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.

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Jordans, Buckinghamshire


Sneck? Sneck: noun. A latch on a door or window (chiefly Scottish and northern English).*

When I was a small boy, I went each summer with my parents to see my grandparents in rural Lincolnshire. Where we lived, the doors had conventional knobs that you turned, but in my grandparents’ tiny house, in the middle of a field in the marshy area between Louth and the sea, the internal doors had latches like the one above. This particular example was photographed in a house in Jordans, Buckinghamshire, but it was in Lincolnshire that I first saw these latches, with on one side of the door a handle and thumb plate that opened the latch when pressed, and on the other side a downward-curving lever that you raised to unfasten the door.

I found that I didn’t need to be shown how to use this ingenious device. When someone (my grandmother?) said to me: ‘Open the door – you grandad’s coming in with two buckets of coal – can you reach the sneck?’ I instinctively knew what was meant and what to do; I didn’t need anyone to tell me that a northern word for door latch was being used. Another word was added to my four-year-old vocabulary, soon to be extended further by such terms as ‘copper’ (the tank where water for washing was heated), ‘dyke’ (the big ditches that drained the fields hereabouts – they looked like rivers to me), and ‘plum bread’ (fruit loaf, which I liked and still do). Soon I would discover (from my Lincolnshire farming relatives) that the ‘crew’ was a yard where cattle were kept, and that ‘beasts’ were not just any animals but very specifically cattle, especially beef cattle, and what’s more that in Lincolnshire the word ‘beasts’ had two syllables (‘BEE-usts’). I was getting an early lesson in local distinctiveness.

We’ve become more aware of door fastenings in the last few months. Do they need sanitizing? Yes, they very likely do. As a recent article in Apollo makes clear, they have been the concern of designers and architects for centuries. Whether it’s fancy porcelain Victorian door knobs, curvaceous Art Nouveau latches, or the sleekest modernist versions in stainless steel, designers have always produced the door furniture that’s required, items, as Pevsner would have said, that reflect the Zeitgeist. The latch in my photograph, with its heart-shapes, is reminiscent of the work of the great Arts and Crafts architect C. F. A. Voysey, but really it’s just a pleasant version of the old-fashioned sneck. Such a design may not look as sleek as a ‘less is more’ doorknob by Mies or Gropius, but it’s just as efficient, and rather simpler. It works, is easy to use and understand (literally, easy to grasp), and is virtually unbreakable. Here’s to the sneck.

- - - - -

* Online enquiries have also turned up the term Suffolk latch for this piece of door furniture.

Friday, July 17, 2020

Pershore, Worcestershire

Judge’s lodgings

Further along Bridge Street, Pershore from the town house in my previous post is one with more pretensions to grandeur. Instead of the multitude of small sashes of its near neighbour, Perrott House shows off with a smaller number of large windows. There’s a big Venetian window in the middle of the first floor, with canted bays on either side. The ground-floor canted bays, with their arched front openings, echo the proportions of the Venetian window on the floor above, as does the doorway, which has a smaller fanlight than the one at number 3, but one that makes up for that with a strong pattern of glazing bars and chunky voussoirs around the arch.

Perrott House, it struck me as I looked at it, was clearly built for someone who either wanted to make their mark or who’d made their mark already – the latter, as it turns out, for the owner was Judge George Perrott, Baron of the Exchequer, who sat in courts of equity in the second half of the 18th century. No doubt like other residents of Bridge Street, he must have made good use of Worcestershire’s improved transport links to the capital. His architect (it’s not known who it was) provided the judge with an impressive house, albeit with a facade made up of standard motifs (Venetian windows, quoins, pediment, and so on) of Georgian architecture. It’s what you’d expect in the house of a rich and prominent person in the 1770s living in a wealthy town in the provinces. I’d love to see inside, because we’re told* that the interior, with its fine Adam-style stucco work and marble fireplaces, was a cut above the provincial norm and was probably done by good London craftsmen. Those transport links, it seems, paid off.

- - - - -

* See for example the Worcestershire volume of Pevsner; the listing text for the house even speculates that Robert Adam may have been the architect.

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Pershore, Worcestershire

Good honest building

Pershore – a town dominated by the abbey in the Middle Ages, by trades such as wool-dealing and glove-making on either side of the dissolution, and by market gardening after that – must have been both prosperous and fashionable in the Georgian period. Some of the 18th-century houses in the town centre are outstanding. Back then, even if you were clattering through the streets as the London coach gathered speed (Pershore was the first stopping place out of Worcester) you very probably noticed the array of solid brick walls and smart sash windows. The sharp-eyed traveller might even haver made out finer details such as the showy fanlights and carved keystones.

My photograph shows one of my favourites, right in the centre of the town. Number 3 Bridge Street is a whopper: seven bays wide and all the windows bar one of the same size – no one was bothering here about making the windows on the first floor larger, to signal the comfortable main rooms that would have been on this floor, the Italian piano nobile. Plain ‘six over six’ sashes were good enough for the owner of this house. But when it came to the doorway they allowed themselves a bit of ‘look at me’ swagger: a broad door topped by a huge fanlight with glazing bars patterned in interlocking circles and circles within circles, a design that leaves the beholder wide-eyed with amazement. This was a window both highly practical (it made for a light hallway inside) and decorative. In addition, I was interested to note, just visible through the glazing on the upper floor, evidence of inner windows with ogee-arched lights, suggesting a form of double glazing that looks very well made. In fact the whole house – big but unpretentious – looks well made, what I’d describe, borrowing an old phrase, as ‘good honest building’.

