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.
- - - - -  

*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. 

- - - - -   

* 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. 

- - - - - 

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.

- - - - -

* 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.

- - - - -

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.

- - - - -

* 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. 

- - - - -   

* 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.

- - - - -

* 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?

- - - - -

* 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.

- - - - -

* 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.

Friday, September 18, 2020

Painswick, Gloucestershire

Pointing up, standing out

Painswick, one of the most delightful of Gloucestershire’s small towns, is perhaps not as widely appreciated as Cotswold places like Broadway or Chipping Campden because a main road runs through it and the tight knot of lanes off the main street reveals no village green or market place where people can gather or sit and take in the view. But Painswick has something just as good: the most delightful churchyard for miles, a generous space well populated with beautifully carved (although now very worn) Cotswold stone tombs, interspersed with a small forest of yew trees. There are said to be 99 yew trees, attempts to grow a hundredth having ended in failure; it’s also said that it’s impossible to count them – the total is different every time. I’ve limited myself to admiring the yews without being tempted to put such legends to the test.

There must be dozens of tombs and gravestones, too, many of them dating from the 17th and 128th centuries, when Painswick was at its most prosperous because of the wool trade. Many of the grander tombs commemorate wool merchants or clothiers. One stands out as rather different. It’s this pyramid, which marks the grave not of a clothier but of John Bryan, who carved of many of the monuments in the churchyard. He died in 1787.

It’s often said that the English fascination with ancient Egyptian culture began in the early-19th century, after the invasion of Egypt by Napoleon (in 1798) and the work of Jean-François Champollion, Thomas Young and others on decoding hieroglyphic script. However, Egyptian culture held a fascination for some people in Britain well before this period, and whoever created Bryan’s tomb in the late 1780s was clearly one of these forerunners. True, Bryan’s tomb doesn’t have quite the same proportions as the ‘typical’ Egyptian pyramid – it’s taller and thinner than the Great Pyramid of Giza and its neighbours. Bryan’s pyramid is closer in shape to the pyramids built in late antiquity at Meroe on the upper Nile in Sudan, though I’ve no idea whether they were at all well known in 18th century England. Perhaps the builders just wanted to give the carver’s memorial a little extra height, so that his grave is marked with a monument that can clearly be seen among the clusters ofd lower chest and ‘tea caddy’ tombs that he helped to create.

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Stow-on-the-Wold, Gloucestershire

Into the wood

St Edward’s church stands in the middle of the Cotswold market town of Stow-on-the-Wold. It’s medieval and, even though it’s tucked away from the main square – one way in is down a side street, another approach is via an alley – it must be very much visited. I suspect, though, that many visitors don’t notice the doorway in my photograph. That’s because it’s the north door, and the main entrance is through the south door, which is the one you see as you approach the church via the most obvious route. People who don’t walk around a church as well as going inside often miss architectural and scenic treats, and this is both.

The church is very old – parts date back to the 11th or 12th century – but, like most parish churches, it was altered in the medieval period and later. The north porch is said to date form the 17th or 18th century. It’s in the gothic style developed in the Middle Ages, but the way in which the arch is top by a band of little windows is unusual. This kind of window isn’t something I’ve noticed in a church before – maybe it’s a local mason’s invention, maybe there are other examples I have missed. Whichever is the case, it’s pleasant, and must bring useful additional light into the porch.

Many people, however, won’t even notice the architecture. It’s the trees that catch the eye, a pair of yews of considerable age, growing so hard by the arch that they seem part of it. Building and trees seem to be growing together, and one hopes that the slow-growing yew’s roots are not doing too much damage to the building, as it’s an effect I’d be loth to lose.

When I researched this doorway online, I chanced on websites run for Tolkien enthusiasts that compared the doorway to the doors of Durin in The Lord of the Rings. Speculation was rife that the writer had been inspired by the doorway – Stow can be reached from Tolkien’s Oxford home in an hour or so, after all. Well, maybe. I don’t think there’s any hard evidence that the novelist came here, and it would not have been hard for Tolkien to have the idea independently, especially as these doors were made by Dwarves and Elves, and the Elven folk lived in an arboreal world. And the architecture pedant in me wants to point out that Tolkien’s archway is Romanesque and semicircular, while the entrance at Stow is pointed and Gothic. Trees and churches, trees and the sacred and significant: they’re never far apart, although rarely as physically close as here.

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Burwell, Lincolnshire

One image, two lives

Although I have a literature degree, I no longer read as much fiction as I once did. There is too much else to read: books about Victorian architects, journals by 18th-century travellers, topography, psychogeography… But there is no accounting for it. Sometimes the Sirens sing, and the lure of the novel is too much to resist. They sang for me, those Sirens, some time in 2001, when I picked up in a bookshop a copy of what seemed to be a novel, read the first couple of pages, and found myself confronted by four photographs of pairs of eyes staring at me from page 3, surrounded by text describing the Antwerp Nocturama, home to night-waking jerboas, racoons, opossums, lemurs, and owls, whose large eyes and inquiring gaze remind the narrator of ‘certain painters and philosophers who seek to penetrate the darkness which surrounds us purely by means of looking and thinking’. This was the novel Austerlitz by W. G. Sebald and I had been introduced to the world of Jacques Austerlitz, a man in search of his identity, not in some hippy ‘I need to find myself’ sense, but in the real sense that he does not know his place of birth, his parentage, even, when he was a boy, his real and extraordinary name.

