Friday, October 22, 2021


Happy pigs

Walking along a street in Hereford, a city I’ve visited a number of times, I saw this tile panel, clearly one produced for a butcher’s shop, that I’d never previously noticed. How can I not have seen this before? I have walked along this street more than once, on at least one other occasion noting the features of other old shop fronts hereabouts. Could it possibly be that this tile panel was covered by some later decoration, and has been revealed relatively recently? Maybe. But whatever its recent history, it’s now visible, delightful, and an asset to the streetscape, even though the premises no longer belong to a butcher, having been made over to the business of selling boots and shoes.

I find the panel charming – and charm, I’d say, is a quality that is appropriate for retail architecture, the object being to charm customers so much that they go inside and buy things. So here, five happy-looking pigs chomp and root away by a stream, while a sixth seems to have decided to lie down in contentment. The foliage of the trees is not depicted realistically, but made up of a series of impressionistic shapes and splodges in various shades of green and brown, a style that looks more 20th century than Victorian. The chequered border and angular lettering point that way too – I wonder if the tiles were designed and made in the 1920s. I couldn’t find anything about them in my favourite tile reference book, Lynn Pearson’s Tile Gazetteer. So for now I’m left to speculate and admire.

Entering the shop, I found one more tile panel (below), showing another group of pigs just inside the door. This time they seem to be in a farmyard setting, and this, together with the fact that the pigs are depicted in more detail, has given the artist a little more scope to be realistic. The grey wall in which the tiles are now set has a surface slightly proud of the panels, and this may well conceal a tiled border. The adjacent display of wellington boots, perfect for the well dressed farmer or swineherd, made me smile. It’s a while since I’ve seen such good butcher’s tiles, and these are rivals to my local favourites, which adorn the shop of Jesse Smith and Co, butchers of Cirencester. There they have attracted me inside to buy a pork pie. Although I didn’t buy any shoes in this Hereford shop, I may well return – tiles are still, for me, a powerful attraction.

Monday, October 18, 2021

Bridport, Dorset

Chapel in a garden

Bridport’s Unitarian chapel was built in the 1790s after a group split from an existing independent congregation in 1742. The then minister, Thomas Collins, refused to affirm the divinity of Christ, leading some 200 people to leave and set up their own congregational chapel elsewhere in the town. Those who remained continued under Collins’ ministry, and in c. 1974 they agreed to build a new chapel, then called the New Meeting, the building that survives today.

The building is a standard 18th-century chapel, with symmetrical front, round-headed windows, hipped roof, and central porch, the latter given a touch of elegance by its semi-circular shape and Ionic columns. But the most distinctive thing about it today is its position, set back from the street and fronted with greenery and flowers. It’s hard to imagine a better setting for a chapel in the middle of a town. The congregation invites passers-by to sit and enjoy the green space, where they can find rest, relaxation, and, perhaps encouraged by the gentle cooing of the doves, spiritual enrichment.

The doves have their own miniature building, which can be seen on the left in my photograph. It’s ornate, octagonal, and painted the same white as the bricks of the chapel’s facade. The occupants perched obligingly and eyed me as, taking welcome relief from Bridport’s busy main street, stopped to take the photograph. Christians have long used the dove as a symbol of the Holy Spirit. Unitarianism rejects the Trinitarian notion of the deity, so have no place for that symbol. However, doves have long been linked with peace and purity, and few, in this tranquil setting, would take issue with that.

Thursday, October 14, 2021

Sudeley, Gloucestershire

Hidden treasure

A few miles from where I live, hidden in a wood on a slope of the Cotswolds, lie the fragmentary remains of a Roman villa. The site was excavated in 1882, when some mosaics were uncovered, the remains of a few walls were noted, and the plan of a courtyard villa, which had developed from an earlier corridor-based structure, was made out. The ruins did not fare well in the years after the excavation. Damage due to frost, burrowing rabbits, and visitors occurred, and Emma Dent, the owner of the land on which they stood, removed one of the mosaics to her home, Sudeley Castle.* She had part of the site protected by wooden sheds to help preserve it, but those sheds have long rotted away and most of the remains are now all but enveloped in undergrowth and concealed by trees. One mosaic is protected by a low shelter roofed in corrugated iron. By bending down into the shelter and peeling back some sheeting held down by stones, one can see the mosaic, fragmentary but beautiful, its patterns of loops, curves and diagonals standing out in the gloom.

It’s not known for sure how old the villa is. Coins of the 3rd and 4th centuries were found on the site, and I’d guess that the building goes back well before that. That this much has managed to survive in its isolated and quiet location, in spite of animals, weather, and the removal of tesserae by ignorant 19th-century visitors, is heartening, and to me at least, somewhat moving.

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* She justified this removal because it was necessary to protect the mosaics from locals, who walked up to the site and removed handfuls of tesserae. A panel of the mosaic, having been removed to the castle, was apparently subsequently lost: its present location is unknown. A mosaic from another Roman site that Miss Dent removed had a happier fate: she had it restored and reinstalled in its original position.

Sunday, October 10, 2021

Burnham-on-Sea, Somerset

Light the lights

The facade of the Ritz cinema in Burnham-on-Sea looked somewhat the worse for wear when I passed it the other day – but, no matter, the place is still open and still showing films, on three screens now I believe, unlike the single screen that it had when it opened in 1936. It presents to the street a very plain front, rendered in cream, with a central section breaking forward slightly and accommodating three simple rectangular windows and the sign bearing the name above. It’s Art Deco, in other words, of the most pared-down kind.

The lettering in the sign is pretty simple too. Four capitals, with all the strokes more or less equal in width and all the characters very square-looking, including even the initial R, which has been made to do some rather alien things in order to eliminate its usual curves. It’s not the most pleasing of letters, this R, but in the context of the plain, simple, rectilinear building it makes sense. Imagine the neon tubes of the sign lit up at night, as one must with such a cinema building, and the whole thing works – even though we lose what caught my eye on the sunny Sunday afternoon I was there: the lucky similarity between the colour of the lettering and the blue of the sky.

Wednesday, October 6, 2021

Daventry, Northamptonshire

Genuine imitation

This building is nicely sited at one end of Daventry High Street, facing up the street. Its frontage therefore acts as an attractive focal point as one looks towards it, and the white stucco finish draws the eye. What I thought I was looking at was the 18th-century idea of a Tudor-period gothic house front. The battlements, octagonal corner turrets, friezes with quatrefoils, and windows with dripstones and ornate glazing bars all point to this. Even the white stucco feels right: Horace Walpole’s famous faux-gothic house, Strawberry Hill, Twickenham, is similarly white – he called it his ‘paper house’, referring both to the white finish and the fragility conjured up by the style. This example, more four-square and turreted, doesn’t look particularly fragile, but is no less striking, and a pleasant surprise to come across among the modern shop fronts and market stalls.

But there’s a twist. According to the description in the listing entry of this house, the core of the building actually is 16th or 17th century. So there’s a genuine Tudor or Jacobean house lurking underneath this handsome sham. Little do the ’Tiny Uns’ who attend day care here today realise what a cradle of history they occupy.

Saturday, October 2, 2021

West Camel, Somerset

The joys of the wriggly stuff

Up there in the list of my obsessions are various things that are not strictly architecture, but which are adjuncts to architecture and often make buildings interesting or give them interesting contexts – lettering on buildings, three-dimensional pub signs, post boxes, wooden shacks, obsolete petrol pumps, and, somewhere near the top of the heap, corrugated iron. Aficionados of this versatile but low-status building material often refer to it as ‘wriggly tin’, which is a misnomer as far as the ‘tin’ goes, but is amusing enough and highlights its salient quality, the corrugations that both make the stuff strong and give it its characteristic appearance, helping it to look good when the sun comes out.