Saturday, July 11, 2020

Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire

Local hero

Looking at this little bit of pleasant small-town classicism on Tewkesbury’s High Street, I was reminded what a rich resource the vocabulary of classical architecture has been for provincial builders and architects. A pediment, some pilasters or half-columns in the right proportions, maybe a little statuary, and you are on the way to a pleasing, balanced facade, and one that seems to speak of the civic virtues too. And civic virtues are relevant in this case, since the building houses Tewkesbury’s Town Hall.

But pausing outside it to look more closely on a walk under the relaxed conditions of lockdown-light, I noticed that this building has not just one but three pediments – one on the facade, one further back and higher, and a tiny one on the bell turret. The rear pediment is there because the original Town Hall was built set back from the street in 1788. The street facade in front of it was added in 1857 as the entrance to the town’s Corn Hall, the place where farmers would come to sell their grain. So what we’re looking at here is two halls in one: Town Hall at the back, Corn Hall at the front.

The facade, when you look closely, expresses the Corn Hall’s purpose symbolically with the sculpture, which is by Henry Frith. The two figures flanking the clock represent Agricultural Labour and Ceres, Roman goddess of fertility, farming, and corn in particular. There are also sheaves of corn carved on the left- and right-hand corbels, which double as the keystones of the arches that contain the windows – and there’s carved corn around the clock. Pevsner compares the design, by Gloucestershire architect James Medland, to that of similar facades in Cirencester and Gloucester. Cirencester’s Corn Hall bears similar lavish ornament, while the entrance to Gloucester’s former Eastgate street market, now the entrance to the Eastgate Shopping Centre, is a much larger and more monumental three-arched and pedimented design, with similar proportions to the Tewkesbury building. All three structures are by Medland’s firm.

Hats off, then, to a little known local architect working in a classical idiom and producing decent buildings that have acted as landmarks and valued facilities for over 150 years. Given the rate at which some of our more recent buildings have succumbed to structural collapse, safety issues, neglect, or changes in fashion, such people deserve our appreciation.

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire

No madding crowd

Yes, this is something you don’t often see on this blog: a really famous building. It’s Shakespeare’s birthplace, the house in Stratford that in normal times attracts crowds inside and out. But as we were emerging out of lockdown last month, Stratford was still quiet and I took the opportunity to take a photograph of the building without anyone standing in front of it. It’s not known for sure how long this house has stood here, but we do know that John Shakespeare, the poet’s father, was living here by 1552, when he was fined for leaving a midden heap (dumping trash, you might say) in the street outside. Not an auspicious entry into the historical record, but Shakespeare senior rose to prominence in Stratford-upon-Avon. A dealer in wool and hides and a maker of gloves, he was an alderman and spent a period as the town’s High Bailiff.

William Shakespeare inherited the house in 1601, by which time he was a successful playwright in London with his own house in his home town. So he leased the house to tenants. By the early-19th century, there were no surviving direct descendants of the dramatist, and the house fell into disrepair and was partly refaced in brick. When it came on the market in 1849, P. T. Barnum announced that he wanted to buy it, take it apart, and rebuild it in America. This was the spur that the British admirers of Shakespeare needed to buy the house themselves and preserve it. They raised the money, and repaired and refaced the building so that it looked much more like its 16th-century self.

At the same time, the second half of the 19th century saw a revaluation of Shakespeare as a writer. New editions of his works came out, a Shakespeare festival was started in Stratford, and a theatre was built to put on the plays. Shakespeare turned into a kind of national symbol (or at least into a symbol of England’s outstanding achievements in the arts), and Stratford attracted visitors from all over the world. Insofar as the street was quiet the other day, I welcomed the fact that the crowds of Shakespearian pilgrims were not visiting Stratford. But the bustle of the town in normal times, with its mixture of shoppers, theatre-goers, students, culture tourists, and even the odd literary scholar, cannot be too far from the diverse crowd that attended the plays in London’s Globe theatre in Shakespeare’s lifetime. Let’s hope they can return soon.

Saturday, July 4, 2020

Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire

Wise foolery

There’s something satisfying about the fact that the Stratford-upon-Avon branch of W. H. Smith, newsagents, stationers and booksellers, should be housed in a timber-framed building that looks very much at home in this town of famous timber-framed structures. But this shop isn’t one of the celebrated ancient buildings of Stratford (Shakespeare’s Birthplace, Harvard House, Hall’s Croft, and the rest): it’s only about one hundred years old. So what’s the story?

