffic of that era to make its way across as oncoming carts or horses waited their turn. Nowadays the traffic moves more quickly and is controlled by lights. Let’s hope today’s technology makes yesterday’s bridge good for another century or two.

Saturday, December 12, 2020

Upton on Severn, Worcestershire


Continuity or change?

The small riverside town of Upton-on-Severn has one of those traditional high streets that has evolved over the years to meet local needs, with apparently few incursions in the form of multiple retailers or big brands. You’ll find early-19th century buildings (sometimes with Venetian windows above), Victorian shop fronts, and a scattering of Edwardian or later gilded shop signs, preserved against the odds. Here’s one that’s small and quite easy to miss. It is above the door of one of the few ‘big names’ in Upton, a branch of Boot’s. It’s a pharmacy now and clearly was in 1881, when John Gibbs put up his plate in this very building.

Were pharmacists in the 1880s still stamping out pills by hand using little brass moulds and pouring our lotions and tinctures from large glass carboys? I’m not sure, but if they weren’t, that time could not have been long past. Pharmacists still have to be well qualified of course, but these days the medicines are usually manufactured elsewhere and packaged in blister packs. The gilded lettering of Mr Gibbs’s sign certainly harks back to the earlier era. It’s shiny but not flashy – simple, clear capitals that have none of the curls and elaborations of other Victorian signs. The effect must have been traditional and reassuring even in the 19th century.

And of course, it’s personal. When this sign was made, local people would have known the pharmacist and would have spoken of ‘Going to see Mr Gibbs,’ for some advice and a remedy. Today, the premises bear the name of the best known high street chemist. But it’s still not impossible that the people of this small town know the people who work here, and speak of them by name, and think of them differently from those who live in a big town and speak simply of ‘going to Boot’s’ to pick up their prescription. I don’t know this to be the case, but there’s the possibility of such a connection and continuity, reflected by the gilded lettering of this sign. If it’s there, it’s worth hanging on to.

Wednesday, December 9, 2020

Cirencester, Gloucestershire


A folly, but not entirely

Earl Bathurst, 18th-century lord of Cirencester and shape of its enormous park, clearly responded to the architectural fashions of the time. As well as classical buildings like the one in my previous post, Bathurst also included several Gothic ones in his park. This, probably the largest, is called Ivy Lodge. It looks over the park’s famous polo field so that its eccentric architecture can entertain spectators who feel they’ve endured one chukka too many. It’s easy to shrug buildings like this off as simply follies – bits of architectural nonsense that rich people liked to put up to indulged a whimsy. Of course, the design is whimsical – that very classical central upper window looks eccentric above Gothic openings and beneath faux-medieval battlements. But it’s also a building with a purpose. It’s actually a house that adjoins a series of farm buildings – barn, cart shed, granary, etc – some of which are attached to Ivy Lodge, some standing separately nearby. It’s all much plainer round the back.

Observant readers will have noticed that the windows on the left-hand part of the facade are blind. A side view (below) shows why. That part of the facade is just facade – its main purpose is to make the frontage symmetrical and to screen the farm buildings from view. That’s the kind of care that Earl Bathurst took when building the structures in his park. Many had a practical purpose, but all were meant to enhance the view. I’d be the last person to take issue with this care for visual things. The whole ensemble makes me happy – and that backdrop of trees makes me happier still. Looking at this picture makes me want to get my walking shoes on and go and look at it all again, very soon.

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I have posted previously on another building in Cirencester Park, Pope’s Seat, here

Saturday, December 5, 2020

Cirencester, Gloucestershire

Framed by trees 

Cirencester Park is one of the most remarkable ornamental landscapes in England. It’s one of the few surviving large-scale 18th-century parks laid out before the fashion for the less formal landscape garden developed with such success by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown. At Cirencester, a large tract of countryside was transformed by Lord Bathurst. Essentially it is a wooded landscape into which a series of avenues has been cut. The longest of these avenues stretches some five miles, from the park gates in the town to a distant vanishing point. This broad grassy ride is one avenue of many, some of which are much narrower. They are arranged at different angles and intersect with others at clearings, and at strategic places Bathurst placed monuments and buildings, to provide visual focal points and in some cases to enable walkers to take shelter, or to pause and rest. 

My photograph shows one such building, the Hexagon, a six-sided stone shelter. Visual interest is provided by the way the design emphasises the stones that surround each of the six arches. Not only do these stones stand slightly proud of the rest of the structure, they’re also pitted and roughened in a treatment known as vermiculation, a word meant to suggest that the surface resembles something that has been eaten away by worms. The plain roof topped with a ball finial is effective enough, but Bathurst at one point intended to make the little building still more striking with a cupola. My use of the phrase ‘Bathurst intended’ was deliberate – the earl was the designer of this building, dabbling in architecture to some purpose, like numerous nobles ands gentlemen of the day.  

For many, the main joy of Cirencester Park is the opportunity it gives to walk through stretches of landscape, admiring the mature trees and enjoying the chutzpah of landowners like Bathurst who created what were in effect vast works of land art using the medium of woodland and greensward. The earl’s penchant for classical pavilions, statue-bearing columns, and faux-medieval fortifications is an added bonus. To which one can add gratitude to the current earl, who opens the park throughout the year, so that anyone can walk there, without charge, in return for the observance of a few sensible rules. It’s a gesture worthy of his extravagant 18th-century predecessor.

Wednesday, December 2, 2020

Black Country Living Museum, Dudley

New departure 

With England still under restrictions of various kinds, my mind goes back with something like nostalgia to a visit the Resident Wise Woman and I made to the Black Country Living Museum (BCLM), several months before Covid 19 struck. Britain has some magnificent open-air museums. Some are places like Avoncroft or the Weald and Downland Museum, where the primary aim is to relocate and preserve interesting old buildings that would almost certainly have been demolished; these are totally fascinating places that do wonderful work in both architectural and social history. At the other end of the scale are enormous sites like the Black Country Living Museum, at which costumed guides explain exhibits that range from rolling mills to Victorian sweetshops and you can buy fish and chips using Britain’s pre-1971 non-decimal currency. I have to say, before I went to the BCLM, I’d thought this was too gimmicky for me, but the guides are well informed, the food decent, and the work of architectural preservation very impressive indeed.§  

The BCLM contains several houses, all well cared for and beautifully displayed. Most of them are built of brick, but this one is different and without the museum’s excellent guidebook I’d not have known what it was. It’s actually a pair of semi-detached council houses, built in Dudley in 1925. It’s a reminder that, after World War I, people tried alternative ways of house-building because of a shortage of materials and skilled labour. This pair, one of only two pairs built, was an experiment with building using two-foot-square cast-iron panels, made in the Eclipse Foundry in Dudley and bolted together on-site.  

