Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Avebury, Wiltshire

More uses for face masks

One of my favourite passages in Andrew Ziminski’s excellent book The Stone Mason: A History of Building Britain, is quite near the beginning, where the author describes his attempts at working sarsens, the materials used for the enormous prehistoric stone circle at Avebury and also for the nearby Dissenters’ Chapel. The chapel was originally built in 1670 using in part bits of sarsen obtained by chopping up chunks of some of Avebury’s standing stones. The point is that sarsen is very hard stone (up there with granite) and Ziminski wanted to try working it using the kind of tools available to Avebury’s prehistoric craftsmen. In other words he’d be working stone with stone – rounded lumps of sarsen or flint, which he’d use to pound away at the surface of the stone to cut into it or to smooth its surface.

Using stone tools like this, Avebury’s builders (working at some time between 2850–2220 BC) managed to prepare and position around 100 stones, as well as building a large circular bank and ditch – the resulting henge is so large that the modern village of Avebury sits inside it. And this stone circle is only part of the picture. It sits in a whole landscape of ancient sites – barrows, the causwayed enclosure of Windmill Hill, the stone circle at the Sanctuary, the vast mound of Silbury Hill – stretching for miles around. The integration of stones and landscape also makes Avebury a wonderfully atmospheric place – it is my favourite English prehistoric site. 

Ziminkski discovered that walloping away at a large lump of sarsen with stone tools like those used in the Neolithic soon raises a huge amount of white dust; since sarsen is made essentially of silica, this dust can be dangerous to human lungs. Anyone doing this Neolithic job in the 21st century needs a face mask. Even so, it took a whole day of pounding to produce about a square foot of approximately smooth stone. This might lead us to conclude that in Stone Age Avebury there was a lot of labour available, and there might well have been. But Ziminski makes another point. Like other kinds of stone, sarsen gets extra hard when it has been exposed to the elements for a long time. If you quarry stone that has been beneath the earth’s surface it contains much more moisture, or ‘quarry sap’ as stone workers call it. Stone containing all its quarry sap is softer and easier to work and it was probably knowledge of this secret that made monuments like Avebury and Stonehenge possible. And also buildings like the Dissenters’ Chapel, which Ziminski had come to Avebury to repair. For that job, the stone mason could use his modern steel hammer, punch, and claw tool.

Sunday, September 27, 2020

Somerton, Somerset

Well marketed

Looking up the dates of Joseph Chamberlain for a recent post that mentioned Birmingham, I noticed that the great Liberal mayor expressed the policy that the city should be, amongst other things, properly ‘marketed’.* Any town should have a proper market, whether it’s a big city like Birmingham or a small place such as Somerton in Somerset. This stone town is fortunate, in that its early builders left a generous area for a market place in the centre, an irregularly shaped space that has housed, in its time the town hall (the building that forms the backdrop in my photograph above), a couple of inns, and this butter cross.

There has been a butter cross – a shelter where dealers in dairy produce can find shelter from the rain and, importantly the sun – at least since 1390, but this striking octagonal one was put up in 1673. Like much of the old town centre, it is built of local grey lias stone, with some elements in Ham stone. Rather than the pantiles that are so common here, the building has a stone roof, supported by a central stone pier, topped with a ball finial, and edged with battlements.

Rainwater is channelled behind the battlements and drains away through eight gargoyles, one at each corner. These are similar to the grotesque carvings one sees on medieval churches, and they’re a small testimony to the old tradition of craftsmanship that produced stone masons who could also carve. You’d not call this round-arches structure a Gothic building, but the skills developed by medieval masons survive, not just ion the walls and roof but also in this ability to carve.† These masons assured that Somerton is indeed well marketed.

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* He was referring not to marketing and PR but to civic facilities – his list of requirements was that the city should be ‘parked, paved, assized, marketed, gas & watered and “improved” .’

† And the tradition continues. Anyone who thinks such skills have died should visit a masons’ yard at one of the nine English cathedrals that still possess one, or read, for example, The Stone Mason: A History of Building Britain by Andrew Ziminski.


