Sunday, June 28, 2020

Bewdley, Worcestershire

Hard cell

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

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

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

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Aldeburgh, Suffolk


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

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

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

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* The Lumières’ first public screening was in 1895.

Sunday, June 21, 2020

Markham Moor, Nottinghamshire

Filling up, filling in

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Moreton Valence, Gloucestershire


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

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

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

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

Sunday, June 14, 2020

Summer books: 3

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, June 11, 2020

Summer Books: 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, June 8, 2020

Summer Books: 1

Kathryn Ferry: Seaside 100
Published by Unicorn Publishing

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, June 5, 2020


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

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

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

Tuesday, June 2, 2020


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

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

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

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

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