Sunday, November 29, 2020

Ludlow, Shropshire

Looking up, looking down

St Laurence’s, Ludlow, is a large parish church (the largest in Shropshire) and its tall crossing tower is a fitting crown for the building and the beautiful town where it stands. And yet Ludlow’s tightly packed streets make the rest of the church difficult to see in the town centre, and hard to photograph. A good view is to be had from within the castle, from which the way the tower dominates the surrounding countryside is clear. It’s also clear that the architecture of the tower is 15th century, in what was fittingly called the Perpendicular style by 19th-century antiquarian Thomas Rickman and those who followed him. The quality of verticality is embodied not only in the sheer height and the upward-pointing corner pinnacles, but also in the perpendicular mouldings that cast shadows across he middle part of the tower wall and the mullions of the windows, which stretch from the bottom of the window almost to the very top, rather than getting interrupted by complex patterns of tracery as they usually did in 14th-century architecture.

The interior is high, airy, and full of windows in the same style. But one feature that has engaged me on several visits to this outstanding church is the carving of the misericord seats. Looking through some of the very few photographs I have kept from before the digital era, I see that shadows and backache seem to have prevented me from getting decent images of many of them – when visiting churches it is just as important to look down as to look up, but this can be a painful business! This is a shame since there’s a rich array of medieval carving in these stalls, from satirical images such as the fox preaching to the geese, through bits of everyday life, to heraldic designs, such as the falcon and fetterlock badge of Richard Duke of York, lord of Ludlow. Here is a rather splendidly leonine king to give readers who’ve not seen the originals an idea of the quality of the carving. I must return when I can, and see if the churchwardens still allow photography.

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Cheltenham, Gloucestershire

Municipal picturesque

Cheltenham is a town of parks and gardens. Among the best known of these is Pittville Gardens (centrepiece of the Regency Pittville estate: squares, terraces, and vast detached villas), with swathes of lawn, mature trees, and a delightful ornamental lake. What a lot of visitors don’t realise is that this greenery continues on the other side of the main road that runs nearby, where there’s a large stretch of parkland around a bigger lake where people walk, exercise their dogs, or sit admiring the trees. Another activity possible here was to hire a rowing boat and row up and down the lake.

Boats need a boathouse and this wooden building, put up in the 1890s, was designed for this role, although nowadays it seems to be devoted mainly to the provision of socially distanced tea, coffee, and snacks.* It’s a simple structure of wooden frame and cladding with a practical, generously overhanging roof. The structure is reinforced or decorated with a further array of outside timbers, painted black, so that from a distance (the other side of the lake, say) it looks a bit like a ‘black and white’ cottage of the kind common in the Vale of Evesham just a few miles to the north.

It’s a bit of a sham, and a bit of a folly, but one devoted to a practical purpose and fitting for its site. And fitting for the town’s history in a way, because if it had been around in the early-19th century, knowledgeable visitors to this once fashionable inland resort would have seen it as picturesque in the sense of something added to create a landscape that looked good, just like a well composed landscape painting. Perhaps the local council had similar thoughts when they built the boathouse in the 1890s. The vessel Martha in the foreground, by the way, has been sliced in two and turned into a sheltering bench seat – a small and inviting bit of picturesque detail from a more recent era. Here’s to the varieties of municipal picturesque!

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Aylton, Herefordshire


Buildings great and small 

A while back, well before the curse that is Covid 19 restricted everyone’s movements, my son and his girlfriend, who live in London, came to visit us in the Cotswolds. At some point their two laptops were placed on our dining table, along with my own. So there were three silver laptops, all made by Apple and including one (belonging to my son) that had a much bigger screen than the other two. I was instantly reminded of Horace Walpole’s remark about the Brighton Pavilion: ‘It is as if the dome of St Paul’s had come down to Brighton and pupped.’ A similar thought stirred in my mind when I passed these farm buildings in a remote Herefordshire setting. This is an unremarkable sight – corrugated iron barns and sheds are everywhere – but I feel that part of what I’m for is to notice the unremarkable, which often seems to me to be standing around waiting to have remarks made about it.