The house was impressive to anyone brought up on Victorian accommodation and its basic or absent plumbing – there were bathrooms with fitted baths and hot and cold running water for a start, although the kitchen had a traditional coal-burning range and the house was lit by gas.* But the main problem was not the mix of old- and new-style fittings. The problem for Dudley council was that the dwellings cost more to build than traditional houses, so this type of house was not produced in volume. 

So few people had the chance even to see this innovative dwelling (or to think of an ‘iron house’ as anything other than a corrugated iron house) until this one ended up in the museum. Something similar happened with the attempts at prefabricated house building after World War II. Postwar prefabs were built in large numbers, but most have now vanished and today you’re almost as likely to see one in a museum as anywhere else.† We’re still putting up houses using old technology today.  

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§ I should add that such performative and informative fare is also sometimes available at museums like Avoncroft, where I once saw nails made by hand, just as they were in the Victorian Midlands (John Ruskin memorably described nail-making in Fors Clavigera). But there such things are occasional extras, not part of the usual offering as they are at the BCLM. 

* When we visited, the interiors were not open because work was being done on the houses; a further reason to return to the Black Country Living Museum, one day. 

† I exaggerate slightly. There are still postwar prefabs about, but most have been adapted and reclad out of all recognition. There are some pristine ones, well looked after and listed, at Moseley, Birmingham.

Sunday, November 29, 2020

Ludlow, Shropshire

Looking up, looking down

St Laurence’s, Ludlow, is a large parish church (the largest in Shropshire) and its tall crossing tower is a fitting crown for the building and the beautiful town where it stands. And yet Ludlow’s tightly packed streets make the rest of the church difficult to see in the town centre, and hard to photograph. A good view is to be had from within the castle, from which the way the tower dominates the surrounding countryside is clear. It’s also clear that the architecture of the tower is 15th century, in what was fittingly called the Perpendicular style by 19th-century antiquarian Thomas Rickman and those who followed him. The quality of verticality is embodied not only in the sheer height and the upward-pointing corner pinnacles, but also in the perpendicular mouldings that cast shadows across he middle part of the tower wall and the mullions of the windows, which stretch from the bottom of the window almost to the very top, rather than getting interrupted by complex patterns of tracery as they usually did in 14th-century architecture.

The interior is high, airy, and full of windows in the same style. But one feature that has engaged me on several visits to this outstanding church is the carving of the misericord seats. Looking through some of the very few photographs I have kept from before the digital era, I see that shadows and backache seem to have prevented me from getting decent images of many of them – when visiting churches it is just as important to look down as to look up, but this can be a painful business! This is a shame since there’s a rich array of medieval carving in these stalls, from satirical images such as the fox preaching to the geese, through bits of everyday life, to heraldic designs, such as the falcon and fetterlock badge of Richard Duke of York, lord of Ludlow. Here is a rather splendidly leonine king to give readers who’ve not seen the originals an idea of the quality of the carving. I must return when I can, and see if the churchwardens still allow photography.

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Cheltenham, Gloucestershire

Municipal picturesque

Cheltenham is a town of parks and gardens. Among the best known of these is Pittville Gardens (centrepiece of the Regency Pittville estate: squares, terraces, and vast detached villas), with swathes of lawn, mature trees, and a delightful ornamental lake. What a lot of visitors don’t realise is that this greenery continues on the other side of the main road that runs nearby, where there’s a large stretch of parkland around a bigger lake where people walk, exercise their dogs, or sit admiring the trees. Another activity possible here was to hire a rowing boat and row up and down the lake.

Boats need a boathouse and this wooden building, put up in the 1890s, was designed for this role, although nowadays it seems to be devoted mainly to the provision of socially distanced tea, coffee, and snacks.* It’s a simple structure of wooden frame and cladding with a practical, generously overhanging roof. The structure is reinforced or decorated with a further array of outside timbers, painted black, so that from a distance (the other side of the lake, say) it looks a bit like a ‘black and white’ cottage of the kind common in the Vale of Evesham just a few miles to the north.

It’s a bit of a sham, and a bit of a folly, but one devoted to a practical purpose and fitting for its site. And fitting for the town’s history in a way, because if it had been around in the early-19th century, knowledgeable visitors to this once fashionable inland resort would have seen it as picturesque in the sense of something added to create a landscape that looked good, just like a well composed landscape painting. Perhaps the local council had similar thoughts when they built the boathouse in the 1890s. The vessel Martha in the foreground, by the way, has been sliced in two and turned into a sheltering bench seat – a small and inviting bit of picturesque detail from a more recent era. Here’s to the varieties of municipal picturesque!

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Aylton, Herefordshire


Buildings great and small 

A while back, well before the curse that is Covid 19 restricted everyone’s movements, my son and his girlfriend, who live in London, came to visit us in the Cotswolds. At some point their two laptops were placed on our dining table, along with my own. So there were three silver laptops, all made by Apple and including one (belonging to my son) that had a much bigger screen than the other two. I was instantly reminded of Horace Walpole’s remark about the Brighton Pavilion: ‘It is as if the dome of St Paul’s had come down to Brighton and pupped.’ A similar thought stirred in my mind when I passed these farm buildings in a remote Herefordshire setting. This is an unremarkable sight – corrugated iron barns and sheds are everywhere – but I feel that part of what I’m for is to notice the unremarkable, which often seems to me to be standing around waiting to have remarks made about it.

It appears to have been in the 1820s that an engineer called Henry Robinson Palmer had the idea of putting corrugations into thin iron sheets, to make them stronger. He took out a patent in 1829 and designed large sheds for the London Dock Company, for which he worked, with corrugated iron roofs. These roofs were curved, giving them still greater strength and enabling water to run off, and from the mid-19th century onwards curved corrugated iron roofs – on everything from large railway train sheds to tiny trackside lamp huts – have been common.