Austerlitz, it emerges, was sent as a small child on a train to England and thence to Wales, one of the many Jewish children rescued from the holocaust by the Kindertransporten, and adopted by parents who wanted to erase any vestiges of his early life, his former identity. As an adult he sets out on journeys, in part to fuel his work as an architectural historian, in part to seek his own history. As he describes these journeys, Sebald scatters images (both the verbal images that pervade his mesmeric prose and the haunting, slightly fuzzy photographs with which the book is sprinkled) of themes, ideas, and objects that at first seem random, later seem to make patterns, and later still chime with events in Austerlitz’s background or his lost early life. And so Austerlitz’s adult interest in railway stations, fortifications, empty houses, luggage, things that fly, stars, builds in significance and throws light on his identity. The result is that his dour upbringing in Wales (his adoptive parents are Calvinists and seem unable either to show emotion or to stimulate him very much at all) is contrasted with a background of culture and wordliness in prewar Central Europe. This odd combination accounts for Austerlitz’s curious character, a mix of the analytical and the driven, of an austere daily life balanced by a taste for grandiose architecture. 

The photographs that punctuate the book (photographs of butterflies and nocturnal animals, railway stations and fortifications, a rucksack and a mosaic) are particularly fascinating. After Sebald died I heard the writer A. S. Byatt reminiscing about her friend ‘Max’ Sebald on the radio. She had asked him about the photographs, which seem to have a fluid, shifting relationship with the text that surrounds them. ‘Those photographs, Max, in your books,’ she said (I quote from memory). ‘Do they show what you say they show?’ To which Sebald replied, helpfully, ‘Sometimes they do, Antonia, sometimes they don’t.’ And so we have pictures that are said, or implied, to be of Austerlitz that may be of the young Sebald himself, but also photographs of real buildings (ones in Prague and Terezin in the Czech Republic, for example) that are exactly the buildings that the book says, or implies, they are, and I know they are because I have been to Prague and Terezin and seen them.

One photograph of an English building brought me up with a jolt. On page 147 of the novel, Austerlitz describes a house he calls Iver Grove, which he sees as a young architectural historian in a period of his life when he visits many of the English country houses that were abandoned, threatened, often ultimately demolished. At Iver Grove he finds a hall, ‘ornamented with baroque stucco work’ in which ‘hundreds of sacks of potatoes leaned against each other.’ This bizarre sight is reproduced in a photograph of such a room, the floor covered with sacks: a country house used an as agricultural store. As soon as I saw this image I recognised it, because it appears in another book I’ve come across, one of the countless non-fiction works that I read and that give me so little time for fiction: John Harris’s No Voice From the Hall: Early Memories of a Country House Snooper (1998), in which the architectural historian John Harris describes his own early life, visiting abandoned and soon to be demolished country houses in England in the 1950s. The house in the photograph is Burwell Hall on the Lincolnshire Wolds (not far from where I was born), and when Harris visited it in 1957 it was full of heaps of grain, sacks of potatoes, even a flock of sheep.

I want to record this parallel not because I’m the only person to have noticed it (others have spotted it too), but because I did notice it for myself and wanted to share the surprise I felt when I came across this picture in its new setting. And also because it is typical of the surprises that await a reader of Austerlitz. The fact that Sebald acquired this image from Harris’s book (presumably he asked permission, although the book contains no photographic acknowledgements*) doesn’t spoil the book for me. It’s still no less Harris’s image for this creative repurposing: the image now has another life too.

- - - - -   

* As printed in Austerlitz, the photograph is framed by a black rule, just as it is in No Voice from the Hall. None of the other pictures in Austerlitz has such a frame. I suppose the frame acts as a silent acknowledgement, if one might use such an oxymoronic term, of the image’s source. 

Photograph from John Harris, No Voice From the Hall: Early Memories of a Country House Snooper (1998) and W. G. Sebald, Austerlitz (2001)

Sunday, September 6, 2020

Hoarwithy, Herefordshire

Well schooled

By far the most outstanding building in Hoarwithy, a village near the River Wye between Ross and Hereford, is the church of St Catherine, a glorious Italianate structure designed by Victorian master J. P. Seddon.¶ Each time I’ve visited it, I’ve glanced up at a neighbouring building, which is called Church House. It’s in the same red local sandstone and I imagined it was a former vicarage, built at the same time as church and also designed by Seddon. I was only partly right. The house is by Seddon, and was built in 1868* and designed as a school and master’s house. Both church and school were built for the long serving vicar William Poole, who was responsible for the parish from 1854 to 1901.