It appears to have been in the 1820s that an engineer called Henry Robinson Palmer had the idea of putting corrugations into thin iron sheets, to make them stronger. He took out a patent in 1829 and designed large sheds for the London Dock Company, for which he worked, with corrugated iron roofs. These roofs were curved, giving them still greater strength and enabling water to run off, and from the mid-19th century onwards curved corrugated iron roofs – on everything from large railway train sheds to tiny trackside lamp huts – have been common.

The barn in my photograph is typical of this – capacious, curved-roofed, and bought prefabricated from a company that specialised in this kind of structure. As usual, their name appears on the gable end. This one bears he name Phillips & Co of Hereford, but many companies made iron buildings and Britain’s once extensive railway network allowed them to be delivered to a more or less convenient station, from which a local carrier would bring them to the site. This one did not have to travel far, but firms like Boulton & Paul of Norwich, Frederick Braby of Glasgow, or Hill & Smith of Brierley Hill, sent a variety of corrugated iron structures far and wide, including to distant corners of the British empire.

Next to this barn is what looks like its tiny offspring. At first, distant glance I took it to be a railway lamp hut repurposed for the farm, and maybe it is. But its sides don’t seem to be corrugated as they are on the classic lamp huts used for example by the Great Western Railway, so I think it’s more likely to be a home-made wooden shed roofed with corrugated iron to take advantage of this durable, practical, and inexpensive material. Whoever made it, I hope it still has years of service ahead of it.

Thursday, November 19, 2020

Great Malvern, Worcestershire

What shall we do at quarter to two…

Although I’ve passed it dozens of times, I’ve never photographed the front of the Post Office in Great Malvern. That’s surprising in a way, because it’s a memorable neo-Georgian building, mostly of brick, with a big hipped roof and a central section with three large stone semicircular arches that breaks forward on the ground floor. The contrast between the grand arches – two with windows, one with the doorway – of the central section and the modest remainder of the building makes it all look a bit awkward. But there’s something civic and satisfying about it nonetheless, as there often is with the many neo-Georgian Post Offices built in the 1930s.

As I was passing a few weeks ago, it occurred to me that, even if the front was too cluttered with cars to make a photograph worthwhile, I could at least take a detail of an arch or two. Above the doorway, the classical lettering (not the usual Post Office letterform, but still effective), the big keystone with date and royal monogram, the ironwork, even the little clock all work together. Maybe the clock is too small – I’d guess there was one with a slightly larger face there originally. Maybe the lettering would be clearer with a broader stroke width. But it’s all better than the plastic signage – or, worse, a Post Office stuck in a corner of a high street shop – that we get today. And look at the window arches: little reliefs of Mercury to signify in another way the building’s purpose and to delight the eye.

A quick web search yielded a decent photograph of the whole building. There are still cars outside, true, but the photographer struck lucky with the middle one. It’s a Morgan, a beautiful hand-made English sports car with a classic design. And it was made in Malvern, in a factory that still produces cars with a similar traditional design – it’s the car to see in this town. Meanwhile, as I sit indoors (where I am too often these days) I offer my thanks to the Post Office for its part in keeping the mail coming. This year, mail deliveries have been bringing a rich and strange assortment of goods – from printer paper to teabags, secondhand books to cleaning products – to our door. Such deliveries are just as much a lifeline now as when this Post Office was built in 1935.

Photograph below of Great Malvern Post Office by Bob Embleton CC BY-SA 2.0

Monday, November 16, 2020

Avebury, Wiltshire

Dream topping 

Was I dreaming? The west churchyard wall at Avebury seemed to have a roof of very neatly finished thatch. It seemed an unlikely covering for a wall made of sarsen stones, among the toughest kind around. The result seemed worthy at least of a photograph and some later research. 

Looking it up when I reached home, I discovered that this exceptional wall is listed at Grade II. The listing text describes the structure as built of ‘Squared sarsen approximately 1.6 m high, with topping of cob and thatched coping.’ So there we have it. The top of the wall, oddly is made of cob, a mix made with mud and vulnerable to damage if exposed to the rain. Wiltshire has many cob walls that have thatched coping, and this is one with a difference. 

The thatch also helps shelter a rather well cut monument to Francis Knowles, a biologist (and an FRS) and Professor of Anatomy at King’s College, London. Knowles bought the manor from Francis Keiller in 1955 and lovingly restored it.* It’s good that his memorial is nearby, protected by the thatched coping of the churchyard wall.  