The barn in my photograph is typical of this – capacious, curved-roofed, and bought prefabricated from a company that specialised in this kind of structure. As usual, their name appears on the gable end. This one bears he name Phillips & Co of Hereford, but many companies made iron buildings and Britain’s once extensive railway network allowed them to be delivered to a more or less convenient station, from which a local carrier would bring them to the site. This one did not have to travel far, but firms like Boulton & Paul of Norwich, Frederick Braby of Glasgow, or Hill & Smith of Brierley Hill, sent a variety of corrugated iron structures far and wide, including to distant corners of the British empire.

Next to this barn is what looks like its tiny offspring. At first, distant glance I took it to be a railway lamp hut repurposed for the farm, and maybe it is. But its sides don’t seem to be corrugated as they are on the classic lamp huts used for example by the Great Western Railway, so I think it’s more likely to be a home-made wooden shed roofed with corrugated iron to take advantage of this durable, practical, and inexpensive material. Whoever made it, I hope it still has years of service ahead of it.

Thursday, November 19, 2020

Great Malvern, Worcestershire

What shall we do at quarter to two…

Although I’ve passed it dozens of times, I’ve never photographed the front of the Post Office in Great Malvern. That’s surprising in a way, because it’s a memorable neo-Georgian building, mostly of brick, with a big hipped roof and a central section with three large stone semicircular arches that breaks forward on the ground floor. The contrast between the grand arches – two with windows, one with the doorway – of the central section and the modest remainder of the building makes it all look a bit awkward. But there’s something civic and satisfying about it nonetheless, as there often is with the many neo-Georgian Post Offices built in the 1930s.

As I was passing a few weeks ago, it occurred to me that, even if the front was too cluttered with cars to make a photograph worthwhile, I could at least take a detail of an arch or two. Above the doorway, the classical lettering (not the usual Post Office letterform, but still effective), the big keystone with date and royal monogram, the ironwork, even the little clock all work together. Maybe the clock is too small – I’d guess there was one with a slightly larger face there originally. Maybe the lettering would be clearer with a broader stroke width. But it’s all better than the plastic signage – or, worse, a Post Office stuck in a corner of a high street shop – that we get today. And look at the window arches: little reliefs of Mercury to signify in another way the building’s purpose and to delight the eye.

A quick web search yielded a decent photograph of the whole building. There are still cars outside, true, but the photographer struck lucky with the middle one. It’s a Morgan, a beautiful hand-made English sports car with a classic design. And it was made in Malvern, in a factory that still produces cars with a similar traditional design – it’s the car to see in this town. Meanwhile, as I sit indoors (where I am too often these days) I offer my thanks to the Post Office for its part in keeping the mail coming. This year, mail deliveries have been bringing a rich and strange assortment of goods – from printer paper to teabags, secondhand books to cleaning products – to our door. Such deliveries are just as much a lifeline now as when this Post Office was built in 1935.

Photograph below of Great Malvern Post Office by Bob Embleton CC BY-SA 2.0

Monday, November 16, 2020

Avebury, Wiltshire

Dream topping 

Was I dreaming? The west churchyard wall at Avebury seemed to have a roof of very neatly finished thatch. It seemed an unlikely covering for a wall made of sarsen stones, among the toughest kind around. The result seemed worthy at least of a photograph and some later research. 

Looking it up when I reached home, I discovered that this exceptional wall is listed at Grade II. The listing text describes the structure as built of ‘Squared sarsen approximately 1.6 m high, with topping of cob and thatched coping.’ So there we have it. The top of the wall, oddly is made of cob, a mix made with mud and vulnerable to damage if exposed to the rain. Wiltshire has many cob walls that have thatched coping, and this is one with a difference. 

The thatch also helps shelter a rather well cut monument to Francis Knowles, a biologist (and an FRS) and Professor of Anatomy at King’s College, London. Knowles bought the manor from Francis Keiller in 1955 and lovingly restored it.* It’s good that his memorial is nearby, protected by the thatched coping of the churchyard wall.  

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* The house is now owned by the National Trust, who did further conservation work around ten years ago. 

Friday, November 13, 2020

Avebury, Wiltshire

Humans and other animals

Another of the incidental joys of Avebury, ignored by many visitors, or at least taken in with a rapid glance, is this dovecote. It is not the first dovecote I’ve posted in the long history of this blog, which is in part here to celebrate buildings that are out of the ordinary run of domestic, religious, or industrial architecture (although there’s plenty of all that here too). I particularly like many dovecotes because they are round – a shape that’s visually pleasing but also well suited to an internal design in which a central post carries a ladder that can be rotated so that one can reach any one of the hundreds of nest boxes inside.

Like the museum in my previous post and the stones in Avebury’s great prehistoric circle, this building is made of sarsen stone, with a couple of details in brick. This helps this out of the ordinary structure belong in its grassy spot among a collection of buildings, including the wooden barn that houses one of Avebury’s two museum spaces and the stone stables now occupied by the other museum. Stables, barns, dovecotes: this corner of Avebury would once have been home to a variety of creatures. Now the human animal – behaving in an admirably civilized manner when we were there – is the most usual living thing, its English variety frequently in search of coffee or tea.

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Avebury, Wiltshire

Marking time 

A refreshing if cold winter morning walking around the great stone circle at Avebury brought many pleasures, as it always does. The site was empty enough for us to take in the stones as individual objects, their chipped and pitted surfaces periodically lit up by the sun, and one could also enjoy the great sweeping arcs of the stones and earthworks – we were reminded yet again how much sheer work must have gone into the shifting of earth with wooden or antler shovels thousands of years ago.

Avebury also brings incidental pleasures. This is the Alexander Keiller Museum, named for and founded by the man who excavated in and around Avebury in the 1930s (funding the work with money that came from his family’s business making jam and marmalade). The museum is housed in a building that started out as the stables for nearby Avebury Manor, a structure variously dated to the 17th and 18th centuries. Like a lot of Avebury, it is built of the same hard sarsen stone as the standing stones themselves – tough stuff that’s generally used in large blocks, cutting it without modern machinery being extremely heavy work. The largest blocks here are the single stones used as lintels for the doors and windows.