Wriggly tin is cheap, lightweight, easy for low-skilled people to build with, and highly versatile. If you hit the term ‘corrugated iron’ in the tag cloud in the right-hand column, you’ll find posts about barns, a house, a boat house, Nissen huts, workshops, and even churches built of the material. Here in West Camel there’s a multiple whammy of corrugated iron – not just a modest green-painted shed but a row of houses with great curving roofs with a corrugated covering. If the houses resemble Nissen huts, there’s a reason. They were built by John Petter and Percy J Warren, who took their inspiration from the Nissen huts designed by Lieutenant Colonel Peter Nissen. The pair of architects set up a company to produce the houses and acknowledged their debt to Nissen by calling their firm Nissen-Petren Houses and appointing Nissen to the board of directors.

The idea was to market the houses to local authorities, who were building homes in the 1920s in the wake of the First World War. The return of soldiers not only increased the demand for affordable housing, but caused a shortage of materials and skilled labour, and the design of the Nissen-Petren houses was a way of overcoming these problems by creating structures of non-traditional materials that were straightforward to erect. The houses had a steel frame, concrete end walls, and a roof covered with corrugated steel. They could be built much faster than brick houses and the hope was that the cost would be slightly lower too. However, the houses weren’t taken up widely – there were concerns about the cost, the appearance of the houses, and that fact that some roof leaks were reported. A few were built in the West Country, but not enough to make the Nissen-Petren company viable and it closed in financial difficulties. The row in West Camel, visible from the A303, are, as far as I know, the largest group to survive.

Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Edithmead, Somerset

Tin tabernacle

As regular readers will know, I’m a great fan and regular user of Nikolaus Pevsner’s Buildings of England books, to which I refer all the time and which also inspire many of the explorations of English buildings that lie behind this blog. I am in no doubt that the series, with its comprehensive coverage of architecture – first in England and then in Wales, Scotland, and Ireland – is one of the greatest works of art history ever, in any country.* If I have a reservation about the books it’s that, even in the fat revised volumes that are still appearing, they often stop short at even passing coverage the more modest buildings that in many places play a huge part in defining local character – the lookers’ huts of Romney Marsh, maybe, or the hovels of the Vale of Evesham, or plotland bungalows, or minor industrial buildings in some towns.† Or corrugated iron buildings, a personal obsession of mine, even though buildings made of this material are widely seen as minor and often temporary. There are, though, plenty of corrugated iron structures that are vital to their community and that have histories going back over a century.

I was pleased, therefore, when browsing in the Somerset: South and West volume of Pevsner to find a corrugated iron church mentioned at Edithmead, close to Burnham-on-Sea. Recently I was nearby, and stopped to have a look. What I found was a charming, white-painted ‘tin tabernacle’ not especially churchlike in appearance, except for the miniature spire and the bell at one end, but attractive nonetheless. If the rectangular windows and tiny structure without a separate chancel look unecclesiastical, there’s a reason. This building began life on another site, at East Brent, where it was an ‘Adult School’. It was brought to Edithmead in 1919 to serve the small local community as a daughter church to the one in Burnham-on-Sea. The congregation look after it well – although maintenance of a building like this is easier that the upkeep of a stone building; the main jobs recently have, I think, been painting the building and replacing the wooden window frames.

Thanks to the congregation, the tiny church with its modest spirelet and delightful cresting along the ridge of the roof, still looks good and locals were able to celebrate its centenary on the site in 2019. Hats off to the people of Edithmead – and to the authors of the Pevsner guide for pointing me towards a place of which, until the other day, I’d not even heard.

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* The revised volume for Wiltshire is the latest one I’ve acquired, and I plan to review it shortly here.

† All of which may be built in part of corrugated iron.

Tuesday, September 21, 2021


Hunting the Hart

During our recent stop in Buckingham, the town’s White Hart Hotel was looking particularly attractive with its hanging baskets, so I paused to take the photograph above. I wanted to show not just the flowers but also some detail of the Doric porch, which acts as a platform for the statue of the eponymous white hart with the traditional gold coronet around its neck. Although the White Hart is a very common name for an in or pub in England, relatively few have a three-dimensional image of a stag as their sign. I’ve seen a number of these in my time – a splendid standing stag in Okehampton, for example, with a magnificent pair of outstretching antlers, and another high up on the White Hart Hotel in Salisbury, which can, in the right light, be dramatically silhouetted against the sky.*

The White Hart symbol became well known during the reign of King Richard II (reigned 1377–99), who adopted it as his badge. He is said to have based it on the heraldry of his mother, Joan, Countess of Kent, whom the chronicler Froissart called ‘the most beautiful woman in all the realm of England, and the most loving’. The king’s retainers and followers would have worn the badge, and it appears several times on the Wilton Diptych, the superb portrait of the ruler now in the National Gallery.

Like many White Hart Hotels (and indeed numerous other urban hotels), the one in Buckingham is early-19th century in appearance – the flat front, symmetrical facade, and classical porch are all standard features of the coaching inns of the late Georgian and Regency periods. In those days Buckingham was a good stopping point on the journey between the Midlands and London, or between Oxford and Cambridge, and the White Hart was one of several inns in the town. And it was in earlier times too – the inn’s history is said to go back further than the Georgian era. It’s still a good place to pause when making the cross country journey from Oxford to Cambridge – or, as it was for us the other day, from the hills of the Cotswolds to the flatlands of the Fens.

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*See my Instagram account, @philipbuildings and scroll past recent posts, to see images of these.

Friday, September 17, 2021

St Neots, Huntingdonshire

Stand-out steeple

When it comes to skylines in small towns, it’s often a church that dominate the scene, not necessarily a large industrial building like the flour mill in my previous post. But here in St Neots, where I noticed that flour mill, is a fine Victorian church tower that makes another notable contribution to the skyline. Like the mill, it’s also (mainly) in brick, and it turns out to be the work of the same architect, Edward Jabez Paine (1847–1926). The Paine family owned the mill that Edward J. Paine designed, and they were religious nonconformists, worshipping at what was then a Congregationalist church (now a United Reformed church), so there was a close personal connection between architect and client here too. In fact the architect’s father was actually a deacon of the church, so Edward Paine was a natural choice for architect.

Paine built a good gothic church, with a spacious interior, well lit with big windows, and with a west gallery for extra seating. But the striking feature is the tower. This starts as a square structure and turns into an octagon part-way up. At the point where the metamorphosis takes place there are pairs of square pinnacles at each corner, and there are single eight-sided pinnacles at the corners of the octagon too. The octagon is topped with a short spire. The spire is slightly stocky, but this doesn’t detract form the overall effect – to my mind it sets off the octagon, showing off the brickwork and dressed stone of this part of the tower. St Neots was fortunate to get this building in 1888, a time when many dissenting churches were benefitting from the wealth of the successful business- and tradespeople in their congregations. In my opinion, the Paines did their church – and their town – proud.

Friday, September 10, 2021

St Neots, Huntingdonshire

‘Go’ in St Neots

Although I like to think I am good at spotting small, unregarded buildings, sometimes my attention is drawn irresistibly to the large and showy structures that stand out, whether in a rural landscape or in a town. Pulling into a car park in St Neots recently, there was one such building that I couldn’t miss, because its massive tower with corbelled top and striking tiled roof dominated the skyline in that part of town. The tower seemed to be an essay in polychrome brickwork, built to stand out, but what was the building that it was standing proud above? And how old could it be – was it from the brash 1860s or maybe somewhat later?