Thursday, September 24, 2020

Black Country Living Museum, Dudley

Pigeon post

This surprising little building is a pigeon loft. It would not have been so surprising in Bliston in the 1920s when it was built, because keeping pigeons was popular in the area and this loft belonged to a well known local pigeon fancier, Charlie Purslow, whose birds were famous for winning prizes.* Charlie Purslow (1906–98) raced pigeons for some 70 years, and won prizes over most of that period. During World War II he was in the National Pigeon Service, which used the birds’ remarkable homing ability to send messages behind enemy lines.

To keep his thirty or so birds, he did not need anything elaborate – his wooden loft was made for him by a work colleague. Charlie repainted it every year, limewashing the brick plinth on which it stands, and renewing the black and white stripes of the wooden structure itself. I don’t know why he used black and white stripes. Was it thought that the birds could locate it more easily if it was painted in this pattern? It certainly stands out at the Black County Living Museum. Is there no aspect of Black Country life that they don’t cover?

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* Pigeon-keeping has a long history. The Romans used the birds for carrying messages, there were postal services that used pigeons in the 19th century, and pigeon racing became popular in the late-19th century.


Monday, September 21, 2020

Black Country Living Museum, Dudley


It sometimes seems to me that I don’t have to go very far before, as I look at some timber-framed building, someone will come up and tell me that ‘It’s built from old ship’s timbers, you know’. That is invariably the phrase, ‘old ship’s timbers’. I am often sceptical of such claims, as I look at a building full of straight lines and right-angles, and think of a ship, with all its curves. And yet, perhaps I am wrong to doubt. After all, a ship was a valuable item, and if it was towed, like Turner’s Fighting Temeraire, to be broken up, there would no doubt be much salvaging of its precious timbers. The great battleship in Turner’s painting was said to have been built using the wood of 5000 oak trees.* There would be planks and beams and posts and masts that a builder could make use of. And watching a neighbour repairing the roof of his cottage last year revealed that many of the roof timbers were little more than debarked tree trunks – there was hardly a straight line to be seen.

As I contemplated the tiny building above, my thoughts could not have been further from Turner’s Temeraire, This is recycling in the raw, a building made by cutting off the stern of a boat and turning the sawn-off part through 90 degrees.§ A bit of weatherboard for the rear wall, an old shed door at the front, some iron to hold everything together and the men of the boatyard had got what they needed – a small privy to make the yard more convenient and decorous.

The vessel that was dismembered to produce this almost-instant privy was a joey boat. This was an open boat, built with a square section to accommodate a large cargo, which it was designed to haul over a short distance. Most were built of wood and horse-drawn; many were double-ended, so that when you got to the end of the journey you could remove the rudder, fit it at the other end of the boat, and return home without turning round. There’s not usually much in the way of a cabin – a Joey was expected to travel a short distance, deliver its load, and return to base before nightfall, so crew did not have to sleep on board. Joey boats† were especially common on the Birmingham and Black Country canals, so it’s appropriate that this recycled one is at the Black Country Living Museum. No longer used for its second purpose (the museum has perfectly good modern facilities!), it stands as a testimony to the longevity of recycling. Exemplary.

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* According to the website of the National Gallery, where the painting, a great pictorial elegy for the age of sail, hangs.

§ Buildings were also made from upturned boats. They can be seen on the shore at Lindisfarne (and in sets of Benjamin Britten’s opera Peter Grimes).

† Why Joey? Opinions differ. It could be after Joe Worsey, a boat builder who made numerous such vessels. Or it could be a tribute to Joseph Chamberlain (1836–1914), Birmingham’s Radical Liberal mayor, who led efforts to improve the city and the lives of its working people.

Friday, September 18, 2020

Painswick, Gloucestershire

Pointing up, standing out

Painswick, one of the most delightful of Gloucestershire’s small towns, is perhaps not as widely appreciated as Cotswold places like Broadway or Chipping Campden because a main road runs through it and the tight knot of lanes off the main street reveals no village green or market place where people can gather or sit and take in the view. But Painswick has something just as good: the most delightful churchyard for miles, a generous space well populated with beautifully carved (although now very worn) Cotswold stone tombs, interspersed with a small forest of yew trees. There are said to be 99 yew trees, attempts to grow a hundredth having ended in failure; it’s also said that it’s impossible to count them – the total is different every time. I’ve limited myself to admiring the yews without being tempted to put such legends to the test.