The chunky look of the stone walls is beautifully offset by the treatment of this end gable, which metamorphoses into a clock tower and ends in a delicate hexagonal bell turret. I don’t know how long the carpentry work of the turret has been there, but its turned shafts and rounded arches certainly don’t look out of place on a 17th-century building, and whoever renewed them has produced something in what feels to me a fitting style. The clock face has gilded numerals and central sun rays that seem to belong in an earlier era too. It seems right, the horses having vacated the building, that it found a new and continuing use housing relics and records of Avebury’s history and excavation.* 

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* The museum was not open when I was recently at Avebury, due to restrictions imposed by the coronavirus, but the site is open as always and the National Trust’s café was doing a good job of offering a safe and distanced service, with tables outdoors for those dressed for winter as well as tables inside.

Saturday, November 7, 2020

Westwell, Oxfordshire

Lives cut off

Cotswold villages: I live among them and think I know what to expect. Stone cottages, cottagey gardens, church towers, a background of hills. Nearly everything is built of the oolitic limestone for which the region is famous – from the churches to the shallow soil flecked with bits of pale flaky rock, it’s all about the stone. Then a Cotswold village presents me with something that makes me pause. Like this: a menhir-sized lump of limestone mounted on two gigantic stone steps. What could it be?

It turns out to be a war memorial. An inscription records that it was put up by Stretta Aimee Holland, who lived at Westwell Manor, to commemorate her two brothers who lives were lost in the First World War. Second Lieutenant Harold Price, who served with the 3rd Battalion Royal Fusiliers, was killed at the Second Battle of Ypres on 24 May 1915, the worst day in the war for the Royal Fusiliers, who lost 536 men. Lieutenant Edward John Price was a submariner whose vessel was stranded in the Dardanelles. He was taken prisoner by the Turks and died in a prison camp in central Turkey, perhaps a victim of the Spanish flu epidemic.

The brother’s names are inscribed on an odd-looking brass plaque, which turns out to be a numeral from the clock on the old Cloth Hall at Ypres that was salvaged by Harold Price after the First Battle of Ypres. I find this rather odd memorial strangely moving. Its combination of salvaged French metalwork and local stone not only recalls the battle but also embodies lives lived, tragically, both at home and abroad. And am I fanciful in seeing the memorial’s rough-hewn state as a vernacular version of the broken column on some monuments and symbolic of lives not simply ended, but unfinished or broken?

Wednesday, November 4, 2020

Burford, Oxfordshire


Bricks come to Burford

For me and everyone else, it has been a year in which travel has been restricted. Like the rest of the British population, I have been in lockdown, or in some voluntary state of semi-lockdown in which I’ve tried to risk unnecessary exposure to Covid-19, or in a state with a little more freedom but still the fear that travelling any distance might take me into an area of the country that is in lockdown or otherwise restricted. One of the compensations for all this has been that it has forced me to focus more closely on buildings that are closer to home. Many of my recent posts reflect this.

I’m fortunate to live not far from an abundance of interesting walls to stare at. Here’s one such interesting wall, one of many in the glorious High Street of Burford, just on the Oxfordshire side of the border with Gloucestershire and near the eastern edge of the Cotswold Hills. Like so many of Burford’s buildings, this one has ancient origins. There’s timber framing of the 16th century (or perhaps even earlier) round the back. But from the street the Bull Inn presents this attractive and arresting brick and stone front.

The date of the frontage must be about 1700 – estimates vary from 1690 to 1715 – during the period when William Tash and his son John were landlords. William Tash took over an inn with a long history. Records of it go back to 1397, although the building was used for a long spell in the 16th century as a butcher’s shop. But in 1610 it was an inn again and later in the century it’s said that Charles II and Nell Gwynne stayed there. By the time the facade was updated, Burford was a prosperous town, a stopping point on the route from Wales to London. The inn’s new frontage helped it stand out.

According to the Bull’s website, it was the only brick building in Burford back then. Even now, nearly all the buildings in this street have fronts of Cotswold stone or timber framing (sometimes rendered) but the Bull mixes stone and brick, with stone used not just on the ground floor but also for the pilasters, keystones and other details above. Those other details add to the building’s eccentricity and, I’d say, charm: very chunky aprons beneath the upper windows and trapezoid stones on the upper corners of the window surrounds. All this, combined with the mix of red and darker bricks makes for a winning result and a real eyecatcher for those with time to stop and look.

Sunday, November 1, 2020

Moreton-in-March, Gloucestershire

Border control 

I’m always telling people to look up at buildings, but sometimes it pays to look down. Look down, especially, as you enter a shop, and you might see one of these elegant Victorian (or later) threshold mosaics advertising some past proprietor’s business. In Moreton-in-Marsh, a Cotswold town full of limestone buildings of various dates and degrees of picturesqueness, I’d not necessarily expect to come across this sort of thing, but even here, shop fronts have been continuously modified, and, as we know now more than ever, businesses come and go on the high street. Sometimes they leave their mark by the entrance. The one that surprised me in Moreton must be early-20th century, or at any rate done under the strong influence of Art Nouveau.  

Although I’m often mightily impressed by the way mosaicists form letters out of tiny tesserae, the letters here are far from perfect. There’s a wilfulness about stroke widths (look at the final ’s’), an uncertainty when it comes to curves (the lower part of the ‘B’, and an inconsistency with the serifs (the peculiar backward-facing foot of the second ‘R’) that mar the effect for me. Getting this sort of thing right isn’t easy, and in some mosaics the letters are formed with such flair you hardly notice the effort that must have been involved; not so here. What I do like, though, is the border, with its beguiling combination of curves which go this way and that, overlapping and doubling back on themselves, in an orgy of Art Nouveau invention.* Even the way in which the reddish-brown lines abut and interact with the fan-like arrays of white background tesserae is well judged. If the mosaicist’s letters are weak, his border is admirably well controlled.  

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* How inventive is it? Is this the kind of thing you could lift from a pattern-book? Possibly, but you’d certainly need to be resourceful to plan it out in little tiles and combine it with the rest of the design.

