Friday, May 22, 2020

Cheltenham, Gloucestershire

Put your hands together for Mr Matcham…

During the pandemic, with its various attendant prohibitions on gatherings and unnecessary voyages out, the Resident Wise Woman and I have enjoyed numerous streamed and recorded performances by the likes of the National Theatre as welcome substitutes for the real, live thing. At various times of our lives, the live theatre has been important, and these offerings have been very welcome. But there is nothing like the atmosphere of a live performance in a proper theatre, and once or twice recently I’ve caught myself remembering some of the notable nights out we’ve had in months and years gone by.

Something triggered a memory the other day of my very first visit to the theatre. I was a small boy, and I’d read somewhere about theatres, and seen, I think, an illustration of one in a book. Whatever the book was escapes me now, but the illustration was of a magical place, all gilded decoration, glittering lamps, red velvet, and baroque curlicues – though I would not then have known what a curlicue was, let alone what the term ‘baroque’ means. But I had this image of a theatre in my mind, and when I was told I was going to go to the theatre I hoped it would be somewhere like that. I’m not sure how old I was (eight? nine?), but I know I was (already, so young!) not unprepared for disappointment. It couldn’t, could it, be quite as ornate, as glittering, as wonderfully other and different, as the theatre in the book?

But it was. The interior of the Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham, was every bit as extraordinary, from the crystal lamp hanging in the centre of the ceiling to the red plush on the seats, from the golden putti on to the balcony fronts to the intricate decoration around the proscenium arch. Little did I know that I was in a building designed by the doyen of theatre architects, Frank Matcham. Matcham, who died in May 1920, had a hand, as builder or rebuilder, in some 150 theatres. It was what he did, mainly, and he did it very well. Not only was he brilliant at this kind of late-Victorian and Edwardian baroque fantasy decoration, but he also understood the theatre. He knew that the whole audience needed to be as near the stage as possible, and that seats with views interrupted by pillars were a pain. He was up with the latest in theatre technology, from electric lighting to crash bars.¶ He could work on a large scale or (as at Cheltenham) on a restricted site. He knew how to make a theatre adaptable – Cheltenham’s theatre, originally built as an opera house, has an orchestra pit that can be covered to fit in more stalls seating when (as is usually the case these days) the show needs no band.

As you can tell, I’m a fan of Frank Matcham. But back in the sometimes absurdly destructive years of the 20th century, many did not share my enthusiasm.* Matcham’s fancy decor (sometimes baroque, sometimes classical, sometimes Italian Renaissance) and traditional theatre layouts fell out of favour and many of his buildings were demolished. I’m glad that a number – the King’s Theatre in Glasgow, the Richmond Theatre, London’s vast Coliseum, Cheltenham’s little Everyman, and some 20 others – still survive and are now much loved.† Matcham’s theatres are, as they say in the business, dark now. But they’ll glitter again, and audiences will be doubly grateful for them, and they’ll resound with laughter and applause.

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¶ Crash bars: the bars on theatre exit doors that open when you push them; Cheltenham’s theatre was the first building to have them fitted.

* An excellent article in The Guardian cites a telling comparison made by architectural historian Andrew Saint. Matcham’s fate has sometimes been like that of Charles Dickens; the novelist was sometimes sneered at by academics (especially F. R. Leavis – but there have long been Dickens supporters in academe) for being popular or lacking in seriousness. Dickens’ reputation is safe these days; that of Matcham is too.

† Matcham’s other buildings include Blackpool’s Tower Ballroom and the magnificent County and Cross Arcades in Leeds.

Photograph: Copyright © 2020 Everyman Theatre Cheltenham 

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Hailes, Gloucestershire

Ruined choirs

The ruins of Hailes Abbey are just across the lane from the small church in my previous post. The abbey was founded in 1246 by Richard, Earl of Cornwall, who was Henry III’s younger brother. Richard had the unusual additional title of King of the Romans, which was a sort of consolation prize because he had been elected Holy Roman Emperor by the German princes but his appointment had been rejected by the pope, who guarded jealously his power of veto over such appointments. Richard founded the abbey in thanks to God for surviving a shipwreck and it was home to a community of Cistercian monks. However, the abbey’s big boost came during the following generation, when Richard’s son, Edmund, gave it a phial of liquid that was said to be the blood of Christ.

It was Edmund’s donation in 1270 that made the abbey a major pilgrimage destination, second only in England to the shrine of St Thomas Beckett at Canterbury. The steady stream of pilgrims brought money to the abbey, and it was rebuilt in the 1270s, to create a very large complex. The place prospered until it was dissolved, like all England’s other monasteries, by Henry VIII in the 1530s. The foundations of the huge church can still be traced on the grass, as can fragments of the abbey’s domestic buildings such as the refectory, and several rows of arches still stand above the ground. Above is a photograph sourced on the internet that shows a little more of the site than I can see as I pass in the car on the way to our local farm shop.

When the abbey is open to the public, there’s much to see – including a good small museum explaining the history of the place and displaying some lovely fragments of carved stone that have survived the dismantling of most of the buildings after 1539. For now, it’s a lonely spot, one of the bare ruined choirs, as Shakespeare put it, where late the sweet birds sang.*

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* William Shakespeare, Sonnet LXXIII

Photograph of Hailes Abbey © Saffron Blaze, used under Creative Commons licence CC BY-SA 3.0

Saturday, May 16, 2020

Hailes, Gloucestershire

At the abbey gate

A few hundred yards from the station in my previous post is the little church of Hailes. It’s one of those Cotswold churches that serves a tiny community – a couple of houses by the station, another near the church itself, a few scattered cottages and farms. Maybe there have never been very many houses around here. It’s likely that the church started out not as a parish church in the usual sense but as the capella ad portas, or chapel at the gate, of Hailes Abbey, in other words a small place of worship for the laity, specifically those who were visiting the abbey. There were a lot of visitors at Hailes because this remote monastery was a major place of pilgrimage – in the Middle Ages people flocked to visit the shrine of the Holy Blood of Hailes.

Like the abbey, the church is mainly 13th century. The windows are small and mostly narrow 13th-century lancets, and the architecture is simple – just a nave, chancel, porch, and a little timber-framed turret for the bells. Inside it’s very plain except for some lovely but fragmentary medieval wall paintings. But there is no going inside and looking at these in this time of social distancing and church closure, just time to pause for a moment and look, and think about those who still look after our churches and ensure their preservation. It’s usually quiet here – there are services, but not that often, and also occasional concerts of early music in the summer. In the building’s 13th-century heyday things would have been very different: a constant traffic of pilgrims arriving and departing, a confusion of bustle, subsiding as people calmed down and made themselves ready to enter with appropriate reverence and solemnity the great and famous abbey across the road. Now it is mostly tractors, callers at the fruit farm, a few cyclists – and cherishable calm.

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Hailes, Gloucestershire

Halting for a moment

One of the consequences of the coronavirus pandemic for our household has been a change in the way we buy our food. We have avoided large supermarkets, all of which are anyway at least 15 minutes by car from where we live, opting instead to visit small local shops within walking distance of our house or, in one case, just outside the small Cotswold town where we live. This latter is the local fruit farm, from which we’ve been buying apples and other fruit and vegetables for years, and which runs a good farm shop selling all kinds of food – meat, bread, cakes, muesli, dairy produce, ice cream, etc, etc – mostly supplied by local producers.¶ It’s a good way, I think, to support local businesses while also avoiding physical contact (I order by email and collect from an agreed place on the farm).