A stroll in its direction revealed a structure every bit as showy and massive as I’d expected from the tower. It was Paine’s Flour Mill, and its exterior walls are a riot of yellow brick, gothic arches, diaper patterns, and something resembling a Star of David beneath the arches of the upper stage of the tower.* Paine’s were a well established St Neots company founded by James Paine. They began as brewers and built their brewery into one of the town’s biggest businesses. But James’s entrepreneurial son, William Paine, expanded and diversified into all kinds of areas – flour milling, timber, and dealing in everything from building materials to coal. The interest in flour milling seems to have started when he bought a mill on this site, where he also built maltings for his brewing business. The mill was rebuilt in the 1880s, but the building that survives seems to be later than this one – there was a fire in 1905 and a rebuilding. A photograph online shows the present structure, with its gothic arches, under construction; this image is dated 1910, although according to Lynn Pearson, the mill reopened in 1909, so the actual date of the photograph is probably just before this.†

Another image of c. 1920 shows the mill complete with the tall corner chimney, which has now been taken down (its stump is visible in my photograph). Even in its current state, converted to flats, it’s still an imposing building and testimony to the industrial flair of the Victorians and their successors, who saw that a striking factory could be an effective advertisement. The architect was Edward J. Paine, grandson to the founder of the firm, suggesting that the building is also a memorial to a lineage that had in spades that active, strong-willed quality of movers and shakers that the Victorians called simply, ‘go’.

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* It’s not a perfect star but in any case the symbol was not, for the Victorians, associated only with Judaism; I’ve seen such stars in brick on 19th-century nonconformist chapels.

† See Lynn Pearson, Victorian and Edwardian British Industrial Architecture (Crowood Press, 2016).

Saturday, September 4, 2021

Puddletown, Dorset

Here comes the Sun, or, Odd things in churches (14)

People who look carefully at old buildings will know all about the Sun Fire Office. It was an insurance company, founded in 1710, and it’s still going in a different form. It’s familiar to devotees of old houses because the company’s clients used to fix a metal plaque bearing the company name and symbol (the Sun in splendour, naturally) to the fronts of their houses. Then when the Sun sent out their fire-fighters, they would know you’d paid for the service and would attack the blaze with whatever equipment they had.

One aid to fire-fighting was provided by fire buckets filled with water or sand. One often sees bright red metal ones hanging on the platforms of stations on preserved railway lines. But back in the days when the Sun Fire Office first started, canvas buckets were also in use. I’d never seen these in a church before, but at Puddletown several remain, hanging from hooks under the west gallery. There are many more hooks than buckets, so perhaps originally there were more. More would be a good idea, as they’re not very large and a couple would not go very far when extinguishing a fire of any size larger than a smouldering pipe left in an absent-minded church warden’s pocket. These fire buckets now go on an informal list I keep in my head of fire-fighting equipment I’ve spotted in churches – fire hooks for removing burning thatch and the occasional rare hand-pumped fire engine are also included. All a far cry from today’s enormous fire engines with their turntables and ladders, but as welcome in extremis as their diesel-powered descendants can be today.

Sunday, August 29, 2021


For filling up

A recent visit to Buckingham, en route for a destination further east, saw us taking a stroll along Well Street, a way I’d never gone before. It wasn’t long before we passed this building, which I immediately wanted to photograph, although this was not easy because the street is not very wide. It’s a facade that’s wearing at least part of its history with pride. The building has most recently housed a restaurant, although this business seems now to have closed. The preservation of a pair of petrol pumps shows how the restaurant took its name and branding from the previous use – it was a garage and the restaurant was called The Garage. They even changed the globes atop the pumps to a pair bearing the letter G, specially made for the change of use, no doubt.

But the garage business cannot have been here much before the beginning of the 20th century; more likely it dated to some time after 1900. What was it before? The design of the front, with its symmetrically arranged windows and plain but decent brickwork, suggested to me a nonconformist chapel and that’s what it originally was. It looks early-19th century and a little research reveals that the structure was first a Presbyterian Meeting House. Although the frontage is Regency, the building behind it actually dates to 1726, with numerous further alterations in the 19th and 20th centuries. At some point after it ceased to be a chapel, it housed a school, before the wide doorway was fitted, no doubt part of the conversion to a garage. I’ve seen a chapel converted to a garage before (there’s one, for example, at Upton-on-Severn), but not one quite as elegant as this – the central doorway, though large, far from ruins the visual effect. Even the changes to the ground-floor windows do not completely destroy the symmetry.

In recent years many garages have closed, especially small town ones where a street-side site can make filling up with petrol an activity that holds up traffic. Country filling stations have been closing too as the profit margins are so narrow and the trade is now so dominated by the supermarket chains. So a few years ago this one closed and the restaurant arrived. Now it appears that the building is on the market again and conversion to residential use is one the cards. I hope its new owners will not erase the layers of its history that are still on show.

Wednesday, August 25, 2021

Sherborne, Dorset

Surprised in Sherborne, 2

Sherborne’s Cheap Street is a very attractive jumble of architectural styles – from late-medieval timber framed structures to stone buildings from virtually every later date: a hotch-potch, mostly with recent shop fronts, but much of it given unity by the glowing stone. Even in this good company, the bow-fronted building above is outstanding. Living near Cheltenham, I’m used to stucco-covered Regency buildings decked out with classical cornices, columns and iron balconies, but even so this one made me pause. It’s small, with just a single window on the upper floor of its curvaceous facade, but what a window – the full Venetian, with a pair of rectangular sections bookending a round-topped central portion, the whole surrounded by elegant mouldings and highlights picked out in white. A neat cornice and parapet, balustraded in the centre, complete this upper floor, which rests on four stone Ionic columns that frame the modern shop window. The iron balcony is the finishing Regency touch, vital for the safety of those inside who want to open the big window, which extends down to the floor.

As with the shop front in my previous post, I wondered what this building was used for when it was first put up in the early part of the 19th century. The upper room looked to me like the spacious drawing room of a middle-class house, the sort of thing that wouldn’t look out of place in Brighton. But there was no clue to what was originally where the modern shop window is now. The answer turns out to be that the building belonged to the Sherborne Savings Bank, who erected it in 1818. 

This was the formative period for savings banks in England. These banks were set up to provide banking facilities for poorer people – those who were not normally the customers of the established banks, whose accounts did not normally bear interest at this time. Savings banks welcomed small investors, including those who could save only intermittently, as their incomes were unreliable and varied according to the seasons or the availability of work.* Although savings banks did not help the very poor, who found it impossible to save any money at all, they were attractive to those such as artisans, small farmers, shopkeepers, and domestic servants, among whom were many who had a little money to save and who liked the idea of self-help. Savings banks were not perfect: in an era before elaborate state regulation of financial institutions, some folded as the result of fraud or incompetence. But for many they played a useful role.

Whoever designed the Sherborne bank’s building did their best with what was clearly a confined site. Ideally, the sweep of the bow front should stick out over the pavement area, so that it can make an impression whichever way you approach it. But the building to the right already sticks out, so this wouldn’t have worked without invading too much pavement space. So here it sits, standing proud of one neighbour and slightly in the shadow of the other, making its impression nonetheless.

The delicate architecture of this frontage is not what I normally associate with banks. The banks I’ve admired on this blog in the past have been rather chunky buildings, with the kind of solid-looking masonry that suggests strength and security. They seem to tell you that your money will be safe here. This building is very different. It’s impressive, but in a gentler, more domestic way. Its columns and the overhang they make possible offer shelter from the rain and seem inviting. ‘Come in,’ they say, ‘and you’ll receive a warm welcome.’ The effect seems wholly appropriate for a savings bank set up for those not previously used to dealing with the estanlishged banks or money markets. It still works its charm, on one passer-by, at least.

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* Small investors could also entrust their money to Friendly Societies, but these had regulations – often requiring members to deposit money regularly, that did not suit those with irregular incomes. Savings banks did not have such rules. 