In the early-20th century, W. H. Smith had its own Estates Department, led by the architect Frank C. Bayliss, which designed and developed new shops, refurbished old ones, and was responsible for such things as lighting, heating, and decoration.* By the early-1920s, when the Stratford shop was built, they’d developed a house style, with shopfronts in light oak, with many small panes of glass, classic Roman lettering (designed by Eric Gill) for the signage, and the frequent use of colourful tiling. The red ‘newsboy’ hanging sign (the work of Septimus Scott) was ubiquitous and the half-timbered look was often employed for the upper floors of the building. The 1920s were a busy time for Bayliss, so he often commissioned local architects to work on specific branches. The firm of Osborn, Pemberton and White was responsible for this one and they followed the house style.§

Smith’s weren’t new to Stratford when they built this shop. In fact they had occupied the property next door, a building once home to Shakespeare’s daughter Judith, before they moved to these larger premises. The architects added a couple of appropriate touches that have survived recent modifications to the frontage.† A panel above the shop sign contains a quotation from Shakespeare’s early play Titus Andronicus: ‘Come and take choice of all my library and so beguile thy sorrow’ – spot on for Stratford, of course, but also used by the company on their Kingsway branch in London. William Henry Smith, the man who built up the business in the 19th century using the profits he made from station bookstalls, was on a mission to sell good literature to the masses; his company produced pioneering cheap editions of literary classics and liked literary quotations – the branch in my home town, Cheltenham, used to have a line of Wordsworth on the shop front. The other unusual touch is provided by the carved heads on the consoles (the brackets at either end of the shop sign). One, the head of a jester (below), feels just right for the town of Shakespeare, whose plays often include a jester or ‘fool’. Shakespeare’s fools generally prove wiser than the kings, queens, and aristocrats that they serve. In this age of anonymous, plastic-fronted retailing, W. H. Smith’s are wise to have preserved shops such as this.

* I’m indebted for my information on the history of W. H. Smith’s shops to Kathryn A. Morrison’s excellent book, English Shops and Shopping (Yale University Press, 2003).

§ The best surviving example of this house style is the branch at Newtown, Powys, technically outside the scope of this English Buildings blog, but it’s so outstanding that one of these days I’ll have to post it anyway.

† The sign uses Smith’s current letterform, and I think there would originally have been small panes of glass lower down the window too.

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire

Worth the money

Every time the Resident Wise Woman and I go to the theatre at Stratford, we approach the town by a back round in the northern Cotswolds and, just before we reach our destination, cross the Clopton Bridge. This long and magnificent stone structure was originally built in the 1480s. Although it has undergone numerous repairs and alterations since then, it’s still one of the most important and striking of all medieval bridges, with its long parapets (what we usually see from the car) and its fourteen pointed stone arches. It’s not the widest of bridges – there’s room for two-way traffic and for a pavement on one side, but no-one crossing can feel they have much elbow room. But it was even narrower before a widening exercise was carried in 1814. At the same time as the widening, this large ten-sided toll house was built on the southern side of the bridge at the town centre end.

It’s big for a toll house – two floors visible from the bridge and another one below, and each of them substantial. Crenellations on the parapet and an array of windows with four-centred heads and glazing with small panes help it stand out further. The shape allows for windows facing either way along the bridge, so that the bridge-keeper can seem traffic coming from both directions – but that would have been the case with an eight-sided building (the more usual shape for a toll house). I don’t know why this one has ten sides, but it must make for more usable space inside than an octagon and certainly catches the eye.

The various smooth, new pieces of stone in the building are the legacy of a recent restoration, when the noticeboard was also renewed. This lists tolls for a variety of users, based on tolls fond in a record in the archives of Shakespeare’s Birthplace. The tolls for wheeled transport are very specific, for example: ‘For every coach, Berlin, landau, chariot, calash, chaise, or chair drawn by six horses, mares, geldings, or mules, the sum of one shilling and sixpence.’ That takes care, presumably, of would-be Scrooges who might try to harness up mules and try to get across for no charge, on the basis that only horses are mentioned on the price list. Today everyone crosses free of charge, giving me some extra pennies to help pay for my coffee in the theatre foyer cafe.

Sunday, June 28, 2020

Bewdley, Worcestershire

Hard cell

Being stuck at home made me think of this place. It’s a rather impressive lock-up, built at one end of the late-18th century Shambles (market) building in the centre of Bewdley. There are actually three cells, one of which is oriented differently and so not visible in my photograph. The whole complex is now part of Bewdley Museum. As is common with lock-ups of the period, the structure is strong and windowless, with brick walls and – a touch which relates the little building to larger-scale prison architecture – stone door surrounds with heavily rusticated blocks.

Those blocks seem to speak of high security, but their symbolism goes beyond this, I think. Their hint of urban grandeur – with the implication that the town had spent more than the minimum on its small prison – speaks of a place that was said to have had quite a bit of use for a lock-up. In the 19th century, Bewdley apparently had some 30 pubs – a large number in what was then a small town – and a resultant persistent problem with drunkenness. It could be, then, that the main use for these cells was to bang up drunks behind the heavy studded iron-bound wooden doors until they sobered up and dried out.

The doors are in fact replacements, but they give a good idea what the lock-up would have been like (the originals are displayed in the museum too), as do the spartan cell interiors. These have a masonry platform on which was the occupant’s bed, plus a ceramic tiled floor, a tiny fireplace, and not much else. It’s very basic, but then 18th-century prisons usually were. The prevailing view of the architecture and the inmates was no doubt that this was ‘as good as they deserve’. Other times, other ways.