Thursday, October 29, 2020

Wallingford, Berkshire*


Pevsner says that the old Wilders Foundry in Wallingford has ‘a railwayish look’. Very true. It immediately made me think of the former locomotive works in Worcester. If the Worcester works is on a large scale for a sizerable city, this foundry looks outsize in a back street in this small town. Thirteen arches line each long side and the brickwork gives a chunky effect, though not without charm.

As well as being ‘railwayish’, this building is also typical of the 1860s, when English architecture was enjoying a period of anything-goes diversity, with vibrant patterns and colour in abundance – in some ways the 1860s were not unlike the 1960s in this respect. This example was built in 1869, by which time there was plenty of polychrome brick around and many builders and architects had the style down pat: red brick for the walls, pale cream or white for what in an earlier era might have been stone dressings; blues for plinths and for emphasis elsewhere, perhaps around the arches; stepped or corbelled brickwork to stand for mouldings, capitals, dentil courses. Add big windows to bring plenty of light into the work space and suitable roof trusses for a wide roof span, and you have a large flexible space for whatever job is being done inside – carpet-making in Kidderminster, locomotive building in Worcester, casting in Wallingford or Leiston. Job done, stylishly, on a budget.
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*Now in Oxfordshire, but I stick to the old counties for reasons previously explained. 

Monday, October 26, 2020

Wallingford, Berkshire*


Venetian windows, English brick

Wallingford is a town with a long and distinguished history: it was a Saxon borough, and still to a degree adheres to the ancient town plan, with some of the ramparts extant. But the overall feel of Wallingford’s central area is that of a small Georgian town, with brick houses – many now shops – around a central market place. This is one of the houses, and it shows the kind of building materials used in the town in the 18th century, a combination of red and ‘blue’ bricks (the latter in a colour range between grey and purple) laid with the headers facing outwards.

This house is not huge but has pretensions. The carefully laid angled red bricks (with matching red pointing) that line the windows have some style, and I for one find the grey colour of the rest of the brickwork pleasing. There’s a generous array of Venetian windows – usually one finds them set singly, to emphasize a building’s central bay or topping a portico as they are in Wallingford’s Town Hall across the road from here. In this house, though, the builder went to town with Venetian windows, to create an effect of extra lavishness. I’ve posted a house with a similar effect in Ludlow. The pattern of glazing bars in the upper window is closer to what would originally have been there than the plate-glass on the ground floor, but the overall effect is pleasant enough.

This is just one of a number of brick houses – many now with shop fronts on the ground floor – in the centre of Wallingford. They give the place its character: small-scale, polite, and civilized. 

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* Since 1974 in Oxfordshire, but I use the old counties to conform with the volumes in the Pevsner Buildings of England series. 

Friday, October 23, 2020

Craswall, Herefordshire

The edge of the world 

On the far western edge of Herefordshire, up in the hills that dominate the border between England and Wales, lie the ruins of Craswall Priory, one of the most remote of English monasteries and the highest above sea level. Not easy to find, the ruins are on private land (which the owners open to the public) and in the Middle of Ages the place would have felt even more remote than it does today. The occupants were members of the Order of Grandmont, also known in France as the Bonshommes. They were highly austere (they were silent, ate very simple food, wore coarse habits, based their rule closely on the Gospels) and described themselves as hermits – not in the sense that they lived alone, but because seclusion from ‘the world’ was very important to them. This lonely place must have suited them.  

The ruins today are fragmentary but fascinating and atmospheric. The rounded walls of the church’s apsidal east end are visible, as are some of the walls of the chapter house and bits of foundation and wall of other monastic buildings. Everything is on a small scale – Grandmontine communities were limited in size. Most of the extant walling looks fragile, with gaps rather than mortar between many of the stones. Grass and other flora is establishing itself in the masonry. Yet there are signs of former splendour. ‘Look! Architecture!’ I cried, as I caught sight of the remains of the chapter house, shown in my photograph. The moulded base of a circular pier (one of two that would have held up a vaulted ceiling) and quite an ornate set of mouldings at the bottom of the chapter house’s doorway were what caught my attention. They look 13th century, which ties in with the priory’s foundation in around 1225. 

As one of only three Grandmontine priories in England, Craswall’s ruling or mother church was in France, where the order was founded. As such it was known as an ‘alien priory’ and English kings, suspicious of the influence of (and even spies from) enemy countries, made several efforts to remove or ‘suppress’ religious houses of this kind. Most alien priories had gone by 1414, but Craswall managed to survive until 1462. The buildings must, then, have been gradually deteriorating for well over 500 years. What is left is fragile indeed, and looks as if it needs some serious conservation work. One hopes that this will be possible – without totally losing the feeling of unkempt remoteness which is one of the things that makes the place so special. 

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There is more on Craswall Priory here.

Long ago I did a post about conservation work at Wigmore Castle, which wonderfully maintains the balance between building and environmental conservation. 

Monday, October 19, 2020

Chard, Somerset

Old and new

So you build a cinema in 1937 in the latest pared-back moderne style, all straight lines, plain brickwork, and strips of metal-framed windows. You decorate in a similiar style inside, with a stepped ceiling and concealed lighting, so that cinema-goers could imagine for a moment that they were in the latest picture palace in London, or Honiton anyway. And you call your cinema the Cerdic, after the first king of Wessex. It seems an odd mixture, but cinema was like that in the 1930s – and still is, one could say – using the latest technology and style, but equally at home in the worlds of science fiction and historical romance.

The Cerdic cinema was one of a small West Country chain run by the Wessex Kinema Company. There were others in Wellington, Somerset, and – yes – Honiton, Devon and, according the the excellent Cinema Treasures website, the buildings were almost identical. The architect was Edward de Wilde Holding (1886–1958), who was based in Northampton and form the evidence of this frontage had the idiom at his fingertips. The building doesn’t seem totoally out of place in the centre of the town of Chard – a place after all of old factories built of red bricks. As with so many cinemas, the exterior architecture is all about the facade. As you can see from my photograph, the rear of the building is a simple shed with a monopitched roof.