The photograph represents my usual view of Church House, showing its east front – if I’d paid more attention to the south wall, I’d have seen the large window that lights the school room that occupies the left-hand part of the building. The part to the right is the master’s house, its large windows suggesting large rooms within. Oddly, the canted parts of the bays have no windows – if they had, the rooms would have been lighter. The central doorway has a pair of trefoil-headed arches. The right-hand arch conceals the front door of the house; the left-hand one leads to a staircase going up to the schoolroom. Above is a pretty sexfoil window with a pivoting central opening section that I find curiously satisfying. This and the other windows have patterned glazing bars – another satisfying detail.

Readers sometimes ask me if I get inside the buildings I post. For houses, the answer is usually ‘no’: my appreciation is generally that of an informed passer-by. If I’d like to see the interior of this building, it’s because I’ve been tantalised by an online description that refers not only to the schoolroom’s attractive roof timbers but also to its frieze, which has painted panels of animals, birds, and flowers.† Hoarwithy church, impressive from the outside, is beautifully decorated within; clearly architect and client had the same aspirations for the school. As a reader of authors such as Charles Dickens, I am apt to be scathing about Victorian eduction,§ but at least the environment provided for this village’s children seems to have been pleasant. I hope the teaching was similarly inspired.

- - - - -

¶ Seddon worked quite a lot in Wales (for example on Llandaff Cathedral and the university buildings at Aberystwyth). Although Hoarwithy church is in a sort of Romanesque-Byzantine style, Seddon, like so many of his contemporaries, was generally an advocate of Gothic. Like Pugin, and no doubt influencing his pupil C. F. A. Voysey, he liked to design furniture and fittings for his buildings.

* The precise dates of Seddon’s work on the church are unknown, but the buildings must be roughly contemporary.

† There’s an image of part of it on this site.

§ But one should not generalise. Not all schools were like Dotheboys Hall or the hideous fact-factory in Hard Times, or Charlotte Brontë’s Lowood, and with a good master a church school could provide a sound basic education in a humane environment.

Thursday, September 3, 2020

King's Caple, Herefordshire

Noticed in rural Herefordshire

In a casual way, I’ve pointed over the years to the various ways people have repurposed red telephone boxes as they have fallen out of use in this age of mobile communications. I like the way these small classics of design, the work of Sir Giles Gilbert Scott in 1935, have been put to new uses now there’s much less need for public telephones.* I’ve posted at various times miniature telephone-box art galleries in Yorkshire and next to Henry Moore’s house in Hertfordshire and a phone-box planter in Bath. I could as easily have mentioned such new purposes as housing defibrillators, miniature libraries, or even small businesses – perhaps I’ll get to those when I come across them again on my travels.

Here’s a use I’ve not seen before: a place to put the village noticeboard. It’s not strictly necessary for a noticeboard to be completely undercover in its own little building – most communities concerned about the weather (as who, in these times of climate change and storms, is not?) make do with a pair of lockable glass doors to protect the notices. But can you blame a village, wanting to preserve a K6 red telephone box and at the same time wanting somewhere to act as a noticeboard and miniature information hub, for putting these things together? And what is not to admire about getting someone to produce a sign, in a pleasant serif letterform, to replace the old ‘TELEPHONE’ legend beneath box’s shallow domed roof? I hope the King’s Caple information centre is used and appreciated.

- - - - -

* The K6 is the smaller successor of the K2, which Scott designed in 1924. Today about 11,000 K6 boxes survive (a small proportion of the original total). Of these, around 2,500 are listed, which means that it has become important to find uses for listed boxes in places where they are no longer required for telephone calling.


Sunday, August 30, 2020

Llanwarne, Herefordshire


The variations on the classical orders of architecture – Doric, Ionic, Corinthian, Composite, Tuscan – are legion. They’ve been the subject of posts on this blog before, but I don’t think I’ve covered a Jacobean variation. This is from a wall monument inside the ruined church at Llanwarne that I featured in my previous post. Maybe some dedicated pursuivant of heraldry could work out whose monument it was from the coats of arms on it. Perhaps it commemorates the person who paid for work on the church in the 17th century, including the south porch – but that’s speculation and in this post I’m concentrating on one small detail of the monument’s design.

Even now the stonework is weathered, the amount of effort expended by the carver is clear, and one focus of that effort was to delineate a variation in the Ionic order that’s very much of its time. Even the shaft is distinctive, with its deep, curving convex mouldings, in contrast to the concave flutes that are more usual on classical columns. There’s additional fine detailing between each moulding that looks as if the sculptor has created a series of miniature flutes topped with tiny roundels. The necking ring above is very deeply moulded, and above it is a band ornamented with tiny hemispheres in groups of five, arranged in a pattern that’s repeated in the capitals above. Between the capital’s spirals is what looks like some egg and dart decoration, but this has worn rather flat. Adjoining the shaft and capital to the right are the rolls and scrolls and flat patterns we now called strapwork, something typical of 17th century English interiors.

In other words, this detail shows an English carver doing what English carvers so often did – taking a classical motif that we associate with ancient Greece or Rome and giving it a character that’s both more local and very much of its time. True, some of the ideas may come from pattern books published in France or the Low Countries, go-to sources for much English Renaissance design. But the effect – vigorous, rural, but showing visual flair – is very English, and shows, as so often, that the orders were an adaptable starting point for craftworkers who’d learned the classical ropes.