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Aldeburgh, Suffolk


What does a cinema look like? If you have an image of a ‘typical’ cinema in your mind’s eye, it might look like something from the interwar period, maybe an Art Deco monster cinema like the one in Balham that I posted not long ago, or a structure adorned with decoration evocation the glamour of the cinema, such as the pair of naked women circled in strips of celluloid that once signposted a cinema in Cheltenham. Or, these days, it might be one of the anonymous town centre multiplexes of which only the front door and a panel of posters is visible.

But there is no ‘standard’ cinema design. People project films in all kinds of settings. In the small Cotswold town where I live, there was once a cinema in the Town Hall, whereas Woodhall Spa, a small town in Lincolnshire, is home to the Kiinema in the Woods, a surprising and picturesque former sports pavilion. The cinema in Aldeburgh is similarly surprising, a half-timbered building, small enough not to look at all out of scale in the town’s lovely main street. But it’s not exactly discreet – the half-timbering means it’s easy to find and gives it that touch of whimsy that has seen its larger cousins dressed up in a 1930s version of ancient Egyptian or Grecian garb.

The building is also one of the oldest cinemas in continuous operation. It began in 1919,* when an existing shop was extended to house the auditorium, and, like many an early cinema, has also hosted live theatre shows. The cinema has kept going with a mix of feature films, ‘art house’ screenings, and even, recently, a documentary festival. It also caught on early to the recent trend for offering ‘live’ screenings of major theatre and opera productions. So, what do you think of when someone mentions Aldeburgh? Benjamin Britten? Maggi Hambling? Fish and chips? Festivals of music or poetry or comedy? Perhaps film should be on the list too. Although I didn’t make it inside when I visited Aldeburgh late last year, the cinema still seemed to be thriving, with the very active support of the local community. And I hope, when normal conditions eventually resume, it will thrive again.

- - - - -

* The Lumières’ first public screening was in 1895.

Sunday, June 21, 2020

Markham Moor, Nottinghamshire

Filling up, filling in

The frustrations of lockdown: lack of contact with friends and family; lack of secondhand bookshops in which to browse; inability to go and look at interesting buildings. Antidotes to the above: keep in touch with people by telephone, email, social media (the latter in moderation); rereading books I like, browsing my own shelves for inspiration; doing blog posts about buildings I have seen in the past but not got around to writing about, researching places to visit in the future when travel and social contact are possible once more. Here’s one of the latter.

Before the motorway age really got going, those planning a car journey over a long distance thought in terms of major roads. And there was no road more major, no more obvious symbol of moving around by road, than the Great North Road, the artery running from London northwards to Doncaster, York, Darlington, and on to Scotland, a route so important that when the roads were numbered it became the A1. When the route was joined by the first extended north-south motorway, the M1 that runs slightly to the west of the A1, the Great North Road did not fall into disuse. It was still much-used and still is in normal times. And as traffic increased in the 1950s and 1960s, it acquired numerous garages and filling stations, the ubiquitous accompanists of the lorry and car.

Most of these buildings are unremarkable architecturally, but there was one that was rather special. This was the filling station at Markham Moor, Nottinghamshire, between Newark and Doncaster. The distinguishing thing about it is the roof, made of a thin shell of reinforced concrete in a hyperbolic parabaloid shape. The architect was Sam Scorer* (he designed a church with a similar shaped roof in Lincoln), and he worked with the engineer Kalman Hajnal-Kónyi. I love the sweeping shape of the roof, but I don’t like what happened to it later, when someone built a restaurant underneath it, in place of the forecourt where the pumps originally were. The arrival of the Little Chef, however, may have saved the roof from demolition, and it is said that the restaurant building does not compromise the roof’s structure and could be removed without harming the shell. An earlier photograph gives an idea what the building was like in its heyday.

Why such an extravagant roof for such a modest building? First, it’s a landmark. That means that it’s easily visible from passing vehicles. Drivers can see it coming, and have time to stop and pull in. If they pass regularly they recognise it, and maybe will make a point of filling up there – so the roof is an advert, in a way. Second, fashion. When it was built (1959–60), architects and engineers were enthusiastically exploring the new kinds of structures they could build with concrete. Shell roofs like this had a hint of the future about them – even more so a couple of years later when those flying to New York might see Eliel Saarinen’s remarkable TWA Terminal building, with its roofs like aeroplane wings. Third, economics. Steel was rationed, and this kind of roof used much less of the material than a roof with steel posts and beams.†

What will happen to this building after coronavirus? The Little Chef restaurant business closed a few years ago. As far I know, the site is empty now, and fuel is supplied from a more modern facility nearby. The roof structure is listed, so its demolition is unlikely. However, it also needs to be looked after and used somehow. I for one hope a role can be found for it – if only for the selfish reason that I’d like my spirits to be lifted by it as I make my way, one of these days, along the sometimes relentless Great North Road.§

- - - - -

* Hugh Segar ‘Sam’ Scorer (1923–2003) lived and worked in Lincoln, where he designed numerous buildings including the church of St John the Baptist, Ermine. He liked fast cars, especially Jaguars.