The Cerdic closed in 1962 and after a spell as a DIY store it was taken over by the Wetherspoon pub chain, who no doubt liked the combination of usable space and a long street frontage. Their popular pubs occupy numerous buildings (from old offices to spas) that might otherwise have struggled to survive in England’s town centres. This one was already filling up on the morning I passed by, as people took advantage of the building’s enduring mix of the old and the new.

Friday, October 16, 2020

Painswick, Gloucestershire


Varieties of architectural experience

How could a delightful building like this ever be controversial? It seems unlikely that this pretty structure, part vernacular building, part classical belfry and entrance, could excite disagreement in an apparently peaceful Cotswold village like Painswick, but the church of Our Lady and St Thérèse came in for criticism on two separate occasions. The original church, a very plain stone building with rectangular windows, partly visible on the lefthand side of my photograph, was converted from a slaughterhouse for use as a Catholic church in 1934. It’s said that the building was a decaying mess before its conversion and one would have thought the locals grateful to the Catholics for taking it in hand. There seems to have been, however, quite a bit of anti-Catholic feeling in the area in the 1930s. The vendor, a local butcher, was not at first keen to sell to a Catholic buyer and an account of the history of the building says that ‘Catholics at that time were virtually non-existent in the village and all were regarded with great suspicion’. In the end though the church’s founder, Alice Howard, got her way and the building was converted discreetly into a church.

In 1941, the church was damaged by a bomb. When rebuilding took place in 1954–56, architect Eric Hill (of Ellery Anderson, Roiser and Falconer) built the beautiful Classical entrance, with its circular window and cupola supported by eight rather dainty columns.* There was no trouble getting planning permission for this, but the Parish Council criticised the County Planning Committee for agreeing to the building, on the grounds that a structure in the classical style was ‘out of keeping’ with Painswick’s mostly traditional Cotswold architecture. Defenders of the church pointed out that two scheduled buildings in the town were in the classical style; they might have added that there were several others that had some classical features and that the building was in a Cotswold limestone that was and is very much in harmony with the rest of the village.

These controversies died down – as, one hopes, did the anti-Catholic sentiments that surrounded them – and I should think the little church looks as good now as it ever has, a visual as well as a religious asset to an unregarded back street in one of the most beautiful of Cotswold villages.

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* For information about this church, I am indebted to Brian Torode and Richard Barton (eds), Ursula Usher, The Story of the Catholic Church in Painswick, 1990, accessed here. However the second surname in this architectural partnership is Roiser, not Rosier as Usher’s history gives it.

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Euston Road, London

A fire station – with knobs on

I’ve always admired the Fire Station in London’s Euston Road. It’s something to do with the restrained irregularity of it – all those canted bays sticking out at different heights, and the irregular roofline, and the variety of window sizes and shapes, the whole ensemble held together by the unifying and very Londonish palette of red brick and white Portland stone. Two openings below the delightful lettering (classic stuff, down to the substitution of V for U in ‘EVSTON’) originally marked the entrances to a pair of bays where the fire engines were housed. Later the building was given a single-storey extension to the right containing more such garages, and the two visible in the photograph were turned into offices.

There is more of the same winning mix of brick and stone round the corner on the left – it’s an L-shaped building, but I don’t have a photograph that shows this front. That’s because this is not an easy building to photograph. It’s tall, and demands that you stand back a long way to get it all in the frame. It’s also bounded by major roads – there’s nearly always a big red bus going slowly along Euston Road and blocking the view. And if you step back any further, the fire station starts to disappear behind the buildings on either side of Upper Woburn Place to the south (one such late-20th century block is just visible on the right of the frame).

So to take a photograph that does some justice to the architecture one has to step back – but not too far back – and wait for the buses to pass. I also found it helps to ‘lose’ the rest of the traffic in shadows as much as possible, when the red brick glows against a border of blackness. Who was responsible for this bit of architectural wizardry? The fire station was the work of the London Country Council Architects’ Department at the very beginning of the 20th century. Around this time there was a whole sub-department dealing with fire stations, which were being built in many parts of London. The man on this job is said to have been either H. F. T. Cooper or Percy Erskine Nobbs, who the year after this fire station opened moved to Montreal, where he taught in the university and worked on some major Canadian buildings. If Nobbs was involved, this was Canada’s gain and London’s loss.

Saturday, October 10, 2020

Coventry, Warwickshire


1950s dinosaur?

I was struck a couple of weeks ago by an article in Apollo magazine by Otto Saumarez Smith about Coventry’s city centre. Coventry, as many readers will know, was bombed with more than usual Nazi ferocity in November 1940. The post-war rebuilding programme renewed the city centre, the heart of which was an extended shopping precinct carefully aligned with a view of the spire of the old cathedral. The new centre was built in the mid-century modern style, and Saumarez Smith makes a spirited defence not just of its architecture but also of its thoughtful planning and of the works of art (sculptures, murals, and so on) that were placed around the site. The writer laments the fact that Coventry is embarking on a plan to demolish tracts of the city centre and replace them with ‘banal retail’ development.

I have a lot of sympathy for this view, although I know it will not be shared by all my readers. The post-war buildings were not perfect – one problem with the shopping precinct, for example, was the lack of footfall on the upper levels (a familiar issue in precincts and malls), an issue partly addressed by ramps in the Lower Precinct. But the precinct was far better than many later malls, and we are at a time in history when we need to reconsider town centre design. The high-street retail business is changing under the twin pressures of online and out-of-town shopping. And of course now there’s another problem: coronavirus. Suddenly old-fashioned streets and open precincts and squares like those of Coventry (once criticised as ‘windswept’) seem airy and attractive. One thing that improved the city’s 1940s and 1950s buildings – and that still enhances them – is the quality of public art that I’ve already mentioned.

A favourite of mine is a long tile mural, designed by the architect and illustrator Gordon Cullen, which originally lined one of the Lower Precinct’s ramps. The mural illustrates Coventry’s history (and prehistory), from the dinosaurs to the 1950s, featuring trades and professions (ribbon-making, bicycle manufacture), the old cathedral, some of the city’s surviving Georgian houses, and modern buildings including the new cathedral. Sadly the mural was damaged in the 1970s (it lost a lot of the section depicting medieval Coventry) and has been relocated in a less prominent position. But it’s still worth seeking out. Taking a look will reveal something that is more interesting and admirable than the ‘1950s dinosaur’ that Coventry is sometimes said to be.

