Friday, May 22, 2020

Cheltenham, Gloucestershire

Put your hands together for Mr Matcham…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photograph: Copyright © 2020 Everyman Theatre Cheltenham 

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Hailes, Gloucestershire

Ruined choirs

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

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

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

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* William Shakespeare, Sonnet LXXIII

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

Saturday, May 16, 2020

Hailes, Gloucestershire

At the abbey gate

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

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

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Hailes, Gloucestershire

Halting for a moment

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

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

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

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¶ Hayles Fruit Farm, website here.

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

Monday, May 11, 2020

Ripple, Worcestershire

Flowers and fields

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, May 7, 2020

Bishops Castle, Shropshire

Shop prop

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

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

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

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

Monday, May 4, 2020

Ludlow, Shropshire

Hurrah for Jesse Boot!

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

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

Saturday, May 2, 2020

Ludlow, Shropshire

Building out of the box

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

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

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

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

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