In celebration of all this, I thought I’d share three of the architectural sights I see on my short car journey to the farm. First, Hayles Abbey Halt, the tiny station on the Gloucestershire Warwickshire Railway, a heritage line that runs between Cheltenham Racecourse and Broadway (many of the trains are hauled by steam locomotives). The original station opened in 1928, allowing passengers to alight and walk the short distance up the lane to Hailes Abbey.* It was lit only by oil lamps and on each side of the track was a small corrugated iron building offering shelter for waiting passengers. The little station was closed in 1960, and British Railways closed the line in 1976. When the heritage railway took it over, they did not reopen Hayles Abbey Halt (the volunteers who run the line had work enough to do laying track, building or restoring several other stations, and caring for rolling stock, after all). So it was only in 2017 that the halt was reopened, with a new platform, a neat little corrugated iron shelter and some cast iron signs. My photograph shows a view of the halt from the nearby road bridge. The shelter is about as basic as they get – there is not even the concave-curving ‘pagoda’ roof of many of the platform buildings favoured by the Great Western. But it’s functional, and, as my regular readers know, I have a weakness for corrugated iron.

The tiny station is quiet for now. As I drive over the road bridge there’s no sign of puffs of steam, no distant railway whistle, no people arriving to look at the abbey and then perhaps take the footpaths back to Winchcombe, no waiting passengers about to get on a train and head back the easy way. It’s all very Adlestrop, with the local birds singing their hearts out to show that their voices are as loud as those of their relations over by the line that Edward Thomas celebrated in his poem – as loud and strong as all the birds of Oxfordshire, and Gloucestershire, and Warwickshire.

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¶ Hayles Fruit Farm, website here.

* This place has two spellings. The settlement is officially Hailes and this is also the spelling used by those who care for Hailes Abbey, but the railway and the fruit farm opt to use the more antiquated form, Hayles. Hence the confusion of getting off at Hayles Abbey Halt to visit Hailes Abbey.

Monday, May 11, 2020

Ripple, Worcestershire

Flowers and fields

I have posted pictures from Ripple on a couple of previous occasions, including one on which I shared an image of one of the church’s impressive set of misericords. These seats, which flip up to reveal lovely and often humorous carvings, are mostly found in cathedrals, monasteries, and large collegiate churches, but here, in a quiet Worcestershire village, there are sixteen of these carved seats, all 15th-century, twelve of which feature a sequence of images quite common in medieval art: the labours of the months.

From church portals to books of hours, these depictions of the appropriate works for the twelve calendar months are widespread – a medieval constant, one might say, portraying the key points and cycles of life in the countryside through the seasons. Except that they are not entirely constant, because the climate and agriculture in, say Italy is rather different from that in England, and even in England there may be local variations. So in March, for example, they might be ploughing in France, pruning the vines in Italy, and here in Ripple, they’re scaring birds from the crops, rather as the Resident Wise Woman has recently been doing as the seedlings went in.

Ripple’s misericord for May shows the figure of the Virgin Mary carrying bunches of flowers. So what’s she doing here while in Italy they’re harvesting hay and in France they’re hawking? Apparently, the carving is a commemoration of the custom of carrying an image of the Virgin bearing flowers into the fields on Rogation days, when Christians took particular time to pray to God for protection from calamities. Rogation days occurred in the run-up to Ascension Day,† and were a time of processions and the image of the Virgin was carried around the fields during the blessing of the crops.

Blessing the crops with the appropriate ceremony was clearly a vital part of the agricultural year and worth marking as one of the twelve important labours. This simple carving, placed out of the way on a folding seat, becomes, it seems to me, rather moving when one understands how much hope and faith it embodies, summing up as it does how vital this crop will be to the community. There’s also something rather lovely about the way it celebrates spring flowers, which are themselves, and like Mary herself, living symbols of growth, renewal, and hope.

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* They’re inevitably rural labours. The work of the town merchant or craftsman is less bound by the seasons than that of the farmer or grower.

† There is a ‘major’ Rogation Day on 25 April, and three ‘minor’ Rogation Days in May.

Thursday, May 7, 2020

Bishops Castle, Shropshire

Shop prop

This photograph was taken through a shop window in the small town of Bishops Castle in Shropshire. It’s a detail that opens up a whole aspect of shop design that most people don’t notice: how to hold up the building’s structure when almost the whole of the ground floor is glazed. Back in the Georgian period and before, shop windows were relatively small, and this wasn’t such a big problem. In the Regency period, windows got larger, and shops with rows of Classical columns became fashionable, creating a facade that looked a bit like an ancient Greek temple (there’s a detail of such a row of columns on a shop in Oxford here).

By the mid-Victorian period, however, shopkeepers were going for still larger windows, so that the shop front became made up of little but glass and glazing bars. And so it became the thing to prop up the front of the building with columns on the inside, just far enough from the glass to allow the window display to overlap them and make them disappear. Since the columns weren’t meant to be noticed, they are often quite plain, and these days end up being painted white, so that they blend quietly into any window display.

It’s the top of one these internal columns that is the subject of my photograph. But as you can see, the people who made this example weren’t content with a plain column. On the contrary, it’s very ornate, with a spiral band running up the body of the column and a decorative capital at the top. The capital isn’t from the standard range of Classical design (it’s not Doric, Ionic, or Corinthian) but is made up of a combination of standard motifs – scrolls, stylised leaves, a fleur de lys – combined together to created a design that a Victorian builder might simply have labelled ‘fancy’. ‘We could do a plain column, sir, but for a stylish shop like yours, I’d recommend the fancy.’ And with the client’s approval, the builder would order up a set of fancy columns from an iron foundry and the shopkeeper would be proud to have the latest thing in elegant shopfitting.

Such columns were not uncommon. I have seen similar, but not identical ones in the Kirkgate Market in Leeds, propping up the roofs of cast-iron stalls. Kirkgate Market was put up in 1901–1904, and I’d not be surprised if this column was of a similar date. It was still propping up the shop a couple of years ago, when I passed by and took my picture through the window, much to the surprise of the other pedestrians on the street, who, no doubt, had not seen this bit of architect’s or ironworker’s fancy.

Monday, May 4, 2020

Ludlow, Shropshire

Hurrah for Jesse Boot!

When searching among my Ludlow pictures a couple of days ago, I came across this one, the mark of one of the most familiar names on the UK High Street. Jesse Boot was an exemplary businessmen of the 19th century. In an age of quack medicine and dodgy ingredients, he sought to sell only pharmaceuticals that were made of pure ingredients and that had the effect that was claimed for them. In a period when it was common for bosses not to care about staff conditions and wellbeing, he made these things a priority. At a time when many were driven (as when are people not?) to accumulate a huge fortune and use it for selfish ends, he gave away vast sums on education and workers’ welfare. He worked hard, and drove himself so hard that he risked seriously damaging his health – but was saved by a forced holiday…on which he managed to meet Florence, the love of his life, who became equally influential in the business they built together.

Among the many things, it is said, that Jesse did was to design his company’s logo, the distinctive wordmark with ‘Boot’s’ in a flowing script, usually enclosed in an oval. That symbol, dating from 1883, is recognised all over the country. Like any good logo, it has been used everywhere, from invoices to shop signs, advertisements to paper bags. Here it is below the window of a Boot’s premises in Ludlow, made, for a change, in mosaic. This method was often used to attach the shop name indelibly to an entrance, on the ground in front of the door. Here it works just as well on the narrow strip (the stall riser, in archi-speak) beneath the window. Making a sign of such durable materials, and ones needing a craftsman and plenty of time to produce, is a testimony to the way companies like Boot’s took a long view of their business. A shop with a sign like this was not going to be here today but gone tomorrow. Nor was it gong to reinvent itself every five minutes, in the way businesses have wanted to do more recently. Boot’s developed, to be sure, but it was still Boot’s. And to millions of shoppers, sick and healthy alike, that spoke volumes.

Saturday, May 2, 2020

Ludlow, Shropshire

Building out of the box

No apologies in these travel-restricted times for going back to my archive once again to look at another place I’ve posted about a few times before: Ludlow, a small town with enough food shops and decent restaurants to satisfy the hungriest of visitors, and about 500 listed buildings as well. This time it’s the Angel, a building on Broad Street (where virtually every building is listed and quite a few, like this one, are timber-framed magpie structures from the 17th century or thereabouts. This one is 17th century too. It is basically a wooden box-framed building and has plenty of carved and enriched bits of old timber in it to interest even the most casual building-fancier.

