Sunday, April 5, 2020

Dartmouth, Devon


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

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

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

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

- - - - -

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

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

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

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

New Cavendish Street, London

A kind of looking

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

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

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

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

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

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

- - - - -

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

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

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Lewes, Sussex

A swift half

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

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

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

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

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

- - - - -

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

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

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

Thursday, March 26, 2020

National Gallery, London

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

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

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

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

- - - - -

* From the musical Anything Goes, 1934.

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

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

Monday, March 23, 2020

Park Street, London

Take Courage

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

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

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

- - - - -

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

Friday, March 20, 2020



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

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

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

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

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

- - - - -

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

Monday, March 16, 2020

Adam Street, London

The decorative touch

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, March 13, 2020

Dartmouth, Devon

Star turn

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

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

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

- - - - -

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

Monday, March 9, 2020

Trafalgar Square, London

On the look-out

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

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

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

- - - - -

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

Thursday, March 5, 2020

Glentworth Street, London

Arriving in style

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

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

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

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

- - - - -

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

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

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

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

Sunday, March 1, 2020


En passant

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

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

Monday, February 24, 2020

Stourport, Worcestershire

Place of resort

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

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

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

Thursday, February 20, 2020

Rousham, Oxfordshire

Finishing touch

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

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

- - - - -

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

Saturday, February 15, 2020

Chiselhampton, Oxfordshire

Commandments and curlicues

Looking through my pictures for something else, I came across this wonder, and it occurred to me I ought to feature it here and say something about it. It’s part of one of the Commandment boards at Chiselhampton church in Oxfordshire. When I first visited this place I was so struck by the exterior that I felt compelled to blog about it straight away – even though I couldn’t get inside because there was a wedding in progress. Several years later, I returned, found the place where they key was held, and managed to get inside. The whole interior of the tiny building is a joy – a full set of 18th-century furnishings – box pews, pulpit, wooden gallery, the lot. Including these boards behind the altar.

The walls, as is usual in Georgian churches, are quite plain and the glass clear. The usual thing to say about this is that churches of this period are ‘preaching boxes’, in which ornament is eschewed in order to create a space in which one can concentrate on the word of God without the distraction of statuary, stained glass, or carved stonework. What the architecture needs to do, they seem to say, is provide good light so people can reads the prayer book and good acoustics so they can hear. the sermon.†

And yet the aesthetic impulse won’t rest, and the urge to decorate will not be quelled. So here§ is a detail from the commandment boards showing the huge initial letter of ‘Exodus’, an E elaborated with such a dizzying array of curlicues that my eyes go out of focus when I look at it; the C at the beginning of the word ‘Chapter’ is similarly adorned.* Marvel at the skill and control involved in painting these long, curving lines, with their subtle variations in stroke width. Admire the way in which the main strokes themselves bend and how they taper from broad swathes to stiletto points. Contrast the complexity of all this with the simplicity and clarity of the rest of the text.

So when we reach the nitty gritty of the commandments themselves, everything is plain, legible, and unambiguous: ‘Thou shalt not make to thy self any graven image, nor the likeness of any thing that is in heaven above…’. And it’s still pretty much as clear to a modern reader as to someone in the 18th century – clear, that is, apart from the occasional use of the ‘long s’, the letter that looks somewhat like an ‘f’, as in ‘shalt’ on the board. That’s what it is, the long s, subtly different in appearance from an f. If you look at the word ‘self’, the difference is clear: the long s has only a truncated cross-bar, in contrast to the full bar of the f.

Georgian writers, calligraphers, and ‘writing masters’ were not always consistent about when they used each form of s – the long form is more often seen at the beginning of a word, the modern form at the end, but there seem to have been no hard and fast rules about this. When you read a lot of early modern text, you get used to the variation and accept it, just as you accept the variations in a persons’s handwriting that can mean, for example that they write their e or r inconsistently. This beautifully delineated plain text is easy to read, and easy on the eye. Amen.

- - - - -

† I originally typed ‘god acoustics’ in that sentence. Thank you to the reader who noticed first! I had to correct it, but at the same time I didn’t want to forget it either.

§ If you click on the image the details should be much clearer.

* Having said all this, an 18th-century reader would have known instantly what these elaborate initial letters are leading to. To anyone who knows their Bible, or indeed anyone who knows English, it can only be ‘Exodus’ and ‘Chapter’.