Sunday, August 22, 2021

Sherborne, Dorset


Surprised in Sherborne, 1

Ever since I wrote a book linked to a television series about the history of Britain’s high streets, I’ve been interested in the architecture of shops, and when I visit a town I’m often agreeably surprised to find old shopfronts still intact and fronting valued local businesses. This frontage in Sherborne was one that caught my eye. It looked to me late Victorian and the array of paired columns, wooden panelling, generous overhang, and slightly Gothic gablets poking out on top seemed to be from the more showy end of the retail spectrum. What could it have been, I wondered to myself: a high-class grocer’s, or maybe something more outré such as an oil and colour merchant or a specialist in well made leather goods? A sign painted on to the glass above the door gave a clue to a business that had been here once: ‘The Old Cycle Shop’. Could that have been the original business?

Not at all, it turns out. The other clue is above the doorway to the right, with its sign saying ‘Tavern Cottages’. A place of refreshment, then? Yes, but not the alcohol-selling place one would expect. This building began life in 1881 as the Sherborne Coffee Tavern. The late-19th and early-20th centuries saw a vigorous anti-alcohol movement. In churches and chapels there were sermons warning against the effects of the ‘demon drink’, campaigners and some nonconformist preachers persuaded people to ‘sign the pledge’ not to touch the stuff, and both campaigners and canny business people founded places where pub-goers could find alternative entertainment – from temperance billiards rooms to coffee taverns.

Coffee had been widely drunk since the 16th century and had gradually evolved from the costly luxury chosen by a few to an inexpensive drink enjoyed by many. Back in the 18th century, coffee houses had been popular among the professional classes in Britain’s large cities. Lawyers, medics, and even writers had their coffee house of choice, where they’d go to drink coffee, read the newspapers, meet friends, and discuss the day’s news. But coffee taverns were never as popular as their ancestors of the Georgian period, perhaps because they were mostly started by middle-class reformers who wanted to encourage the working class to stop drinking and give up the unruly habits of the drunk. The intended customers weren’t keen, and many coffee taverns closed after a few years.

Sherborne’s coffee tavern was bought in the 1890s by a local man, Edwin Childs, who moved his bicycle sales and repair business there. Childs prospered – this was, after all, the heyday of the bicycle – and by the early-20th century was also repairing cars. As the car business expanded, he first converted the shop, removing the big windows, and eventually put up a purpose-built garage elsewhere in the same street. Subsequently the attractive 1880s shop front was restored, and it still looks well in its dark red paint with details picked out in gold, an asset to Sherborne’s rich and varied streetscape and a survivor in an age when a liking for both wine and coffee no longer seems some kind of contradiction.

Wednesday, August 18, 2021

Hughley, Shropshire

Wood works

The church at Hughley looks charming from the outside – it’s very small, without any architectural separation between nave and chancel, and has a wooden medieval porch and one of those timber-framed bellcotes that nearly always make a small church look picturesque. None of this compares one for the building’s great treasure: the internal division between nave and chancel is effected with a wooden screen of great craftsmanship and beauty, a work of art more delicate and sophisticated than one would normally expect in such a modest building.

The panelled lower section is topped by bands of lace-like carving below the row of larger openings. Above this is more lacework in wood and at the very top of the coved section that would have once supported a rood loft. This curving support is carved with a pattern of radiating ribs in imitation of stone vaulting. Looking at all this more closely (below), one becomes aware how much fine detail there is in the carved portions. The central parts of the ‘vault’ are carved with ornate quatrefoils. The openwork sections a little lower down have tracery like windows, and the horizontal carved bands at the top of the screen and lower down feature more quatrefoils, tiny arches, fleurons, and even one or two faces in roundels. It’s outstanding workmanship and has survived well since it was made in c. 1500, albeit with a few small breakages and missing bits.

Pevsner’s Shropshire volume tells us that this remarkable high-class screen has siblings in three churches in the adjoining counties of Cheshire, Denbighshire and Herefordshire. More churches beckon, then, to pursue the work of this fine carver (or group of carvers), who in a time when many people traveled hardly at all, worked their way up and down the English-Welsh borders doing marvellous work that’s familiar mainly to specialists now. It deserves to be known more widely.

Sunday, August 15, 2021

Bishop’s Castle, Shropshire

On tap

On my previous visit to Bishop’s Castle I saw much to catch my attention, but I missed the Three Tuns Brewery, a stone’s throw from the town centre. I was pleased to find it when we returned to the town the other day because it’s a nice example of a small late-19th century tower brewery. There are still quite a few Victorian breweries around,* but many smaller ones like this have disappeared, prey to takeovers and the large-scale corporatisation of Britain’s brewing industry which was turned from one of small-scale local distinctiveness to one of big business greed – a change which also entailed a sorry deterioration in the quality of the beers served in many of the country’s pubs. Already in my late teens I was cottoning on to the fact that there was something better than the ubiquitous Watney’s Red Barrel and appalling ‘lager’ that was only made remotely drinkable with the addition of lime juice. Surely there was something better than this. A friend was was a member of a local Morris side† and a consummate folk fiddler, took me to one side and pointed me in the direction of a pub that served Wadsworth’s 6X: proper beer. I was converted.

Thankfully, some small provincial breweries have survived these upheavals and still brew decent beer with its own distinctive character. Three Tuns is one such, and its origins go back far beyond the Victorian period. The first brewing licence was issued here in 1642, making this, so it’s said, Britain’s oldest brewery – architecturally too, since part of the structure is 17th century.§ The tall central section that now dominates the site was the result of an expansion when the Roberts family bought the business in 1880. In the Victorian period the tower became the standard form for a brewery. As the brewing process demands shifting the liquid from one container to another through several stages, it makes sense to hoist (or pump) the ingredients to the top, start the brewing there, and let the force of gravity do the lion’s share of the work involved in moving the beer from one vessel to the next.

I didn’t realise until I looked at the company’s website that in the early 2000s the brewery was in difficulties, with a proposal to convert the site to housing. But it’s now refurbished and very much alive and kicking, and the tower is resplendent with its hand-painted sign. I didn’t sample the goods in my recent visit to the town,¶ but in line with the times its beer is available not only in the adjacent Three Tuns brewery tap, but also in a number of pubs in Wales and the English border counties, as well as via the brewery’s online shop. So now there’s no excuse.

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* See, for example, most posts about Hook Norton, Lewes, and Devizes.

† Morris dancing, of course, often takes place near pubs. For obvious reasons.

§ There is, of course, more than one claimant to this distinction.

¶ Too much driving to be done.

Thursday, August 12, 2021

Upton Cressett, Shropshire

At end of the road

Frustrated at driving miles along a narrow windy lane, negotiating a tractor towing a long trailer and opting for the purgatory of scratched paintwork to avoid the ditch of despair and damnation, only to find Upton Cressett church firmly locked and no one, apparently, around to open it up, we consoled ourselves with a partial sight of Upton Cressett Hall and a slightly closer view of its beautiful gatehouse. The Hall is one wing of what must have been a large house of 1580 in glowing Tudor brickwork. The gatehouse, shown in my photograph, is of the same material and probably the same date. Looking from the lane, one can glimpse the symmetrical entrance front – the entrance itself obscured by the bushes and a flank wall. At the far left of the picture is an octagonal corner turret, one of a pair on that side, which is on the ‘inside’ of the gatehouse, suggesting that these turrets are more ornamental than defensive.

Indeed the entire effect of the gatehouse is ornamental: there’s diapering (two-coloured brickwork laid in lozenge patterns) between the two rows of windows on the entrance front, and the windows themselves and framed by nicely moulded bricks. The chimneys lack the frenetic spiral brickwork of some Tudor designs, but are still attractively set at 45 degrees to the stacks. Pevsner speculates that the turrets, which now have little roofs of tile, were once topped with ‘something shapelier’ – ogee cupolas, perhaps.

The effect of the whole, surrounded today by trees and foliage, the bricks now turned pleasantly pale – probably due to lichen – is certainly handsome. The owner commemorated with his initials on painted panelling inside the house, Richard Cressett, local lord who served a term as Sheriff of Shropshire, must have been proud of his home.