But in many ways the stand-out feature is among the later modifications. The facade boasts a number of 18th- and 19th-century sash windows that would make any purist of early timber-framed buildings wince. Strictly, a building like this should have casement windows, not sashes.* But if my head questioned their presence here, my heart was won over by the two first-floor oriel windows, semi-circular and resting on rather Georgian-looking moulded bases, topped with leaded roofs, and sporting sets of sash windows that are curved to fit the rounded shape.

Adding features like this must have taken a lot of effort and skill – attaching the weighty structure to the timber frame, forming the bases, and doing the joinery to make the curved sashes. The result was a front that looked perhaps a little incongruous, but spoke of the owner’s awareness of current fashion, and of a desire to make the interior lighter and perhaps more airy. I’ll settle for that.†

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* Sash windows came in during the late-17th century, but this would be a precocious provincial building if it had them installed originally.

† The building has had various uses over the years. I think it is currently a restaurant, although an online search also reveals a hairdressers at the same address. One hopes that these businesses will survive the current troubled times.

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Louth, Lincolnshire

Indoors, outdoors

I’ve mentioned in previous posts that one of the pleasures of blogging is receiving additional information about the buildings in my posts. Here is a case in point. When I posted a picture of these almshouses in Louth, back in 2014, I mentioned that a great aunt of mine had lived in one of them at the end of her life. So these are buildings I recall seeing as a small boy, before I knew anything about their architect – the prolific Fowler of Louth, lover of the Gothic style, restorer of churches, and builder of hospitals and schools as well as houses. In my post, I expressed the hope that these tiny Bede Houses (they’re apartments, really) had by now been modernised, as the accommodation they offered was very basic. 

Not so long ago, a reader found this post and left a comment, telling me that his aunt had been a warden for the Bede Houses in the late-1970s and that the accommodation was indeed modernised at around that time. A major part of this was the provision of modern bathrooms, in most cases added in an extension at the back of the building, and also by the removal of one dwelling to give room for some bathrooms that wouldn’t fit in the extension. It’s great to learn that the charm of the Victorian buildings has been preserved while also giving the occupants much better facilities. I have friends who are trustees of almshouses in another old building, and I know how difficult it can be to modernise while maintaining architectural integrity and character. 

Another thing I recall from visits to my great aunt long ago, was that in the summer, quite a bit of the life of the occupants was lived outdoors. There were benches in the courtyard, and plenty of space for those who wanted to get some fresh air and chat to their neighbours. It is good too, looking at my photographs, that there still seem to be pleasant flowerbeds as well as space for sitting and exercise. Here’s hoping that it won’t be too long before outdoor socialising will be possible once more.

Sunday, April 26, 2020


Readings and rereadings (3): John Betjeman, First and Last Loves

Since the lockdown began and I’ve been indulging myself by rereading some favourite books, I’ve been intending to reread something by John Betjeman. His work means a lot to me – especially his prose (I like some of the poems a lot too, but not all of them), particularly because he was one of the authors who first stimulated my interest in architecture. Years ago, the introduction to his Collins Guide to English Parish Churches helped me towards both an appreciation of church architecture and to a basic understanding of the history of church buildings – how the way they’re used has effected their fabric and furnishings. Later, his book on railway stations introduced me to another branch of architecture, and his essays on Victorian architects opened up still greater vistas. All of these subjects, and more, were also illuminated by Betjeman’s numerous television programmes, films that let him use his good nose for places – their character, landscape, history, and people.

A book that’s rich with the taste of all these preoccupations is First and Last Loves, a collection of essays that Betjeman had written in the 1930s and 1940s and gathered together in 1952. In many ways, it represents, in just 244 pages, the essence of Betjeman. Three essays on churches (Blisland in Cornwall, Mildenhall in Wiiltshire, and St Mark’s Swindon) are highly evocative, describing the setting, history, and furnishings of these churches as well as their architecture. There are also pieces that do something similar for Victorian architecture, nonconformist chapels, and London railway stations. When he’s writing about railway architecture, for example, we learn a lot about the stations’ histories, but Betjeman also conjures up a picture of the kind of people that typically use each one – from the army men and high-ranking civil servants travelling from Waterloo to the lower ranks of the civil service on the Metropolitan line to Rickmansworth or Northwood.

An old favourite of mine is the piece called ‘Antiquarian Prejudice’, in which the author makes fun of the blinkered views of antiquarians who will only take something seriously if it’s old, and take many old things (such as aumbries and piscinas in churches) much too seriously. Some of this is written with great wit.* But there’s also a seriousness behind it – if we don’t use our eyes and realise the aesthetic value of things, they’ll be gone, and all we’ll have will be supercinemas, dull office blocks, concrete lampposts, and telegraph wires – and everywhere will look the same as everywhere else.† Already, he notes in another piece, we’re losing piers, bandstands, music halls, and other undervalued bits of popular architecture so that only funfairs remain of this kind of thing.

Best of all are the essays that describe favourite places. These places can be large towns, such as Cheltenham or Aberdeen, or smaller settlements, especially but not only seaside ones: Lyndhurst or Port Isaac, Sidmouth or Highworth. These pieces are full of classic Betjeman perceptions: the sadness of closed amusement parks out of season; the manifold scents of the New Forest (you can smell the place before you can see it); the ‘tangible’ climate of Sidmouth and its glorious flowers; the colours of Cornish slate; the vital importance of exploring every alley in Highworth (and everywhere else). This stuff is full of pure joy, and packed with personal reminiscence: of seeing St Endellion’s church and realising it looks like a crouched hare; of the different routes into Padstow; of unrequited love in Weymouth; and of New Forest ponies invading the quiet streets of Lyndhurst (one wonders whether they are back there again now).

This is not nostalgia, even if it’s sometimes expressed with a certain wistfulness. Betjeman was aware, writing in the 1930s and 1940s, of a sense of urgency: he had to write about these things, now, because tomorrow might be too late: developers with wrecking balls might be moving in. To say that he dislikes planners with no sense of place, or people who knock down good historic buildings for no reason except to make money, or antiquarians who won’t look, is an understatement. He loathes them, exuding a quality that I think of as ‘regulated hatred’.¶ Hatred of this kind is sometimes necessary. But it is nothing without its obverse quality, love, and when Betjeman is using his own eyes and writing about places he loves – about Port Isaac or Highworth, say, he’s revelatory, and makes one want to get out and open one’s own eyes. One day, soon, I hope.

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* Betjeman’s talk of blinkered professor-doctors has been taken as a swipe at his friend and occasional rival, Nikolaus Pevsner. There is something in that, but I think Betjeman might also be thinking of the dons who sent him down from Oxford without a degree.

† There are odd and haunting pre-echoes of Ian Nairn here.

¶ I have appropriated this term from the literary critic D. W. Harding, who used it in an article called ‘Regulated Hatred: an Aspect of the Work of Jane Austen’. 

Thursday, April 23, 2020

Balham Hill, London

Light exercise

Sometimes I deliberately get off at the wrong tube station. But it’s not what you think. I’m neither covering up my geographical incompetence with the cloak of deliberation, nor am I on a ruthless quest for exercise. I get off and walk because you never know what you might see on the way. So one fine day, en route to visit friends who live near Balham underground station, I get off at Clapham South instead, and schlep my bag southwards, along Balham Hill.

