Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Shepperdine, Gloucestershire


I’ve always admired the rippling effect of a traditional pantile roof. The ripple comes from the S-shaped profile of the pantiles, which sets them apart from the conventional flat tile. Another difference is that whereas flat tiles are laid so that each tile overlaps two others (a triple overlap), pantiles are designed to overlap with just one course of tiles below; this makes a pantile roof relatively light. A lighter covering needs a less substantial timber. framework to hold it up, so pantiles are useful in places where wood is hard to come by.

Traditionally, pantiles are most common in the parts of England that traded with the Netherlands, which is where this kind of tile originated. So you see a lot of them in East Anglia. One western town, Bridgwater in Somerset, developed its own pantile-making industry, so this type of roof is not unusual in Somerset. I should think the tiles in my photograph, which are rippling away in a remote farmyard near the River Severn in Gloucestershire, may well have come from Bridgwater on a boat that journeyed from that town on the River Parrett, along the Bristol Channel, and up the Severn towards Gloucester.

They look good on this collection of stone farm buildings, where they sit alongside bits of corrugated iron, galvanised steel gates, and a little brickwork. Some of them look as if they have been here for a very long time, but there are different phases of building (in the distance, the change of colour of tiles where a building has been built on to another is visible). Such changes are a reminder that this is still a working place, one that has been evolving to suit changing needs, as virtually any farm must if it is to survive. In an area where I noticed quite a few empty houses and repurposed barns, I hope these both survive and thrive.

Sunday, July 26, 2020

Great Bardfield, Essex

The carpenter...and Mr Pepper

My other personal favourite from Edward Bawden’s illustrations for Life in an English Country Village is the carpenter. Watching my father carefully mark out the edge of a door to fit a lock (and the corresponding strike plate on the jamb), then cut the required holes, deep for the lock itself and shallow for the plate, made me wonder how he’d got such skills, how he could achieve the necessary precision with such ease. He’d had various jobs in his life, from farm worker to supervisor in a factory, none of which required carpentry skills, and I knew that the tiny village school he attended would have had no facilities for teaching him the basics of woodwork. How then, did he wield a mallet and chisel so expertly? How did he even know where to start?

At first, when I asked him, he just said that it was years of trial and error – trying things, getting them wrong, then trying and getting a little better, and so on. Fail again, fail better, as Samuel Beckett had it. But at the end of his life, when reminiscences flowed more freely, he mentioned his boyhood fascination for what the village carpenter did in his workshop. Walking home from school, he and a friend used to peer surreptitiously through the open door of the carpenter’s shop. Eventually, someone saw them gawping, thought they were creating a nuisance, and shooed them away. The carpenter – who I seem to remember was called Mr Pepper – looked up. ‘No. Let them stay,’ he said. ‘They can watch. As long as they don’t touch anything.’

And so, every day for a while, my father stopped at the door of Mr Pepper’s and watched the craftsman at work. He was never allowed to try anything himself – those tools were too sharp and dangerous, and also too valuable to spoil – but he looked, and remembered. And occasionally, when things were quiet in the workshop, Mr Pepper would explain what he was doing. When, a little older, my Dad was working and could buy one or two tools of his own, he had a flying start, and the process of private mistake-making and trying again began.

They say there’s really only one way to acquire a practical skill – by doing it. And up to a point, that’s right. But there is more than one way of learning. You can also pick up a lot by watching someone who is really good at what they do. I think of that when I look at Bawden’s carpenter at work, with his glue on the heat, his saws, augurs, planes, mallet, and hammer within reach, his endless little boxes (every available size of wood screw?) stacked on the shelf, his spartan shop, which has what looks like a corrugated iron roof and wooden walls. It doesn’t look big, but there will be a yard out there where he can work too, and inside, the windows throw enough light on to the benches.

I sometimes think that I didn’t learn much from my father, whose work skills ran to an ability to grasp practical problems, learn manual skills, and manage people. Where did the gene that enabled that hand and eye coordination go, for a start? Vanished into air, into thin air. The carpenter’s skills are not the kind of abilities I put to use as a writer, perhaps. But I was taught that you can learn by looking. And I try to do that every day.

Friday, July 24, 2020

Great Bardfield, Essex

The tailor...and the tailoress

We have a shelf of King Penguin books – small, hardback volumes published by Penguin in the 1940s and 1950s, on a range of subjects. The books’ approach combines a text essay with a collection of pictures and the range is wide – there are a lot of natural history books, a few on places (Romney Marsh with illustrations by John Piper, The Isle of Wight illustrated by Barbara Jones), a few on subjects relating to historic buildings (The Leaves of Southwell by Nikolaus Pevsner, for example). These are all favourites of mine, but the one I like best of all is Life in an English Country Village, illustrated with a series of lithographs by Edward Bawden.

I am a great admirer of Bawden and I’m pleased that by owning this little book I have have a few of his works in a form that wasn’t ruinously expensive. I also like it that Bawden based his illustrations on people and buildings in Great Bardfield, the village where he and a number of other artists lived, making the place a hub of creative activity like few others – the local characters, and Bawden’s keen observation, shine through. If the palette is quite limited, the line is always clear and telling. And there’s a more personal reason I like this book. It reminds me of my mother and father.

My parents weren’t artists and didn’t live in Great Bardfield. But two illustration in particular remind me of stories they told me when I was growing up in the 1960s about what things were like when they were growing up in the 1930s. When she was small, my mother and her parents lived with her maternal grandparents in a large northern city. My great-grandfather was a tailor who worked from home. He had met my great-grandmother through her work, because she had the same trade as he did – she was always referred to as a tailoress, a term I’d not herd before and which seemed to suggest something a bit better than a seamstress. She could cut a gentleman’s suit, and do a good job too, although the mores of the time would perhaps not have allowed her to measure her customer’s inside leg. By the time my mother had arrived on the scene, the tailoress had given up her scissors and work table for domestic life (although she always made my mother beautiful clothes). My great grandfather continued in his work, however, and my mother told me how, as a very small girl, she would creep under his table while he sat on top, sewing away, just like Bawden’s tailor in the illustration. My grandmother, a rather strict woman, did not officially permit her daughter to go into the workroom – she’d distract the man at his important tasks – but the tailor was of course only too glad to have his only grandchild’s company as he snipped and stitched away.

All this passes through my mind as I look at Bawden’s illustration. The room the tailor works in looks as if it may be some outhouse or shed – I’m thinking of the ceiling, which looks like a pitched roof clad inside with tongue and groove boards. But I may be wrong: it could just as well be an opportunistic house extension. It certainly doesn’t look like the spacious front room of a Victorian house, the setting of my great grandfather’s tailoring. But both rooms are light, and both no doubt equipped with what it took for a man to do his job, a job which needed sharp vision, concentration, and excellent coordination of hand and eye – qualities needed by an artist like Bawden too.

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Jordans, Buckinghamshire


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

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

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

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

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

Friday, July 17, 2020

Pershore, Worcestershire

Judge’s lodgings

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Pershore, Worcestershire

Good honest building

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

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

Saturday, July 11, 2020

Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire

Local hero

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire

No madding crowd

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

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

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

Saturday, July 4, 2020

Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire

Wise foolery

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire

Worth the money

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

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

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