Thursday, August 27, 2020

Llanwarne, Herefordshire


Floods and fragments

Ruined churches. When I come across one in the countryside I naturally think their ruination has been caused by rural depopulation or population movement. The old church of St John the Baptist at Llanwarne in Herefordshire – a place I was quite unaware of until the other day – was abandoned for another reason. The building, which stands close to a brook, suffered repeated flooding, so in the Victorian period a new church was built on a higher site across the road. The old church still stands, minus its roof, an ornamental and tranquil place in which to contemplate the transience of the works of humankind and the visual qualities of weathered stone.

This building is fragile. Some of the mullions and tracery in the windows seem to be supported by the ironwork that must originally have held panes of glass in place; signs tell us not to climb on the walls. There’s a part of me that likes my ruins unkempt and desolate and productive of the sort of emotions that are summed up in the term ‘Romantic’ and in the useful German word Ruinenlust. That word can be translated as ‘Pleasure of ruins’, which is the title of a fascinating book about ruins by Rose Macaulay. Ruinenlust involves taking pleasure in something that also invokes dread or sadness. The melancholy aspect of ruins like this is obvious enough, but there are delights too – the vistas of trees and sky above and through window openings, the sense of a quiet haven that’s becoming part of nature, the softening effects (so admired by Ruskin) of time on stone.

As you can see from my photographs however, this is not the kind of ruin one sometimes sees slipping rapidly back to nature and surrounded by tall grass and drifts of nettles. It is looked after. The grass is trimmed and the latch on the gate still works. So although I can enjoy the ruin’s fragility, the fluid quality of some of its worn window tracery, the patina of its stonework, I can also appreciate the care and effort of the people who look after buildings like this, cut the grass, thoughtfully provide garden benches, and ensure the structure is stable.

Looking at the church is even more than usual an effort of piecing together the building’s story from a collection of assorted architectural fragments: a nave and arcade of the 13th century; a 14th-century aisle and graceful 14th-century window tracery; a tower of the same century, much the most solid-looking part of the building; a later porch, probably 17th century. Walking around inside an oddity becomes clear. At some point the ground level both inside and outside the building has been raised, so that now some of the window sills are not far from the turf and the capitals of the arcade piers are only a couple of feet from the floor. Why? Is this the effect of accumulated silt from centuries of flooding? One derivation of the name Llanwarne is ‘the church by the swamp’.

The inner doorway of the porch bears fragments of a carved inscription. The difficulty of reading this is demonstrated by the conflicting opinions of a 1931 RCHME survey and Pevsner. Pevsner thinks it’s in Latin. The 1931 account sees in it English words such as ‘[fad]eth – soe doth Man’s. . . . the [h]ouse of God’, as if a message about decay or ruination is trying to get out. Reading a medieval building can be baffling, but bafflement can be pleasurable, and the quiet enjoyment of a peaceful ruin can be too.

Sunday, August 23, 2020

Harrogate, Yorkshire

High up in Harrogate 3

Harrogate’s Royal Hall, my third striking skyline structure in the Yorkshire spa town, actually has three towers topping its entrance front, a rather squat square one in the middle and two round ones, one at each end. I like the design of the circular end towers – they’re actually quite plain, but the ring of windows offers ventilation, light – and, presumably, could be illuminated at night too, to add interest to the evening skyline.

This large building fulfilled several functions, as hinted by its original name, still carved into the face: Kursaal. If you look up the word ‘kursaal’ in a dictionary, you’ll find it defined as ‘a public room at a spa’. The word comes from the German, and is made up of words for ‘cure’ and ‘hall’. But curative functions were far form the only ones in most kursaals – balls, entertainments, theatrical performances, those were the kinds of things that might take place there, and today buildings known as kursaals are given over to all kinds of uses, cinemas and theatres being the most common, although the most famous kursaal, the one at Southend-on-Sea, is the main building of an amusement park and was designed to house a range of activities from balls to billiards.

The Kursaal at Harrogate houses a large theatre and performance auditorium. This is surrounded by an ambulatory, a space around which people could stroll and socialise, not the least important function of the building. You could also take the waters here. This multitude of functions, and the building’s size, made it an important one for Harrogate when it was erected in 1903. A competition was organised to find the best design, and well known theatrical architect Frank Matcham was hired to assess the entries and act as consulting architect. He chose a design by an architect called Robert Beale. However, the council judged that Beale’s design wasn’t entirely practical – it couldn’t be built with the available budget – and Matcham was asked to revise the designs. It’s said that the final result owes more to Matcham than Beale.

Matcham is best known for his theatre interiors, which are typically highly ornate and admirably practical. The Royal Hall is certainly both of those things – its highly decorative auditorium is looking good after a lengthy restoration in 2000–2008, and its entrance front is certainly inviting and striking. Like my other Harrogate towers, those of the Royal Hall pinpoint a building that’s both interesting to look at and an asset to the town.