I’ve not gone far before this hoves into view. ‘Of course,’ I think. ‘I’ve seen this in books. Books about cinema architecture.’ It’s the former Balham Odeon,* was designed by the Odeon’s house architect, George Coles, and opened in 1938 with the film Blondes for Danger. If the title of that film is very much of its time, so is the architecture of the cinema: large and tiled, with curved corners and a rather chunky tower. It’s Art Deco, but not the highly ornate Deco of some examples, certainly not with any hint of the historicising decoration of cinemas like the one in Essex Road or the extraordinary interior of the Granada, Tooting, which was the nearest big cinema to this one. The Balham Odeon is just huge, 1930s-modern, and rather lumpish.§

But to think of it simply as a lump is to miss its point. It was designed to be seen at its best at night, when film-goers would turn up to be greeted by bands of neon stretching horizontally along the facade and vertically up the tower. The name ODEON was lit up in neon too and the lights make the building look much less lumpen than it seems by day. Its hilly location and illuminated tower meant that it could be seen for miles too – an effective if brazen advertisement for the cinematic joys within.† There are, I know, people who will think that its night-time illumination is insufficient excuse for the daytime appearance of this building. I have a certain sympathy for this opinion, but I offer the after-dark view as a reminder that things are not always, 24/7, what they seem. And that there is more than one way to look at a building.

Balham Odeon at night. Photograph © English Heritage

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* The name of Oscar Deutsch’s company, Odeon, derives from an ancient Greek word for theatre. It was only after the company had adopted it that a clever member of the firm’s publicity department realised that its letters could provide the initials of a catchy slogan: Oscar Deutsch Entertains Our Nation.

§ And encumbered with telecommunications equipment. Only connect.

† There are no longer neon lights and the building’s front of house, in normal times, is given over to the useful business of selling wine; there are apartments to the rear.

Monday, April 20, 2020

Frampton on Severn, Gloucestershire

Aide memoire

Going through my photographs to pull out some to share, I came across the first digital photograph I took, or at any rate the first I thought at all fit to preserve. As you will see straight away, it’s far from an ideal picture, an ‘over the wall’ job, showing what can be seen of a building on private land from a public road. The building in question is the orangery at Frampton Court, Gloucestershire, and when I took the picture it was to jog my memory to go back on one of the occasions when the grounds of Frampton Court are open and it’s possible to see the this building – and the impressive architecture of the main house – clearly. Years later, I’ve still not made this visit, so the image above remains my only photograph of the orangery. Carpe diem.

Over the wall we see the building from the side, almost end-on but at a slight angle. Viewed from the front, it’s symmetrical and consists of a pair of matching octagons with ogee windows all round, joined in the middle and complemented by a central octagonal turret. In my picture the two matching octagons and turret can be seen, the turret topped by a tiny cupola. Pinnacles and crenellations crown the skyline, ogee-topped windows with glazing in a pattern of hexagons and diamonds dominate the walls. Indeed the walls, made of very high quality ashlar, are minimal, so many and so large are the windows. The stonework is finely detailed, with lovely curvy hoodmoulds. If you click on the picture, it might just be possible to make out tripartite ‘skirts’ beneath the window sills, carved in very shallow relief.

Reference books tell us that this building’s exquisite Gothick* architecture dates from the late 1740s and may be the work of William Halfpenny, who drew heavily on drawings in Gothic Architecture Improved (1747) by Batty Langley.§ This filigree architecture is in marked contrast to the Baroque and Palladian cocktail of the main house. It must make a wonderful garden feature – and is likewise enchanting if tantalizing when viewed, as in my photograph, over the garden wall. A future visit will be something to look forward to…

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* I use the 18th-century faux-archaic spelling for this fanciful 18th-century version of Gothic architecture.

§ Halfpenny was probably based mainly in Richmond, Surrey, or London, but spent some time in Bristol. He was both an architect and the author of numerous architectural pattern books that showed a strong interest in the Gothick style as well as in Chinoiserie. William Halfpenny, Batty Langley: mid-18th century building could be both architecturally and onomastically lively!

Thursday, April 16, 2020

Wellington Place, London


Most of my friends read a lot, and quite a few of them write books too. One of the most frequent mustn’t-grumble-glass-half-full-look-on-the-bright-side remarks I’ve heard from them since the virus made itself felt and we began to face up to time in isolation is along the lines of, ‘Well, at least I have lots of books to read’. Thinking about this the other day, I glanced along some of my shelves to reassure myself – as if anyone with thousands of books needed any reassurance – that there’s plenty that I’d like to read or re-read. At one point in this process, I looked at the handful of books I have by the journalist and travel writer H. V. Morton.¶ One, The Nights of London, fell open at a page describing a visit to a cabmen’s shelter. Of course! Something else I’d not got round to blogging about.

Green, wooden, and topped with rather fancy half-hipped roofs with a central ventilation louvre, cabmen’s shelters are easy to recognise – a small but distinguished building type that works, looks good, and is distinctive without sticking out like a sore thumb. They’ve existed since 1875, when the Cabmen’s Shelter Fund* was set up to build them, the purpose being to supply refreshments to cab drivers – originally the drivers of horse-drawn Hansom cabs – who could not park outside pubs and go inside without paying someone to mind the cab while they ate.

The size of the shelters was limited – they’re not supposed to be larger than a horse and cart, so as not to pose too much of an obstruction on the roads. In all, 61 were built, although now only 13 remain. The first was in St John’s Wood, not this one, which stands near St John’s Wood High Street, but in Acacia Road, to the northwest. The idea was that the shelters were for the use of cab drivers only – they only have room for ten or a dozen people inside – and I have never been inside one.§ My friend Peter Ashley, who can charm his way into all kinds of interesting situations, once got invited inside one, finding it both welcoming and cosy.†

Cab drivers are among the many groups whose work is ebbing away as a result of the virus. There are already plenty of examples of them helping the community. One hopes that they will continue to receive the support pioneered by organisations such as the admirable Cabmen’s Shelter Fund.

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¶ Morton was famous as the first journalist to report the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb, and for driving around Britain in a bull-nosed Morris and writing about what he saw in newspaper columns and books.

* Their initials, CSF, are usually visible in the decoration under the eaves.

§ I think some have occasionally been open on London Open House Weekends. The one in my photograph is apparently now a café open to all, but I didn't realise this as I photographed it early in the morning when it was closed for business.

† See his book London Peculiars (ACC Art Books, 2019). Peter also posts his beautiful photographs on Instagram: @unmitigatedpete

Sunday, April 12, 2020

A way of seeing

Readings and rereadings (2): Richard Mabey, The Unofficial Countryside

I’ve spent quite a lot of my life writing about buildings, especially old buildings, from castles to cathedrals. But I also have an abiding interest in the architecturally out-of-the-way – a term that suggests for me everything from buildings that did not even get built to the architecturally small, neglected, and apparently insignificant. It’s the second category that’s a major preoccupation of this blog – shacks, lock-ups, telephone boxes, outside privies: regular readers will know what I mean. People sometimes ask me how I became interested in this sort of thing. One answer is that I seem to be naturally disposed to favour underdogs of all sorts. Another reason is the influence of certain books, and one of these books might strike you as surprising.

Richard Mabey’s The Unofficial Countryside* is not an architecture book at all. In a bookshop you’d find it in the Natural History section – it chronicles the author’s explorations of edgelands, wastelands, and other bits of urban land that turn out to be havens for wildlife of all sorts. This unofficial countryside includes old gravel pits, canals, railway sidings, vacant lots, and rubbish tips, while also embracing golf courses, parks, gardens, and graveyards. In observing the plants, birds, and animals that colonise these spaces, Mabey develops a distinctive way of seeing, with all the naturalist’s usual alertness, curiosity, and sensitivity to place applied to a new and, it turns out, fascinating set of habitats.†

Mabey’s descriptions of the rich bird life to be seen in flooded gravel pits, of resourceful birds making nests out of wire in industrial sites, of botanising expeditions to rubbish tips and the ‘rough’ around golf courses, are all gripping. His explorations of the relationships between humans and kestrels, foxes, blue tits, and ‘weeds’ like thorn apple, are fascinating. And his enthusiasm for the places and their plant and animal inhabitants is infectious; all the more so, I think, because he doesn’t romanticise things, and knows that some of these habitats are by definition ephemeral.