Saturday, August 7, 2021

Bradford-on-Avon, Wiltshire

Going wild in Bradford-on-Avon

I recently had a walk around Bradford-on-Avon, admiring the architecture, scaling the town’s sometimes precipitous slopes, and quenching my thirst with copious amounts of tea. I did of course admire much of what makes the town famous – churches, houses, mills, the lovely bridge with its tiny chapel – but found things to make me think that weren’t architectural: how well, for example, the place was handling social distancing and how people expressed their thanks when one gave way on a narrow pavement or moved aside a shade more than usual on a wide one. Nobody made this feel like a chore and everyone I came into distanced contact with was welcoming.

Another non-architectural thing I admired was flowers. Walking round to the bit of the town that contains both Holy Trinity church and the small Saxon chapel of St Lawrence, I found that wildflower planting was in evidence in places where I might expect lawns. One such is in Holy Trinity’s churchyard, so that one could look towards the chapel of St Lawrence across the colourful swathe of glowing ox-eye daisies shown in my photograph. I thought this miniature meadow looked really good, and raise my hat to those who made it possible.

There’s a lot to be said for wildflower verges and other patches of these flowers in towns. They can encourage bees – as well as other insects and invertebrates in need of a niche, they can be colourful additions to the local scene, local authorities like them because they don’t have to be cut every five minutes like lawns. Ecologically, it is best if they contain only native species – introduced species can be colourful and quick-growing, but are sometimes invasive and attract fewer beneficial species. Native plants attract a greater variety of insects; they may take a bit longer to establish, but they’re worth the effort. Bradford-on-Avon’s Holy Trinity church has made caring for the environment part of its mission. Part of its work as an eco-church is ‘managing the churchyard to optimise nature conservation and biodiversity’. There’s a lot to be said for that too.

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* The ox-eye daisy, native to this country and to Europe generally, is considered to be an invasive species in some countries where it has been introduced. It does dominate here, but in reality this patch of ground does host a number of wildflower species alongside it. Is it an ideal plant to include in a selection in this kind of context? It’s better, surely, than a manicured lawn in which nothing is allowed to flower.

Tuesday, August 3, 2021

Battlefield, Shropshire

More tiles, Maw tiles

In the great transformation in church buildings that took place during the 19th century, a key element was the revival of medieval architecture, especially Gothic architecture. Although Gothic buildings had been erected in every century since the end of the Middle Ages,* the Gothic churches of the mid- to late-Victorian periods were Gothic in more thoroughgoing and self-conscious ways. The style became part of the movement to make churches more visually attractive, more moving, more full of symbolic meaning, more redolent of what members of the high-church Oxford movement referred to as the ‘beauty of holiness’. Central to this was the encouragement of church art – carving, metalworking, mural painting, and ceramic tiles. Architects and designers studied the tiles in medieval churches like the ones in my previous post about Buildwas abbey, and copied them or designed similar ones.

Among the companies that made these tiles, combining different coloured clays ands glazes to often beautiful effect, were Minton, Godwin, Craven Dunhill and Maw. Maw and Company started in Worcester but moved to Benthall in Shropshire (not far from Ironbridge) in 1852 and were soon one of the biggest tile-makers.† Maw’s made many of the tiles laid when the church at Battlefield near Shrewsbury (originally built after the Battle of Shrewsbury in 1403), was restored – indeed virtually rebuilt – in 1861. It had originally been a grand collegiate church in the fields, very near to the site where the battle was fought during the Wars of the Roses. Now its 19th-century wooden roof timbers, carved stalls, stained glass, and tiled floors give it the atmosphere of a grand Victorian college chapel.

These tiled floors combine secular and religious symbolism – coats of arms of numerous English kings, motifs such as crosses, and heraldic symbols of the Corbet family, one of whose homes was in a nearby castle (now vanished) and who paid for the church’s restoration. The tiles in my photograph feature charming squirrels, not just a favourite of those who like English mammals but also one of the Corbets’ heraldic beasts. A squirrel forms the family crest – the beast at the top of the coat of arms, just above the shield. Here on the floor of the Corbet chapel in the church at Battlefield, squirrels sport in quartets, occupying roundels made up of four tiles. This use of four tiles to make a roundel was a medieval trick, and the little crosses in the corners of the tiles and the cross-like motifs that abound in this floor were also drawn from medieval sources.

If the imagery has a distinctly medieval feel to it, the crispness of the tiles, their deep colours, and the hard, complete surfaces make them unmistakably Victorian. So does another feature that we do not usually see in medieval work – the name of the tiles’ makers, ‘MAW’, in beautiful ornate lettering, the ends of the cross strokes of the ‘M’ and ‘W’ elegantly looped, the strokes terminating in not a bifurcated but a trifurcated shape, and the ends of the word filled out with curlicues. The company’s pride in their work is understable, I think. Our Victorian predecessors, painstaking and brilliant when they were given scope to shine, deserve to be remembered.

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* For convenience, I take the Middle Ages to end in 1500. Another date used is 1485, when the Wars of the Roses ended and the first Tudor king, Henry VII, began his reign.

† With Maw and Company at Benthall and Craven Dunhill in nearby Jackfield, the encaustic tile industry was strong in Shropshire. Craven Dunhill still make tiles in their works at Jackfield, where the factory and the adjacent tile museum can be visited. The museum is a cornucopia of tile history and visual delight.

Saturday, July 31, 2021

Buildwas, Shropshire

Well floored

Buildwas Abbey, where the Resident Wise Woman and I were pleased to find ourselves on our own in an atmosphere of almost monastic quietude recently, is an enchanting monastic ruin. It’s best known for the almost intact ruins of its church, built in the second half of the 12th century in a transitional style that bridges Norman and Early English Gothic – chunky round stone piers, arches that look semi-circular at first glance but which actually come to a very subtle point. The other glory of the place is the chapter house which, with its more slender columns, seems to be moving still more towards the Gothic.

If the columns and vaulting of the chapter house are admirable, even better to my mind is the collection of medieval tiles that paves part of the floor. These are not I think in their original place, but have been brought here and arranged in a pleasing jumble after excavation elsewhere on the site. Some of these tiles are fragments, some have been broken and pieced together, some of them are whole; all are faded. Yet even in this condition they have a serene beauty and as one looks across the floor one can see an engaging range of decorative touches and motifs – birds, flowers, leaves, grotesques, abstract designs from roundels to chequerboards, and elements such as the fleur de lys.

A few of the tiles give an idea of the richness that the colours must have had when they were new: strong terracotta ‘flower-pot’ reds, darker reds, rich ochres. A reminder that if the lives of the Cistercian* monks at Buildwas were austere, the visual stimulation they enjoyed was not only a matter of the natural beauty of the nearby countryside or the sight of an occasional richly illuminated manuscript. Even when their eyes were cast down, they had something interesting to look at: art and craftsmanship, indeed, to look up to.

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* Buildwas began as a Savignac foundation, but like its ‘mother’ house, Furness, Lancashire, it became Cistercian in 1147 when the two orders merged.

Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Much Wenlock, Shropshire


Not quite doomed

We know it’s all fleeting now, don’t we? In these times of pandemic and climate change we know that things we’ve taken for granted are no longer the certainties we thought. To mourn the demise of long-distance air travel or petrol cars might seem trivial when human life itself is so fragile or when swathes of houses and alas their occupants succumb to floods and mudslides in Germany or wildfires in Australia or North America. But briefly, and because I came across it the other day, here’s a building that seems to be symbolic of the loss of a kind of ‘motoring’ that’s already long gone. It’s a garage on one of the roads into Much Wenlock, a structure of wood and corrugated iron that cannot have cost much to build but must have serviced cars and small commercial vehicles for decades.