Thursday, August 20, 2020

Harrogate, Yorkshire

High up in Harrogate 2

For the second in my trio of Harrogate towers (all of them from the town’s heyday at the end of the 19th century), I’ve chosen the Westminster Shopping Arcade. When this was built in 1898, shopping arcades were enjoying something of a golden age. The Victorians loved arcades, because they gave pedestrians an escape route from the noise, smell, and bustle of the streets. By presenting themselves as elegant or exclusive, arcades shunned the lower classes and did their best to keep out anyone who might be a pickpocket. Middle-class and upper-class shoppers felt safe and able to shop and window-shop in comfort and at ease. 

An arcade was an interesting challenge for an architect. Inside there would be elegant shopfronts (think rich, dark woods, gilded lettering), and a well-lit central walkway (often achieved with an iron and glass roof). But outside? The frontage was often quite small, and the challenge was to make it look at once inviting and upmarket. Norwich’s Royal Arcade (blogged long ago here) is a small masterpiece in this regard, with its curving frontage and colourful tiles. The architect of the Westminster Arcade, perhaps inspired by the name, with its hint of the Houses of Parliament, went for a faux late-medieval look – stone walls, vaguely Gothic (or Tudor Gothic) windows, battlements, protruding corner turrets, and a wooden ‘belfry’ topped with a pointed spire-like roof. Quite a lot of care was given to the details of the belfry. Openings, shafts, crenellations, and the pattern of the roof slates and leadwork are all designed with care, and the whole thing is topped with a wrought-iron crown and finial, a detail seen on several buildings in these parts. No doubt few shoppers even glanced at all this detail once they’d got used to the building. But it turns what could be an anonymous plain frontage into something memorable. It’s an entertaining addition to Harrogate’s varied skyline and well worth an upward glance.

Monday, August 17, 2020

Harrogate, Yorkshire

High up in Harrogate 1

Although Harrogate was established as a spa by the early-18th century, it had its great boom in the late-19th century, when it became a favoured resort of the upper classes from Britain and abroad. This boom is reflected in the town’s architecture, with various grand buildings put up for the benefit of the rich who frequented the place, and for the profit of the locals – improved spa facilities, theatres, shops, all featured. Many of these buildings were architecturally ornate, and one way for a building to make its mark in this hilly town of dramatic prospects and skylines was for it to incorporate at least one tower. When you walk around Harrogate and look up, the chances are that one of these towers will punctuate the view.

This one is a wonderfully effective piece of architectural advertising. Stained glass lettering that is designed to be lit up at night immediately alerts us to the presence of the Grand Opera House – it’s the Harrogate Theatre now, but the old name survives on the tower. The opera house opened on 13 January 1900 and was designed by Frank Tugwell, who was also the architect of Scarborough’s Futurist Theatre.

Original front-of-house fittings survive inside the building, but what particularly interested me was this tower. It’s a combination of diverse elements – a bit of an eclectic mixture – but the brick parapet, tapering slate roof, lantern with its stained glass, curvy cupola, and wrought-iron crown combine to happy effect, with just the right amount of swagger for a theatre in a prosperous town at the dawn of the famously optimistic Edwardian era.

Architecturally, the tower has another role. Drawn to the building by the lantern, one finds that the tower is actually on a corner, where two merging streets force the building into quite an acute angle.* The octagonal tower, made still more memorable by stone quoins and some pretty circular windows on the upper floor, helps the building turn this tight corner with grace and flair. On the skyline and on the street, it’s a winning bit of Edwardian whimsy.

- - - - -

* There’s a picture of the corner view here.

Friday, August 14, 2020

Westwell, Oxfordshire

Country classicism

My photograph shows what I saw when peering through the churchyard hedge at Westwell, a small village in West Oxfordshire. My first thought was that this building was substantial enough to be the manor house, but actually it’s the former rectory. The Church of England quite often accommodated its incumbents in houses of this size and pretension between the 17th and early-20th centuries. The clergy were usually second in status to the Lord of the Manor and often had large families and more than one servant, so a big house was not seen as inappropriate. But by the mid-20th century the church was selling off many of its big rectories and housing rectors and vicars in smaller houses that were easier to care for, cheaper to heat, and generally more suited to the needs of a modern family. 

This example was built at the beginning of the 18th century in that simple but satisfying style that I think of as rural classicism – regular rows of mullioned windows, stone quoins, a wooden eaves cornice, and a hipped roof with dormer windows. There’s also a pleasant stone doorway with an open pediment supported by curvaceous consoles. The protruding wing on the right is later – mid-19th century – but in the same style and materials.

The church and most of the tombstones in the churchyard are of similar creamy limestone. Altogether, it’s a pleasing ensemble, one that has plenty of age, but is still a fitting and one hopes comfortable home – for the living and the dead.

