Monday, December 28, 2020

Brampton Bryan, Herefordshire

Patterned brick, farm style

I don’t often post farm buildings on this blog, but I do often peer through farm gates, across yards, and along drives that were once used by tractors or herds of cows and now lead to clusters of ‘desirable homes’ in converted barns. Visiting Aardvark Books (a different kind of agricultural conversion, a book farm) I’ve sometimes had a short walk to see what else there is in the village, and have glanced at this near neighbour. What I see is, on the right, a timber framed building with the spaces between the bays partly infilled with weatherboarding, and on the left a lower brick barn.

The pattern of holes in the brickwork in the left-hand barn, used for ventilation, is something I’ve noticed several times in Herefordshire and elsewhere. The widespread use of brick came late to the West Midlands and border counties, getting established in the 17th century, in contrast to the East of England, where brick buildings survive from the late Middle Ages. I’d guess this barn is probably 19th century, and it may well have started life with a slate roof like the one it has today. The diamond of ventilation holes is typical, and must have been relatively easy to do for a bricklayer used to laying bricks with precision. I have the impression that it is, though, a slightly larger diamond than many I’ve seen. With a small array of holes, or two or three smaller arrays, the builder would have room for stretches of solid brickwork in between, to keep the structure sound. But this large diamond-shaped area of perforation seems to work, and to help a building in the once alien material of brick fit into the varied pattern of Herefordshire vernacular architecture, with its sandstone and timber-framed structures set against a background of rolling hills.

Tuesday, December 22, 2020


‘Not in stone temples made with hands’  

At this time of year, as we approach Christmas and wonder this of all years how we cope with it, there’s usually the chance to listen to a variety of Christmas music, not just the endless advertising sound track of tunes such as ‘White Christmas’ (it first caught my ears on television in October this year, just after mince pies were spotted in a prominent place in the cake aisle of a local supermarket) but also the abundance of special music in English churches. This is the time of year when the organist makes sure the pedal light and foot heater are working, brushes the hoar frost off the altos and gets out music that’s been at the bottom of the heap for almost a year. Britain has a strong choral tradition, and some of the cathedral and large church choirs are amazingly good. And then there are the professional groups who make recordings, tour the world (when they can), and elicit enthusiastic and sometimes awed responses wherever people sing. There’s a choral sound – born of musicianship, pin-sharp precision, and clarity of pronunciation – that’s summed up in words like ‘purity’ or simply ‘Englishness’. Perhaps it’s the sound we think of when we think of the English (or indeed Scottish) choral masters like Tallis, Byrd or Gibbons.

A favourite of mine is Orlando Gibbons, who in a short life produced some of the masterpieces of English music for keyboard, as well as a lot of superlative vocal music. Much of his music was small-scale – wonderful short keyboard pieces and madrigals (including one of my favourites, ‘The Silver Swan’), but he also wrote some terrific church music, much of it no doubt sung in the Chapel Royal in London, where the composer worked. He was born in Oxford, and was baptized on Christmas Day 1585 at St Martin’s church, Oxford. Only the tower of St Martin’s now stands, at Carfax, the crossroads right in the middle of the city, where the clock in the photograph tells the hours. This is a modern clock in a surround designed by Victorian architect Thomas Jackson. But Gibbons might well have seen some figures, the two ‘quarter boys’ who banged the bells that mark the hours. Even today’s quarter boys are not the originals, which are now safely preserved in the city museum, but accurate replicas.

Such is the march of time, of which Gibbons, as a musician, was no doubt well aware. I want to link to a YouTube video of one of his anthems, a piece I know in this recording by the wonderfully named English group Red Byrd, who combine musical precision and verve with their best shot at ‘historically informed’ pronunciation of English. I find this anthem, ‘Glorious and powerful God’, a joy – spirited, uplifting, and (in this performance anyway) slightly earthy and not quite up there in the remote heavens, as some religious music can be. Not typical either, then, of that ultra-pure ‘English’ choral sound, but the reprise of the words ‘Arise O Lord’, especially, makes me want to stand up and cheer.

As if all that weren’t enough, the words (Who wrote them? Gibbons himself? I wish I knew.) use an architectural metaphor. The text expresses that difficult concept, the presence of Jesus on earth, in this way. Christ does not does not dwell ‘in stone temples made with hands’ but ‘in the flesh hearts of the sons of men’, a vivid way of getting at the idea of God made flesh, and of expressing his continued presence in our hearts. Whatever your belief system, however you react to this, may your heart be light this season, and may it be warmed by Gibbons’s music.