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There’s more of the mural on the cover a book about Coventry here, and a photograph of a concrete mural by William Mitchell, from one of my earlier posts, is here. Bull Yard, the site of the William Mitchell mural, is, alas, scheduled for demolition.

Tuesday, October 6, 2020

Elkstone, Gloucestershire

Making a rackett?

Many medieval churches have gargoyles or grotesques along the parapet and at the top of the tower. Elkstone, a Norman church with a later medieval (Perpendicular Gothic) tower has these, but there are also grotesques halfway up the corner buttresses, adding an extra element to this building’s varied adornment.* Two of these grotesques are musicians and one of these in particular provoked my curiosity. What, exactly, is the instrument that this figure is playing?

I know a little bit about medieval instruments, but not enough. One source describes the instrument as a shawm, which is an early reed instrument and ancestor of the oboe. This seems unlikely. A shawm, like most wind instruments, has a single row of holes along the body. This instrument has a double row of holes, which puzzled me. Two rows of holes in a single tube? How would that work? I asked some musician friends and various suggestions emerged. One idea was that there were actually two tubes, and that this is some kind of double flute or pipe – but the sculpture seems to have only one tube. The other was that this could be an instrument like the rackett.¶ Racketts are fat woodwind instruments with an internal tube that doubles and redoubles back on itself, allowing for a long column of air in a short space. A rackett is a reed instrument, and on some racketts the reed is visible from the outside – but not necessarily when it is being played. So I think what we have here is a depiction of a rackett.

The carving may not be totally accurate but, as one of my musician friends put it, it was probably carved by someone with poor knowledge of musical instruments. Or perhaps by someone for whom literal accuracy was not the main aim. After all, the people in medieval carvings aren’t always very realistic – literal realism was not always the goal. For example, many medieval carved musicians are angels, in which case any talk of realism has to be on a very different level. Some provincial medieval carvers probably couldn’t achieve precise accuracy anyway; others were after something else – qualities of vigour, humour, piety, whatever. If an orchestra of angels playing among the timbers of a church roof stands for harmony among the company of heaven, a human musician or two on the exterior of a church might be seen to extend that harmony into the earthly realm outside the building; or they may simply be caricatures, designed as much as anything to make the beholder smile.

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* For more on Elkstone, see this post.

¶ Or racket: the second ’t’ is optional. There are pictures of rackets here (the text is in German, but the images alone are informative) and a video clip of racketts being played here

Saturday, October 3, 2020

The Strand, London

Tea up the Strand

I’d worked in the Covent Garden area of London for years before I noticed this doorway on the Strand. It’s a bit of architecture – small in scale but grand in conception – that celebrates one of the most famous brands of the quintessentially English drink. Twining’s tea has a long history. The company was founded by Thomas Twining, who was born in Gloucestershire and came to London make his fortune when his family’s business – they were weavers – took a downturn. In London he worked for an East India merchant who bought and sold tea and made enough money to set up in business in his own right, buying Tom’s Coffee House in the Strand in 1706. Tom’s became a coffee house with a difference – tea, a beverage that had been made fashionable by Queen Catherine of Braganza, was sold there and although it was costly it proved popular.

In the 18th century, coffee houses usually served only men. But women liked tea too, and many upper-class ladies wanted to serve it at home. So they’d turn up in the Strand in their carriages and send a footman in to buy tea leaves. Word soon got round that you could buy tea here and Twining’s were made: they expanded the business, acquired a royal warrant, fulfilled orders using horse-drawn vans, and, by the end of the 19th century, were using the tea clippers – famously fast sailing vessels – to import tea from China.

Throughout their history, Twining’s stayed faithful to their original premises in the Strand. The company still occupies the building and you can still buy tea there. The street frontage is not large, but the entrance is magnificently decorated. It is topped by an array of ledges and panels supported by a pair of columns topped by acanthus capitals. This arrangement stretches classical architecture to its limits. The ledges provide a place for a pair of sculptures of Chinese gentleman, to remind customers of one source of the precious leaves. A royal coat of arms and a gilded Coade-stone* lion complete the picture. This delightful if eccentric collection of sculpture and ornament was reconstructed in the 1830s – the columns and capitals were apparently moved here from another building. The result, architecturally, is a memorable mixture of classicism and Chinoiserie, with a twist on the classical orders provided by the unusual acanthus capitals. The lion belongs to neither tradition but is very much part of Twining’s history: Thomas Twining was already using a lion as his shop sign in 1717. The brand’s heritage shines on. 

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* For some background on the use of this artificial stone, see my post on a Coade stone royal arms in Bath

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Avebury, Wiltshire

More uses for face masks

One of my favourite passages in Andrew Ziminski’s excellent book The Stone Mason: A History of Building Britain, is quite near the beginning, where the author describes his attempts at working sarsens, the materials used for the enormous prehistoric stone circle at Avebury and also for the nearby Dissenters’ Chapel. The chapel was originally built in 1670 using in part bits of sarsen obtained by chopping up chunks of some of Avebury’s standing stones. The point is that sarsen is very hard stone (up there with granite) and Ziminski wanted to try working it using the kind of tools available to Avebury’s prehistoric craftsmen. In other words he’d be working stone with stone – rounded lumps of sarsen or flint, which he’d use to pound away at the surface of the stone to cut into it or to smooth its surface.

Using stone tools like this, Avebury’s builders (working at some time between 2850–2220 BC) managed to prepare and position around 100 stones, as well as building a large circular bank and ditch – the resulting henge is so large that the modern village of Avebury sits inside it. And this stone circle is only part of the picture. It sits in a whole landscape of ancient sites – barrows, the causwayed enclosure of Windmill Hill, the stone circle at the Sanctuary, the vast mound of Silbury Hill – stretching for miles around. The integration of stones and landscape also makes Avebury a wonderfully atmospheric place – it is my favourite English prehistoric site. 