The main body of the building is a large workshop, with glazed sides to admit plenty of light – at the front it has a bright blue door to the right, behind the furthest petrol pump, big enough to admit a car or largish van. This side of the door is a lean-to containing a small shop full of old cans, oily rags and Ferodo fan belts, and next to the shop, also under the lean-to roof, is a trio of petrol pumps. These represent three generations of pump: an early slender-topped pump,* a later tall one with an analogue, clock-face style dial probably dating to the 1940s or 50s, and in the centre one (of the 1970s perhaps) with a mechanical digital display in which slowly turning numerals register the amount of petrol and the cost. None of these have their globes to show the brand of fuel on sale, and all have flaking paint but look restorable.

From the well painted but slowly vanishing lettered sign to the humblest rusting file inside, this garage is a bit of motoring history, testimony to thousands of fill-ups, oil changes, and repairs. Clearly, as the paint flakes and the corrugated iron on the roof acquires another layer of rich iron oxide patina,† its decline continues as it becomes another vanished thing people once took for granted. And yet. The day after I took this photograph I passed by again to discover that someone had come along and wrapped those three pumps in a protective tarpaulin. To what end? To help preserve them in situ ahead of a restoration job? Or in preparation for a move to a place where they’d be cared for? I don’t know. But perhaps it’s a lesson not to assume too much. Not quite everything that seems to be going is necessarily rotting away. Let’s cling on to that.§

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* I’m not sure of the exact dates of these pumps; I’ve seen ones similar to this early one dated to the 1920s.

† Iron oxide patina. Yes, that’s rust to most of us.

§ The best book on the architecture of motor vehicles is Kathryn A Morrison and John Minnis, Carscapes, (Yale UP, 2012); for a brief treatment of the small out-of-town garage see also Llyn E Morris, The Country Garage (Shire, 1985)

Saturday, July 24, 2021

Much Wenlock, Shropshire

Made to measure?

Wall boxes are quite a common feature of Britain’s streetscapes. They’ve existed since the 1850s and provided the Post Office with an economical way of providing letter boxes in places where a smaller capacity than that of the familiar free-standing pillar box was sufficient. Country road junctions, small rural Post Offices, and town sites away from the busy centre are all places where one still sees wall boxes, some, like this one in Much Wenlock, survivors from the Victorian period. There are various designs, mostly very simple, featuring the monogram ‘VR’, a lockable door with a plate for displaying collection times, and a slot for the letters. According to Jonathan Glancey,* many Victorian examples have had their slots widened to accommodate the larger envelopes that came in during the 20th century – this one may have a widened slot, although any tell-tale joins have been masked by generations of red gloss paint.

What struck me about this box was the way it’s set into the wall. Rather than being flush with the brickwork in the usual way, it sticks out and is framed by neat, curved bricks. I assume that this is because the wall is not thick enough to fit the full depth of the box, which would stick out into the interior otherwise.† If the building were a Post Office, space might be made inside, but this one isn’t, so the brickwork makes space on this street side. A robust solution, ensure that the people of this part of Wenlock could get their letters in the post with a minimum of effort. And judging by the recent ‘Priority Postbox’ label beneath the slot, presumably they still do.

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* Jonathan Glancey, Pillar Boxes (Chatto and Windus, 1990)

† If anyone knows better, I’d be interested to hear.

Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Much Wenlock, Shropshire

A house in a day?

This house in Much Wenlock is called Squatter’s Cottage. The implication is that it was built by a squatter, who put up a dwelling on common land, taking advantage of a right that a person had to erect a house on a common, provided that the building could be constructed in a day. There was a condition to this right that was no doubt designed to limit the take-up: your completed 24-hour house had to include a working chimney. So while it was possible, at a push, to put up a wooden house in a day, adding a safe masonry chimney in the same time-frame was difficult. But not, it seems, impossible. Typically, the body of the house would start timber-framed, but in time, once the builder had settled in, would be rebuilt or enlarged in brick or stone. Perhaps, too, the chimney regulation was interpreted loosely, so that a timber-framed house with a ‘smoke bay’ at one end was accepted, so long as there was a fire burning there within 24 hours.

However these feats of construction were achieved, there is plenty of evidence of squatter’s cottages being built in both England and Wales. They are often found in small clusters on commons – I’ve already posted about an example of this at Hollybush, near Malvern in Worcestershire. Shropshire, it seems, had its share. This one is on the edge of a town and the visible part at least retains in its stone structure the compact simplicity that must have prevailed from the beginning. There might have been two rooms on the ground floor; there clearly is a room in the roof space too. And a solid brick chimney does its vital work at one end.

Such cottages were a result of rural poverty in its many forms. The enclosure movement, which saw landlords dividing up big open fields and common land into smaller fields and taking them over, deprived many country dwellers of the land they needed to grow crops and pasture an animal or two so that they could feed themselves. Squatting and taking over a small patch of common land offered a solution for many. It could offer independence: a place to grow food, a route out of reliance on a landlord to charge an affordable rent, and a way of avoiding the wage labour under appalling conditions that faced many country people who migrated to the city in search of a job in a factory. Such houses might seldom be noticed today, but in the period of social upheaval that existed between the 16th and 19th centuries, they could be a lifeline.*

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* See Colin Ward, Cotters and Squatters: Housing’s Hidden History (Five Leaves, 2002) for a good account of the history of the squatting movement.

Friday, July 16, 2021

Much Wenlock, Shropshire

Gothick delight

I caught sight of this house on a late-afternoon walk in Much Wenlock. I’d already noticed one or two other examples in the town of this kind of architecture – early-19th century Gothick, in which pointed windows with Y-tracery set off the facades of quite modest buildings, often in combination with other features – pilasters, pediments, curved gables – that aren’t associated with the medieval Gothic style at all. This house is a good example of the decorative mélange that can result: pointed windows in pointed recesses, pilasters running up each side of the frontage,. a sloping cornice rather like a broken pediment above the central door and its accompanying windows, and, topping it all, a striking rounded gable that steps halfway down to turn from a convex to a concave curve. All this fronts what is otherwise quite a modest structure of rubble masonry and brickwork, all painted white.

The effect of the facade belies common misconceptions: that Georgian Gothick is filigree and delicate and that ornate gables like this are confined to eastern England, where the Dutch influence on English architecture was strong. So this building has left behind the delicate filigree Gothic of Walpole’s house, Strawberry Hill, rebuilt back in the 1740s, for something that’s frankly chunky and more suited to the abilities of a provincial builder; no doubt it was also to the taste of the owners of small houses in late-Georgian Shropshire. As for ‘Dutch’ gables, they were popular in coastal Lincolnshire and East Anglia a century and more before this house was built, and were by now another idea that had become assimilated. Pointed windows and curvaceous gables were, it seems, a matter of local fashion and choice. I’m glad those choices were made here.

Tuesday, July 6, 2021

Trowbridge, Wiltshire

Staggering architecture

This is a building that startled me in two distinct ways when I was looking at the wonderful 18th-century clothiers’ houses in Trowbridge the other week. Jammed into a corner between two of these classical almost-palaces, this building is constructed of the same creamy limestone and is also in a classical style. But look at the detail! At the top, a triangular pediment with a cornice that sticks right out from the main wall, producing deep shadows and emphasising the very large dentil blocks that punctuate its lower edges. The bottom of the triangle is interrupted in the middle to make room for swathes of carved ornament that hangs deep down on either side of a window and extends upwards into the triangular space made by the pediment. In the middle there’s a blind oval with four exaggerated stones – one at the top in the position of an arch’s keystone, the others matching it on the bottom and sides, like the cardinal points on a compass. Lower down this end wall run pilasters with deeply cut blocks of stone, each pilaster topped with more carved ornament.