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Photograph shared under Creative Commons licence.   

Saturday, December 19, 2020

Overbury, Worcestershire

Acts of remembrance 

Listening to an excellent talk on Arts and Crafts war memorials given by Kirsty Hartsiotis last month, I was reminded of a very special war memorial at Overbury in Worcestershire. This is not only a war memorial but also a building – the lych-gate through which one enters the churchyard of St Faith’s church. Like so much of the architecture of this village it came about through the care and generosity of the Martin and Holland-Martin familes, once the owners of one of Britain’s largest banks. The Martins live in the large house just visible from the churchyard and employed architects and craftsmen working in the vernacular and Arts and Crafts traditions to construct a school, a village hall, even a bus shelter. It was natural, then, when 19-year-old Geoffrey Holland-Martin was killed in action in France in 1918, that his parents should think not just in terms of a personal memorial to his son but also of something more widely relevant to the village. Hence this lych-gate, which combines a memorial to those in the village who fell in the Great War with a monumental entrance to the churchyard.

The architect was no less than Sir Herbert Baker, who had imbibed vernacular and Arts and Crafts ways of building when as a young man he was assistant to the prominent practice of Ernest George and Peto. He subsequently had a busy life, packing in what almost amounted to three consecutive architectural careers. After a promising start in London, he followed his brother (a fruit farmer) to southern Africa, met Cecil Rhodes, and designed a string of buildings for private clients, the church, and the colonial government. Next he went to India and worked with Lutyens on New Delhi. By the time World War I ended, Baker was in his fifties and might have rested on his laurels. But this was not Baker’s way. Instead, he became architect to the then Imperial War Grave Commission, designing 113 cemeteries on the western front.

Baker’s building at Overbury is on a tiny scale compared to these grand projects, but it’s designed with plenty of care. It wonderfully combines a monumental quality with the use of oak and limestone, materials that feel completely at home in this stone village where, on some days, the most obvious sound is the wind stirring the leaves of great trees. The wooden superstructure that rests on the limestone plinth is certainly imposing, with its large arches, but it’s also inviting, an irrestistable draw both to the eye and to the feet. ‘Come to church, good people,’ it seems to say, to those who have arrived through countryside in which Bredon Hill rises in the middle distance.

In the centre of the interior is a large coffin rest, a reminder of the time when the bearers paused in the lych-gate while the priest said the first part of the burial service. This is designed in the shape of a chest tomb, and this has reminded more than one person of a cenotaph, an empty tomb like the one in Whitehall that acts as a focus for national remembrance ceremonies. From thoughts of those laid in earth to thoughts of the celestial: the other special thing about this structure is the carvings of angels resting in those massive wooden beams. They are by Alec Miller, who was head of wood-carving and modelling in the Campden Guild of Handicraft when the lych-gate was built. My photograph shows the angel on the side of the lych-gate pointing towards the church, its wings outstretched. 

The northern face of the coffin rest is carved with the lines from Blake’s poem Jerusalem that speak of building Jerusalem ‘in England’s green and pleasant land’. For many rural people in the interwar period, England was far from green and pleasant, but thanks to the Holland-Martins, Overbury seems to have made at least the aspiration credible.

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Eckington, Worcestershire

Crossing place 

Bredon Hill, made famous by a poem in A. E. Housman’s collection A Shropshire Lad, is actually in the poet’s native Worcestershire and is an outlier of the Cotswolds. The country round about is flat, and through it snakes the River Avon, the Worcestershire Avon that is (for there are several Avons), which flows to join the Severn at Tewkesbury. The Avon is bridged at numerous points, here between Eckington and Birlingham, where Eckington Bridge looks the epitome of the medieval packhorse bridge – narrow, stone-built, weathered. Actually it’s not quite as old as it looks. There was a bridge here by at least the 14th century, but by the early 1700s it was so damaged and decayed that it needed to be replaced. What we see now is the replacement, built in 1728 by a pair of Worcester masons, Robert Taylor and Thomas Wilkinson.