This way of seeing things, this looking with an inquisitive interest at the apparently marginal and generally neglected, suggested to me a way of approaching my own areas of interest, buildings in particular. There are actually hints in The Unofficial Countryside of a relevance to architecture, for example when Mabey points out that buildings and plants have things in common, especially that both exist in a context; or when he writes about parish churches as bat roots, or ledges on buildings as gathering-places for pigeons, or temporary sandbanks on construction sites being taken over for a season by nesting sand martins.

I’d urge anyone with an interest in natural history, or with curiosity about places, or who just likes really good non-fiction writing, to read The Unofficial Countryside. The photograph of the book’s cover above is of the 1990s paperback copy on my shelves, but enterprising and on-the-ball publishers Little Toller Books have reprinted the book in a handsome new edition. I see that the Little Toller edition has a new introduction by Iain Sinclair, another writer about places who has influenced me.¶ What I have to say about him must wait for another post. Meanwhile, confined mainly to my house and garden, I have noticed that there seems to be more birdsong audible in these quiet times.§ Nature, places, open eyes and alert ears: they all offer consolations.

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* Richard Mabey, The Unofficial Countryside, first published 1973; further reprints subsequently.

† The stream of now-fashionable books about urban edgelands hadn’t started in 1973, when Mabey ’s book came out.

¶ Newcomers to Iain Sinclair should be warned that his fiction is often challenging to read. His non-fiction is more accessible, however, and excellent. A good place to start might be Lights Out For the Territory (1997).

§ Wood pigeons, a blackbird, and a thrush have been at it while I wrote this, and other birds I can’t identify. Perhaps the birds were singing as much all along, but now, my locked-down ears are more attuned to their music.

Friday, April 10, 2020

Longborough, Gloucestershire


The huge southern window at Longborough featured in my previous post makes the church’s south transept gloriously light, especially on a sunny day like the one when I last visited. The downside is that this makes the two monuments placed beneath the window very difficult to photograph. My image shows the older of the two, a medieval knight, whose armour dates him to around 1325, when this part of the church was built. Could he have been the patron who paid for the extension to the building? Perhaps.

His image is very stylized and there’s not a lot of detail. It’s not – or at least not in its present state – outstanding sculpture in the way that the south window (see my previous post) is outstanding stonework. So when I aimed my camera at it, I went for atmosphere rather than detail, and made the image as contrasty as I could.

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Longborough, Gloucestershire

Line and light 

A few weeks ago, as the gravity of the coronavirus outbreak seemed to become more grave, but before it had taken hold in this country, I found the need to go and sit somewhere quietly, and collect my thoughts. The garden room office where I write a lot of my books and blog posts would normally be the place for this but for some reason, a church seemed to call me and I made my way to Longborough on the Cotswolds a few miles from here. I’d visited before a couple of times, and I wanted to look again at one of the most impressive bits of window tracery in a small church and to contemplate some of the contents of the building, which has an interesting collection of monuments.
Longborough church, originally built in the Norman period, was made over and extended in the 14th century, when a south transept was added. The glory of this addition is the enormous south-facing window, which is so big it takes up practically the whole of the transept’s southern wall. This is masonry and design of a pretty high order – right at the top of the range (one might even say over the top) for a village church. The pattern of the tracery with its complex curves is the sort thing that mason excelled at in the 14th century – the first half of the century, especially, before the Black Death struck and building came to a halt (or at least a major slowdown) in the years after 1350. It’s what Victorian antiquarians (and the rest of us, for convenience) called the Decorated Gothic style, and it’s certainly decorative.* There’s another more complex but less curvilinear example of the style here

The window is a huge contrast – in both size and design – to the much smaller, plainer nave windows to the left. These were probably installed in the 15th century. Does the big window overwhelm the church, distracting us from the church’s other features, such as the tower? In a way, yes. But one can’t blame whoever the master mason was who created it, when he was given the chance to produce something truly memorable by a patron who, presumably, had a deep purse. It’s not known who these people were, and there would have been another, the person who filled the window with stained glass. The medieval glass has long gone, but even here there’s a gain in the face of this loss. With this big opening now glazed with clear or pale-coloured glass, the interior of the transept is flooded with light.

More on that in a couple of days...

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* A reader quite rightly points out that it was a Georgian, Thomas Rickman, who invented the terms (Early English, Decorated, Perpendicular), which are now familiar in discussions of Gothic architecture. This is quite true and Rickman's book, An Attempt to Discriminate the Styles of English Architecture From the Conquest to the Reformation (1817), was reprinted many times. It was, though, in the Victorian period that the use of these terms became widespread, though not universal.

Sunday, April 5, 2020

Dartmouth, Devon


In the list of things I’ve meant to post, for ages, but not got round to, the south doorway of Saint Saviour’s church, Dartmouth, must be near the top. As so often with medieval church doors, it’s the ironwork that stands out. Indeed ‘stands out’ is putting it mildly. This ironwork gets up and roars at you, ‘Look at me! Have you seen the like?’*

What we’re looking at above is the the top half of the door, which shows one of two strap hinges in the shape of stylised heraldic lions. As well as incorporating the working hinges (at the tail end), the lions help tie together the half dozen wooden planks that make up the door. They stand in the branches of a tree, and their extended bodies look heraldic.

This lion’s face is crudely drawn and, frankly, not very leonine, although there are traces of jagged lines, presumably to indicate a mane, incised on the creature’s chest. The tail, doubling back on itself, its thin length ending in a tufted tip, is clearly a lion’s tail, however. Such tails (and the raised front paw) are very much drawn from heraldic convention, witness the three lions passant guardant on the English royal arms.§

The tree the lions stand in has gently curving branches and a few charming notched and serrated leaves. It’s the style of these leaves that suggests to most authorities† that this ironwork is medieval, and probably 15th century. The date on the door, 1631, may indicate when a major repair was carried out. Whatever the date, this ironwork is a terrific example of English craftsmanship producing something satisfying – a strong image that also makes for a strong and effective door.

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* Special thanks are due to the Resident Wise Woman, who got busy with her camera while I just stood there in amazement.

§ They’re certainly not literal copies of heraldic lions – there are lots of details that would make a herald send them back to the drawing board – but surely that’s where the inspiration came from.

† Such as the inspector who wrote the listing text for the building, and the most recent edition of the Pevsner volume for Devon.

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

New Cavendish Street, London

A kind of looking

This is a brick building on the corner of Great Portland Street and New Cavendish Street in central London. I’d passed it before, so rather than being a ‘Blimey! I hadn’t noticed that’, it was a ‘I really mean to look at that more closely and take a photograph’. On this occasion, I wasn’t rushing to a meeting, or to lunch, and I wasn’t in a hurry to catch a train, so I took the photograph.

Taking a photograph is a different kind of looking, and can work in several ways. One is the look that concentrates so closely on a specific detail – like the curvy, Art Nouveauish name panel on this building – that I don’t notice what else is in the frame: I remember with amused embarrassment how I once looked through my viewfinder with a sort of antiquarian tunnel vision at an archway and totally missed the man putting up a deckchair in the far right-hand part of the frame. On such occasions I remember some text I once edited for a book about taking photographs. The author, a professional photographer and teacher of photography, explained how the controls of an old-fashioned sheet-film camera with a bellows and a big focusing screen encouraged the user to work slowly, scan the image after each adjustment, and check many times before pressing the shutter. The cost of sheet film probably encouraged such a method too.

It’s all a bit different these days, when one holds up a smartphone, strokes the screen gently, and walks on. Often, I remember that bellows camera, try to slow down, and study my screen. And on this occasion, when I zoom out a little I see three different kinds of lettering, and frame the picture so that a good sample of the other two signs can be seen too, while still giving prominence to the one I’m most interested in.