Monday, February 10, 2020

Spetchley, Worcestershire

For dove devotees
As is often the way with my explorations of English buildings, I went in search of one thing and found something else as well. In this case I was heading out of Worcester on a road I don’t usually take, in order to visit the church at Spetchley, with its impressive group of Berkeley monuments. Not far away I spotted this, and although the picture is from a while back, the stormy sky seemed appropriate for this month’s rough winds in Britain.

It’s a dovecote in a farmyard. I’ve posted pictures of dovecotes before. They’re often interestingly shaped buildings – circular or octagonal, for example: round dovecotes are especially favoured because they worked well with a ladder on a pivoting arm, enabling the owner to reach the young doves in their nest boxes.

This one however is square, probably 17th or 18th century, and timber-framed, reflecting much of Worcestershire’s traditional architecture. The walls are plain but there’s a touch of swagger in the little turret or louvre at the top, with its arched entrances through which the inmates can come and go. Its tiny overhanging pyramidal roof, covered with the same red tiles as the main roof, is a charming touch, sheltering the entrances and providing a landmark for returning doves seeking shelter from the storm.

- - - - -

For more dovecote posts, see, these round, octagonal, and square examples, all built of stone; or, for yet more, click on the relevant word in the tag cloud in the right-hand column.

Thursday, February 6, 2020

Deerhurst, Gloucestershire

Ancient and modern

St Mary’s, Deerhurst, was one of the first historic churches I ever visited. I was sent there by a school teacher, who wanted me to see a Saxon building, and to go there I had to persuade my parents to take me in the car a few miles along the A38 Gloucester to Tewkesbury road, and up the lane leading towards the River Severn. We enjoyed seeking out details of almost unbelievable antiquity – Saxon carvings inside and out, the font, with its spiral decoration – and marvelling when the guidebook told us that the latter had been at one time removed from the church, lost, and found again doing outdoor duty as a planter, trough, or some such.*

I’ve been back many times since, and taken in the building’s later architecture too. I’m fascinated, for example, by the capitals of the nave arcades. They seem to date from the early-13th century, when the church’s aisles began to take their current form. They are all different. One is like capitals I’ve seen before in churches of the Early English Gothic style: this is a variation on the stylised foliage that the Victorians called ‘stiff leaf’ (Pevsner calls it ‘windswept stiff-leaf’, with the addition of small heads peeping out from the vegetation. I always find these heads charming, whether they come in large numbers, as at Much Marcle, or are thin on the ground, as they are here.

Another capital has just stylised foliage, which is given a bit more space and takes a striking form. The date must be similar, but the shapes of the leaves, with their strong lines and elegant curves, seems akin to the Art Nouveau of around 1890–1900. I’m not suggesting for one moment that some late-Victorian decorator saw this capital and based a whole artistic movement on it. Both medieval carvers and Art Nouveau designers looked at nature appreciatively and derived patterns from it. No wonder they sometimes ended up with something slightly similar; the medieval masons were no doubt also influenced by some of the foliage in earlier Romanesque ornament. Wherever the inspiration comes from, the effect made me catch my breath.

- - - - -

* I’ve heard similar tales in several other churches, to the extent that I’m wondering if this is the ecclesiological equivalent of an urban myth.

Sunday, February 2, 2020

Ufford, Suffolk

In love with building

Since the 13th century, when churches were ordered to keep their fonts securely covered to prevent people stealing the consecrated water,* font covers have been the norm. Often, there is a simple, lockable wooden lid; frequently the cover is a little more elaborate, a structure that complements the font on which it sits. In East Anglia, however, the font covers of the 14th and 15th centuries became memorable works of the wood carver’s art.

Rising some six metres towards the roof of the nave, the font cover of the church of the Assumption, Ufford, is one of the most magnificent of all. At about 20 feet tall, the cover is a stunning wooden confection made up of niches, arches, and pinnacles. It tapers to the point where a pelican stands, pecking at her breast to feed her young. The Pelican in her Piety is of course a symbol of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ and its reenactment in the Mass, and this would have been but the climactic symbol on a font cover that was once covered in statues of biblical figures and saints – these were all lost during the iconoclastic purges following the Reformation. Apparently the statues had already been removed when the notorious 17th-century destroyer of images, William Dowsing, visited the church and had oversaw the smashing of stained glass.