The 18th-century masons are said to have reused the foundations of the earlier bridge, and the paler stone of the lower parts of the pointed cutwaters that protrude into the water may be part of this original structure. It is hard to get an impression of the stone of the lower sections of the arches because this has been patched up over the years with both stone and brick. The parapet is yet another colour, a grey as opposed to red coloured sandstone. The bulk of the bridge is built from stone quarried in the Ombersley area, where both red and grey stone are found.

The kind of traffic the bridge was taking in the 18th century was not so different from that of the medieval period: horses, carts, cattle, pedestrians. Even in the 18th century when there would have been more carts than packhorses, it must have been easy for the slow-moving traffic of that era to make its way across as oncoming carts or horses waited their turn. Nowadays the traffic moves more quickly and is controlled by lights. Let’s hope today’s technology makes yesterday’s bridge good for another century or two.

Saturday, December 12, 2020

Upton on Severn, Worcestershire


Continuity or change?

The small riverside town of Upton-on-Severn has one of those traditional high streets that has evolved over the years to meet local needs, with apparently few incursions in the form of multiple retailers or big brands. You’ll find early-19th century buildings (sometimes with Venetian windows above), Victorian shop fronts, and a scattering of Edwardian or later gilded shop signs, preserved against the odds. Here’s one that’s small and quite easy to miss. It is above the door of one of the few ‘big names’ in Upton, a branch of Boot’s. It’s a pharmacy now and clearly was in 1881, when John Gibbs put up his plate in this very building.

Were pharmacists in the 1880s still stamping out pills by hand using little brass moulds and pouring our lotions and tinctures from large glass carboys? I’m not sure, but if they weren’t, that time could not have been long past. Pharmacists still have to be well qualified of course, but these days the medicines are usually manufactured elsewhere and packaged in blister packs. The gilded lettering of Mr Gibbs’s sign certainly harks back to the earlier era. It’s shiny but not flashy – simple, clear capitals that have none of the curls and elaborations of other Victorian signs. The effect must have been traditional and reassuring even in the 19th century.

And of course, it’s personal. When this sign was made, local people would have known the pharmacist and would have spoken of ‘Going to see Mr Gibbs,’ for some advice and a remedy. Today, the premises bear the name of the best known high street chemist. But it’s still not impossible that the people of this small town know the people who work here, and speak of them by name, and think of them differently from those who live in a big town and speak simply of ‘going to Boot’s’ to pick up their prescription. I don’t know this to be the case, but there’s the possibility of such a connection and continuity, reflected by the gilded lettering of this sign. If it’s there, it’s worth hanging on to.

Wednesday, December 9, 2020

Cirencester, Gloucestershire


A folly, but not entirely

Earl Bathurst, 18th-century lord of Cirencester and shape of its enormous park, clearly responded to the architectural fashions of the time. As well as classical buildings like the one in my previous post, Bathurst also included several Gothic ones in his park. This, probably the largest, is called Ivy Lodge. It looks over the park’s famous polo field so that its eccentric architecture can entertain spectators who feel they’ve endured one chukka too many. It’s easy to shrug buildings like this off as simply follies – bits of architectural nonsense that rich people liked to put up to indulged a whimsy. Of course, the design is whimsical – that very classical central upper window looks eccentric above Gothic openings and beneath faux-medieval battlements. But it’s also a building with a purpose. It’s actually a house that adjoins a series of farm buildings – barn, cart shed, granary, etc – some of which are attached to Ivy Lodge, some standing separately nearby. It’s all much plainer round the back.

Observant readers will have noticed that the windows on the left-hand part of the facade are blind. A side view (below) shows why. That part of the facade is just facade – its main purpose is to make the frontage symmetrical and to screen the farm buildings from view. That’s the kind of care that Earl Bathurst took when building the structures in his park. Many had a practical purpose, but all were meant to enhance the view. I’d be the last person to take issue with this care for visual things. The whole ensemble makes me happy – and that backdrop of trees makes me happier still. Looking at this picture makes me want to get my walking shoes on and go and look at it all again, very soon.