So what do we have? On the left, a standard City of Westminster street sign. This design was created by the Design Research Unit in 1967–8 for the newly formed Borough of Westminster and is familiar to anyone who knows London.* Sans serif capitals in black for the street name, red for the postal district and, beneath a black rule, smaller red capitals for ‘CITY OF WESTMINSTER’. It’s simple, and conveys three levels of information clearly. No wonder this way of showing a street name is familiar all over the world. To many it means London.

Running along the bottom is the name of the café that occupies the ground floor. The letterform used for this sign is a far cry from the mostly very traditional typography of the books in which I’ve made my working life. I guessed that the letters were designed some time in the 1960s or after and they turn out to belong to a font called ITC Bauhaus. This font was designed in the 1970s.† It seems to say that it’s modern, a bit different, and easy-going, but that’s just my take on it. It looks of its time and it’s clear and different enough to stand out and tells us where we are.

Something similar might be said of the ‘Cavendish House’ name panel. The curvy path the letters take, and their similarly curvy double cross-bars are very much redolent of the 1890s. The curves suggest a hint of Art Nouveau, but the overall impression, from the classical form of the frame to the way the capital C embraces its neighbouring letter, would not, I think, have seemed especially outré, even in the previous decade – there’s a period feel, but it’s not specific. The separation of ‘AD’ and the date is a little absurd, and doesn’t quite achieve the balance that was probably intended, because the top-left-hand corner of the panel is a bit cramped. But I could go on all afternoon (about the N’s high cross-bar, the narrow V…). But anyone with a sense of proportion has moved on by now, stopped staring at their screen, and pressed the button. One way or another, they certainly know where they are.

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* For a further example, see another of my posts, here. The font in Univers.

† The link to the Bauhaus, the prewar school of design founded in Germany, is that ITC Bauhaus is based on (but rather different from) the ‘universal typeface’ designed by Herbert Bayer, who worked on it while he was director of printing and advertising at the Bauhaus in the 1920s.

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Lewes, Sussex

A swift half

It has become clear to me that I am long overdue a visit to Sussex, a fine county packed with architectural interest, famously situated, unlike my native Cotswolds, ‘by the sea’, and home to good friends, prized even higher than good architecture! So, as my day began with a conversation about alcohol, thoughts of Sussex also led to Sussex beverages, and to the architecture of the fine Brewery of Harvey’s in Lewes.

Now, careful readers of this blog (I know there are some!) may have noticed that I have a few favourite architects who, though not among the acknowledged greats, nevertheless produced work whose qualities I admire. Not the Soanes or Lutyenses, who seem to be able to handle everything – space, form, surface, facade, light, setting – to produce buildings that are both surprising and wonderfully satisfying – but minor masters who could do one thing well, in a way that tickles my fancy. Victorian rogues like S. S. Teulon, with his bizarre OTT decoration and arresting forms and spaces; or Cuthbert Brodrick, who could do grandiose like no one else and did it, magnificently, in Leeds; or really minor minor masters, like disappointed Peter Ellis of Liverpool, who tried, it seems, to invent modern architecture 50 years too early, and apparently gave up, ignored or crushed by criticism. And then – to get to the point – there are the specialists, such as man-of-many-theatres Frank Matcham and brewery whiz William Bradford.

I’ve had cause to admire William Bradford’s work before, at Cheltenham and, supremely, at Hook Norton. How pleasant, then, to encounter his work again in Lewes, as I did a few years ago. This is the place where one of my favourite pints is produced: Harvey’s Bridge Wharf Brewery. Bradford (1845–1919) may have worked in the brewing industry before turning to architecture, but was in practice in his own right by 1879. This was also the date of his earliest brewery work, although he seems to begin with to have specialized in designing and altering pubs. He notched up some seventy brewery jobs (not all new build – many were upgrades or expansions of existing breweries), and developed his own very special style. From the outside, his breweries can be recognised by their striking roofscapes (with towers often topped with wrought-iron crowns or finials), picturesque grouping of buildings or parts of buildings, and an interesting mix of materials – if he could combine brickwork, timber framing, plasterwork, weatherboarding, and dramatic glazing patterns in one building, he did. Harvey’s Bridge Wharf Brewery (1882) is a good example of this style, which also at its best involved the use of white-framed windows in the ‘Queen Anne’ manner.

Internally, the buildings are well and practically planned and his drawings reveal not only good draughtsmanship but also a clear concern for the most efficient placing of all the varied bits of machinery and equipment used in a brewery – tanks, mash tuns, coppers, hoppers, steam engines, pipes, ducts, and cocks. The picturesque placing of his buildings and towers, then, comes more often than not from putting the different brewing functions where they worked best. That, I think, was why he was so successful, and why brewer after brewer went to him for designs.

But Bradford knew too that a striking building was good publicity.§ Many brewers put an illustration of their brewery on posters, advertisements, and bottle labels. If their premises looked the part, so much the better. Bradford’s building at Lewes looks as good as its products taste. And its owners seem, in planning later alterations, seem to have done so in a manner in keeping with Bradford’s work.† I look forward to the time when I can both see the building again, and join ‘the men that live the South Country’¶ and taste its products on their home turf.

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§ He seems to have liked an event that would make good copy. Lynn Pearson, in her book British Breweries: An Architectural History (1999), to which I am indebted, tells how in 1882, the year of the Harvey’s project, he climbed to the top of the 120-foot chimney of the Swan Brewery, Fulham, along with the brewer and contractors. At the top, they ‘christened’ the structure’s iron crown and drank ‘bumpers of champagne’. I hope they had some beer, later, when brewing had begun. 

† Some of what you see in my photograph dates from a later phase than the original Bradford building, but it is all very much is his spirit.  

¶ And the women too. See Hilaire Belloc’s poem, ‘The South Country’ for more praise of this part of the world.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

National Gallery, London

‘You’re the National Gallery, You’re Garbo’s salary…

…You’re cellophane…’ says Cole Porter in the song ‘You’re the top’,* rustling up superlatives, but keeping part of his tongue in his cheek.§ One of the superlative stars of the Boris Anrep mosaics in the National Gallery foyer is Melpomene, the muse of tragedy, whose face – and hairstyle – are based on those of Greta Garbo. Garbo was so famous for being famous, so well known for being able to name her price when it came to a starring role in a movie, so notorious for wanting to reject the trappings of fame (‘I want to be let alone’†), that it’s easy to forget how good an actress she was. Boris Anrep, who had an eye for female beauty, must have found her face captivating but, an artist himself,. no doubt responded to her art too.

A couple of weeks before the virus made travel unwise, let alone proscribed, I spent a short while in the National Gallery looking at some Dutch paintings, and made what has become a habitual stop to look at the mosaics on my way out. They have become for me one of the symbols of what this blog is about. That’s to say, they’re not architecture, but one of the adjuncts to or enhancements of architecture; they’re fun and a bit whacky (people playing cricket and Christmas puddings sit near Apollo and the Muses), and they’re not much noticed.

Now the gallery routes visitors in via another entrance, the mosaics are on the way out and people think as they leave that they are done with art and are making singlemindedly for the door. When people did come in this way, they were heading singlemindedly for the galleries, so didn’t notice the mosaics then either. Now of course the gallery is closed to visitors, no one sees them at all and Garbo, along with Anrep’s other models (Virginia Woolf, Anna Akhmatova, Edith Sitwell, Bertrand Russell, and the rest), are let alone at last.

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* From the musical Anything Goes, 1934.

§ Cellophane? Well, although it was invented in 1908, Cellophane was only licensed for US distribution in 1923. An enhanced version of 1927 made it waterproof and suitable for wrapping food. So in 1934, when the Porter song appeared, it was still a modern wonder-material.