What is left is still breathtaking, an essentially architectural object, in which the niches and pinnacles taper towards the top so that the cover takes the shape of a spire. I can’t help being reminded, looking at structures like this, of the words of the Arts and Crafts architect and educator William Richard Lethaby, when he wrote about the architectural form that decoration so often took in the Middle Ages:

The folk had fallen in love with building, and loved that their goldsmiths’ work, and ivories, their seals, and even the pierced patterns of their shoes should be like little buildings, little tabernacles, little ‘Pauls’ windows’ .

Chaucer, too, described someone with the patterns of Paul’s windows on his shoes, by which he meant designs like the tracery of the rose windows in Old St Paul’s cathedral. This use of architectural motifs such as tracery, niches, and pinnacles, is seen throughout medieval art. There’s nothing typical about the sheer richness of grand Suffolk font covers, though.† They are outstanding, and Ufford’s is one of the best of all.

- - - - -

* For use in ‘black magic’ or other non-Christian rites, it was said.

† And occasionally elsewhere. For an Oxfordshire example with a Suffolk link, see my post here.

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Aldeburgh, Suffolk

Sea views
I suppose I'm not the first person to notice that there have evolved, over the years, certain styles of house that seem especially at home at the seaside. I’ve noticed before the pastel shades that people like to paint buildings and beach huts in towns like Lyme Regis, and how resorts such as Brighton favour houses with big bow windows to let in plenty of light and offer good views – sea views preferably, but any view of a pleasant street or a garden is better than none. At Aldeburgh and other towns on the east coast, there seems to be a preponderance of bay windows and white-painted wooden balconies.

In a house like this you can sit out and watch the sea, or the comings and goings on the path below, or if you don’t want to sit out, you can safely throw the French windows open to let in fresh air, the sounds of people enjoying themselves on the sea front, and the salty smell that pervades the atmosphere. There may be no front garden, but you can enjoy a sense that the whole sea front is your garden. Places like Aldeburgh have been the scene of such enjoyable idling since the early-19th century. There is much, of course, for the architectural idler to admire. I was struck, when taking in these houses, by the curvaceous gable revealed when you look from this angle. If that seems a little Dutch, this coast has long had contact with the Low Countries, and both bricks and some of the architectural styles that went with them across the sea were imported to East Anglia before local brick-making was reestablished on a large scale.

Nowadays most people come to Aldeburgh for recreation, and most of the town’s businesses seem connected one way or another with tourism. But as you walk along the beach, notice boats pulled up on the shingle and see a tarred and weatherboarded shop selling fresh fish,* you’re reminded that this was once a thriving fishing port and there is still some fishing here. So sea views must once have been useful to those looking out for the arrival of boats with their catches. If I mourn the decline of these local fishing industries (as I also do of those in my native Lincolnshire), I’m grateful that towns like Aldeburgh still thrive.

- - - - -

* Or enjoy some of the excellent fish and chips available here.

Friday, January 24, 2020

Aldeburgh, Suffolk


Watching my aged mother-in-law, a few months before the end of her life, bravely tackling the two steps up to our front door, and seeing the immense effort this entailed, has made me think a little differently about steps. I’ve lived places four or five floors up without a lift, and thought little of it, but now I’m grateful that there are only two steps at our door and, although there are stairs up to our bedroom floor, they’re shallow and kind to the legs. The entrance to the house in my photograph is very different, and unusual. Those eight steps lead up to a front door that seems to be midway between the upper and lower floors, an eccentric arrangement for a house, but not uncommon in a public building such as a custom house, which this once was.

Aldeburgh, by the sea, would once have had use for a custom house, and this one is on the main street and not very far from the waterfront. Apart from those steps, the architecture of this early-19th century structure is very plain – just a panelled central door and those four large multi-pane windows, the one on the lower right provided with a second front door at a more practical level. Pantiles, typical of this region, make a roof that looks very much at home. But the simplicity, with that touch of the grandiose provided by the steps, must make for an agreeable house. And although it’s plain it’s easy to recognise: long live individualism!

Monday, January 20, 2020

Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk

High Street heroes

At first glance, this striking shop front is confusing, first because it’s not the 17th-century building it might appear to be and secondly because the premises are occupied by W. H. Smith, a company once known for ornate facades. But it wasn’t built by Smith’s. Originally, this was a branch of Boot’s the chemist, who could also put on a bold front. In the early years of the 20th century, Boot’s did a number of revamped shop fronts using timber framing with ornate plaster infill, and some of these were festooned with eyecatching details such as carved bargeboards, fancy brackets, and even statuary.