† I am indebted to an article by Karolina Szynalska, ‘The Markham Moor Papilio: A Picturesque Commentary’, Open Arts Journal, Issue 2, Winter 2013–2014, here.

§ Thanks to two readers, who have told me that the building now houses a branch of Starbucks.

The recent photograph below is by Richard Croft and used under this Creative Commons licence. The early photograph above is reproduced in Karolina Szynalska’s article; apologies if I have infringed anyone’s copyright – I will credit or remove the image if the copyright owner wishes.

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Moreton Valence, Gloucestershire


The A38 between Gloucester and Bristol was once a major artery to the southwest, though nowadays the M5, running roughly parallel, takes most of the heavy traffic. I remember when I was a boy that my parents and I would sit in traffic jams on the A38, and when the car got moving again we’d pass through dusty villages, places called odd things like Cambridge and Berkeley Road, that seemed to want to be somewhere else. Moreton Valence was one that got away down lanes to one side of the main road, and its church feels remote, a world away from the bustle that anyway has gone now.

We came here to look at the outside of the church and in particular the wondrous tympanum above the door that now shelters beneath a partly timber-framed porch. It’s Norman, and vigorously carved in low relief, although the relief was probably deeper when it was made in the 12th century – there are signs of wear during the centuries before the porch was built in the late Middle Ages, and this, the main entrance to the church, unusually faces north. The reason for the odd orientation is across the churchyard fence. An ancient moat, filled with duckweed, marks the site of what must have been the medieval manor house. A north door was the quickest way in for the local lord.

And what he and the rest of the congregation saw as they entered was this carving: an angel, presumably the Archangel Michael, spearing a dragon. The carver portrayed Michael with long hair, neatly carved feathered wings, and a nimbus. The sculptor made good use of the semicircular shape of the stone, portraying Michael leaning dramatically towards the beast, so that both his head and his wing almost touch the edge of the tympanum: it’s a pose that suggests power and effort, as he shoves his spear or lance dragonwards. The beast, too, is carefully carved. A beady eye, one fang, and a curvaceous ear are all visible, though difficult to capture in a photograph without extra lighting. Like the angel, the dragon is effectively positioned, but – in keeping with its defensive stance – the creature is twisted awkwardly with the body pointing forwards and the head turned back. Again, the frame is neatly filled.

The sculpture of Norman tympana is quite diverse. Even within the confines of this blog, I’ve posted tympana featuring such subjects as the Harrowing of Hell, the Coronation of the Virgin, Christ in Majesty, and miscellaneous monsters. The other dragon-slayer I’ve seen in a Norman carving, at Ruardean, is on horseback, and as such has been seen as a knight and so identified as St George. The Ruardean figure is in much deeper relief than this one at Moreton Valence, and it’s a shame the stone here has worn so much – the wings, Michael’s garment, the nimbus, and other details suggest carving of some detail and quality. But I’m grateful for what’s left.

Sunday, June 14, 2020

Summer books: 3

Kate Kennedy and Hermione Lee (eds), Lives of Houses
Published by Princeton University Press

The art critic John Russell said that the best way to educate oneself was to visit other people’s houses. There you would find the essence of the owner, and there would always be a place of focus (it might be the library, or the dining table, or the mantlepiece full of invitations, or the tray of drinks) that would reveal the person’s character and could, if one was lucky, open up new worlds. We hope for something like that, perhaps, when we visit writers’ houses that are open to the public – Hardy’s Dorset cottage, or Jane Austen’s Chawton, or the town house where Dickens lived for a few pivotal years.

This book is collection of essays (mostly by literary scholars and historians) and poems about houses once lived in by writers, artists, composers, and one architect. These essays bring out, often very movingly, how important these houses were to their occupants. Among the highlights for me are Felicity James’s essay focusing on Wordsworth’s Dove Cottage, the house that confirmed for him how a life in the country had made him into a poet (the cottage is also the subject of a memorable poem, ‘Home at Grasmere’); James tellingly shows how for the Romantic poets, home was often the focus of nostalgia. W. B. Yeats’s tower at Ballylee, damp, inconvenient, problematic in many ways, but a vital symbol for Yeats and the inspiration of more great poetry, is the subject of an evocative essay by Roy Foster; the piece reveals how the tower fulfilled the poet’s need for a domestic link to Irish history. The houses in Tennyson’s life, so important, so celebrated in the contemporary press, but ambivalent to the poet (as were other houses, like the looming ‘dark house’ of his dead friend Arthur Hallam in his poem In Memoriam) are analysed by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst. Ainola, the Finnish country house where the composer Sibelius spent his last, silent years, famously not producing the eighth symphony for which so much of the musical world longed, is the subject of a moving piece by Julian Barnes.