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* The house is now owned by the National Trust, who did further conservation work around ten years ago. 

Friday, November 13, 2020

Avebury, Wiltshire

Humans and other animals

Another of the incidental joys of Avebury, ignored by many visitors, or at least taken in with a rapid glance, is this dovecote. It is not the first dovecote I’ve posted in the long history of this blog, which is in part here to celebrate buildings that are out of the ordinary run of domestic, religious, or industrial architecture (although there’s plenty of all that here too). I particularly like many dovecotes because they are round – a shape that’s visually pleasing but also well suited to an internal design in which a central post carries a ladder that can be rotated so that one can reach any one of the hundreds of nest boxes inside.

Like the museum in my previous post and the stones in Avebury’s great prehistoric circle, this building is made of sarsen stone, with a couple of details in brick. This helps this out of the ordinary structure belong in its grassy spot among a collection of buildings, including the wooden barn that houses one of Avebury’s two museum spaces and the stone stables now occupied by the other museum. Stables, barns, dovecotes: this corner of Avebury would once have been home to a variety of creatures. Now the human animal – behaving in an admirably civilized manner when we were there – is the most usual living thing, its English variety frequently in search of coffee or tea.

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Avebury, Wiltshire

Marking time 

A refreshing if cold winter morning walking around the great stone circle at Avebury brought many pleasures, as it always does. The site was empty enough for us to take in the stones as individual objects, their chipped and pitted surfaces periodically lit up by the sun, and one could also enjoy the great sweeping arcs of the stones and earthworks – we were reminded yet again how much sheer work must have gone into the shifting of earth with wooden or antler shovels thousands of years ago.

Avebury also brings incidental pleasures. This is the Alexander Keiller Museum, named for and founded by the man who excavated in and around Avebury in the 1930s (funding the work with money that came from his family’s business making jam and marmalade). The museum is housed in a building that started out as the stables for nearby Avebury Manor, a structure variously dated to the 17th and 18th centuries. Like a lot of Avebury, it is built of the same hard sarsen stone as the standing stones themselves – tough stuff that’s generally used in large blocks, cutting it without modern machinery being extremely heavy work. The largest blocks here are the single stones used as lintels for the doors and windows.

The chunky look of the stone walls is beautifully offset by the treatment of this end gable, which metamorphoses into a clock tower and ends in a delicate hexagonal bell turret. I don’t know how long the carpentry work of the turret has been there, but its turned shafts and rounded arches certainly don’t look out of place on a 17th-century building, and whoever renewed them has produced something in what feels to me a fitting style. The clock face has gilded numerals and central sun rays that seem to belong in an earlier era too. It seems right, the horses having vacated the building, that it found a new and continuing use housing relics and records of Avebury’s history and excavation.* 

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* The museum was not open when I was recently at Avebury, due to restrictions imposed by the coronavirus, but the site is open as always and the National Trust’s café was doing a good job of offering a safe and distanced service, with tables outdoors for those dressed for winter as well as tables inside.

Saturday, November 7, 2020

Westwell, Oxfordshire

Lives cut off

Cotswold villages: I live among them and think I know what to expect. Stone cottages, cottagey gardens, church towers, a background of hills. Nearly everything is built of the oolitic limestone for which the region is famous – from the churches to the shallow soil flecked with bits of pale flaky rock, it’s all about the stone. Then a Cotswold village presents me with something that makes me pause. Like this: a menhir-sized lump of limestone mounted on two gigantic stone steps. What could it be?

It turns out to be a war memorial. An inscription records that it was put up by Stretta Aimee Holland, who lived at Westwell Manor, to commemorate her two brothers who lives were lost in the First World War. Second Lieutenant Harold Price, who served with the 3rd Battalion Royal Fusiliers, was killed at the Second Battle of Ypres on 24 May 1915, the worst day in the war for the Royal Fusiliers, who lost 536 men. Lieutenant Edward John Price was a submariner whose vessel was stranded in the Dardanelles. He was taken prisoner by the Turks and died in a prison camp in central Turkey, perhaps a victim of the Spanish flu epidemic.