I’ve long been a fan of the large former Boot’s in the middle of Derby, which is on a prominent corner site and has a succession of statues of local Derbyshire worthies that must be almost life-size. The former Boot’s in my photograph, in Bury St Edmunds, is smaller, but equally ornate, with a full compliment of woodcarving, pargetting, and four large statues. The design dates to 1910 and was the work of the company’s in-house architect, Michael Vyne Treleaven, who set this style for their shopfronts in this period.*

The statues set in decorated niches across the facade were the work of a London sculptor, Gilbert Seale & Co of Camberwell, who did more than one job for the company. They feature, from left to right, Agricola, St Edmund, Edward I, and Edward VI. These figures all have local relevance as well as their wider significance: Edmund was the local saint, Edward I held parliaments here, Edward VI founded a local grammar school, and the Roman general Agricola led his people’s conquest of Britain and crushed the uprising of Boudica, local queen of the Iceni; one source suggests that this figure is actually another Roman general, Trebonius, who accompanied Caesar on his Gaulish and British campaigns. Boot’s the chemist, under its gifted owner Jesse Boot and his successors, was well aware of the benefits of local publicity, and was keen too that his premises should be assets to the towns where they were located. It would be wonderful if today’s retailers took such care over their architecture.

- - - - -

* Thanks to the reader who confirmed that the design of the Bury shopfront was Treleaven’s.

Friday, January 17, 2020

Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk

Blink and you miss it

A few years ago I made my first visit to Bury St Edmunds and, keen to see the cathedral and various other architectural monuments, I missed this pub, although I was aware that it was there. That is not totally surprising because it is one of the candidates for the title of Britain’s smallest public house. I blinked, as they say, and I missed it.

When I was writing my book Irreplaceable for Historic England in 2018, I was reminded, doing the entry for the Nottingham pub called Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem, that there are several pubs that claim to be the oldest in the country. Ye Olde Trip is one. I live not far from another of them – it’s in Stow-on-the-Wold, Gloucestershire. There are others, all with advocates who point to traditions, stories, apparent allusions, architectural details, and even genuine historical documents in support of their pub’s great age.

Dates can be slippery and hard to prove. With dimensions, surely, you’d think you were on safer ground. But it’s not as simple as it seems. The Nutshell’s claim seemed secure – it measures just 15 feet by 7, it’s palpably there, in the middle of town where it has been for 150 years, and it was ratified by the Guinness Book of Records. But in 2017 the John Lewis store in London’s Oxford Street opened a pub in a shed in its rooftop garden, and the shed measures just 6 x 8 feet. Then there’s Platform 3, next to the station in Claygate, that boasts standing room for three customers. Cleethorpes’s Signal Box Inn, likewise railway themed, looks scarcely larger. And there’s the Old Kent Market, which, at 11 feet x 6 feet 6 inches, is given the accolade in a more recent edition of the Guinness Book.

Few things in architecture are cut and dried. But The Nutshell is charming, small, stuffed with an eccentric collection of historical objects and memorabilia, and ready to serve local ales. A bit of English eccentricity that deserves a raised glass any time between and now and closing.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Thorpeness, Suffolk

Wood and wind

When landlord Glencairn Stuart Ogilvie and his architect F. Forbes Glennie created Thorpeness as a holiday village, they gave it a fitting share of leisure facilities. A Workmen’s Club was joined by the Kursaal, a Country Club aimed at the middle-class visitors that Glennie hoped mainly to attract. This was accompanied in turn by the Meare, a lake on which there were boats for hire, and this boathouse. The clocktower gives the boathouse a grander air than the weatherboarded barn architecture seems to merit, but also makes it easy to find – and, I suppose, easy to know when your time is up in your hired craft on the lake. Nowadays the building on the left is a café, providing welcome refreshments for those who just want to admire the view or to watch the races in the annual regatta.

Part of the purpose of the boating lake was to keep children occupied, and many of the features around the lake were given a Peter Pan theme – there’s a Crocodile Island, apparently. The effect, in spite of the threat suggested by the imaginary crocodiles, is one of gentility, and is a far cry from the opportunistic seaside tat and kiss-me-quick architecture of some of the Lincolnshire resorts that I remember from my childhood. Visiting in winter, however, I was reminded that the stiff breeze blowing towards me from the North Sea was the same familiar chilly east wind. Useful for sailing, I suppose, but I hope those picturesque wooden walls are well insulated.