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Weston-super-Mare, Somerset

Click on image for more detail
More than skin deep

Not long ago the building housing W H Smith’s shop in Weston-super-Mare was listed. That, in my opinion, is a cause for celebration, because it’s a rare example of how magnificently this company decorated their shops in the interwar period, a time when they were expanding and upgrading many branches, using a repertoire of techniques that included tiling and classical style lettering, the latter designed by Eric Gill. The Weston shop is a rare remaining example of the decorative leadwork they sometimes used – the upper floor is covered with leadwork coats of arms and heraldic symbols representing Bristol, Bath, Taunton, and the county of Somerset – everything, you might say, except for Weston itself, which didn’t have a coat of arms until 1928, two years after this shop was rebuilt. The facade includes the same Shakespeare quotation (‘Come and take choice of all my library / And so beguile thy sorrow’ from Titus Andronicus) that was used on the branch at Stratford. The lending library in this branch was upstairs, and the room that housed it still has decorative plasterwork featuring figures such as a man carrying a leather-bound book, another reason for preserving the building.

All this decoration was of course a very effective piece of advertising. But it’s also testimony to the quality of the goods Smith’s sold. Many branches of Smith’s are today dominated by stationery, newspapers, and magazines. They have always sold goods like these (the Smiths made their first fortune out of railway stalls selling newspapers), but they were just as committed to bookselling, as well as to their lending libraries. Even when I was growing up in the 1960s, the local W H Smith’s was a good place to go for books. I had quite a few children’s books that came from Smith’s (Ladybirds, Observer’s books, that kind of thing) and later I bought a few shelves of Penguins and Pelicans from Smith’s, some of which I still have. The range was wide, and the attractions for a book lover with little money who didn’t live in a place with a big specialist bookshop were obvious. So if you look up at the fancy leadwork and the Shakespeare quotation and think it’s all a bit much for a shop stocking mostly magazines, stationery, and a few mass-market paperbacks, remember that once upon a time, you could almost educate yourself at Smith’s.

- - - - -

Note on the photograph The last time I visited Weston it was a dull day and the light wasn’t very good. I’ve therefore increased the brightness and contrast in the picture, in an attempt to make the design of the leadwork clearer. Clicking on the picture will enlarge it and make it clearer still.

Saturday, August 8, 2020

Page Street, London

Fit for service

In the years before World War I, few people could afford to run a car. Most car owners were rich, and many were rich enough to employ their own chauffeur, who’d usually double as mechanic – which was important, since motor vehicles were nowhere near as reliable as they are today. If you didn’t have a chauffeur, it was as well to have at least basic maintenance skills, but, in larger towns especially, there was enough demand for the first garages to start in business. Many mechanics worked in a large shed – maybe a wooden or corrugated iron structure – with enough space to work on a car and to store tools. But some garage owners went for something bigger.

One such firm was Charles Jarrott & Letts, who built their garage in London’s Page Street in 1913. Amazingly, the building is still there and traces of the owners’ names are still visible on the front. I didn’t know what it was when I first saw it, but the open door provoked my interest and I did wonder if it was a place where cars were once repaired. It seemed to have what was needed – plenty of space inside without columns getting in the way, so that you could drive cars in and turn them around; good headroom to accommodate larger vehicles and to allow air to circulate and fumes to find their way out; decent lighting (although this was provided by modern strip lights when I passed by).

Browsing through the excellent English Heritage book Carscapes,* I found a little more out about the building and its owners. Charles Jarrott was one of Britain’s first racing drivers, and one of the most successful of the period. Sir William Letts was chairman of Crossley Motors of Manchester, a company that had begun by making engines and industrial machinery, branching into car manufacturing in 1903. They had showrooms in the heart of London, in Great Marlborough Street. The Page Street premises were where vehicles were repaired and serviced.

Like many a garage, it’s not a beautiful building. A substantial cornice and pediment are the main architectural ornament. The rest of the visual interest would have come from the signage – the owners’ names above the double doors and in the pediment above, the single word ‘GARAGE’ in large, widely spaced capitals. Just a little more than the basics, then, but enough to ensure that the building paid its way long after Crossley Motors ceased to be an independent company in the 1940s. Above all, this not quite basic building shows how even such a structure can embody interesting history, reminding us that the early development of the motor car involved a variety of personalities – not just a prominent industrialist and a successful racing driver, but also the many anonymous mechanics who got the cars on the road and kept them there.

- - - - -

* Kathryn A. Morrison and John Minns, Carscapes: The Motor Car, Architecture and Landscape in England, Yale University Press, 2012

Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Highley, Shropshire

Job done

These are probably the humblest of all railway buildings. They’re lamp huts or tool sheds, and these corrugated iron versions, just 6 ft wide by 9 ft long, were ubiquitous on the Great Western Railway, and no doubt on other lines too. You found them by the trackside, near stations, signal boxes, and anywhere else where lamps, tools, and other small items needed to be stored. They were cheap, utilitarian, and supplied in flat-pack form, for easy erection on a prepared base in a matter of hours. Corrugated iron made assembling these structures quick and easy. Prepare a base, order up the flat pack, assemble, add a coat or two of paint – and the job was done. Whether they were building the roof of a large train shed in a city or putting up a little shed at a country halt, the Victorians looked on corrugated iron as a marvel of the industrial age.