† Which everyone remembers as ‘I want to be alone,’ because the actress was later given this line in the film Grand Hotel. Thanks to the Resident Wise Woman, my go-to authority on Garbo (and much else) for helping me get that straight.

Monday, March 23, 2020

Park Street, London

Take Courage

This is one of my favourite London ghost signs, one that I’ve been meaning to post for a while: now seems like a good time. The plain brick structure is in the area of Southwark known as the Borough, and was once part of a brewery – the largest brewery in the world, I’m told.* It advertises the products of the brewers Courage, who once owned this building.

The sign is said to date from 1955, which which was when Courage (founded in 1787) merged with Barclay, Perkins and Company, who already owned the Anchor Brewery on this Southwark site. The building with the sign accommodated brewery staff. Brewing on this site stopped in 1981, when much of the land was sold for redevelopment – a common pattern with industrial buildings in central London in the 1980s, when many firms realised they could make money by selling their valuable properties and relocating on a cheaper site elsewhere. Mercifully the sign, although faded now, is still there.

The way the sign straddles the wall, the two gables crowning it and drawing attention to it, must have caught the eyes of thousands of people, including many passing to and from London Bridge station. When passing myself, I’ve heard others puzzling over its meaning and assuming that it’s simply an appeal to people to stiffen the upper lip and face misfortune bravely. But beer drinkers, especially those who live in London, know that it refers to their favoured tipple, and when I lived in the capital, Courage Best and Directors bitters were the standard pints in many a London pub. I expect they still are. In these tough times, when pubs are closed, we need courage as much as ever – and Courage too, many would add.

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*It is actually on the corner of Park Street and Redcross Way, close to some of the many railway tracks that criss-cross this part of London, mostly elevated above the roads on brick arches.

Friday, March 20, 2020



The two vintage road signs in my photograph come from a long-gone generation of British signage, once common on this country’s roads. They conform, I think, to a 1934 standard, which used a red triangle to denote a warning or hazard that was specified in the rectangular plate below. This plate often bore a graphic symbol, such as the inclined plane for ‘STEEP HILL’, in the sign in the background. Speed limit signs had a red open circle, and a triangle within a circle was a combination of a warning and an order, as in ‘HALT AT MAJOR ROAD AHEAD’, in the foreground.

The COVID-19 pandemic is changing the way I live my life. As someone over 65, I clearly need to watch my health, and I need to look after my wife, whose pre-existing medical condition puts her at risk. More than this, since one can be infected without knowing it, it’s not worth putting others at risk by indulging in unnecessary travel and the human contact that comes with it. So, in spite of the fact that exploring historic architecture has long been for me a necessary part of life, I am leaving the house and garden only to get essential supplies.

This does not, though, mean ‘HALT’ for the English Buildings blog. There are lots of places I have visited or passed by over the last few years that I have something to say about, and since readers seem to appreciate what I say and what I share, it seems worthwhile carrying on. More now than ever,  in fact, as theatres, museums, galleries, and other sources of entertainment and cultural nourishment are having to stop their normal work. The excellent Black Country Living Museum, where the photograph above was taken, is one of those that has had to close its gates.

Many musicians, actors, museums and others are stepping up and nobly presenting concerts, plays, and talks online. In the last day or two alone, I’ve come across poets doing online workshops, a classical pianist podcasting from his music room at home, and an exhibition curator, who must have spent years researching and planning a major exhibition, talking about the exhibits and giving us all the chance to see the art on the walls. Hats off to those who are offering information, interest, and inspiration in this way to anyone who’d have sought them out live – or who are interested enough to give them a try in virtual form.

So I resolve to keep blogging, returning in my memory and via my photo library to places I’ve visited in the past, as a reminder of what’s out there, to entertain and inform, and to signpost what we all hope we’ll be looking at again for ourselves, in months and years to come.

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* To make it clear: the photograph was taken earlier this year at the Black Country Living Museum, Dudley, which preserves many relocated old buildings, as well as vintage signs like these. I took the picture last year.

Monday, March 16, 2020

Adam Street, London

The decorative touch

In London the other week and walking down the Strand, I remembered that I’d promised myself another look at a house in Adam Street, one of the few survivors of the ambitious development called the Adelphi, designed by Robert Adam and built by him and his brothers in the 1770s. I’ve actually posted about this building before (there is a picture of the whole front here), and have also used it in a talk I gave about Georgian London, recalling how the Adams cleared an area of small slum houses and built their streets of grand Georgian terraces – pouring a fortune into the venture. Their investment proved difficult to recoup, because a banking crash sent house prices tumbling. Contemporary engravings show glorious terraces, including a spectacular one overlooking the Thames, but most of them have gone, pray to 20th-century demolitions.

It occurred to me when I spoke about the development in my talk that I really needed a photograph that showed the decorative detailing on the surviving facade in Adam Street, specifically the front of a house that has especially elaborate treatment because it faces up John Adam Street, providing a focus for the view along that street. So I stood in the middle of the road, pointing my phone at stucco pilasters and ornamental ironwork, producing some puzzled glances from passers-by and the photograph above.

What it shows is a pair of vertical pilasters in white stucco, standing out from the dark brickwork. The pilasters are decorated all the way up with repeated anthemion motifs – part of the standard ornamental repertoire of ancient Greek architecture, but not often used up a pilaster like this. Below them are the pilasters flanking the door, similarly ornamental, though here the motifs are framed by ovals made up from snaking bands that make their sinuous way up the pilaster. There aree also swags in the lintel above the door. The ironwork complements all this, but this time in black rather than white.

The Pevsner volume on this part of London adds the interesting note that this ironwork was produced by the Carron Company of Falkirk and was some of their earliest. John Adam, furthermore, was a shareholder in the Carron Company, so the choice was a natural one. The financial difficulties with the Aldephi development reveal that the Adams’ investments did not always work out. John’s stake in Carron probably did well for him though. Carron went on to produce architectural ironwork by the ton. I’ve noticed before their ubiquitous ‘heart and honeysuckle’ ironwork used (as here in little ‘balconettes’ or elsewhere in full-blown balconies) from London to Cheltenham.

The Scottish iron founder’s products work well in the context of the Adams’ decoration and the overall effect of their grand, if ill-fated, scheme. People sometimes think of Georgian architecture as sober and plain. But often it has charming decorative touches. especially in the hands of Robert Adam, who usually had a light and felicitous touch.

Friday, March 13, 2020

Dartmouth, Devon

Star turn

I was instantly drawn to the brightly coloured tiles on the outside walls of the Dolphin Inn, Dartmouth. I don’t know much about the building or the tiles, except that it’s a 19th-century inn and was clearly made over in the late-19th or early-20th century.* I’ve posted about tiled pubs before. The dominant colour of the tiles is often bottle-green, but here there’s a different palette – dark blue, a paler blue, turquoise, yellow, and a splash of red around the white star that symbolises Star Ales.

The lettering is striking, and there’s a daringly vertical arrangement for the brewery name. Why daring? Because when you stack the letters on top of each other, thinner letters like the ‘I’ have empty space on either side of them, risking an unpleasing effect. This kind of layout works better with the chunkier Bs, Rs, and Es. I especially like the ‘R’, with its large loop and curvy diagonal leg, and the ‘E’ with its lively serifs and slightly curved cross-bar.

The framing tiles on either side of the lettering are very architectural – they’re pilasters, essentially, from the vocabulary of neoclassicism, but with extra decoration provided by the diamond-shaped panels and all that colour. I’d love to know which company produced the tiles that make this facade sing out, catching the eye – probably even the eye of people who spot them, glistening, from across the market place as they shop, do business, or pass idly by.

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* The Plymouth Breweries company name was first registered in 1889, so the tiles must be after this date.