Many of the occupants drew deeply on their houses and their locations, as Wordsworth and Yeats did. Some were grounded in their homes through family succession – most clearly, Elizabeth Bowen, recalled by Hermione Lee. To the novelist, Bowen’s Court, the family ‘big house’ in Ireland, meant so much. The tensions of the Anglo-Irish life are still vividly present in many of her books, but Bowen’s Court itself is gone, a bare patch of grass now, a house of air. In stark contrast are the writers and artists who struggled to settle down. Edward Lear seems to have spent much of his life as a lonely wanderer, then built his ideal home in Italy, only to suffer the spoliation of its setting soon after the house was complete. And Lear’s story, told by Jenny Uglow, was a happy one compared to that of poet and composer Ivor Gurney, who as an adult never really had a home at all and spent the last 15 years of his life in the bleak confines of the City of London Mental Hospital, Dartford. As Kate Kennedy points out in her essay on Gurney in Dartford, the poet’s native Gloucestershire meant so much to the troubled poet-composer that a day there would have been worth years incarcerated in Dartford; only the arrival of Helen Thomas with a bunch of OS maps of Gloucestershire gave him some imaginative relief.

Lives of Houses is full of such anecdotes and insights – about the role of the great house of Uppark in the life of H. G. Wells, about Auden at Kirchstetten, Disraeli at Hughenden, Britten at Aldeburgh. Gillian Darley contributes a rich piece about Sir John Soane’s house in Lincoln’s Inn Fields – a house to read like the leaves formed by Soane’s ingenious fold-out picture-frames, a town house that seems to have been caught in the act of turning into a ruin, a building that is also an autobiography. Most moving of all, perhaps, are the people recalled by Alexander Masters in the essay ‘Fear of Houses’, men and women whom circumstances made homeless and for whom this state of homelessness produces reactions from longing for four walls to terror at the confinement brought by a life within closed doors. Fortunate are those with a home they can call their own; fortunate are those who can learn from other people’s houses.

Thursday, June 11, 2020

Summer Books: 2

Andrew Ziminski: The Stonemason: A History of Building Britain
Published by John Murray

Here’s something different. A book about British buildings written not by an architectural historian, nor a travel writer, nor a generalist historian, but by a stonemason. Andrew Ziminski, who has been repairing old buildings for years, has written an enthralling study of the varied nature of our buildings, throughout prehistory and history, but especially in those eras when stone was the dominant material: the stone, the structures, their visual impact, and their aesthetic qualities. He tells the story chronologically, beginning with prehistoric monuments like Avebury and working his way towards Bath and beyond. The book is also chronological in another sense, in that the buildings and Ziminski’s encounters with them are described over the period of a working year, from the prehistoric West Kennet long barrow in November to a trip up the Thames about a year later.

It’s a unique perspective and for several reasons. Most obviously, Ziminski writes with the authority of someone who knows from personal experience how buildings are put together. The book is full of insights into the way a mason works, the qualities of different building stones, the ways they have been worked. He often points out the visual evidence for all this, noticing adze marks, for example, on stonework done before the chisel became ubiquitous, or finding stones laid not with mortar but with a layer of clay. A lot of these observations are a direct result of his working experience, as are his accounts of his tools and how he uses them. Inevitably he works with traditional techniques, and he’s willing to take this to extremes, for example, by trying out what it’s like to work sarsen – the hard-as-nails stone of which the big uprights at Stonehenge are made – using hand tools. At first this seems impossible – you end up covered in fine dust and in danger of giving yourself silicosis. The secret that helped the ancient stonemasons, Ziminki realises, was probably to work the stone when it’s fresh out of the ground and still has some moisture in it, the moisture to which stone workers still give the evocative name ‘quarry sap’.

Such insights are a frequent pleasure. Further shafts of light come from the way the author travels around. He has a penchant for taking to his canoe, and this gives him a special viewpoint, so that he can see how the landscape changes as you paddle up the Thames, or how, in travelling along a river you are also following the routes along which building stone was transported in the Middle Ages. When he’s not working at the top of a cathedral tower, Ziminski is usually close to the earth or the water, and this gives him a clear sense of the character and spirit of the places to which his work takes him. The descriptions of places, from Somerset to the City of London, are among the great pleasures of this book.

The author is full of admiration for the buildings he encounters and the skills of the men (and occasionally women¶) who worked on them. He’s appreciative too of his colleagues and their work, people who share with him hard won skills, a love of good craftsmanship, satisfaction in a good repair, even if it will only be noticed or truly appreciated by those in the know. His only scorn is for shoddy work as when he finds some appalling pointing on a part§ of Bath’s magnificent Royal Crescent: ‘It is as though a chimpanzee had been let loose on Audrey Hepburn’s face with a lipstick in the dark.’

But there’s little such scorn in the book. Mostly it’s a testimony to sensitivity and deep knowledge, to a vivid sense of place and to long experience on the ground. Whenever I talk to people about old buildings, someone will say, ‘Of course you can’t get skilled craftsmen these days; there are none of them left.’ Untrue, as the work of Ziminksi, many talented colleagues, and a couple of handfuls of cathedral masons’ yards all show. It’s good to have this tribute to the work of such exemplary craftspeople, ancient and modern.

- - - - -

¶ There are of course female stonemasons today; one of Ziminski’s insights is that there were women masons in the Middle Ages too, to at least one reader’s surprise.

§ A part only: this crescent also exhibits very fine conservation work.