Ziminkski discovered that walloping away at a large lump of sarsen with stone tools like those used in the Neolithic soon raises a huge amount of white dust; since sarsen is made essentially of silica, this dust can be dangerous to human lungs. Anyone doing this Neolithic job in the 21st century needs a face mask. Even so, it took a whole day of pounding to produce about a square foot of approximately smooth stone. This might lead us to conclude that in Stone Age Avebury there was a lot of labour available, and there might well have been. But Ziminski makes another point. Like other kinds of stone, sarsen gets extra hard when it has been exposed to the elements for a long time. If you quarry stone that has been beneath the earth’s surface it contains much more moisture, or ‘quarry sap’ as stone workers call it. Stone containing all its quarry sap is softer and easier to work and it was probably knowledge of this secret that made monuments like Avebury and Stonehenge possible. And also buildings like the Dissenters’ Chapel, which Ziminski had come to Avebury to repair. For that job, the stone mason could use his modern steel hammer, punch, and claw tool.

Sunday, September 27, 2020

Somerton, Somerset

Well marketed

Looking up the dates of Joseph Chamberlain for a recent post that mentioned Birmingham, I noticed that the great Liberal mayor expressed the policy that the city should be, amongst other things, properly ‘marketed’.* Any town should have a proper market, whether it’s a big city like Birmingham or a small place such as Somerton in Somerset. This stone town is fortunate, in that its early builders left a generous area for a market place in the centre, an irregularly shaped space that has housed, in its time the town hall (the building that forms the backdrop in my photograph above), a couple of inns, and this butter cross.

There has been a butter cross – a shelter where dealers in dairy produce can find shelter from the rain and, importantly the sun – at least since 1390, but this striking octagonal one was put up in 1673. Like much of the old town centre, it is built of local grey lias stone, with some elements in Ham stone. Rather than the pantiles that are so common here, the building has a stone roof, supported by a central stone pier, topped with a ball finial, and edged with battlements.

Rainwater is channelled behind the battlements and drains away through eight gargoyles, one at each corner. These are similar to the grotesque carvings one sees on medieval churches, and they’re a small testimony to the old tradition of craftsmanship that produced stone masons who could also carve. You’d not call this round-arches structure a Gothic building, but the skills developed by medieval masons survive, not just ion the walls and roof but also in this ability to carve.† These masons assured that Somerton is indeed well marketed.

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* He was referring not to marketing and PR but to civic facilities – his list of requirements was that the city should be ‘parked, paved, assized, marketed, gas & watered and “improved” .’

† And the tradition continues. Anyone who thinks such skills have died should visit a masons’ yard at one of the nine English cathedrals that still possess one, or read, for example, The Stone Mason: A History of Building Britain by Andrew Ziminski.


Thursday, September 24, 2020

Black Country Living Museum, Dudley

Pigeon post

This surprising little building is a pigeon loft. It would not have been so surprising in Bliston in the 1920s when it was built, because keeping pigeons was popular in the area and this loft belonged to a well known local pigeon fancier, Charlie Purslow, whose birds were famous for winning prizes.* Charlie Purslow (1906–98) raced pigeons for some 70 years, and won prizes over most of that period. During World War II he was in the National Pigeon Service, which used the birds’ remarkable homing ability to send messages behind enemy lines.

To keep his thirty or so birds, he did not need anything elaborate – his wooden loft was made for him by a work colleague. Charlie repainted it every year, limewashing the brick plinth on which it stands, and renewing the black and white stripes of the wooden structure itself. I don’t know why he used black and white stripes. Was it thought that the birds could locate it more easily if it was painted in this pattern? It certainly stands out at the Black County Living Museum. Is there no aspect of Black Country life that they don’t cover?

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* Pigeon-keeping has a long history. The Romans used the birds for carrying messages, there were postal services that used pigeons in the 19th century, and pigeon racing became popular in the late-19th century.


Monday, September 21, 2020

Black Country Living Museum, Dudley


It sometimes seems to me that I don’t have to go very far before, as I look at some timber-framed building, someone will come up and tell me that ‘It’s built from old ship’s timbers, you know’. That is invariably the phrase, ‘old ship’s timbers’. I am often sceptical of such claims, as I look at a building full of straight lines and right-angles, and think of a ship, with all its curves. And yet, perhaps I am wrong to doubt. After all, a ship was a valuable item, and if it was towed, like Turner’s Fighting Temeraire, to be broken up, there would no doubt be much salvaging of its precious timbers. The great battleship in Turner’s painting was said to have been built using the wood of 5000 oak trees.* There would be planks and beams and posts and masts that a builder could make use of. And watching a neighbour repairing the roof of his cottage last year revealed that many of the roof timbers were little more than debarked tree trunks – there was hardly a straight line to be seen.

As I contemplated the tiny building above, my thoughts could not have been further from Turner’s Temeraire, This is recycling in the raw, a building made by cutting off the stern of a boat and turning the sawn-off part through 90 degrees.§ A bit of weatherboard for the rear wall, an old shed door at the front, some iron to hold everything together and the men of the boatyard had got what they needed – a small privy to make the yard more convenient and decorous.

The vessel that was dismembered to produce this almost-instant privy was a joey boat. This was an open boat, built with a square section to accommodate a large cargo, which it was designed to haul over a short distance. Most were built of wood and horse-drawn; many were double-ended, so that when you got to the end of the journey you could remove the rudder, fit it at the other end of the boat, and return home without turning round. There’s not usually much in the way of a cabin – a Joey was expected to travel a short distance, deliver its load, and return to base before nightfall, so crew did not have to sleep on board. Joey boats† were especially common on the Birmingham and Black Country canals, so it’s appropriate that this recycled one is at the Black Country Living Museum. No longer used for its second purpose (the museum has perfectly good modern facilities!), it stands as a testimony to the longevity of recycling. Exemplary.

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* According to the website of the National Gallery, where the painting, a great pictorial elegy for the age of sail, hangs.

§ Buildings were also made from upturned boats. They can be seen on the shore at Lindisfarne (and in sets of Benjamin Britten’s opera Peter Grimes).

† Why Joey? Opinions differ. It could be after Joe Worsey, a boat builder who made numerous such vessels. Or it could be a tribute to Joseph Chamberlain (1836–1914), Birmingham’s Radical Liberal mayor, who led efforts to improve the city and the lives of its working people.