The brother’s names are inscribed on an odd-looking brass plaque, which turns out to be a numeral from the clock on the old Cloth Hall at Ypres that was salvaged by Harold Price after the First Battle of Ypres. I find this rather odd memorial strangely moving. Its combination of salvaged French metalwork and local stone not only recalls the battle but also embodies lives lived, tragically, both at home and abroad. And am I fanciful in seeing the memorial’s rough-hewn state as a vernacular version of the broken column on some monuments and symbolic of lives not simply ended, but unfinished or broken?

Wednesday, November 4, 2020

Burford, Oxfordshire


Bricks come to Burford

For me and everyone else, it has been a year in which travel has been restricted. Like the rest of the British population, I have been in lockdown, or in some voluntary state of semi-lockdown in which I’ve tried to risk unnecessary exposure to Covid-19, or in a state with a little more freedom but still the fear that travelling any distance might take me into an area of the country that is in lockdown or otherwise restricted. One of the compensations for all this has been that it has forced me to focus more closely on buildings that are closer to home. Many of my recent posts reflect this.

I’m fortunate to live not far from an abundance of interesting walls to stare at. Here’s one such interesting wall, one of many in the glorious High Street of Burford, just on the Oxfordshire side of the border with Gloucestershire and near the eastern edge of the Cotswold Hills. Like so many of Burford’s buildings, this one has ancient origins. There’s timber framing of the 16th century (or perhaps even earlier) round the back. But from the street the Bull Inn presents this attractive and arresting brick and stone front.

The date of the frontage must be about 1700 – estimates vary from 1690 to 1715 – during the period when William Tash and his son John were landlords. William Tash took over an inn with a long history. Records of it go back to 1397, although the building was used for a long spell in the 16th century as a butcher’s shop. But in 1610 it was an inn again and later in the century it’s said that Charles II and Nell Gwynne stayed there. By the time the facade was updated, Burford was a prosperous town, a stopping point on the route from Wales to London. The inn’s new frontage helped it stand out.

According to the Bull’s website, it was the only brick building in Burford back then. Even now, nearly all the buildings in this street have fronts of Cotswold stone or timber framing (sometimes rendered) but the Bull mixes stone and brick, with stone used not just on the ground floor but also for the pilasters, keystones and other details above. Those other details add to the building’s eccentricity and, I’d say, charm: very chunky aprons beneath the upper windows and trapezoid stones on the upper corners of the window surrounds. All this, combined with the mix of red and darker bricks makes for a winning result and a real eyecatcher for those with time to stop and look.

Sunday, November 1, 2020

Moreton-in-March, Gloucestershire

Border control 

I’m always telling people to look up at buildings, but sometimes it pays to look down. Look down, especially, as you enter a shop, and you might see one of these elegant Victorian (or later) threshold mosaics advertising some past proprietor’s business. In Moreton-in-Marsh, a Cotswold town full of limestone buildings of various dates and degrees of picturesqueness, I’d not necessarily expect to come across this sort of thing, but even here, shop fronts have been continuously modified, and, as we know now more than ever, businesses come and go on the high street. Sometimes they leave their mark by the entrance. The one that surprised me in Moreton must be early-20th century, or at any rate done under the strong influence of Art Nouveau.  

Although I’m often mightily impressed by the way mosaicists form letters out of tiny tesserae, the letters here are far from perfect. There’s a wilfulness about stroke widths (look at the final ’s’), an uncertainty when it comes to curves (the lower part of the ‘B’, and an inconsistency with the serifs (the peculiar backward-facing foot of the second ‘R’) that mar the effect for me. Getting this sort of thing right isn’t easy, and in some mosaics the letters are formed with such flair you hardly notice the effort that must have been involved; not so here. What I do like, though, is the border, with its beguiling combination of curves which go this way and that, overlapping and doubling back on themselves, in an orgy of Art Nouveau invention.* Even the way in which the reddish-brown lines abut and interact with the fan-like arrays of white background tesserae is well judged. If the mosaicist’s letters are weak, his border is admirably well controlled.  

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* How inventive is it? Is this the kind of thing you could lift from a pattern-book? Possibly, but you’d certainly need to be resourceful to plan it out in little tiles and combine it with the rest of the design.