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.

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* 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.

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* 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.

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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.