So what was this highly ornate building that caught my attention and made me rush across the street so that I could examine it more closely? At first I took it to be an especially showy example of a clothier’s house, the residence of someone who had more of a taste for the baroque that the apparently more classically minded neighbours on either side. It was, of course, something quite different and much later: the imposing offices of Ushers Brewery, built in 1913 to designs by local architect W. W. Snailum in a style sometimes called brewer’s baroque. Thomas Usher had established their brewery in the centre of Trowbridge in 1824 and by 1913 the firm must have been doing well. By the mid-20th century, they had expanded hugely but were no longer so profitable and were eventually taken over, like so many provincial brewing firms, by a larger company, Watney Mann. When the baroque office building was put up in 1913, Usher’s must have been growing and optimistic of further success: the architecture seems to reflect that.

I began this post by saying that this building startled me in two ways. What was the second surprise? It was more sudden, and less pleasant. When I crossed the road to look at this extraordinary architectural confection more closely, keeping my eyes on the stonework and not on the ground beneath my feet, I tripped on a metal bar meant to stand upright to define a parking space but actually hinged down, parallel to the ground, and fell flat on my face, my smartphone and my dignity slipping from me instantly. The Resident Wise Woman, crossing the road more slowly than I, was soon behind me, and a passer-by was also offering help. I was, thankfully, able to climb to my feet unaided, and although I was bruised on my knees and chin (the main points of impact), I sustained no lasting damage. It has, though, made me warier of looking up without watching where I put my feet, not wishing to repeat what happened when I went to look at this doubly staggering building.

Thursday, July 1, 2021

King’s Lynn, Norfolk


Maritime Lynn, 2

As well as the Pilot Office for people managing the shipping in the harbour and its approaches, the other prominent architectural feature of King’s Lynn’s maritime life was the Customs House. This stately classical building is one of the most famous coastal structures in East Anglia. It is well sited right on the northern bank of the inlet called Purfleet Quay. It’s a tall building and its neat wooden turret with cupola attracts attention to it.

Anyone who knows the town centres of England will recognise this building’s architectural ancestry. Its form, with arched lower story, upper floor with large windows, and roof turret, is similar to that of many of the structures that combine the functions of town hall and market that make the centrepiece of many English towns. Its style is proudly Wren-like, like a smaller version of the magnificent town hall at Abingdon. The semi-circular arches, pilasters, hipped roof with dormers, and roof turret are just the kind of thing one sees on late-17th century buildings – both town halls and country houses like Ashdown. This one is not by Wren, but was designed by a local man called Henry Bell, who had clearly absorbed the essence of this style and brought it to his home town when Lynn was still a prominent port. Anyone inclined to think of Lynn as a backwater should think again: the port was a very busy one at this time. Indeed Bell himself was a merchant whose goods went in and out of Lynn harbour; like many architects in the Stuart period, he was an amateur, and picked his commissions carefully. He’d been to Cambridge, and had gone on a grand tour that included time in Holland, where the buildings clearly made an impression on him.

This building was commissioned by Sir John Turner, a local MP, who also served as the town’s mayor and made his money from his business as a wine merchant. This trade was one of the mainstays of Lynn’s harbour, and Turner would have been as aware as anyone of the usefulness of a building in which the local merchants could do business. Hence the structure’s resemblance to a market house. When opened in 1685, the lower floor of the structure (then with open arches) was used as the merchants’ exchange; the upper floor was let to the Collector of Customs; in 1717 the whole building was sold to the Crown and was already known as the Customs House. It remained in the care of HM Customs and Excise until 1989 and when I lasted visited it was used by the local council and housed the Tourist Information Centre. And maybe that’s not totally inappropriate. King’s Lynn no longer gets its main income form its port; tourism is more important to the town today and the Customs House is a perfect architectural signpost and information point for visitors.

Monday, June 28, 2021

King’s Lynn, Norfolk


Maritime Lynn, 1

This brick octagonal tower poking up near the bank of the Great Ouse in King’s Lynn was built in 1864 as part of the Pilot Office of the town’s port. It’s essentially an observation tower, allowing officials to keep an eye on shipping. Adjoining are workshops and a store for explosives,* as well as the remaining part of the town’s first public baths, which had been put up during the previous decade (and was partly converted to the offices of the King’s Lynn Conservancy Board in the 1980s). This is an important structure historically because it represents the prominence of the town as a port, which was the busiest in East Anglia for much of the Middle Ages, when it was a centre for the export of wool and cloth and the import of wine, timber, and other goods. The port remained a major one for several centuries afterwards, with corn from eastern England becoming the main export commodity as the wool trade declined. In the mid-19th century it was still busy but had begun a slow decline.

As well as ample windows, another requirement of the people keeping watch was a good idea of the wind direction. This is provided by the weather vane on top of the tower’s roof. The shaft of the vane is connected to a compass inside the building, so those working there can read the wind direction without going outside. This ingenious arrangement looks like a typical bit of Victorian wizardry, but the idea goes back further – for example, Thomas Jefferson’s classical country house, Monticello, has a similar arrangement. I don’t know if Jefferson invented it – he was highly inventive and the house has several other ingenious bits of 18th-century technology – but in King’s Lynn it was more than a rich man’s clever toy. No doubt it was well used.

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* For signalling flares, apparently.

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

Little Comberton, Worcestershire



As I recalled in my previous post, we didn’t manage to get inside the church at Little Comberton the other day. But we could see the interior of the north porch, where we admired the doorway and looked at a small collection of incised graffiti on the right-hand side as we entered. Carved and scraped graffiti was once the bane of church visitors and worshippers. ‘How could they deface the building like this?’ we would murmur, and some people added disbelief to outrage when it became clear that many of the marks on walls, pillars, and even magnificent effigies, had been made in the medieval period, the so-called age of piety. Many of us now see these things differently, wanting to understand more about these marks – what they might mean, who might have made them, and why.

The marks in this porch are fairly easy to see* and apparently simple: the outlines of hands, a pair of initials, a date. Hand outlines have one of the longest traditions in art – there are prehistoric examples, and when it comes to church graffiti many date back to the Middle Ages. These are later, however, being in a porch that bears the date 1639 and they include the initials WD and a date inscription of 1733. Medieval hand graffiti (and also shoe graffiti) often seem to have been done by pilgrims visiting shrines – there are examples in Canterbury cathedral and also in churches on popular routes to notable shrines, where pilgrims might stop to pray or attend divine service en route. These 18th-century graffiti were made long after the age of pilgrimages in England, and they seem to be more akin to the initials and other marks made in the early modern period on effigies in churches. Many of these, although we may see them as marks of vandalism, were carefully made, with attention to the form of the letters and the shapes of fingers and thumbs.† They seem to record visits to the church, perhaps visits when a particular prayer was said that had specific importance for the person concerned. If to some they seem little more than the thoughtless scars left by modern tags or reminders that ‘BILL WOZ ERE’, for the graffitist, they may have had greater, and perhaps more reverent, significance.§

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* I have increased the contrast in the photograph a little to make the marks a little clearer.

† Some hand graffiti appear to have been made by tracing the outline of the maker’s hand, as if uniting person and building.

§ For the best recent general account of church graffiti, see Matthew Champion, Medieval Graffiti (Ebury Press, 2015), which I reviewed here.

Friday, June 18, 2021

Little Comberton, Worcestershire


Reading the entry in the (excellent) Pevsner volume on Worcestershire did not make me especially keen to visit the church at Little Comberton, a village I’ve passed through several times. But the other day we paused in the village anyway, and although the church was locked, found several things of interest. This is a buidling that was heavily restored in the Victorian period by an architect called William White.* White was not in the front rank of Victorian church architects, but was prolific: some 250 church projects are attributed to him, and he also designed many parsonages and schools. Like other more famous Victorians (Butterfield and Teulon, for example) he was interested in the architectural use of colour, and this is reflected here in the bands of dark red stone used around windows, up buttresses, and in quoins.