Monday, June 8, 2020

Summer Books: 1

Kathryn Ferry: Seaside 100
Published by Unicorn Publishing

What do you think of when you think of the British seaside? Sandcastles? Donkeys? Ice cream? Punch and Judy? Fish and chips? Bathing belles? What do I think of? All of the above, plus beach huts, grand hotels, bandstands, lidos, Clevedon Pier and the De La Warr Pavilion. There could be a hundred things, the features that sum up the seaside and embody its history, and they’re all here, given a couple of pages each, in Kathryn Ferry’s new book, Seaside 100.

They make a varied bunch, but they hang together because of their common theme. And although the book’s one hundred short sections make it look a bit like a selection box that you can dip in and out of, they actually build into a historical picture of the seaside, from its beginnings with the health resorts, bathing machines, and excursion trains of the 18th and 19th centuries to the conserved piers, art galleries, and seafront sculptures of today.

There is a great deal of research crammed into this short book, but its author’s learning is worn lightly and her text is liberally sprinkled with well chosen pictures that lend visual atmosphere as well as being informative in themselves – old railway posters, historic images of holiday camp chalets, or the Blackpool illuminations, or pierrots. I found myself often surprised by what I was learning – about 18th-century seaside voyeurs looking at bathers through telescopes, about the ubiquity of bedbugs in lodging houses, about the varied designs of bathing machines, or about the early history of seaside donkeys or suntan lotion. I was pleasurably reminded, too, of things I’d forgotten, like the way in which lodging house guests used to bring their own food, which the landlady cooked for them, or how the first railway-carriage buildings were not bungalows but Victorian fishermen’s net stores. And I was grateful to Kathryn Ferry for answering questions I’d never asked. Who did write ‘I do like to be beside the seaside’, for example. It was one of those tunes I’d just taken for granted (like the circus clown’s anthem, ‘The Entry of the Gladiators’*). Now I know the answer.

Many readers of this blog are British, and people for whom the seaside is part of their childhood and heritage. Such readers will find much to entertain, amuse, and enlighten them in Seaside 100. So too will anyone with an interest in seaside architecture, and that includes amusement arcades and ice cream parlours as well as the buildings that are now regarded as the sophisticated legacy of seaside modernism – streamlined lidos, apartment blocks that look like ocean liners, Morecambe’s Midland Hotel, and, yes, Bexhill’s De La Warr Pavilion. There is more to be said of these buildings than Kathryn Ferry has room for here, but she ensures that they take their place in this attractive survey of what makes the seaside distinctive. If like me you live far from the sea and want a breath of fresh salty air and seaside history, I’d recommend ordering this book, getting in some social distanced fish and chips from your local take-away, and soaking up the atmosphere. If you're by the sea already, the book will add to your enjoyment too.

- - - - -

* And, for that matter, who wrote ’The Entry of the Gladiators’? Bouncing Czech march and polka king Julius Fučik, that’s who. Thanks to the musician-friend who told me. But he didn't write ‘I do like to be beside the seaside’. Get hold of Kathryn Ferry’s book to find out about that song.

Friday, June 5, 2020


Small-scale Leeds (3): Start small, build big

In 1884, Michael Marks, who had arrived shortly before as a refugee from the Russian Partition of Poland, opened a ‘penny bazaar’ in the Kirkgate Market in Leeds. In a penny bazaar, every item cost the same: Marks’ slogan was ‘Don’t ask the price. It’s a penny.’ Ten years later he went into partnership with Thomas Spencer, a former clerk for the wholesaler Isaac Dewhirst, who had supplied Marks with goods (and helped him with his English) when he started out in business. Marks and Spencer soon expanded their business and by 1904 had taken on their first shop. One of the great retailing names had arrived on Britain’s high streets.

Today’s Marks & Spencer in Kirkgate Market, looks similar to the original penny bazaar, but the Victorian version may have been rather larger. When I was there it was closed, but be assured, this is a functioning shop, and it seemed to have gifts and confectionery for sale inside. In that respect it’s like neither the original bazaar (which offered anything Marks could sell for a penny – hair pins, dyes, black lead…) nor the typical contemporary M&S store, with its specialisms in clothing and food. But it’s interesting that the business commemorates its humble origins, and the shiny paint, gilt capitals and bold lettering suggest they are proud of the man who arrived as a refugee and made a fortune and built something amounting to a national institution.

Tuesday, June 2, 2020


Small-scale Leeds (2): Doing the office proud

This building not far from the gigantic town hall in Leeds is grand, but not gigantic, and compared to its more famous neighbour, it’s on a small scale. It’s the sort of thing that still survives here and there in Britain’s large cities: a compact office block in the Gothic style. For Leeds, it has a special significance because it is said to be the first dedicated block of office chambers in the city. It was built in the late 1860s and housed the offices of Charles Fowler, a Leeds surveyor who also acted as architect on some buildings. He may well have designed this one.

It is not an unusual building for the 1860s: Gothic in style, red brick with stone dressings, and quite ornate. Its triple lancet sash windows have slender stone shafts that hold up stone arches. The windows on the ground floor also sit above a stretch of wall that’s stone and decorated with quatrefoils. These are more quatrefoils in the stretch of parapet at the top of the building between the two gables.