Usually you find these huts on their own – if you needed more space, the flat-pack building firms like Boulton & Paul of Norwich or Samuel Taylor of Birmingham could supply something larger. But here on the Severn Valley Railway at Highley there are a couple, close together, painted in GWR colours, like the little platform shelter I posted recently on the Gloucestershire Warwickshire Railway at Hailes. Most of them are admirable examples of the way heritage railways find old, worn-out structures, restore them, and give them new life.

People used to look down on corrugated iron structures, especially small ones like this. ‘It’s just a tin hut’, they’d say. ‘What’s so special about that?’ But they were economical, readily available, easier to put up than a chest of drawers from IKEA, long-lasting, and simple to customize with a coat of paint in your railway’s livery. These days, more people appreciate these qualities of corrugated iron, and more and more I notice garages, sheds, and fences in the gardens of private houses, even in the cosseted Cotswolds where I live, many of them put there by people who haven’t necessarily chosen this material because it’s cheap. From a lamp hut to a barn for your 4 x 4, this Victorian wonder material is quietly but effectively doing its job.

Saturday, August 1, 2020

Stroud, Gloucestershire

Facing up to it

There has been much talk recently about Britain’s past involvement in slavery. The immediate focus for this discussion has been statues of slave owners and slave traders, but in this post I want to highlight a different kind of monument: this arch in Stroud commemorates the passing of the Abolition of Slavery Act in 1833. It was built in 1834 by Henry Wyatt, a local businessman and supporter of the Stroud Anti-Slavery Society, and it formed the entrance to Wyatt’s estate on the edge of the town.

Abolition was slow in coming. Britain abolished the slave trade – the buying and selling of slaves – in 1807, but British people continued to profit from slavery, especially in the form of sugar plantations in the Caribbean.* The steady rather than swift process of abolition. was in part due to pressure from slave owners and in part to the national Anti-Slavery Society, which included, as well as famous abolitions like William Wilberforce and Thomas Clarkson, Jamaican campaigners of mixed race such as William Hill and Louis Celeste Lecesne. This society initially argued for gradual reform, starting with improving the conditions endured by slaves, followed by emancipation over an extended period, followed finally by the abolition of slavery. But by the 1830s, those who wanted abolition to come more quickly prevailed, helped by local anti-slavery groups, who sent more than 5,000 petitions to Parliament between 1828 and 1830.

Pride when this goal was finally achieved led Wyatt not only to erect this arch as a memorial to the antislavery movement, but also to build it a the entrance to his estate. It’s a grand, classical arch but it’s not designed like a Roman triumphal arch – it’s more modest than that, lacking the massive superstructure of buildings like the Arch of Titus in Rome. At first glance it looks like many an entrance arch to the grounds of a country house, now placed rather incongruously next to modern houses, but with the old entrance lodge nearby and the hills in the distance. At the top, though, there’s a plaque explaining the role of the arch ‘Erected to commemorate the abolition of slavery in the British colonies the First of August A. D. MDCCCXXXIV.’

The house, Farmhill Park, was demolished in the early-20th century, and a housing estate and a school built in the former grounds. The school, called Archway School, seems especially appropriate today. We need to understand the history of slavery and the impact it has had. Education is vital for this, as it must be if racism is to be tackled. As James Baldwin put it, ’Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.’

- - - - -  

* Please see the Comment section for further information on this.

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Shepperdine, Gloucestershire


I’ve always admired the rippling effect of a traditional pantile roof. The ripple comes from the S-shaped profile of the pantiles, which sets them apart from the conventional flat tile. Another difference is that whereas flat tiles are laid so that each tile overlaps two others (a triple overlap), pantiles are designed to overlap with just one course of tiles below; this makes a pantile roof relatively light. A lighter covering needs a less substantial timber. framework to hold it up, so pantiles are useful in places where wood is hard to come by.

Traditionally, pantiles are most common in the parts of England that traded with the Netherlands, which is where this kind of tile originated. So you see a lot of them in East Anglia. One western town, Bridgwater in Somerset, developed its own pantile-making industry, so this type of roof is not unusual in Somerset. I should think the tiles in my photograph, which are rippling away in a remote farmyard near the River Severn in Gloucestershire, may well have come from Bridgwater on a boat that journeyed from that town on the River Parrett, along the Bristol Channel, and up the Severn towards Gloucester.

They look good on this collection of stone farm buildings, where they sit alongside bits of corrugated iron, galvanised steel gates, and a little brickwork. Some of them look as if they have been here for a very long time, but there are different phases of building (in the distance, the change of colour of tiles where a building has been built on to another is visible). Such changes are a reminder that this is still a working place, one that has been evolving to suit changing needs, as virtually any farm must if it is to survive. In an area where I noticed quite a few empty houses and repurposed barns, I hope these both survive and thrive.

Sunday, July 26, 2020

Great Bardfield, Essex

The carpenter...and Mr Pepper

My other personal favourite from Edward Bawden’s illustrations for Life in an English Country Village is the carpenter. Watching my father carefully mark out the edge of a door to fit a lock (and the corresponding strike plate on the jamb), then cut the required holes, deep for the lock itself and shallow for the plate, made me wonder how he’d got such skills, how he could achieve the necessary precision with such ease. He’d had various jobs in his life, from farm worker to supervisor in a factory, none of which required carpentry skills, and I knew that the tiny village school he attended would have had no facilities for teaching him the basics of woodwork. How then, did he wield a mallet and chisel so expertly? How did he even know where to start?