My photograph shows a tiny window in the Norman style, a partial replacement by White of an original Norman window. Even this small opening shows the effect of contrast produced by the different coloured masonry, laid out symmetrically. But at the top, symmetry is broken and White preserved the original Norman stone that forms the rounded head of the window, complete with the band of cable ornament that runs around it. If the result is more Victorian than medieval, it could be seen as an effective compromise, which preserves the most ‘artistic’ part of the old window, while renewing the remainder in a way that fits in with the style of the other windows in the restored church.

It’s also revealing about 19th-century attitudes to restoration. Literally, ‘to restore’ means to put something back, to return the building to the state it was in when it was new, or at some other ‘ideal’ time in its past. In practice, the Victorians often used restoration as a way of ‘improving’ churches, of making them more ‘correctly’ Gothic or ‘properly’ Romanesque than the often hybrid or mongrel or unevenly proportioned buildings that the Middle Ages in practice produced. Victorian architects were also of course at pains to make ancient buildings suitable for 19th-century worship, which would also mean architectural and decorative changes. Here, this fragment of 12th century carved ornament shows that White did not want to sweep away everything, that he was happy to respect the art and craft of his ancient predecessors while also introducing a different visual approach, which was very much his own.

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* William, White (1825–1990) was great nephew of the naturalist Gilbert White.

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Pershore, Worcestershire


Pershore beasts, Pershore plums

I’ve noticed the former church of St Andrew near the abbey in Pershore several times, and my photograph of the medieval carving on the tower is not actually the first I’d taken of this curiosity, although it’s the first in which strong sunlight picks out the details. Admiring this carving, and wondering exactly what the beast it depicts actually is, made me look closely at its bared teeth, bulging eyes, and bushy tail. Hitherto, peering up at it (it’s quite high up) in poor light, I’d wondered if it was Jesus’ donkey with a palm tree in the background. A better look at the teeth through a zoom lens made me inclined to think it might be a muzzled dog. But in that case, is that really a tree behind it? And is that the faint impression of a face, popping up above the creature’s back?

No reference book I have seems to throw any light on this carving. Pevsner mentions some ‘grotesque carvings’ and moves swiftly on. The listing description says that the grotesques adorn buttresses, which is true, but says no more. Maybe there’s not a definitive solution to this question; many such carvings are the result of artistic whimsy.*

Curiosity did at least make me look up the history of the church. In the 1060s the crown gave much of the land in Pershore to Westminster Abbey. The abbot of Pershore refused tenants of Westminster the right to worship in his abbey, so the church of St Andrew was built to give these people somewhere to worship. After the abbey was dissolved by Henry VIII, the monks’ church became available to the locals and the two churches continued side by side. Nowadays the parishioners worship in the abbey church and St Andrew’s is used as a parish hall. The abbey rents the land on which St Andrew’s stands for a very small sum, and one that speaks of one of the drivers of the local economy. The annual rent is one pound of Pershore plums. Truly they are plums beyond price.†

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* However, see the update, below. Nevertheless, to make a general point, I was pleased to hear no less an authority than the medievalist Professor Paul Binksi refer to medieval grotesque carvings in this way in a recent Zoom lecture I attended. He sees such church carvings – grotesques, sheela na gigs, and the like – as equivalent to the whimsical marginal illustrations in some medieval manuscripts, in which images, sometimes apparently outrageous or even erotic, appear in the margins of serious, often sacred texts.

† I have only an online source for the ‘pound of plums’ story. I do hope it is both true and still current.

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Update One of my readers suggests that the carving represents a wolf with the head of St Edmund. This is almost certainly correct and I am kicking myself for not having picked up this allusion. St Edmund was killed by Viking raiders, who shot so many arrows at him that he bristled, then cut off his head. The king’s men heard cries, and found the body and head guarded by a wolf. When they put the head back on the body, the parts fused together. Miracles were attributed to the king, and he was made a saint. His tomb is in Westminster Abbey, and the links between Pershore and Westminster make this interpretation of the carving very likely indeed. I am indebted to my reader ‘Per Apse’ for this suggestion. 

Wednesday, June 9, 2021

Trowbridge, Wiltshire



The other day I found myself in Trowbridge, strolling around the town centre looking at the rich mixture of industrial and domestic buildings that contribute so much to the visual character of this town. The industry was cloth-production, and I’ve already posted an example of its architecture – the Handle House for drying teasels, with its remarkable pierced brick walls. Here’s an outstanding domestic building, one of the palatial clothier’s houses built in the 18th century. I like this one in Fore Street, built for Nathaniel Houlton in the early-18th century, for its baroque features. What I mean by this is the quirks of design that take it beyond the highly satisfying but straightforward classical ‘box with sash windows’ that gets its effect mainly from its pleasing proportions. I’m thinking of the banded pilasters, the heavy string course and cornice, and above all the handling of the central part of the frontage. This breaks away from the standard window sizes with narrow, round-arched windows on either side of the doorway and central window. The whole central bay steps forward from the flanking bays, and then the central section of this bay is emphasised with columns (Tuscan on the ground floor, Corinthian above), above which the cornice and strong course break forward still more than the rest of the bay. Much effort has been put into all these design details, and they’re set off to advantage in glorious ashlar limestone masonry. The facade is one of many quiet triumphs in this town.

On my recent visit to Trowbridge I did not have with me the new edition of the Pevsner volume for Wiltshire, which is published this week. I see it covers this house and many more, pointing out details that will no doubt send me back to the town, looking again and finding buildings I’ve missed before. I plan to review the book some time during the next few weeks, but I’m already finding it both useful and absorbing.

Endnote My apologies to the 40 readers who saw this post when it was headed Trowbridge, Worcestershire. Trowbridge, of course, has never been in Worcestershire and for it to be so would entail a boundary change that is unimaginable, even in the context of the mess that has been made of county boundaries in the past. Call it a slip of the finger, or a brain in neutral.  

Wednesday, June 2, 2021

Elmley Castle, Worcestershire

Here comes the sun

When you’ve visited as many parish churches as I have, you get used to finding odd things in churchyards, from bee shelters to bone holes. Sundials come fairly low on the scale of oddity. Time is after all a familiar religious theme, whether in terms of knowing it’s time for divine service or in terms of thoughts about human mortality (‘You’ve had your time’) or a person’s best use of their time (‘Redeem thy precious time’). Before the era of church clocks with faces everyone could see, marking time was a matter of bells to call one to church (or to indicate that the solemn moment of the elevation of the Host at Mass had arrived. Or it was a matter of sundials. But these sundials in the churchyard at Elmley Castle are exceptional. There are two, and each has many separate dials, facing in different directions, and set in different ways, in part to catch the sun at different times, and in part for reasons that experts on sundials may know much better than I.

No one seems certain about the date of thee dials, although there’s a consensus that they are 16th or 17th century. Some writers link the dials to the visit of Elizabeth I to the village in 1550, when she may have consulted them. The decorative carving, making up an unusual concatenation of moldings, is not incompatible with these dates. Whenever they were made, they are much worn and in spite of the restoration of the gnomons in the 20th century, some of those have already disappeared again, as if the dials seem determined to remind us of the relentlessness of the passing time they are designed to mark.

One dial bears the coat of arms of the Savage family, lords of the manor from the mid-16th century on, in the form in which it appears on a monument inside the church to William Savage, his son Giles and Giles’s wife Catherine, who died in 1616, 1631 and 1674 respectively. It’s likely that the dials were made in the time of the Savages, and owe something to their culture and scholarship, or of that of the vicar in charge of the parish in that period. Someone in the village was certainly a sundial enthusiast, probably someone who had knowledge of and interest in the science of telling the time when clocks were generally inaccurate and the sun, even in England, was the most reliable source of time we had. Like a rich man with a Rolex or a Breitling Chronograph today, they wanted the best, and no trouble was spared.