Monday, March 9, 2020

Trafalgar Square, London

On the look-out

How many people miss this as they walk across London’s most famous square? It has been called ‘London’s smallest police station,’ although even this is perhaps too grand a name for such a small building. It’s really a cousin of the blue police boxes that used to be a familiar sight and that acquired a new fame through the TV series Dr Who.

Trafalgar Square became a scene of large gatherings and popular protests in the 19th century. There was a at least a perceived need to have a police presence here in response to such assemblies and the police had a temporary wooden box erected in the square in the early-20th century, but no one was happy with either the appearance or durability of this. By 1926, with the General Strike alarming the authorities, it was suggested that a more permanent police observation post should be set up in here so that protests and demonstrations could be monitored. To begin with, the idea met with such public opprobrium that it wasn’t acted on, but then someone* had the idea of hiding such a structure in plain sight – in a grandiose stone lamp sited at one corner of the square. It was large enough for one officer and a telephone so that he could summon help from the nearest fully staffed police station. After it was converted from gas to electricity, the rather beautiful lamp at the top would flash to summon the officer if he had left his post to patrol the square.

I’m not sure when the box was decommissioned, but it’s now apparently used as a store for street cleaners’ equipment, although there didn’t seem to be much inside on the occasion recently when I passed. From a tiny ‘police station’ to a monumental tool cupboard: that’s progress.

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* The idea seems to have emerged in an exchange of letters between Sir Lionel Earle, permanent secretary to the Office of Works, and a Mr G. Edwards of the Metropolitan Police. Some sources attribute the idea to ’Sir Lionel Edwards’ but as Ian Visits points out in a generally excellent article, Sir Lionel Edwards seems not to have existed.

Thursday, March 5, 2020

Glentworth Street, London

Arriving in style

In its dozen or so years of existence, this blog has rarely been quiet for more than a week at a stretch. It’s not usually difficult keeping this up in quite a busy life of writing, teaching courses, working my way through piles of books that want to be read, having a social life, and helping the Resident Wise Woman sort out the implications of Brexit for a life that has been lived, for a decade and a half, in two European countries. Needless to say, in the face of such things blogging has to take second (or third, or. fourth) place and in the midst of such pressures the thought is apt to arise that I’m not sure I’ve seen any buildings recently that I want to share.

And then, I take a trip to London and start walking along a street and immediately see things that I want to engage with. Sometimes the thought is, ‘Blimey! I’d not noticed that before!’, sometimes it’s ‘Of course! I always wanted to look more closely at this.’ Here’s an example of the latter. I’ve posted before about the striking Art Deco apartment blocks on Marylebone Road. This time, a little early for my train, I walked around the block occupied by one of them, the huge Berkeley Court. It seemed too late in the day for photography, but modern mobile phones are very forgiving in low light, and here were two things I like: illuminated lettering and stylish ironwork.

This is the way out (there’s a matching way in) of a drive at street level. The idea is that your taxi* can turn off the street, sweep around a curve, deposit you at the entrance, and sweep out again, keeping you out of the rain and giving you the leisure to alight gracefully, without any of the fluster or disruption that can come when the vehicle blocks a busy street. Staircases and lift are nearby, allowing you to ascend to your flat with ease.

It is all very luxurious, like turning off the Strand to arrive at the door of the Savoy, but this was built to be no mean block of box-like pieds à terre. Some of the apartments on the plans have six bedrooms – I don’t know if they are still so large, or if they’ve been subdivided. And the finish reflects this. There’s pleasant illuminated lettering† for the name of the block – the colour seems to have faded irregularly, but never mind, this helps to make it more authentically period.§ The ironwork is wonderfully angular without being aggressive or unfriendly. This entrance is an asset to the street as well as to the people who use it.¶

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*I think this is the residents’ entrance. There is apparently a matching drive for service vehicles, but I didn’t see that.

† The stroke widths seem to me to be a bit uneven, but I’m not quibbling.

§ The date of the block is c. 1931, the architect W. E. Masters.

¶ My post about the neighbouring, slightly more ocean-linerish, Dorset House, is here.

Sunday, March 1, 2020


En passant

It was a case of ‘park and run’. I’d left the Resident Wise Woman at the top of Park Street, Bristol, and driven further down in search of somewhere to leave the car. On the agenda were coffee and an exhibition, so I didn’t linger long. But near my parking space was this imposing building, atop a rise of forty-odd steps. ’So that’s where it is,’ I thought: St George’s, Bristol (aka St George’s, Brandon Hill), the church by Sir Robert Smirke made redundant in 1984 and set to be turned into offices when the BBC pointed out that, with its excellent acoustics, it would make a good concert hall. I’d heard numerous broadcasts from the building but somehow had missed seeing it before.

It’s dominated at the entrance front by the large and very plain Doric portico, the columns of which turn out to be based on those of the Temple of Hephaestus in Athens, which, like St George’s, was designed to be seen from the bottom of a slope. Above the portico, Smirke set a round tower, again rather plain, as is the interior, apparently. It’s an austere building, grand in the early-19th century Greek revival manner that was fashionable in 1821, when St George’s was designed. The banners outside advertise cultural events, so presumably its success as such a venue continues. I was glad I’d stumbled across it and seen it in winter when the trees are bare – although perhaps a few leaves soften the building’s hard edges. I resolve to return for a longer look.

Monday, February 24, 2020

Stourport, Worcestershire

Place of resort

The elegant piece of carpentry on top of the dovecote at Rousham set me thinking about other buildings I’d seen embellished with a bit of the woodworker’s art. As it happened, I was reading a book on urban history and chanced upon a paragraph about Stourport-on-Severn. I was reminded that Stourport is best known as a canal town, begun in the late-18th century as the terminus of the Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal.

When the canal got going, various utilitarian buildings – warehouses, barge sheds, workshops, and the like – were built by the canal basin and a steady traffic of boats built up. This excited quite a bit of interest, with people coming to the town just to look at the boats. The town began to become a ‘resort of people of fashion’ and a hotel was built. In addition, there seem to have been attempts to beautify the place, to make it more attractive to visitors. This warehouse, originally quite plain, was adorned with its white-painted turret, with weather vane. The clock was donated by the people of Stourport in the year 1812.

The clock turret is visually attractive and a public amenity for passers-by. It’s also a reminder that there’s a danger in thinking of places in one way. Stourport was not only a canal town, even if the canal was its raison d’être. Towns, almost by definition, are home to varied activities and the ‘resort’ of visitors who come for all kinds of reasons. It’s interesting that a clock turret that’s easy to take for granted is a sign of that varied history.

Thursday, February 20, 2020

Rousham, Oxfordshire

Finishing touch

After my recent dovecote post, I remembered one more dovecote that couldn’t resist sharing with my readers. This is the one close to the great house at Rousham. The little building, tucked away in a walled garden, is unregarded in a place that’s full of interesting architecture: Rousham’s gardens have few rivals in this respect, and because they’re not vast and always open, the impressive array of garden buildings and sculpture is not difficult to see. This dovecote is in marked contrast to the small-scale but grand classicism and gothicism of the garden structures. It’s a country building in the vernacular tradition, with local stone walls and a stone-tiled roof. ‘Dovecote of 1685, with a conical roof with hipped dormers’ is about all Pevsner feels the need to say about it.

But look at the lovely louvre* at the top, with its lead-covered ogee top (mirroring a similar ogee cupola on the nearby stable block), and its neat wooden bars, with wider spaces at the bottom to let the birds in and out. I don’t think there are birds living in it now, but this culminating louvre (being wooden it’s presumably a modern replacement) seems to me a perfect finishing touch. Its artful design seems typical of the place: whenever I’ve visited, Rousham has given me the impression of a place that’s well cared for by the family who own it – and who’ve lived there since the house was built in 1635, fifty years before this charming structure was first erected across the walled garden next to their house.

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* Louvre is the accepted term for the a turret- or lantern-like structure at the top of a roof, open in some way to let out smoke from a hearth or to admit the inhabitants of a dovecote.