But the really striking feature is the doorway. This is pointed, with a cinquefoil inner arch and two pairs of shafts. Around the main arch run several bands of carved ornament – a mixture of dogtooth and stylised leaves. All this is the kind of thing seen on medieval Gothic arches too, but the difference is the band containing the name, Britannia Buildings. You would not normally see such a name panel on a medieval structure, and if there were an inscription it would certainly not use the very Victorian letterform that features here, with its fancy capitals – very rounded Bs, a curly G, and an I with extra ornament halfway up.* With such a bold architectural statement, we can have no doubt where we are. 

- - - - -

* It’s worth clicking on the photograph to enlarge it.

Saturday, May 30, 2020


Small-scale Leeds (1): Time for shopping

One of the things I’d like to do while travel is restricted is to make some virtual revisits to places I’ve mentioned before on the blog, but which deserve more coverage. A good example is the fascinating city of Leeds – which I covered in September 2019 as ‘Gigantic Leeds’. Maybe it’s time for a short selection of samples of Leeds on a smaller scale.

My first is one of the half-dozen arcades in the city. It’s Thornton’s Arcade, built as part of a development that included some offices and the City Varieties Music Hall, in the Victorian period. Back then, shopping was becoming very much the leisure activity it was in the 20th century, and many cities were building arcades, where people could shop away from the bustle, traffic, noise, and mess of the streets. Such an idea had an obvious appeal to late-Victorian and Edwardian women, who wore long dresses that could get muddied – and worse – on busy and horse-bound city streets, and who liked the idea of a safe, covered environment in which to shop. 

Architect George Smith produced a narrow but comfortable small arcade with an iron and glass roof, which, like that of a railway station, ensured that the interior was flooded with natural light. So shoppers could see where they were going – and what was on display in the shop windows – and security staff could keep a watch for pickpockets, a menace that, years after Oliver Twist, was still very much with us.

The roof is pointed and its is supported by and rests on unusual horseshoe-shaped trusses. These trusses, similar to the one visible in my picture, are painted blue and take the viewer into a different world – the kind of mild orientalism that reminds me that the bazaar in one of James Joyce’s short stories was called ‘Araby’.

At the far end is the piece de resistance: a clock with cast-iron automata. The figures include Richard Coeur de Lion, Robin Hood, Gurth the Swineherd, and Friar Tuck,† and are drawn from the once very familiar Robin Hood stories, in particular as made popular by Sir Walter Scott’s novel Ivanhoe. Potts and Sons (eminent clockmakers who sold public clocks nationwide but were based in Leeds) manufactured the clock and the figures (almost life-size – not quite so small-scale, then) were done by J. W. Appleyard, a Leeds stone-carver and sculptor. Clocks were invaluable in a period when owning a watch was by no means universal, and the colourful tableau also turned the timepiece into a bit of entertainment – another example of the tendency for shopping to become – as fitting in an arcade next to a music hall – part of the entertainment industry.

- - - - -

† Friar Tuck has presumably pulled up his habit to give him freedom of movement as he does his share of the heavy work of striking the bells.

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Cheltenham, Gloucestershire

Mary-Ann backs

There’s an old expression, ‘Queen Anne fronts and Mary-Ann backs,’ sometimes used to describe the town houses in places like Bath and Cheltenham. It means that while the fronts are designed correctly, politely, and in a way that conforms with those around them, the rear aspects of the houses are more chaotic and heterogenous. The phrase, as far as I know, has no actual relevance to the reign of Queen Anne (who reigned from 1702 to 1714) or to the architectural style, sometimes called ‘Queen Anne’, which was fashionable towards the end of the 19th century. It is just a matter of using two similar but contrasting names to sum up the gaping aesthetic gulf that opens up between the fronts and backs of many buildings.

These examples are in Cheltenham. The front facades are elegant and Regency and arranged in a sweeping crescent – all white stucco and wrought-iron balconies. Classic Cheltenham, even though it does overlook, sadly, that necessary but scenically unfortunate interloper, the town’s bus station. Round the back it’s very different: Exposed brick or darker stucco, or concrete render, and a range of rear wings, some of which step down with roofs varying from flat (watch your felt roof, they don’t last for ever), through hipped and slated (making an attempt at elegance and certainly practical as far as rainwater is concerned), to flat and parapeted (‘Let’s sit out on the terrace and look at the view. Hang on, there’s someone taking a photograph!’).

Some of these wings were probably added or extended at different stages in the building’s history, some have always been there. The original ones say something about the way such houses were put up. Landowners very often planned out a development, and got in an architect to design facades and the basic elements of the houses. Then they leased building plots to others, who might buy just one or two plots and build the houses on them, laying them out internally, and adding rear extensions, as they liked, but following the architect’s design for the facades.

So a long terrace or crescent, although uniform at the front, often had many builders, who pleased themselves at the rear. No doubt such flexibility enabled houses to be built for a variety of different needs. The buildings might later be adapted to suit yet other requirements. And by the 20th century, the way the houses was being used changed greatly, with many split into flats or turned into offices. ‘Mary-Ann’ may have been humble, but she also had her practical side.

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.

- - - - -

¶ 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.*

- - - - -

* 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.

- - - - -

¶ 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.

- - - - -

* 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.