Friday, January 10, 2020

Thorpeness, Suffolk

Moving building

For as long as I can remember, I’ve admired the combination of ingenuity and functionalism represented by the typical English post mill. The main body of the mill is designed as a lightweight wooden structure so that it can turn to enable the sails to catch the wind. A small circular sail, the fantail, sticks out behind and powers the mechanism that turns the mill. The base – usually known as the roundhouse – is stationary and anchored to the ground like any other conventional masonry building. This collection of mechanisms and structures can look a little ungainly, with the large wooden upper structure apparently balancing in a precarious fashion on top of the roundhouse, like a tall uprooted shed. But it works, and some post mills have turned for hundreds of years.

This one was first built in 1803 at Aldringham and was moved two miles along the road to Thorpeness in 1923. Its new job was to pump water from a well into the tall water tower that supplied the village – the tower featured in my precious post. It pumped away at Thorpeness until 1940 , when it was replaced by an engine. Repainted and preserved, the post mill must look as spick and span now as it ever has done in its two-century life. It survives as a reminder of the lasting importance of wind power in this part of the country, a power source that looks to be becoming increasingly important as the need for renewable energy grows more and more pressing.

Monday, January 6, 2020

Thorpeness, Suffolk

Cloud-capped tower

There really is nowhere quite like Thorpeness, a 1920s seaside village, all weatherboarding, timber-framing (or is it mock-timber-framing?), and red tiles, just up the Suffolk coast from Aldeburgh. The atmosphere is a curious blend of seaside suburban, merrie England, and frontier shack, and wandering around it early on a misty morning made it impossible not to have a faint sense of the unreal. And also a sense of being somewhere utterly charming and unique. One building stands out above the others – literally above, since it towers to 70 feet and seems to consist of a small house perched on a tower. This singular structure, known as the House in the Clouds, is tall enough to be visible from the beach at Aldeburgh, where visitors must scratch their heads and wonder if their rum and raisin ice-cream is laced with rather more of the hard stuff then they expected.

A folly, then? Like most follies, it is there for a purpose, and originally for a very serious one. The village needed a water tower and architect F. Forbes Glennie came up with this picturesque design, setting the 50,000 gallon tank in the ‘house’ at the top. The rest of the tower was indeed a house, and its tenants must have had the best views for miles around. Now the views are better still, because the tank was dismantled and removed in 1979, when mains water came to Thorpeness, and the resulting space made into another room. As we walked up to the tower back in November, the mist cleared, revealing the structure, veiled slightly by trees but making us smile as countless passers-by before us must have done. Merrie England indeed.

- - - - -

For more on The House in the Clouds and other such structures, see the wonderfully titled book Preposterous Erections (Frances Lincoln, 2012), by my friend Peter Ashley.

The House in the Clouds also has its own website, here.

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Orford, Suffolk

The wild side

January is likely to prove busy for me and anyway is a month often beset with the kind of weather that discourages travel and the photography of buildings. It therefore seems a good time to share an image or two from my Suffolk trip of a couple of months ago. I’m beginning with the parish church of the settlement at Orford, by the River Alde where it reaches Orford Ness and the sea. It’s a somewhat remote, quiet place now, and certainly was in the early Middle Ages, but this changed when Henry II built the great castle there in the 12th century. Along with the castle came a large church, servicing what must have been a much expanded town, with a large chancel flanked with arcades of semicircular arches.

By the 18th century the place was remote once more and the church had fallen into disrepair, with the once magnificent chancel in ruins. The Victorians hatched an ambitious plan to restore the church and the great Gothic specialist George Edmund Street was put on the case. But Street’s plans were not carried out and instead a slow, phased restoration was carried out that only ever got as far as the nave and aisles, which make a pleasant and sizeable church in their own right. The chancel was left in ruins.

And so it remains. Repairs in 1930 ensured that the ruins were stabilized. One range of arches, plus a couple of piers on the other side, remain as a reminder of past magnificence. As I have a weakness for ruins, especially those capable of sprouting a little vegetation without sustaining major damage, I rather like it this way, with the tussocky grass growing around the column bases. There’s space enough in the churchyard for a more kempt area around the main body of the church. In my book, there’s room for both the roofed building and the ruin, the neat and the unruly, the tame and the wild.