There must be dozens of tombs and gravestones, too, many of them dating from the 17th and 128th centuries, when Painswick was at its most prosperous because of the wool trade. Many of the grander tombs commemorate wool merchants or clothiers. One stands out as rather different. It’s this pyramid, which marks the grave not of a clothier but of John Bryan, who carved of many of the monuments in the churchyard. He died in 1787.

It’s often said that the English fascination with ancient Egyptian culture began in the early-19th century, after the invasion of Egypt by Napoleon (in 1798) and the work of Jean-François Champollion, Thomas Young and others on decoding hieroglyphic script. However, Egyptian culture held a fascination for some people in Britain well before this period, and whoever created Bryan’s tomb in the late 1780s was clearly one of these forerunners. True, Bryan’s tomb doesn’t have quite the same proportions as the ‘typical’ Egyptian pyramid – it’s taller and thinner than the Great Pyramid of Giza and its neighbours. Bryan’s pyramid is closer in shape to the pyramids built in late antiquity at Meroe on the upper Nile in Sudan, though I’ve no idea whether they were at all well known in 18th century England. Perhaps the builders just wanted to give the carver’s memorial a little extra height, so that his grave is marked with a monument that can clearly be seen among the clusters ofd lower chest and ‘tea caddy’ tombs that he helped to create.

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Stow-on-the-Wold, Gloucestershire

Into the wood

St Edward’s church stands in the middle of the Cotswold market town of Stow-on-the-Wold. It’s medieval and, even though it’s tucked away from the main square – one way in is down a side street, another approach is via an alley – it must be very much visited. I suspect, though, that many visitors don’t notice the doorway in my photograph. That’s because it’s the north door, and the main entrance is through the south door, which is the one you see as you approach the church via the most obvious route. People who don’t walk around a church as well as going inside often miss architectural and scenic treats, and this is both.

The church is very old – parts date back to the 11th or 12th century – but, like most parish churches, it was altered in the medieval period and later. The north porch is said to date form the 17th or 18th century. It’s in the gothic style developed in the Middle Ages, but the way in which the arch is top by a band of little windows is unusual. This kind of window isn’t something I’ve noticed in a church before – maybe it’s a local mason’s invention, maybe there are other examples I have missed. Whichever is the case, it’s pleasant, and must bring useful additional light into the porch.

Many people, however, won’t even notice the architecture. It’s the trees that catch the eye, a pair of yews of considerable age, growing so hard by the arch that they seem part of it. Building and trees seem to be growing together, and one hopes that the slow-growing yew’s roots are not doing too much damage to the building, as it’s an effect I’d be loth to lose.

When I researched this doorway online, I chanced on websites run for Tolkien enthusiasts that compared the doorway to the doors of Durin in The Lord of the Rings. Speculation was rife that the writer had been inspired by the doorway – Stow can be reached from Tolkien’s Oxford home in an hour or so, after all. Well, maybe. I don’t think there’s any hard evidence that the novelist came here, and it would not have been hard for Tolkien to have the idea independently, especially as these doors were made by Dwarves and Elves, and the Elven folk lived in an arboreal world. And the architecture pedant in me wants to point out that Tolkien’s archway is Romanesque and semicircular, while the entrance at Stow is pointed and Gothic. Trees and churches, trees and the sacred and significant: they’re never far apart, although rarely as physically close as here.

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Burwell, Lincolnshire

One image, two lives

Although I have a literature degree, I no longer read as much fiction as I once did. There is too much else to read: books about Victorian architects, journals by 18th-century travellers, topography, psychogeography… But there is no accounting for it. Sometimes the Sirens sing, and the lure of the novel is too much to resist. They sang for me, those Sirens, some time in 2001, when I picked up in a bookshop a copy of what seemed to be a novel, read the first couple of pages, and found myself confronted by four photographs of pairs of eyes staring at me from page 3, surrounded by text describing the Antwerp Nocturama, home to night-waking jerboas, racoons, opossums, lemurs, and owls, whose large eyes and inquiring gaze remind the narrator of ‘certain painters and philosophers who seek to penetrate the darkness which surrounds us purely by means of looking and thinking’. This was the novel Austerlitz by W. G. Sebald and I had been introduced to the world of Jacques Austerlitz, a man in search of his identity, not in some hippy ‘I need to find myself’ sense, but in the real sense that he does not know his place of birth, his parentage, even, when he was a boy, his real and extraordinary name.