At first, when I asked him, he just said that it was years of trial and error – trying things, getting them wrong, then trying and getting a little better, and so on. Fail again, fail better, as Samuel Beckett had it. But at the end of his life, when reminiscences flowed more freely, he mentioned his boyhood fascination for what the village carpenter did in his workshop. Walking home from school, he and a friend used to peer surreptitiously through the open door of the carpenter’s shop. Eventually, someone saw them gawping, thought they were creating a nuisance, and shooed them away. The carpenter – who I seem to remember was called Mr Pepper – looked up. ‘No. Let them stay,’ he said. ‘They can watch. As long as they don’t touch anything.’

And so, every day for a while, my father stopped at the door of Mr Pepper’s and watched the craftsman at work. He was never allowed to try anything himself – those tools were too sharp and dangerous, and also too valuable to spoil – but he looked, and remembered. And occasionally, when things were quiet in the workshop, Mr Pepper would explain what he was doing. When, a little older, my Dad was working and could buy one or two tools of his own, he had a flying start, and the process of private mistake-making and trying again began.

They say there’s really only one way to acquire a practical skill – by doing it. And up to a point, that’s right. But there is more than one way of learning. You can also pick up a lot by watching someone who is really good at what they do. I think of that when I look at Bawden’s carpenter at work, with his glue on the heat, his saws, augurs, planes, mallet, and hammer within reach, his endless little boxes (every available size of wood screw?) stacked on the shelf, his spartan shop, which has what looks like a corrugated iron roof and wooden walls. It doesn’t look big, but there will be a yard out there where he can work too, and inside, the windows throw enough light on to the benches.

I sometimes think that I didn’t learn much from my father, whose work skills ran to an ability to grasp practical problems, learn manual skills, and manage people. Where did the gene that enabled that hand and eye coordination go, for a start? Vanished into air, into thin air. The carpenter’s skills are not the kind of abilities I put to use as a writer, perhaps. But I was taught that you can learn by looking. And I try to do that every day.

Friday, July 24, 2020

Great Bardfield, Essex

The tailor...and the tailoress

We have a shelf of King Penguin books – small, hardback volumes published by Penguin in the 1940s and 1950s, on a range of subjects. The books’ approach combines a text essay with a collection of pictures and the range is wide – there are a lot of natural history books, a few on places (Romney Marsh with illustrations by John Piper, The Isle of Wight illustrated by Barbara Jones), a few on subjects relating to historic buildings (The Leaves of Southwell by Nikolaus Pevsner, for example). These are all favourites of mine, but the one I like best of all is Life in an English Country Village, illustrated with a series of lithographs by Edward Bawden.

I am a great admirer of Bawden and I’m pleased that by owning this little book I have have a few of his works in a form that wasn’t ruinously expensive. I also like it that Bawden based his illustrations on people and buildings in Great Bardfield, the village where he and a number of other artists lived, making the place a hub of creative activity like few others – the local characters, and Bawden’s keen observation, shine through. If the palette is quite limited, the line is always clear and telling. And there’s a more personal reason I like this book. It reminds me of my mother and father.

My parents weren’t artists and didn’t live in Great Bardfield. But two illustration in particular remind me of stories they told me when I was growing up in the 1960s about what things were like when they were growing up in the 1930s. When she was small, my mother and her parents lived with her maternal grandparents in a large northern city. My great-grandfather was a tailor who worked from home. He had met my great-grandmother through her work, because she had the same trade as he did – she was always referred to as a tailoress, a term I’d not herd before and which seemed to suggest something a bit better than a seamstress. She could cut a gentleman’s suit, and do a good job too, although the mores of the time would perhaps not have allowed her to measure her customer’s inside leg. By the time my mother had arrived on the scene, the tailoress had given up her scissors and work table for domestic life (although she always made my mother beautiful clothes). My great grandfather continued in his work, however, and my mother told me how, as a very small girl, she would creep under his table while he sat on top, sewing away, just like Bawden’s tailor in the illustration. My grandmother, a rather strict woman, did not officially permit her daughter to go into the workroom – she’d distract the man at his important tasks – but the tailor was of course only too glad to have his only grandchild’s company as he snipped and stitched away.

All this passes through my mind as I look at Bawden’s illustration. The room the tailor works in looks as if it may be some outhouse or shed – I’m thinking of the ceiling, which looks like a pitched roof clad inside with tongue and groove boards. But I may be wrong: it could just as well be an opportunistic house extension. It certainly doesn’t look like the spacious front room of a Victorian house, the setting of my great grandfather’s tailoring. But both rooms are light, and both no doubt equipped with what it took for a man to do his job, a job which needed sharp vision, concentration, and excellent coordination of hand and eye – qualities needed by an artist like Bawden too.