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I have posted previously on another building in Cirencester Park, Pope’s Seat, here

Saturday, December 5, 2020

Cirencester, Gloucestershire

Framed by trees 

Cirencester Park is one of the most remarkable ornamental landscapes in England. It’s one of the few surviving large-scale 18th-century parks laid out before the fashion for the less formal landscape garden developed with such success by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown. At Cirencester, a large tract of countryside was transformed by Lord Bathurst. Essentially it is a wooded landscape into which a series of avenues has been cut. The longest of these avenues stretches some five miles, from the park gates in the town to a distant vanishing point. This broad grassy ride is one avenue of many, some of which are much narrower. They are arranged at different angles and intersect with others at clearings, and at strategic places Bathurst placed monuments and buildings, to provide visual focal points and in some cases to enable walkers to take shelter, or to pause and rest. 

My photograph shows one such building, the Hexagon, a six-sided stone shelter. Visual interest is provided by the way the design emphasises the stones that surround each of the six arches. Not only do these stones stand slightly proud of the rest of the structure, they’re also pitted and roughened in a treatment known as vermiculation, a word meant to suggest that the surface resembles something that has been eaten away by worms. The plain roof topped with a ball finial is effective enough, but Bathurst at one point intended to make the little building still more striking with a cupola. My use of the phrase ‘Bathurst intended’ was deliberate – the earl was the designer of this building, dabbling in architecture to some purpose, like numerous nobles ands gentlemen of the day.  

For many, the main joy of Cirencester Park is the opportunity it gives to walk through stretches of landscape, admiring the mature trees and enjoying the chutzpah of landowners like Bathurst who created what were in effect vast works of land art using the medium of woodland and greensward. The earl’s penchant for classical pavilions, statue-bearing columns, and faux-medieval fortifications is an added bonus. To which one can add gratitude to the current earl, who opens the park throughout the year, so that anyone can walk there, without charge, in return for the observance of a few sensible rules. It’s a gesture worthy of his extravagant 18th-century predecessor.

Wednesday, December 2, 2020

Black Country Living Museum, Dudley

New departure 

With England still under restrictions of various kinds, my mind goes back with something like nostalgia to a visit the Resident Wise Woman and I made to the Black Country Living Museum (BCLM), several months before Covid 19 struck. Britain has some magnificent open-air museums. Some are places like Avoncroft or the Weald and Downland Museum, where the primary aim is to relocate and preserve interesting old buildings that would almost certainly have been demolished; these are totally fascinating places that do wonderful work in both architectural and social history. At the other end of the scale are enormous sites like the Black Country Living Museum, at which costumed guides explain exhibits that range from rolling mills to Victorian sweetshops and you can buy fish and chips using Britain’s pre-1971 non-decimal currency. I have to say, before I went to the BCLM, I’d thought this was too gimmicky for me, but the guides are well informed, the food decent, and the work of architectural preservation very impressive indeed.§  

The BCLM contains several houses, all well cared for and beautifully displayed. Most of them are built of brick, but this one is different and without the museum’s excellent guidebook I’d not have known what it was. It’s actually a pair of semi-detached council houses, built in Dudley in 1925. It’s a reminder that, after World War I, people tried alternative ways of house-building because of a shortage of materials and skilled labour. This pair, one of only two pairs built, was an experiment with building using two-foot-square cast-iron panels, made in the Eclipse Foundry in Dudley and bolted together on-site.  

The house was impressive to anyone brought up on Victorian accommodation and its basic or absent plumbing – there were bathrooms with fitted baths and hot and cold running water for a start, although the kitchen had a traditional coal-burning range and the house was lit by gas.* But the main problem was not the mix of old- and new-style fittings. The problem for Dudley council was that the dwellings cost more to build than traditional houses, so this type of house was not produced in volume. 

So few people had the chance even to see this innovative dwelling (or to think of an ‘iron house’ as anything other than a corrugated iron house) until this one ended up in the museum. Something similar happened with the attempts at prefabricated house building after World War II. Postwar prefabs were built in large numbers, but most have now vanished and today you’re almost as likely to see one in a museum as anywhere else.† We’re still putting up houses using old technology today.  

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§ I should add that such performative and informative fare is also sometimes available at museums like Avoncroft, where I once saw nails made by hand, just as they were in the Victorian Midlands (John Ruskin memorably described nail-making in Fors Clavigera). But there such things are occasional extras, not part of the usual offering as they are at the BCLM. 

* When we visited, the interiors were not open because work was being done on the houses; a further reason to return to the Black Country Living Museum, one day. 

† I exaggerate slightly. There are still postwar prefabs about, but most have been adapted and reclad out of all recognition. There are some pristine ones, well looked after and listed, at Moseley, Birmingham.