Austerlitz, it emerges, was sent as a small child on a train to England and thence to Wales, one of the many Jewish children rescued from the holocaust by the Kindertransporten, and adopted by parents who wanted to erase any vestiges of his early life, his former identity. As an adult he sets out on journeys, in part to fuel his work as an architectural historian, in part to seek his own history. As he describes these journeys, Sebald scatters images (both the verbal images that pervade his mesmeric prose and the haunting, slightly fuzzy photographs with which the book is sprinkled) of themes, ideas, and objects that at first seem random, later seem to make patterns, and later still chime with events in Austerlitz’s background or his lost early life. And so Austerlitz’s adult interest in railway stations, fortifications, empty houses, luggage, things that fly, stars, builds in significance and throws light on his identity. The result is that his dour upbringing in Wales (his adoptive parents are Calvinists and seem unable either to show emotion or to stimulate him very much at all) is contrasted with a background of culture and wordliness in prewar Central Europe. This odd combination accounts for Austerlitz’s curious character, a mix of the analytical and the driven, of an austere daily life balanced by a taste for grandiose architecture. 

The photographs that punctuate the book (photographs of butterflies and nocturnal animals, railway stations and fortifications, a rucksack and a mosaic) are particularly fascinating. After Sebald died I heard the writer A. S. Byatt reminiscing about her friend ‘Max’ Sebald on the radio. She had asked him about the photographs, which seem to have a fluid, shifting relationship with the text that surrounds them. ‘Those photographs, Max, in your books,’ she said (I quote from memory). ‘Do they show what you say they show?’ To which Sebald replied, helpfully, ‘Sometimes they do, Antonia, sometimes they don’t.’ And so we have pictures that are said, or implied, to be of Austerlitz that may be of the young Sebald himself, but also photographs of real buildings (ones in Prague and Terezin in the Czech Republic, for example) that are exactly the buildings that the book says, or implies, they are, and I know they are because I have been to Prague and Terezin and seen them.

One photograph of an English building brought me up with a jolt. On page 147 of the novel, Austerlitz describes a house he calls Iver Grove, which he sees as a young architectural historian in a period of his life when he visits many of the English country houses that were abandoned, threatened, often ultimately demolished. At Iver Grove he finds a hall, ‘ornamented with baroque stucco work’ in which ‘hundreds of sacks of potatoes leaned against each other.’ This bizarre sight is reproduced in a photograph of such a room, the floor covered with sacks: a country house used an as agricultural store. As soon as I saw this image I recognised it, because it appears in another book I’ve come across, one of the countless non-fiction works that I read and that give me so little time for fiction: John Harris’s No Voice From the Hall: Early Memories of a Country House Snooper (1998), in which the architectural historian John Harris describes his own early life, visiting abandoned and soon to be demolished country houses in England in the 1950s. The house in the photograph is Burwell Hall on the Lincolnshire Wolds (not far from where I was born), and when Harris visited it in 1957 it was full of heaps of grain, sacks of potatoes, even a flock of sheep.

I want to record this parallel not because I’m the only person to have noticed it (others have spotted it too), but because I did notice it for myself and wanted to share the surprise I felt when I came across this picture in its new setting. And also because it is typical of the surprises that await a reader of Austerlitz. The fact that Sebald acquired this image from Harris’s book (presumably he asked permission, although the book contains no photographic acknowledgements*) doesn’t spoil the book for me. It’s still no less Harris’s image for this creative repurposing: the image now has another life too.

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* As printed in Austerlitz, the photograph is framed by a black rule, just as it is in No Voice from the Hall. None of the other pictures in Austerlitz has such a frame. I suppose the frame acts as a silent acknowledgement, if one might use such an oxymoronic term, of the image’s source. 

Photograph from John Harris, No Voice From the Hall: Early Memories of a Country House Snooper (1998) and W. G. Sebald, Austerlitz (2001)

Sunday, September 6, 2020

Hoarwithy, Herefordshire

Well schooled

By far the most outstanding building in Hoarwithy, a village near the River Wye between Ross and Hereford, is the church of St Catherine, a glorious Italianate structure designed by Victorian master J. P. Seddon.¶ Each time I’ve visited it, I’ve glanced up at a neighbouring building, which is called Church House. It’s in the same red local sandstone and I imagined it was a former vicarage, built at the same time as church and also designed by Seddon. I was only partly right. The house is by Seddon, and was built in 1868* and designed as a school and master’s house. Both church and school were built for the long serving vicar William Poole, who was responsible for the parish from 1854 to 1901.

The photograph represents my usual view of Church House, showing its east front – if I’d paid more attention to the south wall, I’d have seen the large window that lights the school room that occupies the left-hand part of the building. The part to the right is the master’s house, its large windows suggesting large rooms within. Oddly, the canted parts of the bays have no windows – if they had, the rooms would have been lighter. The central doorway has a pair of trefoil-headed arches. The right-hand arch conceals the front door of the house; the left-hand one leads to a staircase going up to the schoolroom. Above is a pretty sexfoil window with a pivoting central opening section that I find curiously satisfying. This and the other windows have patterned glazing bars – another satisfying detail.

Readers sometimes ask me if I get inside the buildings I post. For houses, the answer is usually ‘no’: my appreciation is generally that of an informed passer-by. If I’d like to see the interior of this building, it’s because I’ve been tantalised by an online description that refers not only to the schoolroom’s attractive roof timbers but also to its frieze, which has painted panels of animals, birds, and flowers.† Hoarwithy church, impressive from the outside, is beautifully decorated within; clearly architect and client had the same aspirations for the school. As a reader of authors such as Charles Dickens, I am apt to be scathing about Victorian eduction,§ but at least the environment provided for this village’s children seems to have been pleasant. I hope the teaching was similarly inspired.

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¶ Seddon worked quite a lot in Wales (for example on Llandaff Cathedral and the university buildings at Aberystwyth). Although Hoarwithy church is in a sort of Romanesque-Byzantine style, Seddon, like so many of his contemporaries, was generally an advocate of Gothic. Like Pugin, and no doubt influencing his pupil C. F. A. Voysey, he liked to design furniture and fittings for his buildings.

* The precise dates of Seddon’s work on the church are unknown, but the buildings must be roughly contemporary.

† There’s an image of part of it on this site.

§ But one should not generalise. Not all schools were like Dotheboys Hall or the hideous fact-factory in Hard Times, or Charlotte Brontë’s Lowood, and with a good master a church school could provide a sound basic education in a humane environment.

Thursday, September 3, 2020

King's Caple, Herefordshire

Noticed in rural Herefordshire

In a casual way, I’ve pointed over the years to the various ways people have repurposed red telephone boxes as they have fallen out of use in this age of mobile communications. I like the way these small classics of design, the work of Sir Giles Gilbert Scott in 1935, have been put to new uses now there’s much less need for public telephones.* I’ve posted at various times miniature telephone-box art galleries in Yorkshire and next to Henry Moore’s house in Hertfordshire and a phone-box planter in Bath. I could as easily have mentioned such new purposes as housing defibrillators, miniature libraries, or even small businesses – perhaps I’ll get to those when I come across them again on my travels.

Here’s a use I’ve not seen before: a place to put the village noticeboard. It’s not strictly necessary for a noticeboard to be completely undercover in its own little building – most communities concerned about the weather (as who, in these times of climate change and storms, is not?) make do with a pair of lockable glass doors to protect the notices. But can you blame a village, wanting to preserve a K6 red telephone box and at the same time wanting somewhere to act as a noticeboard and miniature information hub, for putting these things together? And what is not to admire about getting someone to produce a sign, in a pleasant serif letterform, to replace the old ‘TELEPHONE’ legend beneath box’s shallow domed roof? I hope the King’s Caple information centre is used and appreciated.

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* The K6 is the smaller successor of the K2, which Scott designed in 1924. Today about 11,000 K6 boxes survive (a small proportion of the original total). Of these, around 2,500 are listed, which means that it has become important to find uses for listed boxes in places where they are no longer required for telephone calling.